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A Classroom Without Walls

A Classroom Without Walls

Imagine that you have been given a 4″x6″ notecard with a horizontal line drawn through the middle. The space above the line represents air, and the space below represents soil. Now, without any help from Google, draw the entire potato plant, from the roots to leaves. Can you do it?

For students in Kip Jacobs’ 7th-grade science class, that is their first assignment at the start of the school year. “I give them colored pencils and tell them, ‘don’t talk to anyone, just draw the plant’. And the room becomes silent, and it’s amazing,” said Jacobs ’74.

The drawings run the gamut. Some students add roots and green leaves, while others depict the potatoes growing out of the top of the plant. “After they’re done, we Google the potato plant and they place a screenshot of the actual plant next to their drawing and we have a discussion. I have them explain why their plant would or would not make it in real life.”

This is an eye-opening exercise for students, many of whom have never seen a potato plant, much less grown one. “I want the students to have an understanding of where their food comes from,” he said. “It’s so meaningful to have that association with nature and the outdoors.”

A preschool student reaches into a log while exploring the campus woods.

At University School of Milwaukee, teaching students how and why to have a strong connection with the outdoors is not left to chance, and it is incorporated into the curriculum from day one. “We intentionally start our environmental education with the youngest learners in school—preprimary and Lower School students—because that is where the greatest impact can be experienced,” said Emily (Joerres) Vertacnik ’07, USM’s prekindergarten assistant and environmental education teacher.

Exposing children to an outdoor, play-based curriculum has many positive benefits. Not only does it incorporate cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and moral development, it also plants a seed of awareness and appreciation for nature. But perhaps more importantly, it allows children to gain a deeper level of understanding of the world around them, and their place in it. “Kid’s brains are so sponge-like at this age, and they are very curious about their surroundings,” said Vertacnik. “Being outside exposes them to so many different sights, sounds, and smells. It helps them to make sense of the world.”

Vertacnik, along with the other Preprimary teachers, use outdoor education to foster wonder and excitement in the young students they teach. The lesson changes based on the weather, the season, or the children’s interests. Thanks to a recent donation of 50 rain suits, students are not limited by the weather. In fact, rainy days with lots of puddles to jump in are often the best days to go outside.

Prekindergarten Teacher Jennifer Keppler established a dedicated Preprimary garden in 2013, which is continually expanding thanks to ongoing support from the Crysdahl Foundation. The garden is located near the Preprimary playground and is one of four gardens on campus. Students are involved in every step, from growing seeds in the winter, to prepping the raised beds, planing in the spring, and harvesting in the fall. “Teaching through gardening helps the children to learn where their food comes from,” said Keppler. “We encourage students to try new foods and practice healthy eating. It is amazing to watch a child taste a tomato freshly picked from a plant they grew, and to see them connect the foods we eat at lunch to items we plant in the garden.”

Gardening is enjoyed by students and teachers in all divisions, and there are ample opportunities for students to cultivate a green thumb. Karen’s Garden is a large community garden located on the northeast side of campus where students learn to plant and grow crops. The fruits of their labor are realized around Memorial Day, when they sell tomato and basil plants to the school community. The fruits and vegetables that students grow in Karen’s Garden and the kitchen garden located outside of the Middle School dining room, are used by FLIK, USM’s food service provider, for the salad bars during school lunches.

A Lower School student places a "kindness rock" in a tree on campus.

Outdoor education at USM is nothing new. “There was a lot already in place when I started two years ago,” said Lower School Science Integration Teacher Andrew Stone. “My predecessor [retired Lower School Science Teacher] Patricia Ziegelbauer played a large role in outdoor education here. She took students in all Lower School grade levels outside for science class, organized field trips, explored campus, and more. I’ve tried to preserve a lot of her outdoor education curriculum while initiating new activities,” he said. “I hear again and again from parents that being outside was an integral part of their childhood, so it’s nice to be able to continue that here.”

“We’re trying to build on the progress that has been started in Preprimary,” added 3rd Grade Teacher Bonnie Seidel. “I’ve developed a program that I call SPOTS: Special Places Outside the School. We hike out to one of the trails and practice sitting still, being mindful, and observing nature. Then we talk about what we observed—what we saw, smelled, hear, etc.” Students and teachers have also enjoyed participating in Outdoor Classroom Day for the past two years, and international campaign that celebrates and inspires outdoor learning.

