I had the honor of attending the Georgia Green Strides Tour 2017 with Andrea Falken of the U.S. Department of Education and Keisha Ford-Jenrette of the Georgia Department of Education, and numerous other national, state and local partners. We rode a van to some of the school sites that had been honored over the years as U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. This year’s two-day tour focused on the theme “Taking Learning Outside,” and covered a wide range of approaches.
Our first stop, Pharr Elementary, had surveyed its teachers to learn their challenges in teaching and turned those into active, outdoors learning opportunities, which include hands-on outdoors learning modules to learn social studies lessons among the branches of a courtyard tree, various language arts rock gardens, as well as alphabet, word and numbers incorporated into garden pathways and signage.
At our second stop, Mason Elementary students were working toward answering the driving question of “How can we, as entrepreneurs, create a company to consistently produce enough to donate to the local community?” Students used their extensive hydroponics and aquaponics lab to determine which growing method might yield the greatest output. They also got dirty in an outdoor classroom pavilion and handicap-accessible raised garden beds.
Our third stop, High Meadows School, demonstrated its commitment to outdoor learning from its founding principles. Students take advantage of a large outdoor play area, “The Meadow,” featuring a tire swing, natural play areas for digging and tree climbing, outdoor boat and dragon constructions, monarch waystations, native plantings, a stick fort, a retired train car turned office space and playing fields in which the various grades learn cooperation and collaboration during all-school outdoors time. Students also learn to care for goats, chickens and horses under the skilled guidance of a full-time animal husbandry instructor.
Ford Elementary was our last stop on day one and demonstrated a tremendous ability to sustain and even grow an outdoor learning program over more than 20 years. Teachers explained how by letting students drive learning, there is always something new to discover and add. Each year, students have studied various areas of their campus and evaluated how to make it a safer and healthier place to learn. This has led to students creating numerous outdoor classrooms, learning gardens, a compost station, a boardwalk to the site where they test stream water, trails, chicken coops, as well as dozens of other smaller outdoor projects, utilizing nearly every bit of outdoor space.
Morningside Elementary kicked off day two, a day which featured the more urban schools in Atlanta. Students at this school demonstrated their mindful, sustainability learning through their drum circle, work with a master gardener and learning from local business partners who offer cooking demonstrations and taste testing in the outdoor amphitheater cooking station.
On limited land in an historic neighborhood, The Paideia School demonstrates a useful model for urban farming at campuses constrained by space. The full-time urban gardener and several part-time staff lead students to farm neighbors’ who volunteer their unused lands and successfully produce food in the city. How waste fits into this work is kept on the minds of these students with compost and recycling bins placed throughout the campus. The school hosts an annual zero-waste dinner for the community and features an amphitheater, fire truck climbing structure, monarch waystations and fairy garden, among other outdoor learning tools.
Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School leverages its outdoor space to teach about healthy, local foods and cooking. The dedicated chef and school farmer work with students to learn about how food is grown and prepared, the benefits of local purchasing and how sustainable, healthy nutrition impacts students’ bodies and minds. Students’ palates are thoughtfully broadened and the menu is coordinated with the curriculum. Students took part in the publication of a cookbook with some of their favorite recipes.
At our last stop, Georgia Institute of Technology, a 2016 Postsecondary Sustainability Awardee, we learned more about GIT’s Serve-Learn-Sustain initiative, which is engaging students from all of the colleges on campus to give back to their community. Students have focused learning beyond the boundaries of their college campus and are using the skills they have of collecting data to engage the community in the solutions, such as how to reduce carbon emissions and study population diversity in the area.
Suzanne Haerther is Community Project Manager at the U.S. Green Building Council – Georgia.