Nature's Classroom

Thinking outside the box, Western Middle School 6th-graders take lessons from the outdoors.

Guess who just turned 21?

This past week marked the 21st visit made to Nature's Classroom by . Karen Maher-Cochran, a Western Middle School science teacher and 2007 recipient of the District’s Distinguished Teacher Award, brought the idea to Western more than 20 years ago.

Maher-Cochran still believes strongly in the program after all of these years. “It is so much more meaningful that anything I can convey” she says and admits “it is very difficult to put the experience into a few words.”

Some 120 Western 6th-graders departed from school last Monday for Colebrook, CT., one of four Nature’s Classroom sites in Connecticut. Nature’s Classroom actually is located in 14 different sites throughout New York and New England as well as having other associated sites in Alabama, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois. More than 750,000 children from 450 different schools have experienced the magic and excitement of this unique academic experience, that has been recognized by the National Science Teachers Association.

The intent of the program is to give students and teachers the chance to experience education from another perspective - outside the walls of the classroom. This five-day residential, environmental education program was established 37 years ago.

The Colebrook site boasts some 500 acres of fields, streams, woodlands and a small farm area with chickens, rabbits, sheep, guinea hens, goats and llamas. Some physical attractions of Colebrook also include a mountain-hiking trail some 270 feet above the camp, ropes course elements along the trail and the Giving Tree Trail, a hiking trail where pages of the Shel Silverstein book of similar name are posted along the way. Nearby is the old Hitchcock family cemetery where history can be discussed or Chapel Island with its up close views of wildlife. Other trails explore Triangle Lake. There are covered bridges and a small beach. Common sights include beavers and amphibians, reptiles and other wildlife. All in all, a pretty amazing wildlife preserve, but where do the 6th-graders fit in? Let’s take a look at a typical week.

The bus ride up is always filled with excitement, explains Danielle Green, a 6th- and 7th-grade teacher at Western who opted to stay behind this year and cover classrooms for the teachers who accompanied the students. In comparison, the bus ride back on Friday is silent. Everyone is happy with their experiences, but exhausted.

Kristen Addison, the mother of a 6th-grader who went on the trip, said her daughter and Western friends “have been waiting for this week since the beginning of the school year. There is a lot of excitement, with a little nervousness on being away for an entire week without communication to mom and dad.”

The trip is technology-free – no iPods, no computers, and no cell phones. Parents and families are encouraged to write to their children the week before, allowing for a delay in delivery, so that the children typically receive mail at dinner on the second night. About 70 percent of the children receive mail throughout the week and they look forward to receiving these signs from home. 

Green stresses that this weeklong technology-free environment “helps them to build their communication skills as they are expected to actually talk to one another - use their mouths” instead of talking through texting. No Twitter, no Facebook and no email!!! How do they survive?

When they arrive, they are expected to carry their belongings “up the hill” to the campsite, which sounds a lot easier than it is. The Western teachers divide the students into groups: one for cabin assignments, a different configuration for field groups and another for meals. They purposely mix students to ensure different interactions result among all the children.

It is an action packed day for the children. Maher-Cochran explains, “Their day runs from breakfast at 8 a.m. to after 9 p.m. each evening when they are dismissed back to their cabins.” During this 12+ hour time period, the theme for the students is all about choices.  They learn to make choices: in what to eat, how much to eat, what classes to take, and what free time activities to participate in.” The students
are responsible for picking their daily classes - ranging from math and humanities, to science and social studies. There’s a maximum of 12 students per class.

But rather than being a chore, the students thrive with the varying choices. Maher-Cochran says, “One student this year actually told me she wished there were more classes to take.” Each day, the students rank the order of the classes they wish to attend and are guaranteed of getting one of their top 3 choices. While the classes are strongly oriented to math and science, Green explains that the intent is “meant
to give them a different perspective to the real world.” When asked how it might be different from a science class taught at Western, she explains that the students “get to see the newts in the stream not just read about them.”

Students have some transition time to allow the Nature’s Classroom teachers a break, but Maher-Cochran reports that most students are in class until 5 p.m. each day and “no one complained.”

On a typical day, students spend the morning in “field groups” which are focused on understanding interactions in the natural world but also, interpersonal interaction among themselves. 

The afternoons feature “special interest classes” in science, math and social studies humanities with a focus on students learning to appreciate education. A science class may analyze life in a pond or the aerodynamics of a boomerang. Math lessons could be building a geodesic dome or using a map and compass in the woods. Social studies will entail playing a Native American game or designing a miniature community. In the humanities class, they may listen to some woodland music or expand their senses through a blindfold walk through the woods.

Students then move on to other group activities such as pulling together a science fair, playing Quest or taking part in an Underground Railroad simulation. Also included are group activities woodland survival skills, how to build a campfire and going on nighttime walks in the woods.

Meals are served family-style with students acting as servers to create a sense of serving their community. While tensions may be high at the beginning of the week, once everyone understands it is role-playing, the tension level drops. Mealtime is also an opportunity for learning. Students learn what it is like to be wasteful through something called the "ORT REPORT" - it is a graphed report of food waste from breakfast, lunch and dinner. It helps students learn that they should take only what they need. An example of the impact of this information is the kids started sharing milk for cereal so as not to waste it.
Another feature of the week: there is plenty of physical activity. There is daily activity ranging from hiking, building field bridges and beaver dams, to fishing, basketball and rock climbing.

Maher-Cochran explains one of the unique elements of the program “a big part of Nature Classroom is to learn how to get along with others, a variation of the "making good choices" theme.”

There is a transformation of the students. Green says, “the first night they are usually scared.” She says that the WMS teachers interface with the kids “during the transition time, they pop into classes, and they are there during the quiet sing every night.” She adds, “by Wednesday the kids are different - they look out for each other; care about one another; they take risks and they make sure that everyone is being included.”

When it was time to depart Colebrook on Friday, Maher-Cochran adds, “I would say many, if not most, of our 6th-graders this year voiced their reluctance to leave on Friday. They bonded with their Nature Classroom teachers and had one of the greatest learning experiences of their school careers.”


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