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Teachers Belong in Nature: Teacher Learning Circle Camaraderie, and Metamorphosis

It’s 4:23pm on Friday Sept 9th and I’m out shopping for something to wear to our first ever Thrive Outside Teacher Learning Circle.

My phone buzzes and I see a message from Carol Entin, one of our Environmental Educators, who had gone to scope things out at the Melville Elementary School Outdoor Learning Zone in preparation for tomorrow’s workshop.

12 monarch caterpillars awaited our 12 participants. “This has to be a sign”, I text fellow Thrive Outside teammate and TLC facilitator Missy Labonte.

We go back and forth a bit on themes of transformation and the birth of new experiences, then we resume our TLC prep, which for me means heading to the beach to collect enough sand to fill five, 2-liter soda bottles..

We rise the next morning to perfect weather and arrive at the Outdoor Learning Zone to set up coffee, donuts, water filtration investigation materials, a mini nature library, and containers with additional caterpillars and chrysalises. The teachers start arriving, representing a wide range of grades and subjects from all over Rhode Island, and the sharing begins.

“I’d like to start my own Spanish/English nature program”, explains Laura Arce, a bilingual teacher who has taught pre-K, kindergarten and first grade. Hugh Cole 5th grade teacher, Ashley O’Blenis, shares that she is currently nursing an injured squirrel back to health in her home. She and fellow 5th grade teacher, Lynn Palmieri, want to explore bringing students down to the Kickemuit River to bring to life their science curriculum on water.

Before long the teachers are participating in hands-on, sensory rich learning. They wander through the paths of the Outdoor Learning Zone, use magnifying glasses to get a closer look, and are invited by Carol to smell a Swallowtail Butterfly larva. The larvae of this species have orange horns called osmeterium, which emit a strong odor to deter predators, evoking reactions of surprise and amusement among our TLC participants.

The excitement continues as teachers join WRWC Director of Education, Amanda Peavey, to “pollute” a water sample and design a water filtration system. Pawtucket Elementary School teacher, Bailey Young, tests and retests her design. “Whereas that’s going to filter it, this is just holding water”, she decides, comparing the various materials.

Our teachers each share an outdoor teaching goal or project idea with the group. Kelly Hanks, a Nature Studies and Agriculture Arts teacher from the Meadowbrook Waldorf School, plans to plant butterfly weed, and will also try out the macroinvertebrate lesson plan that was given out today.

Hollie DiOrio, a 4th grade teacher from the Segue Institute for Learning, is ready to tackle the challenge of limited nature learning spaces. She will look into crowdfunding for binoculars that students can use in outdoor exploration, and is interested in obtaining a clear window bird house that will allow for optimal observation. We hear so many other great ideas from all of our teachers.

Now it’s time to raffle off a prize for a school site visit from the incredible Carol Entin, who will identify nature learning opportunities in the school’s existing outdoor learning spaces. And the winner is…….Hollie!

Before we know it, we are cleaning up and seeing teachers off, and our first ever TLC session is behind us. We exchange notes and suggestions for next time, and I kick myself for forgetting to share the quote I wanted to end with. It’s ok though. Transformational experiences are perfectly imperfect. I take comfort in the quote itself, which I email to the teachers after the session:

“I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly”- William Stafford.

Together we can find our belonging in nature.

Sheila Dobbyn is Thrive Outside's Teacher Professional Development Director

Help bring TLC to more teachers!

This program is offered to teachers free of charge in order to support all K-12 teachers in RI who aspire to increase their outdoor teaching skills and resources.

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