“It was amazing to watch a child taste a tomato freshly picked from a plant they grew.”

The benefits of outdoor education are recognized not just by teachers, but also by parents, administrators, and the Board of Trustees. As part of USM’s strategic plan started in 2013, trustees established the goal of implementing experiential elements that incorporate outdoor learning. As a result of this strategic commitment, faculty members established a cross-divisional committee called the Outdoor Education Committee, which works collectively to infuse outdoor education into the PK through Upper School curricular and extracurricular offerings. Over the last several years, Jean and Peter Storer, parents of alumni, have generously supported the advancement of USM’s outdoor education program through the George B. Storer Foundation. Their support has resulted in programmatic enrichment, professional development, and land planning enhancements.

USM is uniquely positioned to further expand its outdoor education program thanks to its large, 120-acre campus. But with that opportunity comes challenges. “Before the campus was purchased in the mid-1950s, this was all farmland,” said Jacobs, who grew up exploring the property with his friends. “But the land was never actively managed and nothing was deliberately planted.” As a result, the extended campus lacks diverse habitats and faces devastation by invasive species like the buckthorn plant and the destructive emerald ash borer.

A group of students learns outside on Outdoor Classroom Day.

Jacobs and a handful of others, including students, have taken steps to plant new species of trees and remove invasive buckthorn on campus. “Students in my CAT Academy class this fall decided that they wanted to tackle the buckthorn that’s growing near the tennis courts,” said Jacobs. After learning how to identify the buckthorn plant and safely use the equipment, Jacobs set them loose. “Last year this whole area was filled with buckthorn,” said Will Densmore ’22, “but now that it’s cleared, we’ll easily be able to spot any new buckthorn that pops up, so it makes the problem a lot better.” Not only will it help to clear space on campus so new plants can flourish, it gives the students an opportunity to tackle a problem they are passionate about. “I want the kids to take the lead on this,” he said. “When they get invested in it, it goes to a whole new level and they feel so empowered. I’m just that to support them.” Added Densmore, “It’s pretty fun, and I just really like being outside.”

The exposure to student-led initiatives in Middle School is continued in Upper School, where students can pursue an interest in outdoor education through classes such as AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, and Independent Science Research, or through clubs like the Environmental Action Team. “Environmental education in the Upper School is more interest-driven,” said Marja Konkol, Upper School science teacher. “We might not be physically outside as much as the other divisions, but we’re still learning about the environment and the students are applying the knowledge that they have gained.”

“I want the kids to take the lead on this. When they get invested, it goes to a whole new level.”

For her Compass 9 project, Caroline Harkless ’21 is working on creating a campus-wide Arbor Day celebration, complete with a cross-divisional tree planting event. She has partnered with Kip Jacobs to meet with key stakeholders on campus and gain the necessary approvals. She also is researching the types of trees that would grow best on campus, and identifying the areas that would best accommodate the plantings. “I want to create an experience where people can come together and plant trees,” she said. “I think it’s an important project that will draw people back to campus in five, 10, or 20 years and help them to feel a connection to USM. Even by planting one tree, they will have made a difference.”

Cole Wilson ’18, meanwhile, is researching the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of the palm warbler for his senior Tour Project. Wilson, who is considering pursuing a career in environmental sciences, enjoys the opportunity to combine his love of the outdoors with his classroom knowledge. “Being able to apply what I’ve learned in class to a project like this is really interesting,” he said. “In the Upper School, we might not be directly outdoors but we’re learning about things that impact the environment. In physics, we might learn about how cars work, or in chemistry, we might learn about different chemical reactions in cleaning components.”

Outdoor education is rooted in USM’s history, and its benefits are well documented: decreased stress; improved attendance and student achievement; better decision-making and problem-solving skills; greater physical activity; and improved classroom behavior, among others. Teachers at USM have long recognized these benefits and developed innovative and creative ways to incorporate it into their classrooms. But teaching students how and why to cultivate an appreciation for the outdoors—while important—is not enough. To truly make a lasting impact on both student and our campus, we have to lead by example. Thanks to the involvement of faculty members, students, and parents, our valuable resources will be here for the next century of students to enjoy.

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