Both Shawn Brodeur-Stevens and Mary Lord have been teaching at Charlestown Middle School for over 20 years. Yet they have the energy most associate with those fresh out of college. They are enthusiastic about working with their colleagues to create authentic learning experiences for their students in Charlestown.
Twenty years ago, when Shawn and Mary were new at the school, the Fort at No. 4 reached out to teachers at Charlestown Middle to invite them to participate in collaborative learning projects between students and community. Through this partnership students learned about Native American culture with elders in their town. They created artifacts for use in the Museum. And many students participated in siege re-enactments at the Fort.
The increase in student engagement and the pride of place that Shawn and Mary observed as a result of this place-based education collaboration lit a spark for them. They found that this was a fun and effective way to teach that benefited students and the community. They were hooked.
Over the years, with changes at The Fort at No. 4, the collaboration fizzled. Teachers at Charlestown were eager to find ways to do more experiential and place-based work with their students.
That is when Shawn found The Wellborn Professional Development Institute for Place-based Ecology Education. Shawn applied to the Institute hoping it would be an opportunity to develop a place-based educational program with his colleagues at Charlestown Middle School.
Clay Brook Project
While participating in the Wellborn Institute’s 4-day foundational course, Shawn developed a plan for the Clay Brook Project. He brought the idea back to Marianthe Ingalls, the language arts teacher, Mary Lord, in social studies, Jed Hart, the special ed. teacher, and principal, Aaron Cinquemani.
The Clay Brook project is now a collaboration between Ms. Ingalls, Mrs. Lord, and Mr. Stevens. Every other Tuesday morning the three teachers walk their classes through town to the Clay Brook in Charlestown to conduct class.
At Clay Brook, the students work on ongoing projects with each of the teachers, cycling through social studies, language arts, and science learning. Last year:
In science, students observed and tracked change over time. They explored thermal dynamics—tracking energy flow through the environment.
In social studies, with Mrs. Lord, students built shelters using techniques of ancient civilizations.
With Ms. Ingalls, students studied language arts through observation and mindfulness practices designed to improve their writing skills.
When the classes return to school from Clay Brook, the teachers have lunch together and reflect on what went well and what they want to do differently next time. This is how the three teachers iteratively developed their Clay Brook curriculum as they went along. They had a shared vision for what they wanted the program to achieve and that vision guided them.
Mrs. Lord says that, “If you look at the whole child, there are things that the child needs to learn about that don’t we don’t have time for in the school day. For example, we only have art once a week, nature allows us to explore social studies through art.”
Special Education teacher, Jed Hart reflected that this time outdoors in nature has improved children’s mental health and their ability to deal with stress and adversity. Principal Cinquemani noted that, “Students that we know to be experiencing some trauma in their home lives tend to be those who are at risk of low school attendance. Since this program began, I’ve seen attendance improve drastically for these students.”
All teachers noted that classroom management is not really an issue when the students are outdoors. “Teaching techniques and classroom management are not two separate things,” says Principal Cinquemani. “When students are engaged in learning, you don’t need classroom management.”
“This project has reinforced for me the idea that nature provides,” says Mr. Hart. For example, when building shelters, we noticed that children that need to get some energy out would find big sticks and rocks to lug around and construct their shelters. Children who needed some contemplative time would build structures with leaves and ferns.”
Advice for Others
When asked what advice they have for other teachers considering similar teaching efforts, these Charlestown educators had the following tips:
Modify your teaching expectations for the short term but expect your teaching to improve in the long term. Teaching outdoors will likely be new to you. Give yourself permission to make a few mistakes and try to learn from them to improve your practice over time.
Expect that teaching outdoors (like any teaching) is an evolution and process. Trust the process. Trust the evolution. Trust you’ll find your way.
Have a plan, but be flexible. The weather may mean that you need to change your plan. You
can model flexibility and resilience for your students by “going with the flow”.
Establish rituals; this will help students focus and get into the appropriate head space for learning outdoors. Rituals may include mindfulness activities, sit spots, reflection, or cycling through activities.
Take risks to build confidence. Both teachers and students will learn more, have more fun, and be more engaged if they can take small risks.
This article was first published in Field Notes is a monthly column of the Wellborn Hub Monthly Newsletter highlighting the work of Upper Valley educators passionate about place-based environmental education. Do you have a story to share?