“The logistics around getting our students to the forest once a week to learn are challenging,” says Jess Loeffler, “but so worth it.”
“There are a few students that struggle in the classroom and seeing their comfort and excitement about being outside has been incredible,” adds her colleague, Judy Slack. “They are at ease in the woods, they are leaders and excited about sharing what they know.”
Judy and Jess teach 5th grade at Bradford Elementary School (BES) and have been taking their students to the forest one day a week for the last few years.
“We’ve seen the focus of PBEE in our school shift from content and standards to a focus on the whole child and the emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development that students gain from outdoor work. It’s great.”
Within the last few years, the second grade teachers, alumni of the ForestKinder peer learning community, began taking their students into the woods every Wednesday.
PBEE was widely adopted among teachers at BES 15 years ago when administrative support for PBEE was high and the school participated in a project called CO-SEED with Antioch University and the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative.
A report from the CO-SEED project in Bradford recounts that “Use of the nearby Low St. John Forest for learning [became] a popular and well-integrated part of the school curriculum.” Judy and Jess have been committed to continuing this tradition. They believe it builds community and a greater sense of environmental stewardship.
Bradford Elementary School refers to itself as a “community of learners empowered through experience.” And when BES Principal, Dr. Kate Paxton, joined the school in 2018, she began supporting teachers’ efforts to get students engaged in experiential learning activities outdoors. She is keen to reinvigorate place-based education initiatives at the school and sees their role in providing authentic intellectual and social-emotional learning opportunities for students.
Recommended next steps from the CO-SEED project for the development of sustainable PBEE at BES were:
- Clarifying the role of place-based education in the school mission;
- Setting up structures for common planning time for grade-level teams; and,
- Institutionalizing funding for a place-based education coordinator position
In its work with other Upper Valley Schools, the UVTPC has found that these activities are important for almost all schools to consider when looking to embed PBEE in their school culture, especially the PBEE coordinator position.
At BES, the role of the former part-time, paid PBEE coordinator position was merged with that of the farm-to-school coordinator, who now supports the school community in building connections with the environment and local economy, and helping students gain lifelong skills along the way.
For Judy, “Having this coordinator position is invaluable. The coordinator is passionate about getting kids outdoors and learning hands-on in nature. This passion is clearly transferring to our students. Every year we hear back from parents raving about this program. This is yet another life long skill and love we can pass onto our students.”
“Recently, a parent wrote to me to say, ‘I’m sitting on a rock in Low St. John Forest, listening to the babbling brook and reading a magazine. Meanwhile, [my child] is working furiously on her fort and [her classmate] is here working on hers too. We had a lot of fun and it warmed my heart to know you made that happen.’ This is what it’s all about for me.”