Students learn outdoor skills as they prep for ‘Zombie Apocalypse’

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union Middle School language arts teacher Meghan McGrath on Thursday morning gave 10 incoming middle school students their final instructions before they left a Vergennes Union High School classroom to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.
“Grab a snack. Grab a tool,” McGrath said.
No, McGrath and middle school science teacher Christopher Oxley, who co-teach this July’s “Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse” summer course at VUHS, don’t really expect a worldwide walking dead infection to begin in the Outdoor Classroom that lies hidden in the woods south of Vergennes Union Elementary School.
But Oxley, who started the course — one of many offered by the VUHS and VUES Summer Fusion program (see related story) — in 2014 under the name “Swamp Monsters,” thought the name change might lure more students to what really is a four-week unit focusing on outdoor survival skills and nature appreciation.
“We thought it would build intrigue,” said Oxley, who watched course enrollment jump from five in 2014 to 18 this summer.
Mitchell Clark of Addison, an incoming 8th-grader, said he did notice the title and does watch the TV show “iZombie” once in a while, but the zombie angle wasn’t the big attraction.
“I mean, it has one or two things to do with it, but mainly it was just fun outside,” Clark said.
Clark also admitted that whittling, trying to start fires without artificial help, and catching frogs in the beaver pond near the Outdoor Classroom’s base camp sounded better than just working on his folks’ dairy farm.
“I thought it would be fun because I could get out of chores and see friends I haven’t seen for a while,” said Clark, adding that his favorite activities are, “probably trying to make fires or spear-making. They’re both fun. Searching for frogs is pretty fun. You get waist-deep in the water.”
Incoming 7th-grader Kimberley Jerome, a Vergennes resident, signed up, “because I like being outside.” Jerome said she has enjoyed learning to whittle the most, while trying to figure out “how to start a fire with one match” has been the hardest task.
Addison’s Zeke Clark, an incoming 8th-grader who is Mitchell’s twin brother, also said the outdoor angle drew him to the course more than the zombie title.
“It seemed like a fun thing to do because it’s outside instead of being penned up inside. It just seemed like more fun than a lot of other activities that we do and more fun than staying at home during the summer and not doing much,” he said.
Zeke Clark said he has not been disappointed.
“I think it’s pretty cool, because we’re always doing hands-on activities,” Clark said, adding he has most enjoyed making small “lookout” shelters.
All those activities are central to the course focus.
“Shelter, fire, water, food are the four main things we’re aiming for,” Oxley said.
Specifics taught include knot-tying, a key component in making shelters from natural elements and tarps; fire-making by using flints, bow drills that can heat wood, or just one match; learning to boil water over an open fire using a grocery bag to hold the liquid; finding edible wild food, such as cattail roots; and making wooden spears that can harvest frogs.
Knife safety must be taught for that final skill, including individual habits and group respect for individual space. Emphasis on those points is an apparent constant.
“Yesterday was a two-Band-Aid day. Just a reminder about knife safety. We are making spears today,” McGrath said. “Let’s have a no-Band-Aid day.”
As well as specific skills, Oxley and McGrath hope the students come away with some larger lessons. Resiliency is one, McGrath said.
“What do you do when you’re frustrated?” she said. “Like the past couple days we’ve been trying to light no-match fires, and we haven’t had much success with that yet, but we’re trying to help them see, ‘Look, you’ve worked really hard on this, and how can you keep problem-solving and keep trying instead of giving up?’ Which isn’t maybe a Common Core standard, but it’s definitely a life skill that will help them.”
Appreciation for nature and life without handheld devices or electronic entertainment is another goal, Oxley said.
“They get so much screen time, whether it’s a TV or an electronic device. We make sure to build 15 minutes of free time into the session, and they’re never bored,” Oxley said. “I hope it’s something they are starting to realize, that there’s a lot they can do without electronics.”
Oxley also said positive “unpredictable things” happen in the woods away from a classroom setting.
One day last week he heard a group of boys being noisy in the woods during free time and began to worry — needlessly, he learned.
“I just assumed they were fooling around. I heard grunting and screaming. It was like four or five boys. I was like, ‘Oh man, what are they doing back there,’” Oxley said. “And they started pulling out logs for us all to sit on around the campfire. It was their contribution to the community.”
Another time, a boy who McGrath said had not been “super involved” to that point came up with the idea for the lookout shelters and ended up leading one of the groups making the lookouts.
McGrath said that student’s group made the best shelter out of the three groups.
“He jumped right in there and got involved,” McGrath said. “And since them he’s been much more involved in the day-to-day stuff.”
At the end of each day the students and teacher form a circle of “appreciation and apologies” to, in McGrath’s words, “get the kids to notice each other.”
“If there really was a zombie apocalypse, we’d have to band together and survive as a group,” McGrath said.
And they do at times joke about zombies.
“Occasionally I’ll be goofy and say, ‘Did you hear that?’” Oxley said.
McGrath said she recently brought her dog.
“He started barking at something that we couldn’t see or hear, and I said, ‘Oh man, he notices the zombie,’” McGrath said.
They might also surprise the students at the end of the course this week.
“We might get a teacher or two to dress up as zombies the last day and creep through the woods and see what happens,” McGrath said.
But being outdoors and learning about nature and picking up new skills will remain the main attraction. Zeke Clark said he will be recommending the course to his younger friends.
“I’ve told a few that it would be fun,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
  TALON TANNER, 11, of Addison, right, watches as Zeke Clark, 13, of Addison cuts the roots off Queen Anne’s lace plants during an outdoor survival camp last week. The roots taste similar to carrots.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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