Two dozen seventh-graders from Jefferson Middle School toil up a stony ridge on snowshoes, in the heart of the Madison School Forest. At the top they peel off into small groups and stand gazing upward at a twiggy village of giant nests, silhouetted against a pure-blue sky.

“How many do you see in your tree?” calls Nancy Sheehan, a school forest naturalist. The kids in her group count seven great blue heron nests in the bare branches of one towering white oak. They also record data about the tree, including its GPS location, which they’ll turn over to the Department of Natural Resources as part of ongoing monitoring of this heron rookery near the Sugar River in southwest Verona.

“This is your chance to do some real science,” Sheehan tells them. “Herons are extremely sensitive creatures. If this landscape continues to suit them, they’ll come back again in spring. That’s why your work today is important.”

Seventh-grader Amos Kalder’s cheeks are red with cold (and exercise) as he gazes upward at the rookery: “Dude, it’d be so cool to see these nests with all the herons in them. There’d be like 50 birds sitting in the sky.”

Students’ excitement and a chance to tie classroom learning to the real world spurred Jill Olsen and Kristina Whiting to bring their seventh-graders to the school forest for the second time this year. “We’d come more often, but it’s a lot of coordination,” says Whiting, bustling back and forth between the campground shelter where a dog-sledding demo is under way, and the rough kitchen unit where she’s stirring soup. “It’s worth it, though. The kids really enjoy it and it’s a great way to learn.”

The Madison Metropolitan School District’s School Forest is the mother of all outdoor classrooms, covering more than 300 acres of high-quality, ecologically diverse landscape that includes a white oak forest, sandstone outcroppings, a prairie and the heron rookery. Trails are meticulously maintained by a friends’ group; the DNR manages part of the site as a wildlife refuge; and a campground area includes rustic cabins and a nature center. Sinkhole mapping, naturalist-led tours, a ropes course and winter survival camp are available for teachers and students.

Yet, less than 10 percent of Madison classes visit the forest each year. This, even though the district makes room in a tight budget for one bus trip and naturalist-led tour of the school forest per year, per teacher. And then there’s the state’s environmental education mandate. Wisconsin requires every school district to “develop and implement a written, sequential curriculum plan incorporating instruction in environmental education into all subject area curriculum plans.”

In Madison, that mandate is seen as being met by a 2004 curriculum guide to the school forest.

“We developed the resources needed for hands-on experiences at the school forest, grades K-8, that connect back to what’s being learned in the classroom,” explains Lisa Wachtel, the district’s teaching and learning coordinator. Dedicated naturalists, a detailed curriculum plan, and a free bus trip add up to a generously supported effort to make the school forest the “crown jewel” in the district’s environmental education plan. Yet most teachers do not visit.

“There’s a state mandate to teach environmental ed, but it has no teeth,” concedes Tim Peterson, hired a year and a half ago as the district’s science and environmental education coordinator.

That may be about to change.

Across the country, states are busy setting goals for environmental literacy, including here in Wisconsin, where the state’s first Environmental Literacy Plan is being drafted by a new group, the Wisconsin chapter of the No Child Left Inside Coalition. State Superintendent Tony Evers asked the group, whose members represent key environmental education organizations, for the plan and has called for educators statewide to “renew our commitment to teaching students about environmental responsibility.”

This year, funding was restored for a long-vacant environmental education consultant position within the Department of Public Instruction. Among this staff member’s duties: making sure teachers are properly trained for environmental education, and providing districts with resources and technical assistance to help meet the state’s goals for environmental literacy.

The flurry of activity is partly due to rumors that the Obama administration is leaning toward including environmental education initiatives in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (previously known as the No Child Left Behind Act). The legislation may open up funding for states with strong environmental education programs and goals.

“We are not drafting the Environmental Literacy Plan solely for that reason,” says Ginny Carlton, administrative program specialist with the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board. “But if there is to be funding, we would like to be eligible.”

Outdoor learning offers a wealth of benefits. Studies show that students who regularly venture outside for observation and experiments outperform their peers in more traditional academic programs. Reduced discipline problems and increased engagement are other benefits, according to the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, Calif., which promotes the integration of nature-based learning with innovative K-12 curriculums.

Outdoor learning has also been shown to blur racial and income disparities, and a solid environmental education prepares children to understand an increasingly complex and unstable Earth.

Wisconsin has a long history of commitment to environmental education, beginning with the 1935 Wisconsin Conservation Education Statute requiring that natural resources conservation be taught in all teacher preparation programs, and in all public schools. The Badger State was the first in the nation to have such a requirement. School forests were begun as part of an urgent reforestation program after logging. The goal was to teach students how to “replant Wisconsin” and become good stewards.

School forests are still considered, by many in the field, to be the best resource for outdoor learning. “For the classroom teacher, I think of the school forest as a great opportunity,” says WEEB’s Carlton. “The Madison district has received a number of grants to develop programming for that facility. Lots of [people are] working to get students where they want to be.”

