OV students mix hands-on, classroom learning
BRANDON — Last Thursday, Vermont education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca sat in a camp chair on the floor of a canvas tent behind Otter Valley Union High School, listening with rapt attention to a debate about dams and hydro power.
The four students at the front of the tent, as well as the five others watching, attend the Moosalamoo Center for the first part of every school day as part of an experiential environmental education program run through the Brandon high school.
Vilaseca had come down for the day specifically to see what the program was all about, and how it worked.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for over a year, since I came here last year and met a student who was in the program,” said Vilaseca as he introduced himself to the students before the debate.
The debate was the latest in a series focusing on topics surrounding lowland watersheds. In this one, four students weighed the need to create new sources of renewable energy and the changes that an area undergoes once a waterway has been dammed.
Josh Hardt, the outdoor educator for the program, facilitated the debate. He said that it tied into the current unit of study for the program — lowland watersheds and the ways in which they have been altered by farming practices, hydro dams and human development. But he added that the students don’t just study these watersheds; every Thursday, they spend time paddling area waterways, seeing them firsthand.
Hardt explained that the Moosalamoo Center’s five units each year all focus on an outdoor activity and related ecological concepts. Last year students studied upland watersheds — very different, said Hardt, from their counterparts in the valley — and learned about fly fishing. Some units focused on survival, some on mountaineering, and all tie in keen observation of — and research on — the world around them.
As part of the science curriculum, the students also get the opportunity to teach the ecological lessons they’ve been learning to elementary school students throughout the year.
To Hardt, this educational structure, while not traditional, is fitting for its location.
“Vermonters value our landscape,” he said. “We’re outdoors people, and I think any education that can capitalize on that is going to be powerful.”
Still, Michelle Cioffredi, the lead teacher for the Moosalamoo Center, said the four-year-old program has had challenges, because while it gives students unique, meaningful learning experiences, they’re not always experiences that fit into a traditional curricular structure.
“We have the challenge of making sure these kids get things that look very traditional,” she said. “We’re still getting tripped up with that.”
And the students themselves spoke highly of the center to Vilaseca.
“It’s something that is completely alternative to traditional education,” said Ian Holmquist, a junior.
“And in my opinion, better,” said Sam Francour, a senior.
Belinda LaFountain, who took part in the program last year, said she spends her afternoons with Cioffredi teaching kindergarteners zoological concepts.
“(The Moosalamoo Center) opened doors for me,” LaFountain said. “I’m getting a feel for what I want to be doing in herpetology, because that’s the field I want to go into.”
The Moosalamoo Center is the current incarnation of an alternative, outdoor education program that goes back between 10 and 15 years.
Since its start four years ago, said OVUHS Co-principal Jim Avery, the program has gained traction in the school community.
“It’s still based on experiential education and hands-on learning,” said Avery. “But when (Hardt and Cioffredi) got involved, they began defining the program around the more ecological part of it, and elevating the level of academic rigor to a place where it’s attractive to all students.”
“The natural world became the venue for our academics, not the end product,” explained Cioffredi.
Vilaseca asked the group what their peers’ reactions to the program are, and all agreed that there are many at the high school who doubt the program’s rigor.
“A lot of people see it as playing in the woods and not really doing anything,” said Francour. “They see it as, ‘Oh, you’re paddling or rock climbing and not actually doing schoolwork.’ They don’t really realize the level of academics that go into it.”
Cioffredi added that all three of their seniors last year got many college acceptances, and all received scholarships. And college admissions aside, she and Hardt said the level of involvement across the board by the students in the program was highly unusual.
“The community and identity that these kids have is something that I have not really seen before, and that we’re really proud of,” said Hardt.
Vilaseca said the concept of the program was one that he wanted to further extend throughout the state.
“One of the reasons I come to a program like this is because then I can go around the state and talk about it. If this is happening here, why can’t it happen in (other areas)?”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].