Three buses emblazoned with “Cape Elizabeth School System” roll up to the Chewonki Center for Environmental Education and the bus doors snap open to release 114 sixth-graders and 12 chaperones from Cape Elizabeth Middle School, just south of Portland. This is the 33rd year that Cape Elizabeth middle-schoolers have come to the Chewonki Outdoor Classroom. They will be here for four days and three nights immersed in an adventure that includes sleeping in tents, cooking over a campfire, and spending the days outdoors, learning, team-building, and having fun.
Cape’s positive energy is like a spell of great weather; Outdoor Classroom instructors look forward to it. “It’s a fantastic school group,” says Katie Yakubowski, Outdoor Classroom’s co-coordinator with Tanner Shepherd. “They have so much positive energy. We have a great time with them.”
On the second day of the visit, several Cape teachers here as chaperones take a mid-morning break while their students are busy with Outdoor Classroom instructors. In the Center for Environmental Education kitchen, they hold cups of tea and coffee as they swap notes about their students. Sixth-grade math and science teacher Josh Chase has just finished making eggs, sausage, and hash browns with his students. Today they will be climbing on the Challenge Course, learning how to use a map and compass, exploring the farm, and helping with farm chores.
“How’s she doing? She made it through the night okay?“ one teacher asks about a student. School nurse Jill Young replies, “She’s doing great,” and they exchange smiles. Young “really rocked it, and made it possible for a couple of the students to come, ” says Yakubowski.
Although some students feel nervous before and at the start of this program. “Most of ours were completely ready to go,” says Chase, who has chaperoned the Outdoor Classroom expedition each of the four years that he has been teaching at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.
Some schools come to the Outdoor Classroom to enhance classroom learning but Cape Elizabeth’s goals are self-discovery and teambuilding. “Cape is really competitive educationally,” Chase explains. “It can overwhelm the students sometimes. This is a way to dial back a bit and think about becoming a better person and caring about each other…We’re less concerned about academics here than we are about getting kids in the dirt, hands-on…We’re here to help them grow some empathy for one another” and engage in individual and group work that is “building resilience, preparing them to meet challenges. The hope is that as they go along in life, this will be an anchor experience to come back to in their minds…I do think these experiences have a lasting effect.”
Math and science teacher Charlie Carroll has accompanied Cape students to the Outdoor Classroom for the past 10 years. When he was a middle-school student on his Cape Elizabeth Outdoor Classroom trip, his chaperone was Joe Doane, a longtime Cape teacher who came for 32 years (this year, he took a well-deserved pass). Carroll in turn chaperoned Joe Doane’s son, Joe Doane, Jr., to the Outdoor Classroom when he was a student. Now the younger Doane is also a Cape Elizabeth Middle School teacher, and he, too, is on Chewonki Neck with the students this week.
Carroll tries to put into words Outdoor Classroom’s benefits to students. “At this age, they are all about themselves,” he says. “When you are camping, working together and having fun together outdoors, the barriers break down. Kids come together. They develop more empathy, they look more inside and outside of themselves. And when they get back to regular school, they have a lot of connections with each other…If we could do more of it, school would be better. Chewonki is a big, big change. Here, they are put into a situation where a sense of community happens naturally–they’re part of a small group, no distractions, no social media…” Several teachers chime in to say how detrimental they feel social media is to their students’ state of mind.
Chase, who grew up in Maine, remembers, “I spent all of my free time outdoors when I was a kid. That doesn’t happen much now. I don’t know how many of these kids play outside a lot. When we go to the Frog Pond here, I realize that very few have caught a frog before.”
“When we go back to school, you see kids who didn’t connect beforehand saying things like, ‘Oh, he was in my Chewonki group!’ Sitting around the fire together gives them a deeper sense of connection with each other–everyone in their group,” he says. “It’s deep in the Cape culture.”
Indeed, the Cape Elizabeth community both inside and outside of the school provide essential support for the annual Outdoor Classroom pilgrimage. When the sixth-graders head for the bus to Chewonki, seventh- and eighth-grade students, Outdoor Classroom veterans themselves, line up to give them a rousing send-off. When the younger students return, signs saying “Welcome back!” line the street to the school.
Cape Elizabeth’s Outdoor Classroom experience is possible because of support from the Middle School Parents Association and the Community Education Fund (CEF) (which helps students carry out fundraisers such as the bottle redemption initiative called Clynk) to offset Outdoor Classroom’s cost. “Cape Elizabeth has been coming to Chewonki since 1986,” points of Yakubowski. “They have sent thousands of kids through the Outdoor Classroom program and are very dedicated…It is a huge effort, both financially and logistically, to take a class of this size on a camping trip. They work really hard to make it happen. “
Dedicated? That’s for sure. Teacher Laura Briggs works with the Middle School Parents Association, and she is here with a broken back healing from a December accident. She can’t carry a backpack but wanted to share this experience with her students. “I got better in the nick of time,” she says, all smiles.
The teachers take a final swallow of tea or coffee, gather their gear, and set out to connect with their student groups and the Outdoor Classroom instructors. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
(Postscript: On Friday, after the last Cape Elizabeth Middle School student had said good-bye and boarded the bus, Katie Yakubowski reflected on what is to an Outdoor Classroom instructor is the greatest possible compliment: “The students didn’t want to leave!” )