|Trip to Pike’s Peak (www.facebook.com/SITWAlumni)|
From Santa Fe we headed north toward the mountains. We were welcomed to Colorado Springs, CO by Kim and Robert Krompegal who Camden and I met and became friends with during our time teaching together at Roong Aroon School in Thailand. Again, I feel like I can’t say it enough, but we are so blessed to have such loving friends who have welcomed us into their homes and supported us along this journey. We would not be able to do it without these incredible people! It was during our time with Kim and Robert that they mentioned a school that might be aligned with our holistic school exploration. They helped us connect with a teacher from School in the Woods, a good friend of theirs named Pat. We had the chance to connect with Pat and his wife over dinner and the following day we arranged with the director of the school, Jonathan Wuerth. Jonathan graciously offered not only several precious hours of his day to give us a tour of the school and chat with us, but also allowed us to observe the children in some of their schools’ quintessential activities which the school offers (such as Wikitown, which I will get to…) and interact with some students.
School in the Woods is unique in that it is a school for only 4th grade students. It is technically considered a program in the school as it is part of the district 20 Colorado Springs Public School system. When students approach the 4th grade, they have a choice of coming to School in the Woods for one year, or staying in with their current school. The school has a natural science integrated curriculum and brings students, known as naturalists, to actively engage in outdoor learning and gain a deep respect for the natural world. There are only 78 spots available each year and since between 150-200 children apply, they hold a lottery to determine who will be admitted. In so many ways School in the Woods is providing a deep and meaningful opportunity for these 4th graders at a pivotably point in their lives. Jonathan explained that there are still some challenges to making this approach to education more accessible and diverse. Even though the program is situated within the public school district, which makes it free for all families who are accepted, many from minority families don’t know about this rare opportunity. Even if they do learn about it, enrolling is still daunting or unfeasible because their are more steps involved with getting to the bus that goes to SITW. They opt to stay in their current school choice because there are more direct buses to the local school in their neighborhood. This is an underlying complication caused by a greater infrastructure. Learning about this dilemma from Jonathan really encouraged us to reflect on the pursuit for equity in education. It is most often the case that the sort of schools we have been exploring are costly private schools that have a student population of mostly white, upper class children. Even in the case when we find a public school offering such a program, there are still challenges to making it truly accessible, equitable, and diverse.
Jonathan was open and candid as he shared much with us about the school’s challenges and triumphs. One such success has been “Wikitown,” a student created village in the woods (just a small part of the school’s 640 acres) that is made up of a series of “wikiups” (shelters built from branches and sticks). The students collaborate to construct their wikiups and establish their own bartering system to self govern and play each day in Wikitown. The children use corn as a type of currency and they were constantly on the look out for robbers. One question that arose for me was if exclusivity ever appeared as the children would form groups belonging to a particular wikiup. When I asked one student about this, she replied, “We never turn anyone away, everyone is welcome because they can help you.” The children saw the value in one another and were so accepting and supportive of their peers.
This quality in the students was supported by the activities and structure of the day. Jonathan explained that in directing the school, he was deliberate about putting specific parameters in place that would encourage a sense of community among all the naturalists. For example, the children are assigned groups each week and they sit with their group during different parts of the day, such as during lunch. The group knows their picnic table based on the color of the painted bird house in the center of the table. This gives the students a chance to meet and connect with different peers each week. One student commented to me, “I think I know everyone’s name here. I mean, that’s the most important thing, connection and relationships.” I was left a bit speechless when she said this to me, I was tempted to introduce her to this blog and recommend she just take it over. Her words were so simple, authentic, and heartfelt.
Another practice of the school that clearly contributed to a sense of community was that the children all had jobs that they were responsible for. These again were in small groups that rotated each week. Such tasks included taking care of the compost, recycling, opening and closing the windows, and a meteorologist and astrologist who would make announcements at the end of the day. I asked one student how she felt about these chores and she said, “Work is fun, we never say no, it’s fun.” There is a sense of ownership that accompanies this practice, a feeling that we are all a part of this school and take responsibility for it. Another job was that the students would dismiss everyone from lunch table by table. Several students stood at the front of the lunch area and lead this dismissal process with confidence. It was at this point that Jonathan turned to us and said, “I feel like they could run this place by themselves.” This expression of trust in his students was touching and deeply meaningful.
It is also hard to share about School in the Woods without talking about the school’s dedication and connection to the natural world. The day after our visit, the whole school was taking a trip to Pike’s Peak to explore and spend time observing different ecosystems. However, since the school is located in such a rich natural setting, their first priority is to know the land they are on. A common expression from Jonathan was, “Keep wondering, Naturalists.” He encourages an ongoing sense of wonder and curiosity about nature. For example, the students choose a solo spot at the start of the year and they will return to that spot each season to see how things change. In his words, “When you learn about things, you care about them. We immerse children in the natural world as they are the future decision makers.” He wanted the children to know and care about nature so they would be invested in caring for it throughout their lives. We had an interesting discussion about sustainability that connects to this theme. As we observed some children weeding their garden of radishes, spinach, and kale, Jonathan noted that sustainability is challenging. Who will take care of the garden? Who will follow through year after year once I’m gone? On a small scale within many schools this is a struggle, but reflects a similar struggle in our greater society as we see fewer and fewer members of our world deeply engaged in the natural world and committed to taking care of it. Jonathan hopes that he can help create lifelong naturalists, individuals who care about the natural world and want to take care of it. But in his vision, being a naturalist is more than that too, it is also about caring for each other.
This ultimately leads to a greater understanding of education and essentially what we mean by holistic development. When we first met Jonathan, he asked us what we meant by holistic education. I shared my understanding of the term and even though the school doesn’t identify as holistic, it most certainly is. There is an attention to the whole development of children which is brought about by insightful teachers, engagement with nature, and well rounded practices that aim to address the whole child. Just as Jonathan expressed, it’s not just about learning the science curriculum, but also creating naturalists who respect themselves, others, and nature. Pat introduced us to the mood meter in his classroom and a student expressed her feelings by pointing to where she was on this visual representation of various moods. When the children have access to tools like this that are used regularly by students and teachers alike, it supports self-awareness and emotional well-being. Pat and Jonathan also both shared that while they have the fourth graders for the year, they value the students interests and ideas and encourage them to continue to advocate for themselves when they return to 5th grade in the mainstream setting. There is even a daily mindfulness walk that all the students join first thing in the morning once they arrive on campus. Jonathan leads everyone on various paths for about a quarter of a mile, simply walking together in silence. Then the day concludes with a whole school gathering in which teachers and students join together in a beautiful song celebrating the natural world.
We want to extend a huge gesture of gratitude to Jonathan for his time and passionate discussion of the school. His journey to this program, from teaching 550 children “science on a cart,” to initiating an innovative and heartfelt program that has changed the lives of countless “naturalists” is an inspiration to educators everywhere. If you see something that isn’t working, do something to make a difference, advocate for a better way! This is something I learned from Jonathan’s story. If you have been keeping up with our journey, you will know that we ask all the educators we meet to share a gesture to convey the essence of the school. Jonathan’s gesture was one that he does everyday as the children enter the school building after their mindfulness walk. He kneels down and makes eye contact with every student as he shakes their hand. It was lovely to know that the gesture he choose to represent the essence of School in the Woods is a gesture that he literally embodies each day. Our gratitude for this journey grows tenfold with every visit, it is a gift to be in the presence of incredible educators and places that are truly nourishing the whole being.