MIDDLEBURY — What happens when students forget standardized testing, ditch the desks, and get their hands dirty?
The four programs that contributed student artwork, poetry, essays and photography to the Vermont Folklife Center’s “Learning with the Land” exhibit do just that. From growing vegetables to building primitive shelters, the Walden Project, Monkton Central School’s Salad Days, EarthWalk Vermont and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps high school leadership program are all using nature-based education to structure learning.
“I’m an interactive, hands-on learner,” said Marissa Guidry, a 10th-grader at the Walden Project, an alternative high school program run through the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and the Willowell Foundation and located at a farm in Monkton. Guidry was at the exhibit’s opening reception last Thursday, and her photographs hung on the wall among that of other Walden Project students.
“For me, it’s about forming your own education, and being able to have a role in creating it,” she said.
Guidry, who hails from Shelburne, opted for the alternative teaching style at the Walden Project after deciding that the traditional classroom experience was not for her. The 20 students at the Walden Project spend their school days studying writing, the arts, philosophy and environmental studies outdoors.
Matt Schlein, one of the program’s directors, said the Walden class structure isn’t for everyone. For him, the exhibit — two years in the making — is about displaying the variety of place-based education opportunities that exist in the state.
“We thought this was the right venue to celebrate and start the conversation,” said Schlein. “Place-based learning is kind of an abstraction for people ... this exhibit gives a richer understanding of the possibilities.”
It’s all part of a re-envisioning of the traditional education system that, according to Schlein, should question the role of the classroom and include alternative learning theories including, but not limited to, place-based education.
“This is part of an important change that’s happening in education right now,” Schlein said.
While the Walden Project is a full-time program, others in the exhibit are fitting learning from the natural world into the more traditional school structure. Students from Monkton Central School contributed brightly colored paintings of vegetables to the exhibit, part of a “Salad Days” project they started last spring. Each class picked one vegetable to plant and nurture in the school’s garden, and students followed the life cycle through to their plates at a harvest meal this fall.
The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps program, based in Richmond, is focused on working in the outdoors for school credit. Caroline Woodward, one of the VYCC instructors for students from the Center for Technology in Essex, said the work often holds more tangible versions of the same lessons that high school students are learning in the classroom.
“You have to understand the Pythagorean theorem when you’re using it to build a bridge,” said Woodward.
And in fact, students in the semester used those mathematical concepts to built a 70-foot bridge, to estimate the amount of wood they could get out of a tree, and to build raised beds.
Woodward said the program appeals to many students who struggle to learn in a traditional classroom environment, but who are eager to get their hands dirty and work outside.
“Once we get these kids outside, they’re so relieved to be valued,” she said. “Here, they’re learning math, literature and science.”
It’s not just the academic subjects, though — Woodward said the program teaches them less tangible things like time management, good work habits and social skills.
As an end-of-semester project, her students wrote essays and created clay sculptures demonstrating their experience with the VYCC program, which are on display at the exhibit.
John Woodward, who teaches students from Mount Mansfield Union High School in the VYCC program, said his students this semester raised chickens and slaughtered them for a local food shelf, then held a mock debate on the benefits of factory farmed and free range poultry.
“For a lot of the students, they gain confidence, which can push them back into the classroom.” Woodward said.
And EarthWalk offers nature programs that students attend one day each week out of its location behind Goddard College in Plainfield.
Lila Humphries has been attending the EarthWalk program since Angella Gibbons founded the nature-based mentoring program seven years ago. In that time, Humphries said she’s learned tracking skills, shelter-building, fire-making and basketry, as well as science and history.
Now 13, Humphries has graduated from the elementary school program to the teen one. As she helped to put the “Learning with the Land” exhibit together, she said it became clear how much more than those skills she’s gained from the program.
“I have no clue who I would be without EarthWalk,” said Humphries. “It’s an enormous part of my life, and it’s my family.”
Maurice Bissonnette, a Walden Project graduate who lives in South Starksboro, commutes to Plainfield to serve as a mentor for the program. It’s not just EarthWalk’s focus on enhancing senses and being more aware of the world that drew him to the program. More, it’s the focus on mentoring and respect for the students.
“The students are treated like brothers or sisters,” said Bissonnette.
“Learning with the Land” is on display at the Vermont Folklife Center until Jan. 28. Visit vermontfolklifecenter.org for a list of other events associated with the exhibit.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.