In its 12th year, the Four Winds Nature Institute – Upper Valley Linkages for Environmental Literacy (UVLEL) grant program is getting back to basics in the age of Covid-19. Since its inception in 2008, the program has been supporting K-12 teachers in curriculum development and implementation by connecting them to a vast network of environmental educators, scientists, and researchers who serve as content specialists. This year’s seven-member cohort of educators represent three counties spanning both sides of the Connecticut River, and six towns ranging from the northern reaches of the Upper Valley in Bradford, VT all the way to Charlestown, NH.
How are this year’s UVLEL grant recipients and other seasoned teachers around the UV dealing with remote learning and hybrid models, as well as in-person pandemic restrictions and protocols? If a recent gathering of UVLEL participants is any indication, the simple act of “looking” gives us a hint. In descriptions of their work with children during the pandemic, the grant recipients returned to that simplest of senses nearly 30 times. As a tool for observation and a source of inspiration, nature lovers and scientists have relied on their basic senses from time immemorial. By sages and scientists alike, we’re reminded that the present moment and one’s current location are all we need to start exploring nature.
In their efforts to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards, these educators have seized on the idea of rethinking place in the most fundamental ways: encouraging student curiosity, as Marie Ingalls at Charlestown Middle School does by having her remote students report on the simplest of writing prompts, “What’s outside your window?” For others, the “Mystery in my Driveway” movement powers their observations and inquiry. For students of Jen Manwell’s, at Open Fields School in Thetford, VT the schoolyard becomes the place of discovery. In the best of classes, the discovery of scat triggers the process of inquiry. To Ms. Manwell or any watchful teacher, the spark of energy that trails behind the curious mind serves as a beautiful reminder that children eagerly care and want to learn.
UVLEL Program Coordinator and Four Winds Director, Lisa Purcell, who brings uncanny joy and inspiration to participants, describes the work the group does together noting, “We love teaching science.” In acknowledgment of the struggles that teachers encounter to find time and funding for high-quality curriculum, Ms. Purcell describes the program which includes teacher stipends, as well as financial support for materials and support to help grantees liaise with field-specific professionals, as an opportunity to support some teachers with the extra work they’re already doing. But the Linkages program goes much further. Purcell describes that, “For many teachers this support has been the impetus for a real and deep change in practice as place-based educators, having a network of peers and local content specialists who together share successes and problem-solve challenges.”
In this time of Covid 19, while many teachers are compelled to move inside and adopt online learning platforms, the work of Four Winds and the UVLEL program becomes increasingly magnified to ensure young people are connecting to the place they live, our beloved Upper Valley. It’s instilling this connection to the world about them that drives educators in hopes that their students will become the young leaders that take up the mantle of stewardship as they have.