Outdoor classroom provides a sylvan setting for learning

"Photo: Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom teacher Nancy Scoles lays down a salmon poster to begin a lesson on life cycles for waiting students from Jennifer Gandarias’ third grade class.In the quiet of the woods along Maxwelton Creek, half a dozen third grade students sat on a bench, just listening and watching with pencils poised over their fern-covered notebooks.The students were thinking of appropriate words to describe what they heard and saw. The creek was described as gurgling, dripping and bubbling, while the alder trees standing guard were hard, tall and swaying.“Think about the golden color of the sun,” said teacher Sarah Gordon, an AmeriCorps worker, as on this particular Thursday the sun had made an unexpected appearance. “It’s fun to think of unusual words.”The children would use their descriptive words in poems, just one of the lessons being taught that day at the Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom.Elsewhere in the forest was Gerry Smith, a volunteer from the Beach Watchers organization, leading a small troop of students through the woods. Their eyes were focused on the ground, searching for mushrooms. Jessica Reader was particularly interested, carefully questioning Smith as to the exact spelling of each specimen, and neatly filling out a form with space for eight species of mushrooms. Finding them all was no easy task this late in the mushroom season. “Boy, it’s been tough,” said Smith. “Three weeks ago there were mushrooms all over.” But they persisted in their search until the forms were properly filled out.In the classroom itself, Nancy Scoles, who this year became the first official Outdoor Classroom educator, was teaching two groups of girls and boys about salmon, their lifecycles, and threats to their existence. “Adult salmon are confused and slowed by slackwater pools above a dam,” said Logan Hennessey, reading from a poster just placed in front of his group.“Are dams making it easy or hard for salmon?” asked Scoles.“Hard!” responded a chorus of voices from the boys and girls in the room.After learning more about salmon the kids switched to an art project in which they made bug figures from fallen alder and maple leaves.During the 2 1/2 hours that Jennifer Gandarias’ third grade class from South Whidbey Intermediate School would be at the classroom, all of the children would take part in all of that day’s activities.“The kids love it, they absolutely love it,” Gandarias said. “We come at least six times a year and they always get excited.”The South Whidbey School District owns and maintains the Outdoor Classroom, which was built several years ago in an effort led by the Rotary Club. But the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure, a volunteer organization, runs the educational program. Students visit for free with the help of Island Transit buses.New this year are the completion of the K-5 curriculum, funded by the Island County Watershed Program, and the hiring of Nancy Scoles as a part-time environmental educator. The position is a major budget commitment for the Salmon Adventure group, and is paid for through the annual membership drive now in progress and fundraisers throughout the year.Scoles said the program welcomes about 800 students annually, mostly in grades three through five. Lessons are broken down into 27 activities. Each grade does three activities in fall, winter, and spring visits, so by the end of the fifth grade each student will have learned them all.This year the Salmon Adventure plans to reach out to other schools, inviting Coupeville and Oak Harbor to send their children to the Outdoor Classroom for a nominal fee. They anticipated accommodating 3,000 students at the site this year.Visiting students, helped by a core group of a dozen volunteers, participate in hands-on activities focusing on salmon, salmon habitat, forests and wetland ecology, native plants, local birds, identifying insects and nature appreciation. Judging by the kids’ enthusiasm, this is one classroom they’ll always be returning to, just like the salmon.Help watch for salmonMelissa Eidens, an AmeriCorps member and Outdoor Classroom volunteer, recently had the pleasure of spotting a returning salmon from the viewing platform above Maxwelton Creek. As a result of this and other salmon sightings the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure has set up a “sightings hot line.”Environmental educator Nancy Scoles suggests that those interested in helping spot fish can visit the classroom site and “sit quietly in the same place, looking for 15 to 20 minutes.” The site is along Maxwelton Road, just before the South Whidbey Free Methodist Church.Returning coho and chum could be spotted between now and the end of the year. Date, time and location of sightings should be left on the Salmon Adventure voicemail, 579-1272.The Maxwelton Salmon Adventure is now involved in its annual membership drive. Dues help support the newly hired educator position and other activities at the Outdoor Classroom.At present there are 120 members. Cost is $20 for individuals or $30 for families, while donations above those figures are welcome. For information about supporting the organization call Laura Fox, 321-4698."

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