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Local schools persist with outdoor classrooms, even through the cold winter months

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School have spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Students at Pine Hill at High Mowing School has spent this school year learning in outdoor classrooms underneath tents created from wood from the school's land and exploring the natural world around them. Photo by Kendal Bush—High Mowing School

  • Jaffrey Grade School teacher Morgan Cooper has used this school year as an opportunity to get her class outside more, utilizing an area behind the United Church of Jaffrey as a place of exploration and engagement. Photo by NICHOLAS Handy

  • Jaffrey Grade School teacher Morgan Cooper has used this school year as an opportunity to get her class outside more, using an area behind the United Church of Jaffrey as a place of exploration and engagement. Photo by Nick Handy—

  • Jaffrey Grade School teacher Morgan Cooper has used this school year as an opportunity to get her class outside more, using an area behind the United Church of Jaffrey as a place of exploration and engagement. Photo by Nick Handy—

  • Jaffrey Grade School teacher Morgan Cooper has used this school year as an opportunity to get her class outside more, using an area behind the United Church of Jaffrey as a place of exploration and engagement. Photo by Nick Handy—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/8/2021 5:46:11 PM

It was clear from the very beginning of the summer that this school year was going to be very different. While some made plans for hybrid models that consisted of a in-person instruction paired with remote learning, others decided the best way to keep their students learning was to do so in the great outdoors.

Pine Hill at High Mowing School in Wilton and Mountain Shadows School in Dublin have been almost exclusively holding classes outdoors – even through the depths of winter. ConVal held classes outdoors during the fall and one Jaffrey Grade School educator found an area close to school that allows for extended outdoor time during various points of the day.

It has of course come with a unique set of challenges, but it might just have changed how the educational experience can be delivered.

Benefits

Morgan Cooper, a fourth/fifth grade teacher at Jaffrey Grade School, thought a lot about how the return to school was going to go throughout last summer – and how it could be done safely.

As an outdoors person, she wanted to incorporate time during the day outside to give the kids a break and she found it was exactly what her students needed.

Katherine Nickel, who is in her first year teaching sixth grade at Pine Hill at High Mowing School in Wilton, said she loves the outdoors and was excited about the opportunity to be in nature every day. She said many children in this generation don’t spend enough time outside, and offering them the chance to learn in the elements has afforded her to use the world around her to educate.

“If you’re out here regularly, something starts to happen,” Nickel said. She said the students have been relaxed and less stressed, something she’s found to be the case spending time outside. “One of the best ways to get rid of fear is to take yourself into the outdoor.”

Jenn Wilenta, a first year kindergarten teacher at Pine Hill, is also an outdoors person and said the being immersed in nature year-round has a beauty to it.

“It’s really special and unique,” Wilenta said. “It’s a new space for me as well so it’s an amazing adventure.”

Marisa Gurses, the wellness/Spanish teacher at Mountain Shadows School in Dublin, said this year has been incredibly beneficial for the students.

“This year has been one of wonderful adventure,” she said. “And it’s all an experiment.”

Setup

Cooper found a spot behind the United Church of Jaffrey, where there is a ravine, some water and plenty to explore. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk to and is perfect.

“I happened upon it and I claimed it quickly,” she said. “That was my goal from day one, to find a space.”

Cooper secured some screen houses and a canopy for the fall and two tents that are used now during the colder months, which the church has offered to keep in their shed. The amount of time spent outside has varied since they returned to school last month, but within the next two weeks Cooper said the plan would be to spend an hour and a half in the morning and another hour in the afternoon.

They have grain bags to sit on, which double as sleds they use to go down the plowed snow banks from the church parking lot, and took some bigger logs in the area and made a circle for them to be together and off the ground.

“They have been very creative in building their classroom,” she said.

Gurses said they have carport tents and wooden platforms setup on campus that keep students off the snowy ground and protected from the elements. There are four tents for the eight grades and no more than eight people in a tent at one time. As you could imagine, the scheduling is a daily task.

“We just need to go one day at a time,” she said.

There are two fire pits and given the amount the kids are moving around “pretty much anywhere you go there’s a place to warm up,” she said.

For Wilenta and Nickel the school day begins the same way each morning. They arrive at their outdoor classrooms at Pine Hill and get the fire started so their students have a place to warm up throughout the day.

It’s just what needs to be done to get the day going, as the students in kindergarten through eighth grade are outside for the entire day except for a few rare instances.

The decision was made for Pine Hill students to return to school full-time for the 2020-21 school year, with one caveat – classes would be outside, all day. Tents were built using trees harvested from the school’s land, fire pits were created for each classroom and plans put in place on how to deal with all the elements.

Being prepared

In the fall, the list of necessities for the students wasn’t all that different than if the students were indoors, except for extra clothing if the temperature dropped. But as the weather got colder, so many factors had to be considered to make sure the students were comfortable learning in the snow, wind and below freezing temperatures.

There are definitely a unique set of challenges being outside all day. Of course, there’s the weather as Nickel pointed to a driving rain storm in the fall, snow showers and a 12-degree day. Wilenta agreed.

