Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage

By Jess Evans

My third grade classroom sits underneath conifers and oaks, bordered by the occasional birch, with a soft floor of pine needles and humus underfoot. Twelve log seats awaited my students for their first day of school, each spaced six feet apart from its neighbor.

I’d carefully written a variety of nature words on log rounds and placed them around our classroom, choosing “fungi” and “stump” to correspond with features I’d spotted nearby, adding “oak” and “mountain laurel” by their namesakes. During our first day together, I read The Keeper of Wild Words (by Brooke Smith), then challenged my new friends to spot wild words around the Morse Hill campus on our first ever nature walk together. Upon our return to the classroom, they began to notice the wild words I’d placed within our classroom. Absent the anchor charts, the lists of rules, and stacks of materials, our classroom contains what I believe are exactly the right ingredients for learning. Within our current class of ten students and two adults, each of us are facilitators, learners, and teachers. Nature provides the impetus, the invitation, and the challenge.

Within the first week, my blended group of third and fourth graders began making their classroom their own. They asked, “Can we have our names on our log seats?” I had extra log rounds cut and ready to go, and wrote a label for every child. During free play, kids began selecting the “perfect” stick and making collections of acorns, rocks, bark. Individual spaces began growing little collections of sticks. One third grader clears her space of pine needles every morning, then lines the border with sticks and bark to make a cozy nest for her space and belongings.

What about the pandemic, though? Yes, that’s present, too. My students are eight and nine years old, old enough to be fully aware of the threat we all face as well as the vast differences in their lives since we all entered some version of lockdown some seven months ago. They wear masks on campus, with mask breaks when seated in our classroom space or during snack and lunch. Masks to play, masks to adventure, masks to interact with me and each other most of the time.

I asked my students, during the first week, to work on a series of activities relating to the Zones of Regulation. “Draw...” I said, “what it looks like when you’re in the blue zone (sad.) Then, show me an example of red zone.” M., age 8, chose to write her ideas down instead. She wrote, “[Mad] I cant go play with my freinds becos of coronavirus.” She added, “Im sad becus i have to were mascs at camp.” This window into her inner thoughts about the world we now live in helps build the foundation of my work with these kids, who have all faced some level of trauma relating to being uprooted from their “normal” lives. I believe that along with offering the best environment for children’s experiential learning, nature can mitigate some of the effects of that trauma. In the coming months, I hope to document the extraordinary, the unexpected, and the everyday elements that shape our first year at Learn at Morse Hill.