BY SUSIE DENEHY and DAVID SOBEL
The Reintroduction of Students into the Landscape
Dorothy McCabe, thin, strong and well-preserved as a cedar post, had us captivated with her stories. We sat in the parlor of her old home twelve years ago in what had just become the Forest Society’s McCabe Forest Preserve. “I remember when I was a girl and it was a hot May afternoon. We all had a favorite swimming place down by a bend in the river — near the old oxbow. It was sandy there and deep enough to dive into. When I got there I noticed three big funny-looking water bugs perched on the water. I was going to investigate, but the black flies were so bad, I decided just to strip down and jump in the water. Well, as soon as I jumped in the river, I was scared by the ferociously churning water — like the Loch Ness monster was coming to the surface. And then three deer charge out of the water and stampede into the woods. Turns out those three water bugs had been their noses and they had been suspended in the water, just their noses sticking up so they could breathe. This is how they got a bit of respite from the black flies.”
We heard other stories that fall as my Environmental Interpretation course conducted research in preparation for creating a trail guide for the forest. Community members recalled how, when all the fields were mowed, you could start up on Elm Street and sled clear down, past the house, past the mowing, almost all the way to the river. Others recalled skating on the pond that had filled in the pit excavated to provide clay for the brickyard. “Antrim children used to ramble and explore all over McCabe,” I thought as we were wrapping up the project in December. “Isnt it strange that we haven’t seen a local kid here all fall?”
Susie Denehy, Staff Naturalist/Teacher for the Harris Center for Conservation Education, had a related thought when she started working with students at the Great Brook Middle School about five years ago. One of the core books for 5th graders in the Conval District is My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. In this book, twelve- year-old Sam Gribley leaves New York City to spend the winter living in the woods on his grandfather’s land in the Catskills. He learns to live off the land using only the bare essentials and he builds an awesome shelter. The Great Brook teachers brought the book alive by taking a field trip to the Harris Center so the students could build shelters. But when Susie arrived on the scene, she was puzzled. “Why are we carting students in buses all the way from Antrim to Hancock when the McCabe Forest is only a ten minute walk from the school?” From this seed of an idea, a symbiotic relationship between the school and the forest has grown.
Seeing how fruitful the shelter building was, 5th grade teachers Ann Kenney and Barbara Black, with help from the Harris Center, developed the Wetlands Project to take advantage of the namesake brook right behind the middle school. Over the course of three years, a boardwalk and elegant gateway were built, a comprehensive water studies curriculum has emerged, and even a theater piece was produced. Once the students understood how to use the pH monitors and do water testing of the marshy water behind the school, it made sense to expand outward to other places in the watershed. While one piece of Great Brook flows through the center of the village and is the source of water for Antrim’s mills, another piece, locally known as No Name brook, flows down through McCabe.
“We wanted the students to look at a stream environment that was different from the marsh behind the school,” recalls Ann Kenney. “No Name brook is steep and rocky and we thought the water quality and microinvertebrates might be different, so we started making regular field trips to McCabe to expand our water studies curriculum.” Indeed, water testing in No Name brook helped the students understand that once you’ve seen one stream, you haven’t seen them all. And the teachers eyes started to open as well. Why stop at shelter building and stream studies. How else can McCabe be used to enliven the curriculum?
At Antioch New England, we were ready to take the next step. Our Wetlands Project had helped to spawn the Harris Center/Great Brook collaboration. The Rachel Marshall project in Keene was successfully engaging teachers, students and community members in designing a city-wide learning laboratory on the banks of the Ashuelot River, right behind Taco Bell. The Valley Quest project of our Vital Communities of the Upper Valley initiative was helping teachers create treasure hunts to the distinctive natural and cultural landmarks in Connecticut River towns in New Hampshire and Vermont. The common theme in these efforts was our desire to bring the environment and the community into the core of the curriculum. For too long, we felt, environmental education had been like art. It happened for 50 minutes a week when the naturalist brought the owl into the classroom, and the teacher got a break. It was a tassle on the edge of the fabric, not the warp. Let’s find some schools, we thought, who want to make ecological literacy a serious part of the school philosophy. Let’s find schools that want to ground their curriculum in their local places — the natural environment and the social institutions of the town.
