Three Chewonki Outdoor Classroom educators, Conor Burke, Hannah Marshall, and Connor Phillips, sit on the front porch of the Center for Environmental Education, waiting for a group of middle school students from Massachusetts to arrive. They’re chatting and joking; fun moves through the group like electricity. But behind this seemingly relaxed moment lurks anticipation spiced with a bit of terror.
“The first program of the season is always an ice-breaker,” says Marshall. “As soon as I’m with the students, I remember: I know how to do this! And then everything’s fine. If you don’t get excited about the outdoors and kids, this isn’t the job for you.”
A bus will soon appear, and out of it will spring a new group of students, teachers, and chaperones committed to a four-day immersive stay at Chewonki, known as an “encampment.” Some will be eager and excited; others hesitant and shy; and couple, recalcitrant. Burke, Marshall and Phillips are only a few of the 14 educators that make up the Chewonki Outdoor Classroom staff, and over the next few days it will be their responsibility to guide and encourage these students as they put up tents, learn to cook meals over a campfire, dive into ecology lessons, help each other through the challenge course.
The emotional and physical challenges of a four-day encampment are real. Some participants are away from home for the first time, while most have never camped overnight before. Anxiety about unfamiliar food, using a privy, and encountering the Chewonki way of hands-on instruction, all amount to a big shift for those accustomed to classroom lessons.
“Nearly every student faces some kind of personal challenge in our program,” says Burke. “They may see the natural world through a completely different lens than we do.” While he views the mud flats as an ecosystem, “Some local children know them as the place their parents go to work every day [clamming or worming].” Meanwhile, for children from urban schools, a saltwater peninsula can be an unnerving foreign territory, full of unknown plants, animals, and biomes.
Successfully leading a group of students through these initial challenges and teaching them to enjoy the pleasures and rituals of camping requires patience and grit.
“Some students have never had to wash dishes before, much less wash them in a bucket of salt water,” Marshall says. “This is definitely not ‘glamping,’” adds Phillips with a smile.
Thinking back on the high points of his time with Chewonki Outdoor Classroom, Phillips recalls a student with learning differences who said that it had been “the best week of his life.” He also remembers sitting around the campfire with a group on the last night of a recent encampment. The students had just finished playing a game and were in high spirits. He asked them to talk about what they’d learned about themselves at Chewonki.
“Every single student spoke…articulately, genuinely, thoughtfully,” Phillips says. They didn’t dish out cliches; their reflections were very personal, very real. There were so many successful moments.”
Learning is not a spectator sport in the outdoors. Everyone gets involved. One student said, “Most of my classmates hadn’t heard me speak” before the group had spend their week at Chewonki. Another declared that she was going to get her family involved in composting when she returned home. These moments are pure gold for Phillips, Marshall, Burke, and the other Chewonki Outdoor Classroom leaders. Moments make their hearts beat a little faster as they wait for the next group of students to arrive.
“We allow them to redefine themselves,” says Marshall. “In this setting, there are new ways to show yourself.” Preconceptions tend to fall away when everyone is wading through a salt marsh, paddling canoes against the wind, or cooking breakfast by an open fire in a rainy morning on the coast of Maine.
About Chewonki Outdoor Classroom
Chewonki Outdoor Classroom provides a life-changing experience in nature for students and school groups, building personal resilience, and giving them tools they need to create and sustain healthy, thriving communities. We do this through a unique combination of outdoor living experiences on the coast of Maine, team-building challenges, ecological study, and an introduction to the concepts behind systems-thinking and sustainability.
For more information, please visit: https://outdoorclassroom.chewonki.org