BUILDING BRIDGES IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS
by Mardi Ford
Within the final days of a waning school year, two Cove teachers take their students into the woods for two nights and three days of bonding in the great outdoors. They've done it for six years.
For the past five, it has been Eric Gustavson and Susan Koehn at the helm of Cove's Outdoor School, which is held at the Blue Mountain 4-H Camp near Summerville.
Working with them are a select group of high school students who filled out applications to serve as cabin leaders. Many of them first attended Outdoor School as campers. Katie Moore was a fifth-grader in 1999 when she attended the first Outdoor School with "Mr. G" Â— Eric Gustavson Â— and remembers being "a little scared."
Now a sophomore, Moore says having the two classes spend time away from school for a few days together was Â— and still is Â— a good way to become more familiar with each other.
"People act differently here than they do at school. It does for the fifth and sixth-graders what some of the trips we take in high school do for us," she explains.
Cove's Outdoor School is a rite of passage for fifth and sixth-grade students. Though highly anticipated by that second year, it can be a leap of faith for some first-timers.
"I'm a little worried about sharing a cabin with sixth-graders Â— I don't know them very well. A couple of them can be kind of mean sometimes," admitted a fifth-grader upon receiving cabin assignments that split the students into small groups from both classes.
And therein lies the goal of Outdoor School Â— to build a bridge across what often appears as a giant chasm to the fifth-graders who must cross into middle school.
"Middle school can be a little scary for some kids. There are a lot of changes going on for them Â— sometimes it feels like it's all coming down at the same time. If they can begin to make friends with some of the sixth-graders before next year, it helps that transition," says fifth-grade teacher Susan Koehn.
"Camping is a great equalizer," agrees sixth-grade teacher Eric Gustavson.
"Actually, the purpose of the grant we obtained for Outdoor School is geared towards a social building exercise across grade levels. I love the outdoors, and reviving Outdoor School Â— which Cove had done before I came Â— seemed a natural fit."
And though Gustavson admits that sometimes kids can indeed be a little troublesome with each other, there have been few problems blending the two grades at Outdoor School.
"Sometimes it backfires, but most of the time it works," he says.
In fact, the same fifth-grader who had expressed concern over sharing a cabin with sixth-graders has a new perspective. When asked about sixth-graders on the second day of Outdoor School, the fifth-grader replies, "Oh, they aren't that bad. Actually, a couple of 'em are kinda cool."
There is, however, more than just some "warm-fuzzy" going on at Outdoor School. There is the practical side of actual learning Â— it is, after all, Outdoor School.
The first year, there was little accountability to really pay attention during classes and sometimes, the kids seemed bored. The second year, Gustavson says they decided to put together a notebook that would be turned in for credit. It proved a great success. Each year, the notebooks were tweaked and last year, Gustavson says, "We really got it right."
There is a big difference between the notebooks for the fifth and sixth-graders. Designed that way for a purpose, Gustavson explains it allows the fifth-graders to get an idea what the notebooks are all about and they will receive part of their science grade on them. For the sixth-graders, however, the notebook is bigger and requires more detail and effort. In his class, the notebook will provide most of their science credit, in addition to other classwork and their level of effort throughout Outdoor School.
Both teachers spend plenty of time in the classroom before Outdoor School preparing their students for some of what they will do and see there.
For example, Gustavson teaches bird calls to both fifth and sixth-grade classes, training them to listen carefully to identify different types of birds by their song. When Trent Gray of the Bobolink comes to teach more about birds, some of the ground work has already been done.
Each year, a full lineup of outdoor enthusiasts and nature experts like Gray come from all over the county to share their knowledge and passion at Outdoor School. Some, like Tim Wood with Union County Search and Rescue, come eagerly year after year. Wood teaches survival skills and how to build an emergency shelter with nothing but what nature has to offer.
In addition, Bruce Macke's high school class in natural resources teaches the younger students how to use Global Position Satellite technology to keep from getting lost.
"It's like dropping bread crumbs," says Cove junior Michelle Exparza, as she explains to the group how to set the points on the GPS device she holds in her hand.
Cove's kids are immersed in everything outdoor Â— from late- night nature walks to calling in a wild turkey. There is plenty of singing around the campfire and even a talent show Â— on the outdoor stage, of course.
At the end of three days and two nights they come back to Cove. Bone tired students lumber out of the school dragging backpacks and sleeping bags to the cars and vans patiently waiting to carry them home.
"So? ... How was it?" One mom gingerly asks her bedraggled fifth-grader.
The best of memories suddenly flood into an earsplitting grin Â— all weariness temporarily displaced.
"Cool! Guess what? I ate an ant!"