Every fall, the Senior Elementary visits Nature’s Classroom Institute, in Wisconsin, for a five-day residency. It is more than a week of interactive outdoor exploration -- it is the ultimate community building and personal growth experience. The timing of this adventure provides many benefits for our Senior Elementary community. As it is a shared experience early in the school year we have a common bond to relish throughout the year, fostering a natural and wonderful tradition of community storytelling, “Remember at Nature’s Classroom when…”
The most prevalent personal growth experience at NC is learning how to appreciate, and then overcome, homesickness. In anticipation of the stress of homesickness (both the parents’ and child’s), Geoffrey Bishop, the founder of the NC provides some practical common sense advice for parents. These tips put the experience into perspective and guide parents so they can plant the seeds of resilience for their child. When homesickness does overwhelm someone the whole community empathizes and openly share their experiences of conquering homesickness. The level of caring and extreme patience is mind-boggling. Essentially when one person is tapped out trying to support the homesick casualty, another person offers their support.
During break periods between meals and activities, everyone has time to hang out in the lounge to share stories, jokes, imaginative games, write letters, play sports, take naps, and get ready to serve the community as a Waitron – volunteers who set up the tables for meals and then serve and bus them. Co-existing in a small shared living space presents many opportunities to talk about, and practice, Grace and Courtesy. We use these encounters to learn more about ourselves as individuals and as a community. Often we have to examine our actions and beliefs to really think about real-life relationship questions such as, “What does it mean for me to live with others? How can we have the freedom to have fun and still be respectful of everyone sharing our rooms?”
Along with establishing healthy school community mores, every morning the children meet with their field groups (groups of 7 – 8 children and one guide) for 2 hours. Some of their daily activities include maintaining the compost pile, tending to farm animals, removing invasive species, leaping over mud pits using a rope swing, etc. Within this group they are learning to work together with new peers from Chicago and Wisconsin.
Finally, NC is a safe place for children to take on various challenges and try new things including frog dissections, making campfires, learning about different cultures, studying plants, animals and insects, etc. The class offerings are quite extensive and always peak one’s curiosity. Another key component of the magic is large team building activities and extensive simulations in the evenings. These powerful experiences are always wrapped up with a sharing of experiences and an educational component, for example comparing a feudalistic society to modern day American society.
Senior Elementary teacher, Steve Thorpe, wrote a journal of what their week at Nature’s Classroom looked like.
The Senior El crew hit the ground running at Nature's Classroom after a ride up that was fun and full of anticipation. After a safety orientation and fire drill, the students quickly moved into their rooms and started making their beds and marking out their territory --- quite a team effort. Then everyone was headed for spaghetti lunch and further orientation. Everyone was refreshed with the ORT report and the associated song with interpretative dance. The ORT report happens after every meal where we weigh the about of uneaten food left on everyone’s plate. As a community we are being challenged to only take as much as we need before asking for seconds, or to only try a little first before heaping food on our plates, only to discover it wasn’t to one’s liking. This ORT report is a long-lived tradition of Nature’s Classroom.
After everyone picked which meals they were going to be a Waitron everyone signed up for the afternoon classes which included: plants' use of camouflage; deductive reasoning to solve a crime; role play of children in ancient Egypt; hands on chicken care; exploring the lives of wolves; and playing Frisbee golf to introduce compass and map skills.
The best part about the day was seeing how supportive they have all been towards each other and how much fun they are having breaking out of the habitual social patterns and roles that they have become accustomed to in our classroom environment. New friendships are forming, new alliances are being made, and they are seeing a different side of themselves and each other.
The afternoon had two breakout sessions of smaller classes. For the first class, students choose from the following options: baseball in American history; the lives of medieval knights; the study of frogs; New Zealand biology; and famous fictional characters. The second set of classes included: graffiti past and present; learning the skeletal system of deer through taxidermy; making campfires and using them to cook; socialization and communication of ants; using eggs to investigate gravity; and puppetry.
If you notice, those class choices cover a tremendous breadth of curriculum; biology, physics, anatomy, history, sociology, practical life, art, theater, literature, and more. Each 90 minute class has a narrow enough focus so the students can explore a topic in significant depth. And the counsellors are excellent educators who make the learning hands-on and student-driven. Learning is both interesting and fun as always.
The barracks fell silent earlier last night, probably due to a combination of increasing familiarity and exhaustion from non-stop activity. Tuesday morning the silence was broken at 5:40 by students wandering the hall, “whispering” loudly enough to wake a sleeping dragon. This morning we were getting them out of bed at 7:30 to get ready for our 8:00 breakfast.
Much of our activity at Nature’s Classroom is in direct contact with nature. Yesterday, they spent at least five hours outside, not counting gym time. Today was the same, but "outside" at Nature's Classroom does not mean the park or the playground. Outside means the woods, the farm, the ponds, and the rest of the sprawling natural environment.
There were two blocks of classes today. The first had some interesting choices on offer: canning jelly using some foraged ingredients; surviving in the Antarctic, practicing yoga; concocting Eco-friendly cosmetics; dissecting pigs; and reenacting a Civil War battle.
The second round of classes involved the exploration through role play of predator and prey. The role play engages the students at a deeper level than reading or lectures as the role play is inherently interactive and imaginative. The staff did a magnificent job of explaining the role play by defining the parameters of the game. They then gently lead, or redirect the role play, but not from outside or above. The staff is active participants, and so interact with students from within the role play without breaking character. Afterwards the role play is processed by the group and thoughts are shared. The learning can continue long after, however, as the students reflect on their own experiences. They came back from this activity glowing from the fun and explaining how many times they had been both pray and predator to different animals in the food chain.
All in all everyone is settling in and feeling more comfortable and are really enjoying the new activities and each other. At first they were asking how long our trip was because home seemed so far away, now they are asking because the week doesn't seem quite long enough.
The frost on the ground was invigorating this morning. We have fallen into a comfortable routine which has helped the students acclimate. The schedule and tasks are becoming familiar but there are new curriculum challenges each day. Today's morning classes included: planning a farm to table meal using what is in season at the farm on the grounds; investigating the origins of Halloween; creating art based on Australian examples; inventing and re-inventing; fishing; engineering bridges; and exploring Samurai culture.
There are two role plays today. First a wilderness rescue scenario and then the culminating "big one" in the evening. This year the simulation is "The Underground Railroad." This semi-realistic reenactment was quite powerful and we had a long and thoughtful group debriefing afterward.
Tomorrow's schedule will be abbreviated due to our noon departure. Before and after breakfast there will be some serious packing happening. A final Field Group nature hike will wrap things up before we eat lunch and get on the bus.
And we must thank each and every one of you for trusting and supporting the Nature’s Classroom program and for appreciating how this adventure aligns with the developmental needs of your child as they become more independent and start defining their roles in society. As they say often at Nature’s Classroom, it is all about making good choices, when given the freedom and responsibility to make choices.
Steve Thorpe and Barbara Beyers
Senior Elementary Teachers
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