Sherry Elvington knows first-hand that sitting in a cold, bleak classroom for seven hours can stifle her students.
“I think sometimes we’re confined by the walls of the classroom, and we forget how vast and expansive the world is – that you’re a part of it, not necessarily the center of it,” said the seventh-grade social studies teacher at Kannapolis Middle School.
So to escape the traditional learning environment, the school and some community groups built an outdoor classroom in a wooded area near the school.
“In an outdoor classroom, they’re a little more engaged,” Elvington said of her students. “It kind of gives them a sense of freedom. It’s a change of scenery, a change of perspective.”
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The classroom is a place where students can thrive in their studies, and it was also a project that helped bring the community together, teachers, parents and students say.
“With kids these days, it’s hard to get them to be proud of anything,” said Jennifer Burroughs, whose son, middle-schooler Justin Hosclaw, helped build the classroom. “It taught him a lot of self respect, accountability, pride for your school and pride for your work. That’s something you can’t teach a kid by talking to him.”
The classroom features one teacher desk, 20 tree stumps – with clipboards – that serve as desks for students, eight benches and three standing work station tables accommodating eight students per table. Neighboring A.L. Brown High School’s carpentry class built and provided the work station tables as part of a class assignment.
The idea began in the 2015 fall semester, when Kannapolis Middle School teacher Jordan Melton was looking into ideas for a community service project. Melton, who also is coordinator of the Cabarrus Health Alliance Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, was looking for the first of eight projects that will be funded through a $300,000 grant from the Pregnancy Initiative.
Melton talked to Principal Bridgette Reese to see what projects the school needed help with. According to Melton, Reese said she had long wanted to have an outdoor classroom.
From there, Melton met with her students and discussed the idea. Enthused about the project, they got to work sharing ideas of how they envisioned the classroom, she said. They came up with ideas for all features of the classroom, including the wood-block flower beds and antique window panes hanging on surrounding trees.
“The students had amazing ideas, and so we just kind of fed off them ... everything you see is a student's idea,” she said. “I think it’s just to show that students have amazing ideas. We just need to listen and trust that they know what they're talking about."
Trusting the students was a huge part of the project, Melton said. They contributed almost all of the labor that went into the classroom and without them, she said, she didn’t know if it could have been completed. The group of roughly 90 students worked for two hours every Tuesday for 12 weeks until it was finished.
“I think what’s not so apparent is the longevity of the project,” Melton said. “Yes, there were a lot of adults involved in the process, but the students really were the backbone of the project. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have gotten it done. It was very much their idea, they made it happen. That’s a lot of commitment for middle school students to make.”
Children can learn more efficiently outdoors, said Ellen Veselack, associate director of The Outdoor Classroom Project. “Any learning that we generally think of happening indoors can happen outdoors, and it can actually happen better,” she said.
The Outdoor Classroom Project is an initiative of the Child Educational Center in California. Formed in 2003, it is a nationally accredited program that studies the concept and practice of outdoor classrooms in early care and education.
“Those pieces of the intellectual learning that we want children to get are happening at a much better rate outdoors. There isn’t anything about a child’s development that is better when it happens indoors ... what we’re trying to do is get people to have a paradigm change and stop thinking about the indoors being a just learning place, and the outdoors being just a recess place.”
The idea has caught on at schools around the country – and closer to home.
A few miles north of Kannapolis Middle, Jackson Park Elementary also recently built an outdoor classroom and garden, aiming to get students to develop an appreciation for the environment and make science-related observations outside of the traditional classroom setting.
The outdoor classroom, funded through a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation, consists of six raised garden beds, 24 stumps-seats and three picnic tables with benches. Construction on the classroom and garden was completed in one day during the second week of May by a group of 50 volunteers from the school and local churches.
The school plans to teach things in the classroom such as the life cycle of plants, the migration of Monarch butterflies and research on harvesting. So far, groups of students have harvested a variety of plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. The school has partnered with the North Carolina Research Campus for a project that will take place next school year, dealing with research on tomatoes.
Change of heart
In time, the classroom project at Kannapolis Middle caught the attention of students and community groups.
Many students came to work on the project simply for the free pizza and a place to hang out with friends, Holsclaw said. But by the time the project was completed, the same students had gained an appreciation for hard work, and learned valuable skills like teamwork and working with their hands.
“Most people ... realized through a mental change that, ‘I’m doing something that’s helping a lot more people than myself,’ ” Holsclaw said.
Club Vertical, the public school outreach program of Refuge Church in Kannapolis, provided snacks and refreshments each Tuesday along with uplifting messages and supervision for students working on the project.
Burroughs, Hosclaw’s mother, said she saw the impact in her son. “This was something that he was excited about because it was a hands on project that they took on from start to finish,” she said. “I got many calls from teachers saying he was a positive influence, trying to encourage other kids to participate. I’ve always been big on accountability. I think it has helped him see what accountability means – stepping up, following through, knowing his name was going to be tied to this. For me, it’s given him a positive direction.”
The classroom was unveiled to the public at a May 20 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Since then, several classes have been held in the space, most people visiting on days after End-of-Grade testing finished. According to Melton, the school plans to use the classroom by engaging students in learning about the environment and how it relates to science, math and social studies.
Ideally, teachers would use the outdoor classroom once a semester with each of their classes, allowing students to have roughly six outdoor classroom experiences per semester.
Currently, the school hasn’t made any plans to hold community events in the outdoor area, though Melton said they are open to the idea.
“I knew it was going to be a great project, but I just didn't expect the level of success it would be, and all of the positive feedback we got,” Melton said. “The community really came together."