School is back in session — outdoors
ORWELL — Teachers have been busy these past few months ordering classroom supplies for the first in-school classes since mid-March.
A lot of chalk, erasers, desks, chairs and photocopier paper, right?
The Orwell Village School’s supply list has included wood chips, large stones, tree stumps and tarps — the new “normal” classroom décor during this era of COVID-19. Orwell parents, educators and business leaders have joined forces to create an outdoor learning environment until a vaccine, or Mother Nature, sends students and teachers back into the school building.
“It’s just another example of this amazing community pulling together and doing things for the kids,” Orwell School Principal Patrick Walters said.
It was this past summer that Stephanie Wilbur — parent of two Orwell School students — read an article about how districts are trying to respond to a Vermont Department of Health recommendation that classes be held outdoors as often as possible this fall in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Wilbur shared the article with district officials, who were open to outdoor learning ideas.
“I thought, ‘We’ve got a little bit of time left before school, let’s make something great,’” Wilbur recalled.
She rallied teachers and community members behind the idea of sourcing basic material, such as wood chips and protective tarps, to carve out nine individual outdoor learning spaces for Orwell School, which houses grades kindergarten through 8.
Fortunately, Orwell has a good-size campus that’s supplemented by additional property a landowner has generously made available to the district.
And speaking of generosity, Wilbur was amazed by the number of local residents and businesspeople who answered the call for help.
Jeremy Audet of Homestead Fence and Paul Stone of Stonewood Farm provided muscle and materials. Wilbur’s spouse came down with a chainsaw to clear brush within a forested area next to the school where the nine classrooms — one for each for grade — would be situated.
Dundon’s Plumbing, the Stanhope family and Gagnon’s Lumber in Pittsford provided a bunch of woodchips. John Lucas of Lucas Farms hauled the chips to the outdoor classrooms area.
“We were able to do 90% of the work on one day, which was amazing,” Wilbur said. “Many hands made light work.”
Another major player in the endeavor was Jenna Laslocky, a 4th-grade teacher at Orwell School.
“One of the most wonderful things was seeing the community come together,” she said.
MAKING 9 CLASSROOMS
Organizers allowed the topography, trees and special features of the property to dictate the contours of each of the nine individual learning environments. Some of the spaces are sloped. Others are relatively flat. And all have one thing in common right now: a base of woodchips to prevent overgrowth and help soak up any moisture the clouds might unleash upon the site.
“We have a lot of ledge and natural rock coming out,” Wilbur said, “so we had a great backdrop to start with. The only tree we cut down was a dead standing tree that was leaning.”
Laslocky and her colleagues have allowed students to shape the look and layout of their own learning spaces, to which they have assigned such names as “eagle’s nest” and “wolf’s den.” One can see the whimsical influences, including tree-stump seating (watch out for splinters). The all-natural vibe of the makeshift outdoor school will soon be crowned by a series of tarps. Each class has chosen its own tarp colors.
“The (spaces) are just magical,” Laslocky said.
Since fabric is a no-no because of its ability to retain and transmit COVID germs, some students are using empty feedbags on which to sit or stretch out. Others are taking advantage of the tree stumps, moss-covered rocks, or have imported their own beach/camping chairs.
This past Friday morning saw Josh Martin’s kindergarten class traipsing through the forest to their outdoor classroom. Mr. Martin allowed them a few minutes of spirited play before calling them to story time. They dutifully put down their pretend swords — a.k.a. sticks — that were in ample supply all over the classroom floor.
It was a fantasyland for Martin as well as his children. The teacher has long been making outdoor studies a priority at the Orwell School. He’s been the force behind “forest Mondays,” which have given the young children a chance to experience nature as part of the learning process.
“It’s my dream; it’s like a state-sanctioned forest school,” he said.
Martin and Laslocky see great potential for “education al fresco,” but they also have some trepidations. It’s tough for a teacher to compete with a deer, rabbit or fox that might make a surprise appearance during a discussion of the Gettysburg Address. A chattering chipmunk could elicit the wrong kind of reaction during a spelling quiz.
Laslocky believes she will ultimately relent and take her students indoors for math. But she said the natural setting has thus far proven intellectually stimulating for students — particularly when it comes to reading and writing classes.
“We had to manage this phase with the right touch, and figure out a way so children saw it as better and joyful,” she said.
And they have.
After lunch, Laslocky’s students head back out to their wonderland for a brief period of rest and contemplation. They lie down on the ground and gaze upwards. They notice that the birds come closer, if they stay still and silent.
“By the end of five minutes, one bird flew between two of us,” Laslocky said of a special day in the woods. “There’s the value of nature, as well.”
WHEN WINTER COMES
School officials aren’t yet sure when winter will make outdoor studies uncomfortable and impractical. These are hearty students who are used to walking to and from the Orwell Town Hall for gym and lunch. But you can’t learn effectively dressed in snow pants, gloves and a hat.
“We’ll use it as long as we can,” Laslocky said. “We’re envisioning kids going out in their jackets.”
The vast majority of the new, outdoor learning infrastructure can be easily removed when the time comes. But one structure will remain. It’s a small, open-sided pagoda with a roof. A former 8th-grade class (which will graduate next spring from Fair Haven Union High School) raised the money to build the pavilion as a gift to Orwell students.
Little did the young donors know that their pagoda would be pressed into service as an outdoor classroom during a worldwide pandemic.
Slate Valley Unified Union School District Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said each school has devised its own plan for outdoor classrooms, and many of them have involved the community. She called Orwell’s outdoor learning setup “one of the more ambitious ones” in the district.
“This was indicative of the culture in Orwell, where the community comes together and does what the kids need,” Olsen-Farrell said.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.