After more than three decades of teaching at Jemicy, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. Enter Spring, 2020. The coronavirus completely upended any semblance of normalcy as we pivoted abruptly to teaching online. It seemed impossible that we could maneuver our way through the thick tangle of COVID restrictions and concerns of families and staff to actually reopen this fall. But here we are, restructured into smaller, isolated groups -“neighborhoods” – each with its own dedicated spaces and faculty. And, in a strange twist, one of my long-held dreams has finally come true: getting to teach entirely outside.
My science classes have always seen plenty of outdoor time, but this is different. This year I am intentionally restructuring the curriculum to prioritize and fit outdoor spaces – those places that I have always described as the biggest, best classroom in the world.
The JE neighborhood started getting to know their larger neighborhood by asking, “Where in the world are we?” We mapped our campus, walking the perimeter through weeds and woods, along streets and streams. Our moose mascot (who wears a mask and also a cool spiderweb beard), situated at the top of our front circle, conveniently aims north. It became the reference point for orienting ourselves wherever we happened to be. We identified notable landmarks (“Does a pile of deer poop count?”) and topographical features while adding to our biodiversity checklist.
Screen tents, the outdoor pavilion, and any place where we could find some distance, sit or place a yoga mat, became gathering spots. Along with lessons on animal classification, adaptations, and seasonal changes, we coordinated science and art classes to study the distinct characteristics and beauty of the leaves that surrounded our outdoor neighborhood.
Class time was also regularly devoted to letting kids play in the woods and develop their own unique communities there. We took trips to Jemicy’s bamboo forest where we harvested poles for fort construction. A new barter system quickly developed: “I’ll trade you this part with leaves for that short, fat stick.” “Will anybody trade me one long bamboo for two bricks?”
Friends found ways to help each other while staying safely at a distance. A giant beetle larva was unearthed during stone collecting, admired, and safely replaced. Burdock plants dispersed their seeds by using unwitting mammal “fur,” much to the mammals’ annoyance. Adopted tree seedlings found permanent homes.
What will happen when the weather turns cold? We had a taste of that this week as we gathered in the pavilion, shivering, with temperatures in the 40’s. Conveniently, our topics were seasonal endothermic (warm-blooded) and ectothermic (cold-blooded) animal adaptations. Kids immediately gravitated to the sunnier side of the structure, jumped up and down, and ran laps to get warm. “It’s probably too cold to bring the snakes out here, isn’t it?” asked one wistfully. “But maybe the guinea pigs?” We observed crickets, how their behavior changed when we moved them from shade to sun, then released them to find their way to winter accommodations.
Finally, we pulled on our boots and headed to the woods, where the kids took one look at the deep, shaded stream valley and predicted that the water would be too cold for frogs. A fresh shed from a snake confirmed that some cold-blooded creatures were still conducting business as usual.
We did find a couple of spunky young frogs that were still actively elusive in spite of the season officially shifting from summer to fall. Fortunately, it was also too cold for the mosquitoes that had plagued our previous hikes.
I stopped by yesterday to tour a set of forts that several girls were working on, noting that while they had followed this year’s new guidelines not to share close spaces, they had left open passageways from one fort to another. They gave me a tour of newly installed seating, decorations, and the hollow bamboo tube where visitors could put their “money” (large green fruits) for admission. “The money grows on that bush,” they said, pointing out their nearby revenue source, “so really anybody can come in with permission.” And when I asked about their open concept layout, they responded, “Well, we didn’t want to just build forts – we wanted to make a neighborhood!”