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Rocky Hill School’s EnviroEd teaches through outdoor activities
Ford Kelly-Riley

Fourth and fifth graders at Rocky Hill recently discovered their classroom extends beyond four walls. Each year, classes in science and history are held outdoors for two consecutive days as part of the school’s EnviroEd program.

EnviroEd alternates between a science focus and a history focus; this year the program was centered on the discipline of science. The program begins with students canoeing up the Potowomut River to the Gammell residence, which belongs to alumni of Rocky Hill. There, different activities are arranged for students to participate in.

At the Gammell residence, students took part in one large class activity before breaking off into smaller groups. The all-inclusive first activity was one that aimed to teach the kids a lesson about teamwork, by showing them the importance of proper communication. In the activity, each of the 26 students was asked to gather into a circle and grasp a rope with both of their hands. Once this was done, the students were told that they had 90 seconds to position themselves so that the shape of the rope matched that of a basic five-point star. Understandably, the students had some difficulty with this at first. The 90 seconds were filled with shouting from almost every student involved. After the chaos subsided, Eric Wyzga, a lower school science teacher and key event organizer, stepped in to say a few words. “What are you finding frustrating?” Wyzga asked. The response from students varied. Some said no one was listening, others said no one was letting them speak, and one student disappointedly added, “People were blaming.”

In response to the students’ concerns, Wyzga shared a helpful acronym to keep in mind during frustrating situations.

“Stop, think, organize, and proceed,” said Wyzga. “What does that spell?”

The students were given the opportunity to try and form the star again, and after some deliberation, they were able to do it.

After the preliminary team-building exercise, students broke into five smaller groups and learned lessons that had a more science-based focus. One group, headed by fifth grade teacher Donna Goldstein, learned about how the beaks of birds allow them to adapt and thrive in their environments. After a short lesson, students were asked to draw their own designs for birds’ beaks and then talked about how the beak they drew allowed for the bird to survive and continue as a successful species. This hands-on lesson helped illuminate for the kids how the form of different species fits their function.

Another group, headed by Wyzga, had students making their own fishing nets. Before the six students in the group were allowed to do so, though, they were taught about the dangers that anadromous fish face when they are migrating from the sea into fresh-water areas. Among the dangers detailed were currents, water quality, fertilizer runoff, and over-fishing.

Once the students completed their different classes at the Gammell residence, they gathered by the water and ate lunch. Afterward, students and chaperones got back into their canoes and started the trek to the next location, the Choquette residence.

At the Choquette residence, even more activities were set up for the students. Donna Goldstein headed a hands-on activity in which her group picked up large rocks in the Potowomut River, looking underneath for insects in their larval stages. Among the insects found were dragonflies, alderflies, and Mayflies.

In Eric Wyzga’s group, the nets fashioned at the Gammell residence were put to good use by being baited and placed into the river. The nets themselves were intricate and were fashioned so that fish could enter but not exit.

Trixie Dumas, a Lower School art and math teacher, taught a lesson on teamwork and problem solving by instructing the members of her group to lie on their backs, parallel to one another, and pass an object all the way down the line with nothing but their feet.

In the evening, the 13 fifth graders in attendance were invited to camp out and stay overnight on the Rocky Hill School grounds. For many students, this overnight stay can be very meaningful. “It’s a big deal for the fifth graders,” said Beth Degerlia, Rocky Hill School’s director of development. “For many students, it’s their first night staying out away from their parents. It’s sort of like a rite of passage.”

The fourth graders are not invited to stay overnight.

A 20-year-old tradition, Rocky Hill School’s two-day EnviroEd program has long been a success. According to Donna Goldstein, the program would not be nearly as successful were it not for the passion of the teachers and generosity of volunteers. “For the teachers, it really is a labor of love,” said Goldstein. “It takes everyone to come with a smile, and a good attitude, and to just go with the flow, literally.”


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