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August 22, 2014
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Earth awareness

Students consult the field guides prepared by John José, standing, to determine which animals have left footprints in the mud in front of the Stourbridge Primary Center in Honesdale. Assisting them at left is principal Paula Brennan.


New programs launch at Stourbridge
HONESDALE, PA — Lucky students at Stourbridge Primary Center in Honesdale are having real-life learning experiences that allow them to explore the natural world and their relationship to it, thanks to new programming developed by John José of Otter Creek Environmental Education Services.

José has begun offering “Schoolyard Habitat Evaluations,” which are followed by the establishment of on-site environmental education programs based on his findings.

First to try the new offerings were the enthusiastic Kindergarteners who participated in José’s wildlife tracking and sign interpretation program last month. Stourbridge principal Paula Brennan, a former science teacher, was aware of José’s environmental education work with local camps and other organizations and invited him to prepare a proposal for several programs at the school.

“What I was hoping to achieve with these programs was to enrich our curriculum, provide the students with a positive, meaningful, hands-on learning experience and create an excitement for learning and an appreciation for the fact that learning takes place everywhere, not just in the classroom,” said Brennan.

The programs offer many benefits by providing an immersive, experiential educational opportunity on-site, thereby eliminating transportations costs and connecting students more intimately with their own schoolyard or backyard. In addition, students learn skills such as gardening and gain knowledge of local flora and fauna.

José began with an introductory lesson on wildlife tracking for the Kindergarten classes and provided books for the teachers to read to students prior to their walk in a forested area of the school property. He also made age-appropriate field guides for the students to use on their tracking day and a copy to take home and share with their families.

“The feedback from the Kindergarten teachers was very positive,” said Brennan. “The experience achieved its objective and beyond. Our students absolutely loved it. The word “awesome” was used a lot in their feedback. I also had many parents tell me how much their children enjoyed it. And more importantly, how what they learned carried over into their homes. The experience not only created rich conversation between child and parent, but the children wanted to take their parents for a walk in the woods to share what they had learned.”

José is implementing two more programs for the school’s second-grade classes, one focused on raised bed gardening and the other on woodland ecology. Last week, beds were built in preparation for planting lettuce mix at the end of April. The children will also fill compost bins on planting day for application later in the season.

Students will harvest baby lettuce at the beginning of June and consume it at school lunch the following day. All facets of the program, from planting to harvest, bed maintenance and consumption will be done by the students. No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides will be used.

The woodland ecology program will feature the sessions “Life Under a Log” and “Who’s Been Here?” In the first, students will utilize a woodland study area adjacent to the school where they will locate inhabitants of the underside of rocks and logs. Ecological concepts such as food webs, energy flow, decomposition, habitat needs, predator/prey relationships and physiological and behavioral survival adaptations and the natural history of organisms will be examined and discussed.

In “Who’s Been Here?” students become nature detectives, reading natural sign to sleuth out and solve the mysteries of animal evidence such as droppings, tracks, feathers and bones. The activity helps to sharpen skills of inquiry and observation while revealing the “hidden” presence of animals.

The programs complement the school’s reading, writing, science and math programs. According to Brennan, the school recently adopted the America’s Choice Writing Program, which teaches the craft of writing through various genre—narrative, informational, functional and response to literature.

“The students could take their outdoor classroom experience, and write about it as a narrative piece (what it meant to them personally), an informational piece (what did you learn from the experience), a functional piece (what steps did we follow) and as a response to literature piece (what did I like about the story from the pre-readings).

The reading and writing pieces will be incorporated in the second-grade projects in the spring, while math will be incorporated in the garden project as students learn to take measurements and calculate the perimeter of their garden areas.

“Learning needs to be meaningful,” asserts Brennan. “To be meaningful, the students have to see it in their world. John’s programs bring the real world to our science curriculum. It gives our students the opportunity to experience, hands-on and concretely, what they learn about in the classroom. Learning also has to be fun. The best way to teach is to tap into their natural curiosity and enthusiasm and provide them with the means to make their own discoveries, which then only fuels their curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.”

Brennan is quite pleased with the outcomes of the effort and looking forward to seeing her students harvest the fruits of their labor. “I am very impressed with John’s depth of knowledge, his passion for the outdoors and his enthusiasm in sharing it with others,” she said. “He brought his knowledge and skillfully communicated it to my students on their level. That fuels a natural excitement for learning in the children which hopefully will sustain itself and grow with them.”

For information visit www.ottercreekenved.com or call 570/729-7288.