Out-of-School Learning – Some of the most effective teaching happens outside the classroom
Nine fourth-graders line up on the overpass where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Mass Pike in Lee. Their shirts carry trail names—“Moose,” “Porcupine”—animals that spoke to them. They pump their arms at approaching trucks, then cheer victoriously when drivers oblige by honking the horn. They could clearly do this all day, but this is their last hike of the summer and Upper Goose Pond is still an hour away.
These students from Muddy Brook Elementary stop again to sign the Appalachian Trail logbook and look at topographical maps. “The lines are closer together; what does that mean?” asks Shannon Guerrero, who helped spearhead Outdoor Mindfulness, this new program of Project Connection, the after-school and summer program targeted to vulnerable students, funded federally and locally by Berkshire United Way. Throughout July, both in and out of the classroom, they’ve learned map skills, made journals, and climbed Monument Mountain three times.
“I’ve seen more incredible things happen outdoors with kids than I’ve ever seen in my classroom,” says Guerrero, who takes her students out as much as possible on the Great Barrington campus. “It is a classroom.”
And the outdoors is the best playground ever, according to the kids after sliding down a slope at Ice Glen during another immersion. “What a concept! Nothing but trees and rocks and pine needles,” says paraprofessional Wendy Scott. Next year, Scott and Guerrero hope to get grant funds to go offsite more and take overnight hikes.
“Parents want their kids outside,” says Guerrero. Developing skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration spills out of the traditional classroom and into the outdoors and elsewhere, and makes the learning deeper, more meaningful, and no less challenging.
“Being a Berkshire kid, I love the outdoors,” says Sammy Watson, who just graduated Monument Mountain High School, “but I’ve never purposefully been challenged by it.” By her senior year, Watson was burnt out. Then she took the popular class People and Their Environment, which dates to the late-70s. On the four-night hike on Mount Washington, social studies teacher Gordie Soule discusses the charcoal industry; on Greylock, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Students study Native American history, Thoreau, forest succession, first aid, map and compass. Next year, Soule will team up with a science teacher, and students will take water samples.
This class, where they applied skills rather than learn from a textbook, made her recall that she does love learning. “It is academic, but it’s very much about why are we hiking. Out here, we’re being mindful, and that connected to what I like about writing and theater,” she says, referring to her academic niches. And after hours of uphill rock scrambling, reaching the top of a mountain was sweet.
Watson feels fortunate to have gone to Monument, with its various options for internships and independent study. She designed her own drawing curriculum sophomore year. Another student turned a hiking trip into a film project. But some schools have embedded alternative education into their very design. For part of each semester, Mountain Road School in New Lebanon, New York, takes learning outdoors for a whole day each week, having integrated the nature-based approach of its longtime collaborator Flying Deer Nature Center. One day a week at the Darrow School, also in New Lebanon, high schoolers rotate through different “Hands-to-Work” crews, doing “purposeful work” to improve their school and community.
Berkshire Waldorf High School in Stockbridge, with its equal emphasis on arts and academics, is structured to let students be creative and sink deeply into the learning experience. “Half of what we do happens outside this building,” says Samantha Stier, English and history teacher. Zoology students study marine biology for a week on Hermit Island in Maine. Language classes travel to Europe or Latin America. School starts with orientation at Camp Hi Rock, and ninth graders do a required weeklong hike at Mount Monadnock. Homework is minimal, school days are short, and students study only a few subjects a day more intensely, often in 90-minute blocks, rotating through many electives each year.
“Imagine as an adult having to do eight entirely different things in a day,” says Stier. “It’s exhausting to think about.”
Even traditional schools are bringing these deeper, more hands-on experiences to their students. Notably, the nonprofit Flying Cloud does classroom residencies in schools across the Berkshires that cover the required science, technology, and engineering standards through creative, project-based learning, says director Maria Rundle. They might bring in a physicist to teach concepts and a sculptor to guide students in an artistic expression of those concepts.
Their after-school programs fill up quickly, though she wishes the 21st Century grant-funded programs were open to all; challenged students benefit from being in a mixed group. To compensate, Flying Cloud pays high school students to mentor younger ones. Greenagers teaches climate action, the bulk of which is service-learning projects of the students’ own devising. Flying Deer teaches naturalist and wilderness skills.
Tes Reed, who teaches in Flying Deer’s rites-of-passage programs, is excited that schools are getting kids into nature, but finds magic in more immersive programs. Her Girls in the Woods, which began over a decade ago as a homeschool program for Flying Deer, has taken off via word of mouth. Neither is just for homeschoolers, though Flying Deer “has the niche for homeschool community in the natural world,” says Reed.
Homeschooling can be the most radically unstructured route. Some call it “unschooling,” says Tristan Manzolini, who homeschools her three young children. “We don’t recreate school at home; we go about our day and turn everyday stuff into learning experiences, and the natural progression is mostly in line with what the school systems are teaching.” She feels fortunate for wildlife tromping through her backyard, and when other kids join hers, it’s a “free-for-all” of imaginative play and “nature schooling.”
“My oldest can identify more birds than I can and tell you about almost all of them,” she says.
In whatever dose, alternative education, as Flying Cloud director Maria Rundle says, is the “shortest path between two points; even though it looks messy and chaotic, students accomplish more.”