Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Windy Week in the Woods

Another SOP teaching week has passed us by, leaving the EEC grads exhausted but enthusiastic about how much we've accomplished and learned since our arrival here, now nearly three months ago. Cohort A was joined this week by Madrona Elementary and Bailey Gatzert Elementary, two schools whose students crossed the Sound via ferry to engage in a week of exploration and discovery.

Like all teaching weeks here at IslandWood, this week brought with it enough challenges to test even the most experienced of teachers. Before the sun set on day one, high winds threatened the night hike, an evening activity that involves leading field groups through forest trails without the assitance of flashlights and head lamps. For the students, there is always a mixed reaction to the night hike; some are intimidated by the forest's shadows and seemingly never-ending darkness, while others embrace the challenge and eagerly await the opportunity to experience the outdoors like never before. On this day, though, mother nature breathed down heavily upon us, and the night hike was suspended due to the possibility of high winds. Red Alder trees are notorious for falling during wind storms, and because the night hike's setting embodies a vast forest dotted with Alders, IslandWood staff decided to make safety a priority and consequently adjusted the activity. Field groups played games and participated in typical night hike activities, but all was done in the safety of open fields near campus buildings. Later, several groups ventured inside various campus buildings and continued the evening under the veil of dark classrooms, using only dimly-lit candles for light during storytelling. Although perhaps not ideal, the night hike activities challenged the EEC field instructors to think quickly on their feet, an attribute of which we are all learning the importance.

Each week, two field groups are lucky enough to be able to participate in an activity called Dirt to Dinner. Students are able to work with IslandWood kitchen staff to help prepare meals and snacks for their fellow students using homegrown ingredients, many of which come from IslandWood's own garden. It's a great opportunity for students to learn about what grows in their own back yards and how to buy and cook with local goods. This week's student chefs cooked up quite a feast with a little help from IslandWood staff.

In an exciting twist, this week also saw the creation of a new indoor evening program called Science Fair. The indoor evening program is completed by half of the field groups, while the other half go out in the woods for the night hike. Then, the following evening, the groups switch venues so that everyone is able to complete both the indoor program and the night hike. This week's new creation was credited to Kate and Emily Jane, the school liaisons. The liaisons are EEC grads who take a week off from teaching to take charge of coordinating all of the group activities and behind-the-scenes logistics. The Science Fair program encouraged groups of students to move between various stations and experiment with common household products to gain a better understanding of important scientific principles. It was great to see students engaged in scientific understanding using everyday objects in a way that really reasonated with them. It helped them learn that science is everywhere and that they are scientists, too. Kudos to Kate and Emily Jane for the extended effort!

As always, the week wrapped up with the Wednesday evening campfire at the Friendship Circle, the usual group meeting spot for morning meetings before groups are released for field study. Both schools brought a host of talent this week, with performances that included singing, dancing and poetry reading. It is custom to end the campfire with a slideshow of photos taken throughout the week. The photos show the various field groups engaged in lessons and activities during their stay here at IslandWood, and the night never fails to create excitement within the crowd. Emotions are high as students lament the thought of going home the following morning. It reminds us, the field instructors, why we're here.

For the EEC grads, emotions run high, too, as the holidays draw near. Several grads will be making the long trek home this week and next to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. There are a handful, though, that will stay here and celebrate with our new IslandWood family. We'll have all the usual fixings and a guaranteed good time.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Roughing it in the Woods!

Thank you for visiting! During the past two weeks an amazing amount of growth has taken place. I was fortunate enough to have a partner in crime last week. Danielle, a fellow grad and I team taught, sharing lessons and ideas and inspiring each other to be better instructors in the field. We, (many Cohort Survivor grads) were faced with an incredibly challenging group, a face that presented itself early in our week. The team teaching experience was exemplary, (while not every grad agrees, there are many who welcome the comrade). The support during scheduling and lesson planning was so helpful and the debrief sessions at the end of every day contributed to the maintenance of sanity during the moments of exertion.

