Ferrisburgh teacher gets students outdoors, earns major nomination

FERRISBURGH — Judy Elson, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Ferrisburgh Central School, has always taken her science and environmental education efforts there outside of the classroom.
From harvesting vegetables from the school garden in the fall to tapping maple trees in the late winter, Elson provides her students with tangible, hands-on science lessons.
Elson said that her teaching is centered on what she sees as the value of getting students outside.
“A lot of it is getting kids out of the four walls,” Elson said. “They might be learning about rocks or plants, and instead of sitting at a desk and doing a worksheet, they’re outside doing that.”
Elson’s approach to teaching is one of the reasons FCS Principal Beth Brodie nominated her for the 2018 LifeChanger of the Year Award. This national award recognizes K-12 educators and school employees who go above and beyond for their students.
Brodie said that Elson’s work inside and outside the classroom was just one reason, but an important one, to nominate Elson.
“She has her hand in so many things that really enrich the school.” Brodie said. “Her dedication to the community is unsurpassed.”
That list of things, for example, includes Elson helping to tend to the school’s garden, which allows each student to have a hand in growing the vegetables that go into their lunches. As Elson puts it, she believes including efforts like that in her teaching is a way to spread an environmental awareness to her students.
“Some of it is that I feel like these guys are the only hope we have. We just have got to keep going with the environmental push or who knows what’s going to happen with this planet,” she said.
Science and the natural world have interested Elson since her teenage years, and she worked various outdoor jobs before becoming a teacher.
“I did a bunch of seasonal work in environmental education programs. I went and worked at Shelburne Farms,” Elson said,
And she didn’t immediately head to the classroom during her 17 years at FCS.
“I was our school programs advisor for nine years, taking kids out on field trip programs and summer camps,” Elson said. “I decided I was spending too much time doing administration and not enough time with kids, so that’s when I came into the classroom.”
Now teaching at FCS full-time, Elson can turn that love for science into hands-on science lessons for her students that enrich their understanding of the world around them.
These lessons helped lead to the abundant garden that grows in the school’s backyard. Elson said that the learning and harvests that have come out of the school’s garden all began with planting seeds for a “salsa garden.”
“There was another teacher and I, Lydia Hibbard, we had buddy classrooms and we were brainstorming things to do together,” Elson said. “We said ‘Let’s do a salsa garden,’ so we planted in the garden together and that’s just where it started.”
Each year that salsa garden got bigger, and now it is providing vegetables for the school’s lunch program and being cared for by parents and students during the summer months.
The garden offers a way for all students to connect with their food. Brodie said awareness regarding their food is one of the valuable lessons students learn from the garden.
“It’s not a mystery to the kids where their food comes from. They know where it comes from and they care about that,”  said Brodie.
Elson has also brought environmental lessons into the classroom with units on composting. What began as a lesson on recycling transformed into a school-wide effort to compost all leftover lunches, said Elson.
“Composting started with a recycling unit. I brought in a lunch tray and said ‘Where does all of this go?’ And everyone assumed that we composted,” Elson said.
A handful of students in the class were not satisfied with the school’s food waste being thrown into the trash, and the change began there. Elson and another faculty member wrote grants and met with the principal and the school’s maintenance head. Together, they worked to make composting the norm at FCS.
Now their efforts are displayed by the composting structure sitting outside of the school and the students that spread the compost in the garden each spring. Elson said now composting at FCS is just as student-driven as it was in the beginning.
“Today the students are the ones that do the composting. They do all of the stuff in the lunchroom on their own, and the compost goes back into the garden in the spring,” Elson said.
Elson’s lessons in and outside of the classroom have left her students with a lasting interest in science. Bess Gramling, a former FCS student now at Vergennes Union High School, said she recalls Elson’s teaching well.
“I don’t really remember 5th grade all too well, but what I do remember is Ms. Elson’s enthusiasm for science and learning,” said Gramling. “She made me appreciate science in school in a fun and enjoyable way.”
Although students like Gramling testify to how Elson’s work left them with a long-lasting connection to science and the world around them, Elson said any FSC teacher could have been nominated for the award because her work was part of a group effort.
“It’s a community effort and kind of a cultural shift around what we eat,” Elson said. “We could have nominated everybody.”
Marin Howell is a VUHS senior who is interning at the Independent.    

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