What Makes a Mind Come Alive?

This piece is cross posted from the IDEA blog as part of the A Year At Mission Hill project.

The teachers at Mission Hill begin the school year together, focused not only on the work to be done in the coming year, but also the ways in which they can use that work to model “being steward to the land, having meaningful work and being kind.” Their connection to The Farm School provides both a frame for that conversation and a vehicle for that meaningful learning.

Teachers at Harrisville Wells Memorial School, a public school serving students in grades k-6 in Harrisville, New Hampshire, work in partnership with the Harris Center for Conservation Education in much the same way. Though the rural location of the school serves as a primary outdoor classroom and learning lab, the expertise of the staff at the Center helps teachers to plan lessons that build upon not only the natural world, but also the real needs of the school and local community. Following the New England ice storm of 2008, students spent time in the field researching the ways in which invasive Oriental Bittersweet made significant contributions to the serious damage to local forests. After learning about the ways in which the invasive species came to the region and what steps could be taken to prevent its further spread, students returned to the forest on school grounds and removed as much of the plant as they could. Students studying bears compared populations in New Hampshire with those found in Yellowstone National Park discovered that New Hampshire fish and game officials had noted that local bear populations were showing an increasing problem with nuisance bears. Students then collaborated on a letter writing campaign to newspapers around the state encouraging residents to take down bird feeders in an effort to protect the bears.

Whether taking walking field trips in the historic mill town to study local geology or examining the water ways of the old preserved historic mill town to learn first-hand about force and motion, educating the community about the role of bats in the local ecosystem by being guest speakers on a local radio show or growing their own vegetables after exploring the emerging Localvore and farm-to-table movements, learning is happening out in the world, not just in the classroom. Recent graduates have returned to the school to continue this habit of service. One former student built a green house for the K-1 students and another helped the 4th and 5th grade students clear a hiking trail and build a kiosk to display students’ science research projects such as animal research field guides. Wells Memorial School teachers see the connection between the curriculum and the community as a key aspect of their work.

Visits to the Harris Center are also a consistent part of each student’s experience at Wells. The school takes yearly hikes to the center and many classes make additional trips to do some hands on learning with over 20 animals on exhibit. As both culminating and introductory experiences, students connect history, science, math and literature to the natural world as a way of deepening their understanding of both. Wells teachers agree with Mission Hill Principal Ayla Gavins’ description of the experience: “Every time we go there and a kid has more ownership over that place, the more they can imagine what’s possible.”

Like students at Mission Hill, the skills students and staff develop working with the Harris Center transfer into other aspects of the school curriculum as well. Since students learn to “be scientists” (rather than just studying science), they approach the rest of their work in similar fashion – acting as historians, writers, mathematicians, engineers and artists throughout their elementary experience. Teachers gain skills at facilitating instruction across their curriculum by team teaching with Harris Center staff. They learn to create structure while remaining flexible to the ways some units of study emerge or expand as they develop through the school year. In both schools, the powerful desire not only to act as a “steward to the land and do meaningful work” but also to connect learning with action, brings together students and community in truly powerful ways.

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