Bristol school focuses on hands-on learning

BRISTOL — The snow-covered field behind the red schoolhouse off Hardscrabble Road in Bristol was filled with the sounds of industry and eager voices Monday morning. A young boy wielded an axe as another stood by critiquing his stance.
“Legs wide so you don’t chop off your feet,” the second boy said, and the first boy brought the axe down deliberately on a piece of wood, splitting it down the middle. A young girl took the splinters to the outdoor cob oven for kindling.
Packed into the snow, in the afternoon shadow of the newly built barn stands a yurt made of saplings, greenhouse plastic, and heavy-gauge wire fencing. Inside the yurt, six students are bustling at their tasks, from wood carving to corn shelling. Devoting full concentration to their labors, these elementary school students engage fully in this seamless blend of work and play.
At this K-9 independent school, even the outdoor classroom structures provide an opportunity for educational growth through their construction. The students had a hand in building the yurt and the barn, which was just finished this fall, and are incorporating the structures into their daily education.
This embodies the school’s dedication to environmental stewardship and a manner of learning that director and language arts teacher Jacquie Werner-Gavrin calls “hands-on minds-on.”
At the Red Cedar School in Bristol, students’ days are anything but typical, as they are empowered to pursue their education with great curiosity, dignity and responsibility. In student-driven and locally sourced projects — like the most recent barn construction — students own their learning. And they do it with zeal.
Founded in 1989, Red Cedar School is a K-9 school with an unusual experiential education balance between cultural studies and community service, as well as outdoor time and rigorous academics in-classroom. Educators there say that through this constant dynamism students bridge the disconnect between formal and informal learning, recognizing that every experience can serve as an educational opportunity. Gaining problem-solving skills through real-world issues sparks a sustainable interest in learning; the confidence to solve those problems comes from the firm curricular structure and support of the three compassionate educators who work full-time: Werner-Gavrin, Brendan Collins and Bill Heminway.
One such problem-solving opportunity came recently in the shape of the barn.
Over the past four years, the Red Cedar School has invested itself in the project of building a new post-and-beam barn in their backyard. Students have been involved in the whole process — from visiting a lumber mill to understand the origin of their materials, to using algebra and math in the carpentry.
Like all assignments at Red Cedar, the barn project is as much about the process as the product. With no pressing deadline of completion, the faculty are able to uphold an expectation of quality.
“I wanted to teach the students to do it right,” said Collins, a science and math teacher. “If they hammer in a nail wrong, they can take it out and fix it. Kids learn from their mistakes.”
Unlike dealing with abstract concepts, Collins said progress was easy to mark with this imposing problem-solving tool.
“Every day we could step back and say, ‘Wow! Look what we did today!” he said.
While the process was most important to the students’ learning, the product is indeed impressive. Looking more cozy apartment than winter shed, the 14-by-22-foot building is a beautiful, multi-purpose space. The barn currently houses the school’s tools and chicken coop, and will function as a greenhouse in April, and Collins’ bird-banding lab next fall.
Now that the structure is finished, the students are on to the next project. The chickens — many of which students raised from eggs — have provided the opportunity for an entrepreneurial egg business that the elementary students run. As these productive hens laid over 75 eggs just over holiday break, the students may have their work cut out for them. Students and Red Cedar School families take care of the coop when school is not in session, providing a lesson in the importance of community and responsibility.
“That’s the great thing about living chores,” Heminway said. “They can’t be ignored.”
The Red Cedar School has turned its small size — the student body is 40 — to its advantage. Heminway explained that being a tight-knit team of three teachers (plus a teaching assistant and two part-time subject teachers) allows the faculty to “be nimble” in their teaching. They are able to adapt the curriculum to suit students’ needs and, at times, their interests in becoming thoughtful, global citizens. Werner-Gavrin noted that the small headcount, as well as being able to teach students from kindergarten through ninth grade, affords the opportunity to forge deep relationships with and between students.
“It takes time to know someone,” she said. “And even longer to help them through their needs.”
While all the fun being had in and outside of these red walls could make one skeptical of the academic rigor, parents said the curriculum is effective. Kristen St. Louis, mother of two students, has noticed the impact Red Cedar School has had on her children.
“They love to share when they get back home,” she said.
When asked about his greatest joy in teaching at Red Cedar, Collins’ reply was instant: “The creativity of youth.”
When Heminway and Werner-Gavrin recounted the past weeks’ unit on Greek history and mythology, there was a potent enthusiasm and fondness in their voices. Part of the study involved a reenactment in which the yurt served as Delphi, the house of the oracle.
Heminway describes how students would continue to play their Grecian parts out into recess.
“That’s when you know they own it,” Werner-Gavrin said with a smile.
Ellie Moore is an intern at the Addison Independent this winter.

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