Maine teachers visit Agnes Gray outdoor classroom

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About 15 educators from across the state toured the Agnes Gray Elementary School's removed their shoes and spent about an hour in the school's outdoor classroom learning about the efforts of the school and community-at-large to create the outdoor learning environment. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)

WEST PARIS — Profound, wonderful, fantastic, amazing.

These are only a few of the words that some 15 educators from across Maine used to describe the Agnes Gray Elementary School’s outdoor classroom.

Agnes Gray Elementary School Principal Beth Clarke talks to a group of visiting educators about the school’s outdoor classroom and orchard and trail system during a July 11 visit to the school. (Leslie H. Dixon/ Advertiser Democrat)

The teachers, from all grade levels, came from Ashland, Old Town, Standish, Gray-New Gloucester and other school districts across the state, along with educators from the Maine Audubon Society, to participate in the four-day Forest of Maine’s Teachers Tour last week.

“It’s exactly what kids need. It’s fantastic,” said Henry Whittemore, executive director of Maine TREE Foundation, which advocates and educates for the sustainable use of the forest and the ecological, economic and social health of Maine forest community.

Its mission is realized in part through educational programs such as the Forests of Maine tour for teachers.

The tour bus filled with educators was on a four-day tour of timber harvests and manufacturing plants in southern Maine including properties under the Maine Loon Echo Land Trust. Teachers not only supplement their teaching skills, but are able to earn necessary credit to keep their certification current with the State Department of Education.

Project Learning Tree, an award-winning environmental education program designed for teachers and other educators, parents, and community leaders working with youth from preschool through grade 12, is also involved with the tour.

Informational placards asking and explaining questions such as why is there an orchard here and the role of pollination are placed throughout the school orchard along with the identification of each of the 12  pear, p0lum and apples trees that were provided by the nonprofit program, ReTreeUS. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)

Leaders in both programs and teachers on the tour all had positive comments about the Agnes Gray Outdoor Classroom program.

Pat Mahoney, state coordinator for Project Learning Tree, said there was a great deal of interest in outdoor classrooms from educators statewide and the Agnes Gray outdoor classroom was a must for the tour.

“There’s lots of interest in outdoor classrooms. It was a great presentation, an amazing story,” said Mahoney.

“The Outdoor Classroom Initiative,” is a five-year project supported by the school staff and PTO that resulted in the construction of a 16-foot-by-20-foot outdoor classroom, gardens, a newly developed orchard containing apple, pear and plum trees and a trail system on Berry’s ledge, accessed directly behind the school.

Agnes Gray Elementary School Principal Beth Clarke and Pat Mahoney from Project Learning Tree lead the group of teachers over the bridge and into the woods for a hike along Berry’s Ledge trails located behind the school. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)

The effort has been a collaboration of the school district and the community at large with donations both financial and labor and materials provided including help from Gould Academy’s Reach Out Community Service program, the Oxford Hills Technical High School building trades students, ReTreeUS program that donates fruit trees to schools across the state and many other organizations and individuals.

The Outdoor Classroom Initiative includes the development of four interrelated components: expeditionary-experiential/hands-on-STE(A)M teaching and learning, a physically active and socially healthy recess program, attractive and productive school gardens, and a trail system accessed directly behind the school, according to the initial plan.

No sneakers or shoes are allowed within the outdoor classroom at the Agnes Gray Elementary School to protect the wood floor. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser/Democrat)

The  Initiative enables teachers in the school to build knowledge and skills in all curriculum areas in a way that ensures student engagement that ultimately leads to success, according to information provided by Agnes Gray Principal Beth Clarke.

“Today was incredibly affirming, energizing, collaborative, and also emotional. It made me realize just how important our school vision is for our West Paris children,” said Clarke following the event. “It made me happy to have so many like minded, passionate educators on our doorstep and in our woods and on our trails.”

Educators said they were excited about the ideas exchanged during the presentation given by Clarke inside the Outdoor Classroom.

Pam Dunphey, an Old Town art teacher who works with the local garden and food pantry, and others teachers on the tour said they were inspired by the hours long discussion in the outdoor classroom, a 16- by 20-foot timber-framed structure that serves about 100 students as part of the Outdoor Classroom Initiative.

Educators from across the state exit the outdoor classroom at the Agnes Gray Elementary School after the presentation and discussion to find their sneakers. The timber-framed, pegged building with eight-by-eight trusses and clear roofing has a wavy pine siding. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)

Clarke said many ideas and suggestions were exchanged during the discussion in the classroom.

They included:

  • What the Outdoor Classroom is doing in terms of connecting students to the outdoors through natural  and experiential opportunities  is important and there are many educators in the state of Maine who would like to collaborate with the local effort.
  •  Developing a nature trail with a rotating non-fiction picture book focus has been done in Brunswick and the contact from Maine Audubon will help The Outdoor Classroom educators if they choose to develop one.
  • Educators should try to access another Betterment funded grant.
  •  Bonney Eagle Middle School funds an outdoor education position. The teacher mentioned from that school mentioned Agnes Gary developing a Maine Woodsman and/or Pathfinders program to support curriculum.

    A Nova Spy Apple tree, a disease-resistant apple, developed from Northern Spy and Golden Delicious with a sweet flavor with a slight tang, is one of a dozen fruit trees received from ther ReTreesUS program and planted in May by the students with the help of Richard Hodges, ReTreeUS Program Manager.(Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)
  • Clarke said she has a number of new new ideas for the grades 4-6 elective possibilities.
  •  Have each classroom take charge of managing a section of trail.
  •  Learn and teach the history of the landscape (social studies).
  •  Take a walk and collect items in nature to be used for art.
  •  Explore the possibility of establishing some geocaching/orienteering destinations.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net