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Academy School Takes Its Learning Outdoors

“I’m living my best life at work right now,” says Jon Sessions, assistant principal at Academy School. This quote came after a day spent outdoors with students learning different methods of stacking wood, including the Norwegian Round method.

Academy School fully embraced outdoor education throughout the first half of the 2020-2021 school year. With COVID-19 safety precautions in mind, preparations began last summer to make the most of the forest adjacent to the school, which is owned by the Smith Family. For years, the Smith family supported and encouraged the school to use the land, with Hank and Diana (Smith) Lange directly involved in the school community. Rainsuits and ponchos were purchased so that students could be outside on wet days, and trails and outdoor learning spaces were developed, including a mountain bike trail in the woods behind the school.

Since school reopened in September, teachers continue to think creatively about how to get their students outside as much as possible. PE classes are held outdoors in all weather conditions, and each grade level has its own outdoor learning space in the woods complete with a fire pit. Throughout the fall, students worked together to create shelters in the woods, including stringing up a large sailboat sail and creating stump seating, donated by Wild Carrot Farm.

Art moved outside as well—from beautiful fall leaf mosaics to potato printmaking using potatoes grown in the school garden to a month-long kindergarten arts residency with art teacher Wendy Windle studying owls and creating an owl walk in the forest behind the school.

With support from Food Connects, Academy School received grant funding from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to purchase five additional fire pits for the school, which are being used regularly as a way to quickly warm up cold fingers and toes, as well as for various cooking activities. So far, students warmed up soup and made roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes over the fire with support from garden coordinator Kathy Cassin, who is looking forward to more cooking outside with students this winter. As the weather got colder, it was clear that there would be a need for more firewood, so Academy School put out a request and received a donation of 2 cords of wood from Anson Baldwin Tree Care, and Academy parent Erin Bristol, which led to many hands-on lessons in different wood stacking methods.

Through their outdoor learning programs, Academy School has found some silver linings during the pandemic. Disruptive behaviors have decreased dramatically, and students and teachers both are enjoying the benefits of more outdoor, hands-on learning opportunities. Mr. Sessions is hopeful that many of the changes they have made this year will continue after the pandemic has ended because they are so successful.

Kelly Dias, who is in her third year as Principal at Academy School explains that “the increase in student engagement is directly related to the amount of student-led learning and physical activity that’s happening every day. Students love to be outdoors, and they feel a strong sense of community and purpose as they work together to build forts, observe animal tracks, and identify plants in the natural world. Teachers are integrating life skills such as cooking into their curricula, and these transferable skills are making an immediate impact.” 

Another silver lining to the modified in-person school week schedule, which involves two different groups of students attending for two days per week with three remote days, is that school staff and students have realized how special their time is together, and every minute counts. “Everyone feels so lucky to be here, and we miss each other during the remote days—we are working hard to build consistency and maximize the time we have in-person,” Kelly said. Connecting with the fully remote learners is important as well. “We’ve had some remote classes come to do trail work; and The Nebula News, a weekly segment produced by Music Teacher Bri Davenport, highlighted the exciting work that remote students have done from home. We are always looking for ways to keep the school community connected.” 

In short, the teachers’ willingness to think outside the box, has quite literally led to the shift that Academy School has been working toward for the past few years. The pandemic has fueled the increased use of the forest and garden space on a regular basis for all students, and there is no looking back!