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Oxford Elementary tries new approach at Roberts Farm
NORWAY — On a recent afternoon, a group of around 25 rambunctious fifth graders were spread out across the outdoor classroom at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway.
The students, from Oxford Elementary, are pioneering a new program this year, piggybacking on the middle school summer program's success. Teachers, health advocates and administrators hope to make the Roberts Farm site an essential part of education in SAD 17.
Three fifth-grade classes are hosted at the site from 9:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. between Monday and Wednesday.
After an initial group activity, the students split into small groups and rotate through activities that emphasise team-building, gardening, fitness and nutrition.
Students also have lunch, featuring fresh food from the farm's garden – a recipe for kale chips turned out to be a big hit, even though few of the students had ever heard of the leafy vegetable.
The program connects the fifth grade's life-cycle science curriculum to activities at the farm, says Food Corps member Dan Rennie.
On their first visit to the Farm, Rennie had students choose a "plant buddy" – a vegetable, fruit or flower to follow and learn about in the coming months.
Rennie says that the plant buddy concept gives the students a physical way to interpret the life-cycle.
"They're studying decomposition and composting and energy transference," Rennie says.
"Having it framed in a real-life application ... I think makes it much more interesting and much more engaging for them."
Most students seem excited about their plant buddy choices – one girl has picked nasturtium, an edible flower.
Other popular choices include pumpkin and Sun Gold tomatoes, which also appear to be a hit with the student's taste buds.
SAD 17 Health Coordinator Pat Carson explains that the program intends to connect to other parts of the fifth-grade curriculum, particularly language arts.
Students will be drawing on their experience at the farm to craft persuasive essays and creative writing pieces, a key component of fifth-grade English.
As Oxford Elementary Principal Kim Ramharter explained at a school board meeting in September, Oxford's fifth-grade class faces some challenges.
"We have a fifth-grade that all along has definitely had some gaps in their learning and behavior issues that go along with that," Ramharter told the board.
Earlier this month, Ramharter said the same challenges could be found in any school. She says the fifth grade has been working with Carson on health and fitness education and were an ideal fit for the new program.
So far, Ramharter says, the experience has worked out – students come back to school energized and excited.
According to Carson, some students who may struggle in the classroom might thrive at the farm.
He says a survey conducted by a teacher of one fifth-grade class found 75 percent of students were kinesthetic learners – they learned better by doing physical activity.
"Kids in Oxford, they 'get' hands-on stuff. They get farming, they get building, they get hiking, they understand that," Carson says.
"From that standpoint, this type of learning works perfectly."
Teacher Gail Stetson says she had some mixed feelings about the Roberts Farm idea at first but has come to appreciate the idea.
In the past, she taught the ecosystem curriculum to students with soda bottle topiaries – now, she can use physical, real-world examples.
"The natural learning experiences that happen that we can't create in the classroom I think is helping them to get excited about their science," she says.
Stetson also hopes their time at the farm will help student's with non-fiction writing – if they connect with their experience, they might translate that onto the page.
Breaking the students into smaller groups allows Stetson to concentrate on individual students, a luxury she doesn't have in the classroom.
When choosing groups, Stetson can cluster together several students who may be challenged by a particular subject and give them direct assistance.
Overall, Stetson says, she appreciates the opportunities at Roberts Farm, even if the students are still learning that being outside doesn't mean they aren't still in school.
The current program at Roberts Farm is a "design in motion," Carson says.
The program evolves as teachers discover new ways to use the space and bring in different parts of the curriculum – adding writing, social studies and mathematics to the original focus on nutrition, science and fitness.
Even the end date of the program is uncertain. Ramharter thinks the students might take a break over the winter and return for another period during the spring, but even that is up in the air.
Carson is encouraged by the enthusiasm for using Roberts Farm and hopes other schools will look to using the site.
"For a school in this district to do this? This is really creative," says Carson. "This is very outside the box."
OUTDOOR CLASSROOM — Fifth grade students from Oxford Elementary talk with Food Corps member Dan Rennie on a recent afternoon at Roberts Farm Preserve. Educators are designing a educational program at the site that emphasises science, nutrition, fitness and teamwork.
SNACKTIME! — Students from Oxford Elementary raid a Sun Gold tomato plant during a recent afternoon at SAD 17's classroom at Roberts Farm.