A riveting game of tornado in team Marsh pulled a Red Alder from standing to permanently reclined. The incident resulted in a terrified instructor and an unharmed, thoroughly amused student. The majority of the teams seemed to move slower this week and accomplish less in the short time that we have with the students. It is amazing to see the differences between each group that you work with. If you are not familiar with a KWL chart, you will be after a week in the field! Each group has different interests, varied previous experience/knowledge and an array of strengths and areas for improvement. Oddly enough, consistency and flexibility seem to be two of the most important factors to remember and embrace while in the field.

Tuesday night was the most amazing night hike yet. Flashlight-less instructors led their groups through dark, canopy covered trails with a full moon shining down through the branches. A few groups were fortunate enough to witness a meteor dancing through the sky. For many of them it was a first and “life changing” experience. The week continued with challenges and successes. The team’s course is an incredibly enormous moment for the students, teachers, and chaperons. The students are given planning time and after, are invited to attempt the challenge that has been presented to them. Often times they struggle with kindness and tone of voice but it makes for a wonderful debrief afterward.

This past week we did not have any student visitors as all schools in Seattle had Wednesday off to celebrate Veterans Day. Don’t worry though, we were not left without anything to do and a full week to make trouble. Instead we spent the week reviewing the enduring understandings and revisiting classes and projects that may have been put on the back burner because of the intensity of the SOP program. One of the most insightful moments was when three alumni came to speak with us on Tuesday. They shared their experiences both at Islandwood and at the UW. The advice was much appreciated by all of the grads and gave us an idea of what to look forward to and plan for.

Cohort Unicorns welcomed a brand new group of kids off of the buses today. For the next four days they will be imparting their knowledge and love for this beautiful place. Good luck galloping grads!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Halloween Bash and a Fun Liaison Week

Firstly, I want to let everyone know about my personal blog that I'm keeping in addition to this official EEC one. The link is at the top of the list in the right-hand column, but I'll put it here for ease as well: IslandWood Endeavors. I write longer entries on that site that are more specific to my life here at IslandWood and post many more pictures. You are all welcome to follow that blog too, if you'd like!

The amount that is accomplished in a single week here never fails to amaze me. Teaching, learning, and fun make up the trio of elements that somehow manages to always pack itself into 7 days, leaving me weary but filled with eager anticipation to do it all again the very next week.

Last weekend, after the Pumpkin Carving Party that Diana described in the previous entry, the grads threw a raucous Halloween party in the Commons. The costumes were creative to say the least, including a roller skating tooth fairy (my fellow blogger, Ally), multiple characters from the Rattlin' Bog song (a tree, a tick, a Douglas squirrel), Malice-in-Wonderland (Alice gone bad...), School Overnight Program leftover queen (graham crackers, pretzel sticks, corn chips, oh my!), Green Peace, a flamingo, and a giant banana. Needless to say, we had a grand ol' time and danced, sang, and laughed into the wee hours of the night as our jack-o-lanterns carved the previous evening glowed around us.

Last week was my first week liaisoning, a term we've coined here at IslandWood for lack of a better one to describe being on active liaison duty for a week of the School Overnight Program (SOP). Roxhill Elementary, the school that I've built a liaison relationship with through leading an IslandWood orientation presentation for the students, teaching pre-lessons about ecosystems, and running an informational meeting for the parents, all at their school in West Seattle, finally brought their 5th graders for their week at IslandWood.  This meant that I, along with two other grads whose liaison schools were here also, were the go-to leaders of the week for the schools' teachers, chaperones, students, and IslandWood instructors. Our responsibilities were varied, from jumping on the buses when the students first arrived to get them pumped up about the week, to helping pass out rain jackets and fleece hats to students who needed to borrow them, to leading songs about decomposers, banana slugs and moose every morning and evening, to running Wednesday night campfire, to delivering special food to kids with dietary restrictions in the dining hall, to making sure everyone had what they needed at all times.

It was a big job to say the least, but immensely enjoyable since all of the kids knew my name, shouted greetings to me whenever I passed, and begged me to sing songs with them whenever they saw me on the trails or around campus.  Being a liaison was certainly a different role than being an instructor. I had to lead more than 100 kids at a time during Friendship Circle gatherings, evening programs, and the campfire as opposed to only being in charge of 7-12 kids as an instructor, but it wasn't nearly as scary as my nerves had built it up to be before the week started. I gained many large group management skills and learned to love the thrill of debriefing activities with a huge group and singing like my life depended on it with the voices of all those kids joining in.

