by Sara Dorsey
“Monongahela National Forest!” The group of 56 fifth graders from one Randolph County School shouts, standing in a circle on this cold, blustery April day. They have trouble pronouncing the name, but they understand the importance of the concept.
The Monongahela National Forest takes up a large portion of the land in Randolph County and was the original reason for the funding and creation of the Randolph County Outdoor Education Program (RCOEP). This year’s class of fifth graders, and nearly every other Randolph County fifth grader for the past 15 years, has spent an entire school day in and out of the classroom, on the playground, and in the fields learning about the connections between the landscape of Randolph County and the ecology and watersheds of the entire region. In this article, I highlight some of the lessons and the fine folks that made this learning experience a success for these fifth grade classes.
John Aliveto, the ever helpful and passionate RCOEP school coordinator, was walking between groups all morning, making suggestions and praising the teaching skills of the Experience Learning staff and Americorps interns who volunteered to help with the program. Mr. Aliveto, a retired teacher, is a stalwart supporter of the program. John saw one interactive topography lesson using white trash bags, markers, and balls and turned it into a lesson on watersheds and how they are connected using tinfoil and water. The students now understand – all land is part of a watershed, the Monongahela National Forest is at the headwaters of several major watersheds including the Chesapeake Bay and Ohio River Watersheds. What we do here in Randolph County matters; we are all connected.
As spring struggled to overcome winter this month one instructor, Mo, took the cold weather challenge as an opportunity to invent an entirely new forest history lesson. Students ran around the fields playing variations of tag games that actually told the story of various historic scenes from the earliest settlers to the advent of modern timbering practices and conservation groups like the Izaak Walton League and the CCC. While the children chased one another about the fields they both kept themselves warm and learned, in a unique and engaging way, how forest management does and does not work.
Since most schools do not have easy access to a natural stream or woodland area, we collected benthic macro-invertebrates and brought these alien-looking creatures from the stream into the classroom. Drew and Josie taught the importance of bio-indicator species and biodiversity while many students squirmed at the thought of interacting with such creatures. By the time they had finished picking up, identifying, and examining these creatures under the microscope, their discomfort was often replaced by wonder and fascination. In these discoveries, I wonder if the students also may have learned something about suspending judgment and the value of unique, even alien-looking features represented on fellow life forms.
Mia and Sam took a lesson on riparian buffer zones and connected watershed protection to community involvement and working together across borders to solve problems. After designing their own miniature towns, students were asked to talk about how they dealt with their own impacts on their waterway, the potential for flooding, and how they might work together with those upstream and downstream to make their miniature communities happier, healthier places to live.
From the outside, the RCOEP program often looks like a whirlwind of games, graphing, journaling and running around outside. Having the privilege to sit in on many of the lessons, I was impressed and hopeful at how students were able to connect the role of Randolph County citizens and the Monongahela National Forest to larger regional concerns that included the environment, economics, and politics. Many thanks go out to the principals, teachers, parents, and students who insisted on the value of this program for the fifth grade class.