Their days begin as other teachers' days do--with positive energy, eager students en route, and well-thought out lesson plans ready to be put into action. Then the weather shifts or a fox is spotted in the field. At the spur of the moment, a new plan emerges. Students arrive and a day of wonder at the Prairie Wetlands Center begins.

Classroom on the Prairie

Published 12:58pm Friday, November 9, 2012

Mona Davis, Becky Greenagel, and Tia Thysell are all educators with a very unique classroom. It spans 325 acres and includes an uncountable number of living residents of many species, both plants and animals. Visitors to this land include some very special scientists in the form of Fergus Falls fourth and fifth graders. Mona, Becky, and Tia (along with their teaching partner, Chip McAllister) have the responsibility and privilege of being Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (PWLC) teachers.

Former Prairie teacher (now the Instructional Systems Specialist for the PWLC) Dave Ellis was the founder of this pioneer program. About 12 years ago, Dave began taking his elementary classes to the Prairie Wetlands often. He felt it was vital to get students outside appreciating nature and learning about the environment. He saw the outdoors as essential for learning and mental health. This passion flowered into a vision – along with the planning and proposal of creating a full time situation for interested students—where they would spend half their school day at the Cleveland elementary building and the other half at the PWLC. In 2003, Dave’s 5th grade class did just that. The following year 3 more classes were added, and teacher Becky Greenagal came onboard. In 2007, the opportunity expanded to include fourth graders, following the careful planning, proposal, and passing of a building bond. Today close to 200 students per school year are in the program, typically 4 sections each of 4th and 5th graders. Their “place-based” studies at the PWLC include science, language arts, spelling, and health. Math and social studies concepts are often embedded in the activities and learning, as well.

Growing up on a farm, always loving the outdoors, and taking some outdoor classes herself led to Mona Davis’ eagerness to be a part of the teaching staff at the PWLC. When the program expanded to include 4th grade, she immediately voiced her request. Five years later, she still cherishes her role. “What I love most is the wonder that the kids find every day out here. It doesn’t have to be something big; just to watch them light up with excitement, to see them connect things they’ve learned right there in the outdoors. To see kids take that big sigh and relax and get them to realize, ‘I can be quiet and find peace.’ Those things keep me going…to realize the importance this has in their lives when sometimes they don’t even realize it.” Tia says she feels the best part of this different learning situation is “our method – the hands on, integrative, innovative approach that makes students love to learn and want to use this information for the rest of their lives.” She notes that even former students have made the effort to come back and redefine their connections. A highlight for Becky is “sharing [my] love of the outdoors with the students – seeing their passion for the outdoors grow.”

Instead of opening a textbook or going online to look up information and answers, students suit up into clothing needed for the weather, and head outdoors to discover it for themselves. Instead of doing this every so often during the school year, students do this every day (extreme weather prohibits, but that’s rare!). The prairie is their classroom, their eyes and ears their tools of discovery. Paper and pencil help record data. Later, and often at home, students might supplement their own findings with more information found via the internet, but it’s never the primary source. Mona explains, “We love technology, but we want to keep it simple and help kids realize they don’t need it.” It’s the old-fashioned way of learning something about a duck or a flower or an insect…by going out and finding it to observe. It’s hands-on. Mona remarks how the kids have their eyes opened. “Because they are so used to going online, etc., when they feel the wood duck’s heartbeat, when they look in its eyes – it’s brand new to them. When we talk about galls, we go out and do it…they don’t have to go on the internet.” “They are scientists,” Tia says. Becky reminds that what the kids do is how all that information was found out in the first place. Students learn about habitat, nutrition, migration patterns, weather–and so many other things–by actually interacting with the environment and all its inhabitants. They study phenology (the study of the timing of natural events of natural phenomena) and get their knowledge from the primary sources just steps away from the buildings. Emphasis is placed on being careful not to disturb nature, and to be respectful observers and data collectors.

Some of the data is actually used by the Fish and Wildlife Department. When fourth graders band ducks in the fall, the Fish and Wildlife Department utilize the information collected to help track migration patterns, for example. Tuesdays are special days at the PWLC, as Fish and Wildlife Department members dedicate this day to helping the students. The teachers greatly appreciate this help. Even in their busiest times (fall and spring), these helpers keep centered on how they can enrich the students’ experiences. In fact, from the very beginning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has been key in partnering with District 544 to help bring this unique program to life.

The ultimate objectives and goals focus on a continued appreciation and respect for the outdoors. In May, when students complete their school year, these ladies hope that the love of nature has been instilled in each. According to Becky, “We teach them to appreciate the small things such as the different grasses or a caterpillar. It doesn’t have to be something grand.” Mona says, “Our goal is lifetime. They don’t have to be at the prairie – they can do this in their backyard or on vacation with their family – they can take the skills with them.”

Challenges of ever-changing environment are inevitable. Last year’s mild winter, though loved by many of us, created some issues for the Prairie curriculum, which includes many lessons and activities involving snow and cold. In addition to the weather, adapting curriculum to fit standards-based outcomes can be cumbersome. Mona notes, “Connecting everything together can be challenging. This is very non-traditional. When we need to be standards-based and so aware about the testing that takes place now, we have to ask ourselves how we fit that with the outdoors – to encompass all of it and realize the importance and embrace it? We spend a lot of time making the curriculum work for us – to do it in a way that uses the environment, the resources that we have out here, on a daily basis.”

Despite the challenges, the weather is seen as an opportunity. Correction: everything is seen as an opportunity — a nest noticed above the door coming in, a fresh animal hole near the walking path, a group of busy insects. All bring questions, and this questioning leads exactly to the wonder that is so pure and fundamental for true learning. The curiosity born every day at the prairie is amazingly reborn again the next.


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