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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Working Together in the Woods

5th grade students at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, have been participating in ECO longer than any other group of children.  They were the first.  Starting in Kindergarten, they have been using the green spaces of Montpelier as an extension of their classroom every other week, for going on 6 years.  These kids are the ECO pros.  So, this past Monday when I told them that they where going to do something that they have never done in ECO before, most were more than a little skeptical.

Unlike most other ECO schools, Union Elementary and Main Street Middle School don't have their own forest on school grounds.  Instead, we have to walk a solid 25 minutes to access the woods of Hubbard Park.  Since it is a public park, we must be considerate of other park users and follow the park's rules and guidelines.  This means that creating permanent fire pits or building large firewood shelters that would stay up indefinitely (both hallmarks of your typical ECO base camp) would not be possible.  Although these 5th grade students have been going out for ECO longer than anyone else, they have not had the experience of walking into a base camp that they have built themselves.  So, not surprisingly, there was a wave of excitement when students learned that this year they will be selecting and building their own base camp. 

Now, we did have to make accommodations and  alterations to our typical idea of an ECO "base camp" in order for it to work in the public park setting. For instance, instead of a fire pit, we created a fire safety circle made of small logs that we can place a portable fire pit into, allowing us to have Leave No Trace fires.  Also, to give our space a bit more of that camp feel, students decided to move large logs into a circle to serve as benches around our portable fire pit.  This is where we would hold our morning meeting at the start of every ECO session, where we would eat our snacks and lunches, and where we would hold our debrief and closing circle at the end of every day.  To the average passerby, this camp would be nothing more than a few logs laying on the ground in the forest.  But to these students, it will be their ECO home.
5th grade students working together to lift a 20 foot log
I was amazed at the tremendous teamwork that these students displayed in not only the building of their camp, but also in the site selection process.  We split into two scouting parties, each covering a different section of the forest.  As a class, they had created a list of criteria for a quality base camp site.  It had to be relatively flat, have little vegetation that would be in danger of getting trampled, be large enough to fit the entire class comfortably, and be free of dead falls and widow makers.  Each scouting party located at least one solid potential site, presented it to the other group, listing pros and cons of each space, and then voted on it as a class.  Majority ruled and the campsite had been chosen, without hard feelings or argument.

Once the site had been selected, students immediately went to work clearing sticks and logs out of the central meeting area, and moving in larger logs for the benches.  On young lady found a log approximately 20 feet in length and enlisted her seven of her friends in transporting the log to our circle of benches.  When they realized that the log was far too long for the space, again they worked together in problem solving.  After some brief deliberation, we decided to safely break the log by wedging it between two strong, living trees that were growing close together and pulling on it like a lever, creating a simple machine to do the hard work for us.

1st and 2nd graders working together to pull down a hazardous tree in their base camp
Similar teamwork was also on display at the ECO base camp at Moretown Elementary School.  This time it was 1st and 2nd graders who were working together to make their base camp a safer place.  Moretown is lucky enough to have the town forest located directly behind their school and have had an established base camp on top of the forested hill for several years.  However, over those years, more and more trees have been dying back, beginning the decomposition process while still standing upright.  While this may make for excellent woodpecker habitat, it becomes a serious hazard when a 30 foot dead spruce tree is standing right in the middle of base camp!  So, with a climbing rope over 100 feet in length, and using a pully to wrap around a strong living tree for added leverage and increased safety, these young ECO students set out to make their camp a safer place for all.  

First, a teacher inspected the tree to ensure that it would be safe to pull down and not run the risk of being hung up in another tree, thus creating another hazard.  Then, the teacher tied a loop around the tree while the students watched from a safe distance. Once the rope was secure and fed through the pully, students took their position.  After a countdown from ten, students pulled all together.  The tree moved... but didn't come down.  

We counted down again.  Pulled.  A little more movement... no timber.  

We counted down one last time, this time deciding to pull back and forth, building momentum.  

Pull, relax, pull, relax, pull, relax.  

The tree cracked.  

PULL! relax, PULL! relax, PULLLL!!!  TIMBER!!!  The tree was down and base camp became a safer place to learn.

Elsewhere in the ECO universe, teachers at Hyde Park Elementary were gearing up for their ECO year.  There were three veteran ECO teachers and three teacher new to the program.  To help bring everyone up to speed and on the same page, we held an adult ECO session for just the teachers.  We went through the same core routines that they would be leading their students through, beginning with a team building challenge called "River Crossing."  The object of this challenge is to get your team from once side of the "river" to the other.  The catch is that there are only one pair of hip waders, and everyone can only use them twice.  If you try to cross without using the waders, you drown and your team starts over.  Oh, and you only have 5 minutes to come up with and execute your strategy, starting... now!  I usually give students more time, but these were teachers.  They could handle it.  

As a team, they quickly decided that the best strategy would be for one person to carry another across, hand over the waders and send the carried person back to pick up the next team member.  Repeat until everyone has safely crossed.  It was a fairly simple challenge, but it put the teachers in the role of the student, active and engaged in the activity.  This will be important as they go through the ECO year, engaging and learning alongside their students.  
After a few more activities in the forest, we were rewarded with a special visitor.  Again, we were all placed back into the role of the student, working and learning together with nature as our teacher.