Deep Learning Continues at Avon OLC

Guest blogger Jennifer Davies updates us on her work at Central Indiana’s Avon Outdoor Learning Center. We first posted about this phenomenal program last February, in Portal to the Wider World.

Guest post by Jennifer Davies

For those of you who have been following me and my stubborn refusal to walk away from my job teaching at and coordinating the Avon Outdoor Learning Center since our funding was cut in 2011, I have some good news! I first should point out that Carol Ford and I basically made up this position when I stumbled across the place, back when I moved to Indiana in 2006…and they let us, just to see what we had in mind.

We had just planted the garden (built with grants & volunteers), and hosted more than 7,000 students for the year, when a town referendum failed and the district had to shave $9 million from its budget. Since then I’ve relied on grants, fundraising and donations for my salary. Last year we served 9,100 children with programs designed to supplement classroom instruction with active, outdoor activities.

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

We’ve had fantastic community support, with students literally giving me their piggy banks and tooth fairy money. A new Superintendent is behind us. We have a rock solid belief that this patch of earth shows how public education can inspire lifelong learning—and a deep connection to one’s community. (And by “community” I mean local and global, human and otherwise!)

With the current administration turning over every rock, squeezing every penny, and encouraging this community to urge changes in recent school funding legislation, positive change is afoot: The district will be able to hire 20+ teachers to ease classroom sizes, and they are going to fund two-thirds of my position. I’ll still need to raise the remaining one-third, again looking to this community for their help in doing so.

A career path I’d recommend? Probably not. Job satisfaction? HIGH. I had a kiddo tell me two days ago that he tried three new foods (radish, green onion and spearmint) during his visit and he liked them all. Can you test that? Nope. But I’d be willing to bet the experience will be with him for a lifetime and might even help shape the way he looks at the world around him and his place in it.

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

For those of you who have mixed your blood, sweat and tears with mine over the past few years—couldn’t have done any of it without you. For my family, for putting up with me and my loopy path—BIG Love. And for those cheering from a distance—Thanks! Can’t wait to see what next year brings!

If you need me, or have an idea for fundraising, I’ll be in the garden…

Note: To contribute volunteer time, fundraising ideas or donations to Avon OLC, email olc@avon-schools.org

Photos courtesy of Avon Outdoor Learning Center.

A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

Guest blogger Dawn Slack wrote the following piece about Letha’s Fund, a terrific program of Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS). The fund facilitates schoolchildren’s nature-based excursions and youth-led projects. I am always happy to hear the latest on Letha’s Fund, because my Dad, Donovan Miller, was instrumental in setting it up. Check it out, and lend your support in his name if you feel so led.

Guest Post by Dawn Slack, Youth Outreach Chair for Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS)

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Kids initiated a garlic mustard pull with the help of Letha’s Fund

Knowledge Is Power

An essential INPAWS role is teaching our youth the value of our natural world, and connecting them to nature. Our members understand how nourishing it is to watch the sun rise and set, to set your hand in a riffle and watch water course downstream, to witness a flower blossom, or glimpse a dragonfly skimming the water’s surface.

We understand that experiencing nature enhances our ability to reason and solve problems. We know how being immersed in nature relieves our stress and energizes us.

We need our youth to understand these things too.

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

We Save Only What We Love

Our youth have little opportunity to bond with nature. Bombarded with technology that, sadly, discourages outdoor activities, they need encouragement and assistance getting outside.

In 2013 Letha’s Fund enabled almost 2,000 youth to visit natural areas or participate in outdoor experiences. And over the past five years Letha’s Fund has facilitated approximately 6,800 youth to learn about our amazing natural world.

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Help Us Empower More Youth

Help us invest in a healthy future for our environment, one full of diversity and natural splendor, understood and loved by its future caretakers. Take a moment to learn about Letha’s Fund, share the flyer, and spread the word about such a wonderful program that is possible because of your aid.

Learn about Letha’s Fund on our website or send us your questions at lethasfund@inpaws.org or call us. Remember, knowledge is power. So pass it along, and help us help the next generation get into nature.

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Harshman kids plant seedlings grown by Cold Spring School students with the help of INPAWS stalwart Donovan Miller (my dad!)

We will save only what we love;
We will love only what we understand;
We will understand only what we have been taught.

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum

All photos courtesy of INPAWS.

Postscript: To read my dad’s invitation to INPAWS members to share their love of nature with children, click here and search on “Expertise Not Required.”

 

Portal to the Wider World

“An environment-based education movement―at all levels of education―will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

―Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in on a special activity at Avon’s Hickory Elementary School. Jen Davies from Avon Outdoor Learning Center—a total rock star in the kids’ eyes—had come to talk minerals. By day’s end 120 children would make the connection between minerals and something they encounter every day, toothpaste.

In each hour-long session, Jen touched on Coke cans’ recyclability, Lunchables’ sodium content, Crest’s new products—and the broad appeal of minty-tasting toothpaste.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Throughout, Jen telegraphed the absolute awesomeness of minerals. These third-graders were right there with her.

This time of year, most of Jen’s work takes place in the classroom, but the Outdoor Learning Center is true to its name in every other season (and on some milder winter days).

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes.

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes. Photo courtesy of Avon OLC.

On seven acres belonging to the Avon School Corporation, students encounter the real-world stuff that makes science, math, and history come alive. Over 9,100 students, parents and faculty members visited the OLC in 2012-13, exploring two miles of trails and habitats spanning prairie, woodland, and wetland. A beehive and 7,000-square foot vegetable garden—tended by a garden club of 85 budding gardeners—offer further learning opportunities.

Back at Hickory Elementary, Jen divided the kids into groups and funneled them to one of four tables to make toothpaste. At one table they measured a half teaspoon calcium carbonate with a quarter teaspoon baking soda, according to the recipe. At the next, they could handle crystals, stones, and a Coke can in the “mineral museum.”

Geologist-in-the-making

Geologist-in-the-making

The final two stations were the most exciting: droppers to add the coloring and flavoring of their choice.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Would it be tutti-frutti, traditional mint, or maybe cherry, coco-lemon, or some other variation? And what color should it be? Tints of cherries, neon green, and ice blue bloomed in the paper cups.

blue

Blue proved to be a popular color.

Wrapping up, Jen told them, “Minerals are really cool—you might decide on a career using this, where you can do something like make toothpaste.”

When I spoke to her afterward about why she’s so passionate about her work, she told me she wants the children “to see themselves as part of this amazing whole.”

“We are all just circles within connections within circles. We need healthy soil and clean water and clean air to be able to thrive. The choices we make on a daily basis affect not only us but everything around us.”

Sadly, Avon OLC faced major budget cuts in 2011. Jen has been raising money and finding grants to pay her own salary. Late last year word went out that funding had dried up—without help, her position would be gone by this month. Since then several thousand dollars have been raised. It’s enough to keep her, for now, until the end of the school year, but the future is uncertain.

As Jen wrote me in an email, “It’s just so innovatively unusual for a public school district to have such a resource, we are giving it all we have to keep going.  When kids bring me their entire piggy bank, how can I not try everything I can think of?”

Several fundraisers are in the works to keep the center going. Visit the center’s site to see how you can help.

Update: After I posted this, Jen was awarded the 2013 Donald H. Lawson Award for Conservation Education from the Hendricks County Soil & Water Conservation District.