And so CO-SEED, (Community-based School Environmental Education) was born. We approached the Harris Center, the Great Brook Middle School and the Antrim community first to see if they wanted to pilot the project. Two other partnerships (one with the new Rivendell Interstate School District and Hulbert Outdoor Center, and another with the Gorham, NH schools, Trail Master and the Appalachian Mountain Club) are also underway. The core commitment is well expressed in a national study conducted by the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER), a cooperative endeavor of twelve state education agencies working to integrate the environment into K-12 curricula through education reform. Their report, entitled Closing the Achievement Gap Using Environment as an Integrating Context for K-12 Education, states:
“A recent study of 40 schools across the nation indicates that using the environment as an integrating context (EIC) in school curricula results in wide-ranging, positive effects on student learning. The study found that EIC improves student achievement in social studies, science, language arts and math. Students, teachers and administrators also reported other significant effects including development of problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills; increased enthusiasm and engagement in learning; and gains in summative measures of educational achievement such as standardized test scores and grade point averages.”
In Antrim, as well as in Rivendell and Gorham, the environments we have focused on radiate outwards from the school like ever-larger Russian nesting dolls. In the school itself, we are setting up recycling programs and creating classroom and kitchen composting systems. On the schoolgrounds, in addition to using the existing Wetlands study site, teachers conduct local geology field trips and 6th grade teacher Kitty Swam had her students design an outdoor classroom in conjunction with Jim Aborn, the building engineer.
In the community, 5th and 6th grade teachers Barbara Black and Letitia Rice facilitated a year-long project in conjunction with the Antrim Conservation Committee to revitalize downtown Memorial Park. Students mapped the park, identified existing flora, researched native flora, came up with landscape design proposals, made presentations to town committees and finally implemented the planting scheme in the late spring. Eighth grade teacher Kerry Rosenthal used McCabe Forest as the site for her winter ecology unit. Like postmen, regardless of rain, snow or ice, snowshoeing students tracked wildlife, studied feeding habits, and created a set of brochures of McCabe mammals.
The McCabe Forest serves as the wild heartbeat of the whole system. McCabe is the accessible wilderness — close enough to walk to, but big enough to get lost in. Its 136 acres harbor mixed hardwood forests, open meadows, rocky brooks, spacious pine groves, old oxbows and floodplain thickets. Canoeing along the meandery Contoocook on its eastern border makes you feel like you’re paddling a southern Illinois river. Sixth graders can camp here and feel like they’re really away from it all, but still be close enough to get away for a soccer game. Seventh grade teachers will use McCabe to test the new map and compass skills of their students in an orienteering challenge next spring.
Our goals are many layered. By making school more meaningful and relevant, we increase students’ investment in their work. By making the curriculum more community-based, we encourage students to see that their work really makes a difference. We’re not preparing them for tomorrow, we’re involving them in solving the problems of today. Through making community service part of the school day rather than extra credit, we invest students in the social and economic well being of the region. Everyone hopes that this will translate into students returning to the community after college. In this way, their knowledge of place continues to enrich the cultural soil and generation to generation wisdom is reborn.
McCabe, or any nearby Forest Society preserve or town forest, plays a crucial role in this process. McCabe provides a taste of the primeval experience that’s at the core of our being, sunk into our genes. The connection between children and nature that’s supposed to happen during the elementary and middle school years is one of the sources of energy that gives students the determination to make the world better. As current Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and past Antrim student Jeffery Merrifield said to Harris Center Director Meade Cadot in a 1997 letter,
“My involvement with you and the Harris Center when I was a student at the Antrim Middle School, over 20 years ago, had a significant impact on my desire to seek a career in environmental law. Our visits to Willard Pond and Bald Mountain in Antrim will always stick in my mind as the kind of on-site educational experience that all students that age should have.”
The nice thing about McCabe Forest is that its proximity makes this kind of experience available to more students more of the time. As 5th grader Caitlin works on her piece of the McCabe Birds map, perhaps a National Geographic cartographer is being born.
David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing to Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education.
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