A Forest for Every Classroom

Close your eyes, listen for one minute, and count on your hands how many different sounds you hear. Five? Fifteen? Can you identify them all?

This simple activity (we call it “Handful of Sounds”) is one we use all the time with groups outside. As a mindfulness exercise, it sharpens the senses, centers learners in the moment, and prepares them to be careful observers of the environment around them.

It was among the favorite activities of the most recent group of educators participating in our year-long professional development program, “A Forest for Every Classroom” (FFEC). As the name implies, FFEC’s core goal is to help teachers uncover ways in which they can bring students outdoors for meaningful, relevant, place-based service-learning experiences.

This past weekend, the thirteenth cohort of educators graduated from FFEC at Orchard Cove House at the Farm, exactly where they first met in May 2015 as teachers from New Hampshire, a high school in Medford, Massachusetts, and all compass points of Vermont.

Each season, they’d meet in a different location (the Farm, Groton State Forest, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Sleepy Hollow Inn) to immerse themselves in topics ranging from tree identification, forest ecology and climate change, animal tracking, forestry practices–even a bit of astronomy for some clear-skied evenings. Often they were joined, or led, by guest instructors or FFEC alumni.

In this final gathering, we sharpened our tree identification skills just a little more, and compared this year’s blooming and leaf-out of trees and wildflowers to last year’s timing. (This is part of the concept of phenology: the connection between climate and the timing of seasonal biological phenomena.)

But mostly, they celebrated their year together and reflected on how FFEC has changed their teaching practice. One teacher shared how FFEC showed her first-hand how to make her curriculum more responsive to students. Other nodded in agreement. And they all embraced the nature-based mindfulness techniques we had introduced like Handful of Sounds, daily sit spots, and quiet woodland walks.

FFEC is a partnership program of Shelburne Farms and the National Park Service that runs bi-annually. On alternate years, the Farm partners with the Champlain Basin Education Initiative to offer a related professional development program called “Watershed for Every Classroom” (WEC). It’s based on similar themes of meaningful place-based, service-learning, but with water as the focus. If you’re interested in the 2016-2017 WEC program, we still have a couple of slots left!  

Oh, and we’re excited because remember that teacher from Medford? She has signed on to be part of WEC. She’s inspiring us all!

Ryan Morra

Posted by Ryan Morra

May 17, 2016

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