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Buckfield students experience 'authentic learning' outdoors
HAMMERIN' AWAY — Seventh graders Hunter Hodgdon and Catelyn Blanchette put finishing touches on the base of the new outdoor classroom at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School.
BUCKFIELD — "I'm one of those types, I'd rather be on a job site than at school," says Hunter Hodgdon as he lines up a new nail.
Hunter, a seventh grader at Buckfield Junior-Senior High, is working on the base of the school's new outdoor classroom.
Even though he's more comfortable with a hammer in his hands than a calculator, Hunter says working on the site allows him to apply classroom lessons to the real world.
"In math class we've been learning about graphs and stuff, so we had to graph the whole thing," Hunter says.
Hunter's classmates, eagerly pounding nails into the wooden deck, are equally grateful for a break from the school building.
"You're not sitting in a stuffy classroom all day," says Seneca Jacobs.
Right now, the outside classroom is still a 20- by 24-foot wooden platform. It sits next to the school's 1.2 acre vegetable garden.
In the next few weeks, a team of volunteers and students will raise beams, a roof and a northern wall on the building.
Seneca is particularly excited to use the classroom for science and math – her favorite subjects.
"In science we do a lot of stuff with the garden," she says. "It'd be nice to have a classroom right next to it instead of having to go inside."
From inception, the classroom has been a student effort, says seventh grade teacher Gretchen Kimball.
Last year Kimball and fellow teacher Annette Caldwell received a national agriculture education award for their work on the school garden.
The garden and a multi-use trail on a former railroad bed are community service projects students have designed and built in recent years.
This year, the incoming Buckfield freshmen class decided to start an outdoor classroom during a retreat at the 4H camp in Bryant Pond.
Having the building right next to the garden and greenhouse will allow teachers to better utilize the resources, Kimball explains.
"It's where we can do lessons related to all the community service projects we have outside, in the midst of them," Kimball says.
The school received several small grants and a donation to purchase materials and parents and students provided volunteer labor.
Building the classroom is, in itself, a learning opportunity Kimball explains – students have been using concepts from the classroom to design and set up the structure.
Choosing a south-facing site for the building included map and compass work and a lesson on passive solar, Kimball says.
Placing the 100-pound concrete pads the platform sits on was even more involved – students needed to learn the Pythagorean Theorem and determine where to place the pads and other equations to determine how deep they should be planted to level the platform.
"It took a lot of work and a lot of math and a lot of coordination and it was not easy," says Kimball.
The project doesn't stop at just having a learning space, Kimball says – in fact, the intent is to encourage students to think of ways to keep building to it.
"It becomes another opportunty for authentic learning projects to be built on," Kimball explains.
How can they bring water to the classroom? How about wiring it with solar panels? Those are the types of questions Kimball wants students to be asking.
But it's important that students pose the questions and think up solutions themselves.
"We don't dictate what will we do next," Kimball says.
"We try to really go with a student-centered approach, an inquiry-based model where if there's a problem they can solve it. We don't want to tell them how to solve it."
It's messy, Kimball admits, but it can help students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting.
"We pigeonhole everything," Kimball says. "That's what makes a kid say 'okay, now I have to go to the next class and sit there.' That's not authentic learning."
She agrees that determining what effect the approach has on learning outcomes is difficult, but for some students working on projects like the outdoor classroom is beneficial.
Hunter, for example, struggled in the classroom and wasn't interested in being at school, Kimball says. But on the outdoor classroom project, he's thrived.
That's the point, Kimball says – to get students excited about school, excited about learning. Even if every minute in the outside classroom isn't spent working on equations or experiments, it can still make students enjoy school.
"I guess some people do see it as a waste of time," Kimball says.
"But if ... they keep coming to school and they behave well and they score well, I don't think they're wasting time."
PROBLEM SOLVING — Seventh grade students from Buckfield Junior-Senior High School work on a new outdoor classroom. Teachers plan on using the classroom in conjunction with the school's garden, in the background.