Peterson, the district’s science and environmental education coordinator, says that compared to some districts with school forests, Madison actually has a fairly healthy rate of usage. Still, he wants to find out why more teachers don’t go.

“This is one of the most accessible, high-quality school forests in the state,” says Peterson, who also is on the advisory board for Learning Experiences and Activity in Forestry, a group that supports the use of school forests across the state. “I can guess at some of the barriers, but I’d like to know for sure what it would take to get teachers out there.”

Among his hunches: distance, organizational challenges and the fact that teachers may be unsure about the outdoors. The Madison School Forest is on the outskirts of Verona, a 45-minute trip for some schools. Peterson would like to see a focus, as well, on initiatives that make more sense logistically.

“The school forest may be the crown jewel,” he declares. “But it can’t be the Hope diamond — the resource we focus on above all else. I’d also like to increase connections to the place where kids are all day: their school grounds.”

Peterson touts the concept of “place-based learning,” also embraced by advocates for green charter schools such as the proposed Badger Rock Middle School. It involves students forming connections to the environment and community close to their school. Peterson believes more engagement with the outdoors on school grounds would ultimately lead to teachers — and students — feeling more comfortable heading out to the school forest.

“You have to provide multiple entrance points,” he insists. “You have to meet them where they are.”

Peterson has the feeling that more is happening, in environmental education in the district, than is being documented or touted. Turns out, he’s right.

Behind Crestwood Elementary School, a trampled path leads into the woods.

“Here’s where we planted the trees,” says Peter Plane, pointing to 100 yellowish cylinders — like giant plastic straws — sticking up out of the deep snow. These protect the oak, maple and hickory saplings planted last Arbor Day by teams of Crestwood students, as part of the school’s effort to restore its five-acre woodland ecosystem.

Plane, who teaches grades 4 and 5, is a member of Crestwood’s Outdoor Education Committee. “We’ve been around conceptually for a while,” says Plane of the committee, made up of a few parents, five teachers and the school principal, Howard Fried. “A couple of years ago we began meeting more formally. We realize we sit on an amazing piece of property. We have our own five-acre woods.”

In early 2009, the committee secured a $7,000 grant from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, as well as $2,000 from the Wisconsin Retired Educators’ Association and $1,000 from the Highlands Neighborhood Association, to begin restoring the wooded grounds of the school. So far, with the help of DNR staff, parents and volunteers, students have cleared invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from one acre of woods; divided that acre into quadrants for each grade; and planted 100 trees and 400 spring ephemerals. Teachers have been working hard, too: They’ve used grant money to attend environmental ed workshops, purchase high-quality binoculars for bird-watching, and design the Crestwood Integrated Curriculum (or CRICKET), an environmental education curriculum that shows teachers at Crestwood how their own woodland environment and school garden can be used to dovetail with FOSS (Full Option Science System), the district’s adopted science curriculum.

The school also has a well-tended, 20-year-old school garden. Art teacher Linda Gourley, who helped develop CRICKET along with Plane, kindergarten teacher Georgie Palmer and Karen Lenoch, who teaches grades 2 and 3, says it’s hard for teachers alone to make all this happen.

“It helps to have enthusiastic parents to help you with projects and field work,” Gourley says. Not to mention a supportive principal.

Fried, an active member of the Outdoor Ed Committee, believes these initiatives are vital to engaging students from a wide range of backgrounds.

“Keep in mind we have a not-insignificant portion of our student population to whom nature is scary,” he says. “But this is such a natural way for children to learn. Little steps, from the bottom up. Just like growing.”

Flourishing school gardens at Frank Allis, Midvale and Elvehjem elementary schools, woodland and prairie restoration at Thoreau and Olson elementaries, a recycling program at Lakeview Elementary — all of these projects fit the expansive definition of environmental education, as set forth by the state: “a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the creative problem-solving skills, scientific and social literacy, ethical awareness and sensitivity for the relationship between humans and the environment, and commitment to engage in responsible individual and cooperative action.”

Advocates for environmental charter schools such as the proposed Badger Rock Middle School have this kind of synergy in mind; the planning team for that project describes its belief that “project-based learning in an environmental context increases student engagement and strengthens relationships” within a community. It’s also what Tim Peterson is talking about when he says he’d like students and teachers to make connections on school grounds. But the district hasn’t quite figured out how to fit the organically grown efforts springing up at individual schools into a comprehensive environmental education plan.

“We’re in the beginning stages of understanding how this kind of teaching and learning can be done in the district,” says Kathy Huncosky, science instructional resource coordinator for elementary ed. She’s tracking efforts like school gardens and habitat restoration at schools throughout the district. “We’d like to use those schools as models, and those teachers as leaders,” she says.

“What we need is a symposium,” says Dave Ropa, who teaches science at Spring Harbor Middle School, a district magnet school with an environmental focus. Ropa’s commitment to outdoor experiential learning is staggering: He spends an average of 36 class days a year outside, uses Lake Mendota as a science lab and runs an after-school biology club whose agenda is restoring the prairie at the school forest (and studying the effects of that restoration on insect populations).

