From October 12 – 14, all students at The Prosper Valley School (TPVS) participated in a service-learning program called Star Throwers. The learning experience, organized by teachers, staff, and community volunteers, is designed to connect and reinforce the students’ classroom curricular content to experiences outdoors and community. Students in fifth and sixth grades worked on six different projects at Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park, Artistree (a nearby community arts center), and at the school. For the past dozen years, the district’s sixth-grade students and staff have collaborated with the Marsh Billings Rockefeller Park for a week (or more) on an in-depth place-based education (PBE) experience.
Students rotated through each station, spending a half-day at Artistree, a full day at the Marsh Billings Rockefeller Park, and the rest of the time outdoors on school property. Students had the opportunity to engage with six place-based stewardship and learning activities: Study the local salamander life cycle, build and maintain trails at TPVS, restore the TPVS greenhouse, restore the TPVS sugar shack, engage in deep thinking and observation skills in “sit spots,” at the Park, and build benches and informational signage at Artistree to be used on the school grounds.
On a beautiful, chilly late October morning outside of the school, I had the honor of sitting down with several of the students, including fifth graders Calvin and Isli and sixth graders Hannah and Orly, to ask some questions and to learn more about their personal learning experiences with the project. I was taken by the immediate enthusiasm and responses that came so quickly; they had clearly learned, engaged, and had fun with the project. Joining us were the school principal, Aaron Cinqemani, and one of the fifth-grade teachers, Andy Wood (also a UVTPC Steering Committee member!).
Q: The project was inspired by a short story you read in class called Star Throwers, about a person throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, one at a time, to save them from dying on the beach. What part of your experience with the project reminded you of the starfish story? How?
The vernal pool where we studied the salamanders reminded me of the story, because we can’t protect all vernal pools and salamander habitats, but we protected this one, shared one student. Another added that the same was true for the salamanders; each student group counted the number of salamanders they found to determine if the salamanders’ habitat was still safe for them. Isli saw the story come to life in the trails project: “We didn’t get to all of the trails, but we did some so people in the future could hike.” She added that goals are like starfish – each one you reach makes a difference.
Q: How were you able to contribute to the project with your own talent, experience, or skills?
Every student had an answer. Isli is an experienced trail builder on her home property, and Calvin noted that he makes trails on the hill by his house with his mountain bike. Another student added that she likes to build with popsicle sticks, and used that interest in bench-building. Several of the students had gardens at home and felt at ease working to maintain the school garden. Shared Orly, “Gardening is something I am good at. I know what to do. I want to teach my classmates what I know.” Students also had experience drawing and painting.
Q: How did your teachers connect the projects with some of the subjects that you are learning in the classroom?
The teachers connected the project to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They studied habitats and how they are actively connected to each other, to the environment, and to clean, renewable energy. Realizing that the United Nations reaches almost every nation in the world, the students commented that if kids all over the world would work on these 17 goals, the world would be better for everyone. Calvin compared the project service work to a train: each of us needed to do our part to keep the train moving, or it would go off of the track. Each country, each classroom needs to do its part so the train can keep going to a better future. The students also recognized their own privilege: their school has resources, money, supplies, and community connections. Still, they noted, every person has something to give – our talents, energy, and ideas are universal. We all need to contribute, and our new generation is making things happen, said Isli.
Q: As you think about the service projects and the work that you and your classmates did, what are you most proud of?
Building trails was long and hard work, and the result was worth it – clean and nice trails, and people are noticing and are happy. They listed many accomplishments: the sugar house and greenhouse are ready for the next season, and the garden is planted with garlic and onions that will bloom in the spring. Many noted that they did more than they thought they would. As one student powerfully shared: “ We helped each other when someone had a bad day, so they could have a better day.” “We all worked together really nicely,” commented another. Students observed that patterns and ways of doing a part of the work were created and followed so the project could be done more efficiently.
Students thought ahead to next years’ project and agreed it worked very well to have both grades participate jointly (previously, only sixth graders did this project). They also brainstormed ideas to build on for next year: harvest the garden, continue planting, cultivating, and caring for the soil, make tables to go with the benches, and expand the trails to include flatter options for the elderly and those in wheelchairs.
If you are interested in learning more about this project and thinking collaboratively about how it could inspire similar place-based education projects for your class or school, Vital Communities will host a conversation this winter with Andy Wood, Aaron Cinquemani, and students from Andy’s class. More information and registration for this free online learning opportunity will be available soon.