Why Teaching Outside Builds an Ecosystem of Community and Collaboration
By Skylar Primm, 7–12 Environmental Educator
On the third day of the 2019–20 school year, my students — clad in waders, muck boots, and personal floatation devices — stood hip-deep in the cool water of a local stream. Groups of five to six students attempted to maneuver wide seining nets into place across the stream, with the aim of trapping some fish for identification and observation. Other groups wielded long-poled nets to dig into the muck and hunt for macroinvertebrates. A third group of students — with various legitimate reasons to not be immersed today — remained on shore, taking photos, helping with species identification, and providing moral support. All of these activities required cooperation and communication, and helped show new students what it means to be a member of the High Marq Environmental Charter School community.
One week and one day later, we were engaged in a different kind of water activity at a boat launch on a nearby lake. This was supposed to be a simple day of canoeing in the shallows and practicing T-rescues in preparation for future paddling adventures. The unpredictable weather — which we tried to avoid by pushing the experience back by a day — ensured that the experience was a little more adventurous. Strong winds blowing across the lake limited the distance we could safely travel, so we improvised and taught T-rescues with the physical and emotional support of students who waded alongside the canoes. The waves were rough, but everyone learned what they needed to and the bus ride home was filled with the sounds of laughter and excited conversation.
High Marq and My Story
As you may have gathered, my teaching setting does not fit into the mold of our traditional school system. High Marq Environmental Charter School is a small school in a small town in central Wisconsin. We serve a maximum of 32 students in grades 7–12 with a project- and place-based curriculum that emphasizes sustainability and collaboration. The school was started a decade ago by staff and community members in the Montello School District to provide a different way of learning for local students and reconnect them with our abundant local natural and historical resources. (Beyond the lakes and rivers, John Muir’s boyhood home is just down the road, and Aldo Leopold’s famous Shack is a 45-minute drive away.)
I came to High Marq in its second year, after a bit of professional wandering through geology and engineering. Here, I found a school where I could merge my background in field science with my beliefs in progressive education. This is now my ninth year in Montello. Each brings new challenges and new adventures, but the constant has been taking students outside as much as possible. We read outside, we play outside, we have circle meetings outside, and we spend all day every Thursday outside on a Field Experience like the lake and stream adventures described above, no matter the season. These outdoor learning opportunities are the foundation of our school, and provide a shared context for the rest of our students’ learning.
Last year, Wisconsin adopted new Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability for K-12, based around three strands: Connect, Explore, and Engage. At High Marq, we connect with our local history and ecosystems by stepping foot in them ourselves. We explore by hiking through prairie restorations and placing tags on monarch butterflies. We engage through ongoing stewardship of school gardens and partnerships with local groups. All of this work helps students to develop their own sense of responsibility for the world around them, and become active members of their community.
Environmental Education naturally lends itself to interdisciplinary work and systems thinking. Recently, High Marq has partnered with local nonprofits and government agencies to support projects on the land where John Muir grew up. This work authentically blends Environmental Education, Social Studies, English Language Arts, Science, Health, and Physical Education. The environment is thus a context for learning about any number of other things. (For more about the John Muir project, check out a post I wrote for Teachers Going Gradeless.)
While Environmental Education can certainly be taught inside a classroom, why would you want to? The benefits of learning outside are well documented, most recently in an opinion piece for Education Week by Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui: “Research suggests that regular contact with nature — even in the context of a small schoolyard or garden — can improve students’ physical fitness, mental health, academic achievement, and cognitive, social-emotional and motor functions.” Gardoqui links these benefits to equity and social justice, and rightly so, as every child deserves a connection with nature.
Each school, no matter how much concrete and asphalt surrounds it, has some patch of outdoor space that could be utilized by a creative, adventurous teacher. There’s a whole world ready to be explored right outside the window. Why not check it out? Your students will benefit, and so will you.
After High Marq
You may be thinking that our school sounds fun, but what happens after graduation? As a small, relatively young school, our list of alumni is relatively short (30 and counting). That said, their paths are as varied as the winding of a river. Our first four-year college graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in sequential art out of state and is now a freelance artist hoping to publish her first graphic novel. A later trio of classmates attended three different four-year schools in Wisconsin and are now pursuing graduate school and careers in natural resource management, veterinary work, and environmental sustainability. Other students started in two-year colleges and later transferred to four-year schools. One skipped college altogether and started a T-shirt printing business. Another tried (at least) half a dozen careers on for size before finding her calling in stand up comedy and theater. They’re not all pursuing environmental careers, they don’t all work outside, and they haven’t all gone to college. What they have in common is a strong sense of identity and an overall feeling of happiness with where their lives have taken them. Environmental education may not have been the only source of their success, but it certainly helped.
Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He is currently a member of the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at medium.com/@skylarp, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.