Especially inspiring was the professional development session that the liaisons did with the teachers on Wednesday morning.  It's a time when the teachers can hear about ideas IslandWood has for continuing projects and environmental lessons back at their schools with the help of their liaisons. Two of the three teachers that were here last week attended the session and the ideas that flew around the room during the three hour session were so encouraging! Plans for community improvement projects, school composting systems, and neighborhood native plant guides were all discussed, and even more exciting were the plans that were made between the two teachers from different schools to bring the students from one school to the other school for a field trip to explore a local bog, do a nature-themed art project, and learn about the student-run recycling and compost program they have.  The teachers were so thrilled with this plan they could hardly contain themselves and the liaison from the other school and myself can't wait to join them for this joint school adventure! It made saying goodbye to the kids at the end of the week a whole lot easier since I could say that I was going to see them in just two weeks for more environmental fun!

That's basically the report for now. I spent the weekend visiting family in Portland (just 4 hours away!) and am now back for a week of midterm professional development, filled with lots of interesting trainings and classes. I also have a sniffly cold, but what do you expect from an educator who's around a different batch of kids every week in the drizzly Pacific Northwest? ; )

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Learning to Fly

Look outside your window and you'll see the trees turning vibrant shades of rust. The days are getting shorter, and the weather colder, the air brisker. It's already the first of November, and the days are flying by. Cohort A just finished the second week of solo teaching with Emerald Heights Elementary, a local school in Silverdale that brings sixth graders every year. It was a great week for the Cohort A graduate instructors--the dynamic that accompanies teaching older students brought a heightened level of excitement as the week began on Monday morning.

My role was that of the school liaison, which means that I was in charge of logistical planning for group activities throughout the week. Acting as liaison is a great change of pace from field instruction, and it offers a host of new challenges, as well. The week began by opening Friendship Circle with introductions and then lunch, which included brief lessons in recycling and composting, two practices that are key components of all meals here at IslandWood. After a quick review of schedules, rules and other logistics, we introduced the students to the IslandWood experience with a rousing rendition of the Banana Slug song. I donned the banana slug costume, to the amusement of 101 laughing, excited sixth graders. The remainder of the afternoon was spent distributing rain gear to the students. As a life-long Mid-Westerner, I'm quickly learning the importance of good rain gear here in the Pacific Northwest.

Throughout the rest of the week, my liaison duties varied from filling water jugs near the harbor for student fill-ups to facilitating the evening program, Ecosystems Challenge, and leading morning Friendship Circle meetings. Each day I led songs and brief lessons for the entire group of students, a task that at first seemed a little daunting; but as the week progressed, I found myself eagerly awaiting the responsibility of leading the morning Friendship Circle songs and facilitating the debrief discussion during evening programs. By the end of the week, I had become surprisingly comfortable in front of large groups.

As it always does, the week ended with Wednesday night campfire. For the students, this is seemingly the long-awaited, much-anticipated apex of the entire week; for the moment it is announced early in the week, the buzz about skit-planning can be heard throughout the field groups and within the students' lodges. It was a great show, with plenty of amazing performances by students and grad instructors, alike. There was no shortage of smiles and laughter, and the evening ended with the routine slide show of photos taken during field instruction. The kids love this part, as it highlights them as the stars of the show and serves as a reminder of their incredible accomplishments during their time here at IslandWood.

The grad instructors ended the week with a pumpkin carving party graciously hosted by our very own Emily. It served as a relaxing and fun night with our fellow grads, and one in which creative juices flowed freely in the spirit of Halloween. There was great food, amazing music and an array of exquisitely-carved pumpkins. After a long and tiring but rewarding week, it was just the R&R we needed.

This was a great week, and we look forward to many more to come. Our time here is just beginning, and there's so much more yet to unfold. In the words of a wise soul, "my golly, there's something incredible going on here."

Stay tuned for more!