Still, Ropa would like to know what other teachers are doing. “This is such a creative district. I feel like the level of environmental education is pretty high. But I don’t get out much to other schools, and I wish there was a forum where middle school science teachers, for instance, could share what we’re doing.”

Ropa could share how his class drills through the ice on Lake Mendota to test Ph, nitrogen and temperature. Or what it’s like to work with the DNR as “water action volunteers,” monitoring water quality and creating fish habitat in Black Earth Creek. His goal, he says, is to spend 20 percent of classroom time outside.

“It’s tough, with the weather and other conflicts,” he admits. “But science is a way, a method. It’s about inquiry and experiment, not simply reading facts out of a book. For education to be viable, it has to be relevant.”

For Ropa, nothing is more relevant than the local environment. “Students ask me all the time, ‘why should I study this?’ ” he says. “Because it’s where you live — it’s your ecosystem.”

Peterson believes this too. He grew up in rural Kenosha County and taught high school science in the Marshall schools before joining the administrative staff in Portage as director of instruction. From there, he came to Madison.

Peterson’s son attended River Crossing, a noted “green” charter school in Portage, featured in “Smart by Nature,” the new book about sustainable schooling from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

“Prairie burns, seed harvesting, seining for fish in the Wisconsin River,” Peterson ticks off examples of experiential learning at River Crossing. “I’ve seen firsthand what a huge impact it had on him. Would I like to see that kind of integrated environmental learning in Madison public schools? You bet. But it must be part of the district’s long-range vision for education.”

A vision for outdoor learning didn’t make it into the Madison school district’s Strategic Plan, released in December 2009, or Superintendent Dan Nerad’s State of the District address at Wright Middle School on Jan. 25. But it’s part of the state’s vision, according to an October DPI press release, in which Evers called for the state’s new Environmental Literacy Plan to examine “innovative environmental education programs” and more opportunities to get children outside.

Peterson cites teacher training as a top need. If teachers aren’t naturally inclined to the outdoors, he says, often they will adhere strictly to the FOSS curriculum, which was developed in California, with no local applications.

“There’s only so many hours in a day,” says Peterson. “My hope is that [teachers] view environmental education not as an ‘extra,’ but as a natural part of daily learning.”

For teachers who are interested in environmental education, the UW Arboretum’s RESTORE Institute can help.

As part of its Earth Partnership for Schools initiative, the RESTORE Institute trains teachers how to engage their students with the local ecosystem. Funded in part by grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service, the nationally acclaimed program features one- and two-week seminars where teachers from around the country learn about ecosystem restoration on school grounds.

“The exciting thing about the RESTORE program is, teachers return to their home communities and continue implementing what they’ve learned,” says Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, program manager for Earth Partnership for Schools. “And we keep working with them. We’re on-call for site consultations, in-services or to help students with planting days.”

In August, the UW Arboretum plans to hold a RESTORE Leadership Institute just for Dane County schools. “We want to make sure we keep the local connection strong,” says Bauer-Armstrong.

Thoreau, Lincoln, Frank Allis, Olson and Chavez are among the elementary schools that have sent teams of teachers to the RESTORE Institute.

Even if the district can’t pay for such opportunities, Peterson would at least like to identify them for teachers. He sees the university and local nature centers as good resources for teacher training.

“This district is above others, as far as its overall commitment to environmental education,” says Peterson. “That being said, there are teachers who live and breathe outdoor learning, and those who don’t.”

Dave Spitzer, a retired fourth-grade teacher from Lincoln Elementary, is one who does. In the 18 years he taught at Lincoln, he averaged three to four trips a year to the Madison School Forest, raising the needed money with the help of parents and others.

“Sometimes we’d go out seven times,” says Spitzer, who’s now a member of the board of the Friends of Madison School Forest.

In the late 1990s, Spitzer and his fourth-graders developed a “School Forest Guidebook,” touted as ‘for kids, by kids.’ In simple language, the booklet’s 10 chapters explain how kids should prepare for their first visit, and some of the plants and animals to expect. One chapter — Writings of the school forest — weaves this outdoor experience into the language arts curriculum.

“Over the years, we kept track of changes over time (phenology) in meter-sized quadrants,” says Spitzer. “The same four or five kids would have the same quadrant. They’d sit and notice what was happening all around them. Decomposition. Animals. Insects. Quadrants are a common study practice, in biology.”

He may be retired, but Spitzer is far from done. He’s started a blog: www.educatorfuture.blogspot.com, to inspire teachers to “think about environmental connections with your curricular year.” The site includes environmental education sources, organizations and places to go, along with Spitzer’s feisty commentary about the urgency of “Earth Ed.”

“Everybody has got to jump into this,” Spitzer says, eyes widening behind his glasses. “The problems facing our kids are huge. The best we can do is learn what the earth has to teach us, and adapt.”

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