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What do riffles, Tropical Storm Irene, and freshwater snorkeling have in common? They were all key components of a recent place-based ecology program held in September on the West Branch of the White River in Rochester, Vermont.
When Tropical Storm Irene caused significant damage to parts of Vermont Route 73, gravel mined from the White River was used to rebuild the road, devastating the in-stream and riverside habitat. A decade later, this was the setting for elementary school students from around the region to don wetsuits and snorkels and join experts from the US Forest Service and the non-profit White River Partnership to assess the water quality and species diversity of the river. The White River Partnership (WRP) is a membership-based, nonprofit organization formed in 1996 by a group of local people who shared common concerns about the long-term health of the White River and its watershed.
The fourth and fifth graders split into two groups. One group used nets to scoop through the small rapids, pulling up loads of leaves and debris that were dumped onto a table and sifted through for invertebrates. Mayflies, dragonflies, water pennies, stoneflies, and crane fly larvae gently made their way into waiting buckets where they could be studied under microscopes by the students.
The other group of students, who had squeezed into wetsuits to brave the cold water, were busy taking a dip into deeper waters on the hunt for trout.
There were jokes about finding a hippopotamus, exclamations of “I found a big one!” and “I love this!”, and comments on the cold-water temperature, which didn’t seem to deter anyone from exploring wholeheartedly. Kids shared stories about fishing and crayfish hunting and previous efforts to collect invertebrates. What did they find? “Uh, fish and stuff,” was one child’s reply.
Eric Walker, a fourth-grade teacher at the Newton School in South Strafford, prioritizes hands-on learning opportunities like this in his curriculum. Eric had clear learning goals for his students: “To look at the health of the river, collect invertebrates, and see which invertebrates are in a river,” he said. Invertebrates are considered a bio-indicator, and an assessment of the species present in a water body can help determine the health of the river. He added, “Also, to see the habitat of the trout, connecting that again to our tank in our room. Just getting them in the water, just enjoying outside, and enjoying freshwater.”
It is exactly those types of real-world connections to classroom learning that make place-based learning so powerful. Back in the classroom Eric’s students are raising trout eggs as part of the trout in the classroom program through Trout Unlimited. The chance to get in the water helps students understand their lessons on habitat, diversity, and water quality.
“Today is nice for them to actually see the trout in the river.” he said. “They just are more invested when they’re doing things and touching things and learning on their own, instead of being in a classroom filling out sheets and listening to the teacher ramble. I’m a huge proponent of place-based education.”
Place-based and ecological education also plays an important role in building community. Betsy Donahue, parent of a student and chaperone on the trip, sees great benefits for connecting her daughter’s classroom learning with local organizations like the White River Partnership. “I think having the kids understand the value of the watershed that we have is huge. The White River Partnership does so much to make sure that the White River valley is a place where we can be in our streams and enjoy our streams. The kids don’t see that now, but I’m hoping someday through experiences like this, they’ll appreciate the efforts of groups like the White River Partnership and what they do to make sure that our rivers are swimmable and that we can enjoy them on days like this.”
As the Executive Director of the White River Partnership, Mary Russ sees the value in school partnerships like this one for the long-term vitality of our ecosystems and communities. With the mission of bringing people together to improve the health of the river, “Everything that we do has this hands-on component, whether it’s really easy, like coming out and seeing a site, to planting a tree, to helping us monitor water quality or stewarding a river trail access site.”
After a full day of snorkeling in the cold waters of the West Branch, Mary smiled while recounting a moment where she knew their work was making an impact. One student told her, she said, “This is the fourth time I’ve planted trees with you guys, I get it, trees on the river, they’re good, you don’t cut them down. Water quality… shade, I got it, I could teach the class.”
It is quotes like this one from a student that demonstrate the lasting value of place-based and ecological education: the learning goes beyond textbooks and worksheets and becomes a part of who we are.
While place-based and ecological education offers teachers a compelling and engaging pedagogy for connecting classrooms and communities, it also facilitates the opportunity for students to be kids who laugh, play, share, and explore the world in authentic ways. Laura Leavitt, a fifth-grade teacher at South Royalton Elementary School sees the way her students respond to learning opportunities like this.
“They love it! They love it. They love getting outside of the classroom. We’re studying ecology in science class right now, but I feel like my goal for Vermont kids is to know all these sides of Vermont that they might not otherwise experience,” she said. “Not everyone grows up playing in the woods and swimming in the river, but this is something that kids will remember and it’s a positive learning experience. A lot of kids need school to be like this. They need experiences like this to make the rest of school more exciting, to connect their learning. I’m a big fan of place-based education, this is amazing.”
We’d love to share more stories of the amazing work you are doing in the Upper Valley with place-based and ecological education. If you have an upcoming project, unit, or lesson that you would like to share, please reach out to us to arrange a visit to your school! Email Andrew@vitalcommunities.org or Gabrielle@vitalcommunities.org.
Andrew Deaett and Leona Bergman-Gaul