This year Sharon Elementary School 4th and 6th grade teachers, Meg Hopkins and Janis Boulbol, piloted a program called A Week in the Woods. They developed an outdoor learning curriculum that consisted of going into the woods every day each morning for 3 hours and then a full day on Friday. The Essential Question for the week was “How do we survive and thrive?”
“Each day we explored a theme connected to our Essential Question,” Janis says. “We explored shelter, water, fire, and food. We developed games, readings, and challenges that supported the theme every day. On the final day, we had local experts come to the forest and teach students about the importance of water, essential shelter building skills, wild local edible plants and we cooked our lunch over the fire. We traveled to the forest at the Sharon Academy and used that as our outdoor classroom.”
“It takes a lot of heart, soul, time, effort and collaboration to do this work,” says Meg Hopkins. “The harder the work, the more rewarding it is,” she adds. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“This work is the reason I teach,” says Janis. “It inspires me and my students, makes me want to learn and do more and share my learning with others. For me, it is what education is meant to be, relevant, important, and sustaining. Also, it is work that needs time, professional development and continued recognition for its necessity and importance.”
Both Meg and Janis just concluded their 11th year teaching at Sharon Elementary School. And they both recently completed the Education for Sustainability Leadership Academy at Shelburne Farms. This professional development opportunity inspired them to co-develop the A Week in the Woods and help move their whole school towards a more sustained outdoor learning curriculum pre-K through 6th grade. “Students have been going out consistently and learning core routines for our outdoor classroom,” says, Janis. “We integrate math, literacy, and science into our outdoor lessons. We use the forest behind our school which is a small tract of land, the forest at the Sharon Academy, high school, and Downer forest which is our town forest.”
It all comes down to engagement for Meg. “I’ve never seen students, staff, and community more engaged that when it comes to place-based education. To bring alive the history of the town, the local flora and fauna, the town’s natural resources, and local farms and forests brings life to learning. The students that are learning at our school today will be the citizens making decisions in the future. We want them to care about and preserve the place where they live and learn.”
Janis feels the same. She says, “We incorporate PBEE because it is relevant, connected to the students’ lives, creates sustainable citizens and grows community. Students are motivated, inspired and feel the value of their work. They learn how to communicate, collaborate and be important members of their community.”
“For many, many years Sharon Elementary School has had a strong Farm to School program,” Janis recalls. It is a part of the community and school culture. “We have a production garden, individual class gardens, an herb garden, and this year we added a composting system for all school food waste. We have an outdoor pizza oven and pavilion that we use to cook with our students. We also do cooking in the classroom, and our 6th graders compete in the Junior Iron Chef competition every year in Essex. Students learn about where their food comes from, what it does for their bodies and why growing and buying locally is helpful to our local economy and our natural resources. We also do a school-wide Farm and Field Day which highlights learning about farms, animals, gardens and what we need to sustain us.”
“For students who come to school with trauma, have dysfunctional families, and are lacking connection, they are transformed in this type of learning. They develop curiosity. They learn to problem solve, rely on their own skills, develop critical thinking and have confidence in their abilities. They feel valued and are empowered to make a difference in their own community.”
Meg teaches a unit on honey bees and their ecological importance. Her class raised over $500 for the Honey Bee Conservancy this year. This fall they will be applying for the “Adopt a Hive” program that would bring honey bees to the schoolyard. The 4th grade class also does a unit on Food Equity that gets kids thinking about inequities, fosters honest dialogue about socio-economic similarities and differences, and inspires kids to think how people can come together to support each other.
The 6th graders do a program called Inspiring Kids. Through this program, they learn about non-profits and the needs they meet in our community. They research local non-profits, meet with their directors and determine the organization they want to support. The students present 3 non-profits to the school and then the whole school votes on the organization they wish to support. They then do a community day where the entire school participates in creating something to help each non-profit. They have baked bread for the food shelf, made trail mix for people staying at David’s house, created dental kits for patients at the Better Health Clinic and made baby blankets for Good Beginnings just to name a few. They then present the community fund donated by Inspiring Kids to the chosen organization. “It is an incredible way for students to understand the community, its needs and the non-profits they help meet those needs,” Janis says.
For the past 10 years, Janis has have done a year-long river curriculum she developed through Four Wind’s Upper Valley Linkages for Environmental Literacy program (UVLEL). They work closely with the White River Partnership and participate in citizen science. In the fall they study crayfish and learn about native and invasive species. In the winter, they get trout eggs and raise them until May when they set them free in the White River. They learn about the trout life cycle and why they are important indicators of river health. They also do “track and sign” and learn about the animals in winter that utilize the river. In the spring they learn about the White River Watershed, the energy transfer in the ecosystem, the potential pollutants that can affect the river and macroinvertebrates. They conduct a bioassessment to determine the health of the river based on its biodiversity and abundance of sensitive, somewhat sensitive and tolerant species. As a culminating event, 6th-grade students lead the entire school in learning stations about the river on our Annual River Day at Paines Beach in South Royalton.
Janis believes that “The benefits of this kind of teaching and learning are innumerable. Students are more motivated, engaged, and invested in their learning. They understand concepts more deeply, are inspired to learn more and feel connected to their place.”
“My favorite moments are when the learning just happens, and I am not the director of it,” Janis says. “The students become the teachers and the leaders. They develop the questions and discover the answers. Some words they used to describe their learning are inspiring, rejuvenating, calm, peaceful, spectacular and real learning. Those words are more than enough for me!”
For our school, it has created a supportive and collaborative staff. For our community, it has developed students who want to stay connected and have a voice in the place they live.
“I’m inspired every day by my colleagues, and I’m so proud to be a part of Sharon Elementary School,” says Meg.