“This is a unique year,” Wilenta said. “But it’s also providing an opportunity, if you take a deep breath and look at it that way. Actually there’s huge gains in the simplicity of it all.”

But it all comes down to being prepared. Each of Nickel’s students has a sit sack and a hot water bottle and plenty of layers and extra clothing. She said it is a constant thought in her head  about whether her students are comfortable and warm, and makes sure to check in when it appears that someone may need some tea or to get into their sit sack.

They use the fire pit for warmth, but it also provides the opportunity to connect. She even lets the students, with supervision, tend to the fire.

“We share this incredible time together that we otherwise would not be able to,” Nickel said.

Wilenta doesn’t have the luxury of the students helping with the fire, but said it’s just become part of the rhythm of the day. They will, although, help by getting logs from the wood pile.

“Everything is an opportunity for educational engagement,” Wilenta said. “They participate in all of it and I’m seeing with that it’s really beautiful.”

With kindergartners, things tend to take a little longer. Add in a bunch of layers and putting mittens back on throughout the day and it can be a little more consuming.

“The parents have done a phenomenal job,” Wilenta said of having the students prepared. “Because the children are diving head first into snowbanks.” They use sleeping bags for rest time.

“It’s a little bit like backpacking every day,” Wilenta said. And to this point, she has yet to bring her class inside.

Copper said the kids have been great about being ready for their excursions.

“The kids come with their gear and there’s minimal complaining,” she said. “They really have been absolute troopers about the whole thing.”

Cooper said she makes sure the students bring extra socks and dry clothes for when they return to school.

Gurses said the students have been great about being outside.

“They really don’t complain about the cold,” she said. The idea is to keep them moving throughout the day.

She said every day feel like you’re packing for a ski trip, but it’s crucial to have the right gear.

“It’s not easy by any means, but better than we expected,” she said.

Educational experience

Gurses said the students at Mountain Shadows spend about 95 percent of their time outdoors. Each class gets one class per day indoors in what has been called the Zoom Room.

She has been holding her wellness classes in Spanish, combining her two focuses into one. Recently they have been working on winter vocabulary and it’s incorporated into the workout of the day.

“It’s words that are all around them,” Gurses said.

Gurses said the students have embraced being outdoors and the opportunities it presents. They made a trail to the other side of campus that has opened up for exploration and team building exercises, like making a railing along the trail, building a fire pit and a structure.

“They just keep adding to it,” she said. “Every day is a new project.” They have cut down trees for fire wood and are building chairs for around the fire pit. The students have even gotten a crash course in survival skills. And so far, everyone is embracing the new normal.

“I didn’t expect it to be going this well, this far into the season,” Gurses said. “But you adjust.”

She said she hasn’t written on a chalkboard once all year, adding “we’re all getting pretty creative with how to use the snow,” including writing Spanish words in it.

Nickel said she planned like crazy to get ready for the year, but realized that taking the opportunity to push those plans to the side and let the students just be, opened up so many possibilities. Staying in the moment, and keeping site of the classroom goals has created a different feel to the year, and one Nickel hopes will continue beyond the pandemic.

She has found that the students are able to quickly engage on a topic, sometimes too much like a murder mystery writing assignment and how to survive on a deserted island.

“My biggest problem is getting them to disengage,” Nickel said.

Wilenta said it’s a lot of work, but something she loves. Of course there are things like letters and numbers that Wilenta is trying to introduce to her students, but has found it best to just incorporate them in whatever activity they’re doing.

“It’s just being in it,” Wilenta said. “They’re learning through play, social engagement.”

They do have permission to go inside, but so far Nickel’s students have wanted to remain outdoors.

There’s a big emphasis on exploring the world outside the tents. She said they spend a half hour doing something in the forest, whether it be just sitting and listening to the birds or looking around during a walk.

“I use the wide world to fuel what they’re writing about,” Nickel said. “It would be a crying shame to not use the world outside.”

Wilenta said her students building blocks are now sticks and logs.

“They’re really able to create exactly what they need,” she said.

Cooper said she got in 100 hours outside before the end of 2020 and used those hours for both exploration and discovery, as well as lessons in writing, reading, and grammar. The area is large and there’s so much to see.

“It’s that natural form of play that kids don’t get on a playground,” Cooper said.

They have rolled over rocks to see what they could find and the Harris Center came out for a visit.

“They just love finding things,” Cooper said, adding that her students are amazed at what they can discover even during the winter months.

Cooper said she would be outside all day if possible, but without a bathroom and needing to be inside for certain things, she will take all the time she is afforded.

“The kids have so much more focus,” she said.

Gurses said she can’t imagine being indoors all day after what they’ve been able to do outdoors.

“It seems almost impossible to go back to the way it was,” she said.

Wilenta marvels at what this year has meant to not only her students, but her role as an educator.

“There’s no lack of what we have access to outside,” she said. “I suspect my work will be forever changed by the opportunity I’ve been afforded this year.”


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