If you ask many of my students from the last 30 years what event they remembered the most, very often you would get an answer involving one of the many overnight outdoor education excursions that we took. There were the standard ones to one of the many local (but diminishing) outdoor ed centres, sponsored by the Board of Education and staffed with teachers running a pre-arranged program. These were wonderful and memorable, but the most interesting ones were a handful that we organized ourselves.
The first one of these was, remarkably, during one of my practice teaching stints when I was assigned to a class in Newmarket for a period of a month. I proposed the idea to the classroom teacher, who thought it was great and was on board immediately. The principal of the school was a neighbour and friend, so that didn’t hurt the chances. We ended up at Rockwood Conservation area for two nights, a safe location because it had things like picnic shelters and was pretty close to town. That turns out to have been a good thing as we had torrential rains for our stay. It could have gone better, but we coped. I’m sure, though, that the kids involved will still regard it as highly memorable.
It was a while before I tried that again, but eventually I just had to run an outdoor program which was a total camping experience. The location I chose was Warsaw Caves Conservation Area, near Peterborough, which is a pretty primitive facility. Water, picnic tables and outhouses were about it. When I first suggested it, my fellow teachers and my principle thought I was a little crazy. Three Grade 7 classes out for several nights in tents and cooking their own food? Nuts. However the tactic that I chose was to throw the logistical problems at the kids and wait to see what happened. Students had to put themselves in groups, find tents and other camping equipment and plan their own menus. In order to maximize safety I had them produce menus which did not require cooking unless it was something that could be done quickly at a central cooking area that was supervised. (I didn’t do this the first time around and regretted it when a leaky Coleman stove set a picnic table ablaze. Fortunately with no serious consequence.)
The students performed admirably. I put a series of checks and balances in place to monitor the planning and make sure that nobody was left high and dry. Multiple lists were submitted, modified and returned. Lots of calls were made to parents. In the end, we were able to arrange parent drivers for the whole group both to deliver and pick up students from Warsaw.
That’s the logistical part, but the whole purpose of the trip was to enact a program which I had planned taking full advantage of the resources and wilderness surroundings of the conservation area. This included succession studies, tree surveys, pond studies and solo sits among other things. Science was the headliner, but in my proposal to the Board (-because you know they demanded a detailed proposal for an idea like this-) I was able to tie in almost every single subject. Poetry was written on solo sits. The geographic history of Warsaw was discussed in detail. The average diameter of trees was calculated in various biomes. A lot of physical activity and details learned about camping were easily connected to Physical Education.
It was a tremendous amount of work, and it was both miraculous and a testament to the devotion of my colleagues that I was able to have all of the teachers and a number of support staff, plus many parents, participate for the three or four days and help deliver the program.
We accomplished this feat four times during my tenure at two different schools. It was a time when outdoor education was regarded as a higher priority and when the Board of Education was less paranoid. (The background skills that I possess through having taught wilderness skills to youth groups for decades helped a lot in convincing my superiors.)
I looked at the program for the outing as a three step process. Using the example of studying succession, here is roughly how it went. Before the trip, in the classroom, it was important to introduce several concepts such as the nature of lichen and soil production. They were also introduced to the idea of biomes and a general overview of succession. They had to draw and understand the components of a chart which they then used in the actual exercise. Once at the camp, small groups laid out a 10 meter rope on the Limestone Plains location, which is a perfect place to observe succession from bare rock to trees. At one metre intervals each group had to observe the plant growth by category and record it on the previously made chart, which had headings like lichen, moss, grass, small shrubs, large shrubs, etc. They also recorded things like depth of soil, which of course was zero at the first interval. They were then asked to draw a cross section and colour it in using a key of their creation. After the camp, all of the data collected as rough copy was formalized into good copy assignments with accompanying conclusions and commentary. This pattern was followed for quite a few of the activities.
Many of the activities and also the general philosophy of the entire endeavour came from a series of books by environmental instructor Steve VanMatre. His books include Acclimatization, Acclimatizing and Sunship Earth. Each of these is pack full of program ideas for environmental and outdoor education, although they are often very ambitious and need to be modified in some ways. These ended up being the best resources I ever found for outdoor and ecological education, being adaptable for anything from classroom to canoe trip. I highly recommend this resource if you do any work in these area. (They may be a little hard to find nowadays.)
For the days we were away, immersed in the wilderness, in camping routines and in active learning, not to mention each other, these congregations of classes truly became communities, with people helping each other and learning many new things about each other. It was something I’d always been more successful at with my youth groups over the years, and I knew that it would be particularly challenging with a large group consisting of multiple classes. But we ended up doing it, and it these trips will always be some of the brightest and most rewarding moments of my teaching career.