KMS students take a walk on the wild side

Kickemuit students spend a week in nature, learning away from the classroom


Rock climbing, nature art, night hikes, camp fires, farm animals and bunk houses — this constituted ‘school’ for nearly 200 Kickemuit Middle School seventh-grade students the week before Thanksgiving. The students, their teachers and a handful of volunteer chaperones traveled three hours west to Colebrook, Conn. for what has become an annual tradition and right of passage known as Nature’s Classroom.

Part sleep-away camp, part experiential learning, Nature’s Classroom is a regional organization with a dozen or so locations around New England. According to their website, Nature’s Classroom gives students and teachers the chance to experience education from another perspective, outside the walls of the classroom.

Nervous energy abounded as parents and children said their goodbyes in the middle school parking lot Monday morning. There was anxiety about what was to come and even a few tears shed. As the buses rolled and reality set in, students and teachers turned to one another for support. A student who seemed particularly nervous early on was overheard later in the week saying to a friend, “it’s sad that tomorrow is our last full day at Nature’s Classroom.”

The days are long and full of enriching opportunities for the students. The Nature’s Classroom staff leads small groups of students through field studies, exploration of the natural world, interactive learning with lots of fresh air and exercise.

Math teacher Jen Saarinen reflected on this: “As a teacher, I see students grow exponentially as they navigate these four nights without their parents at their sides. They gain a sense of independence that is evident when they return to KMS after the trip. Students become one with their outdoor surroundings, gaining a better awareness and appreciation for the world around them.”

The students, teachers and chaperones spent the week in close quarters — together night and day. Everyone dined together, family style, with serving and cleanup chores being shared evenly. A ritual at each meal is the ‘Ort Report,’ which measures the amount of unusable food waste produced by each table and the entire group. This became a rallying point and competitive point of pride as the week goes on, with students urging one another to minimize their waste impact.

The days were filled with team building, world expanding experiences — designed to challenge the students to think beyond their comfort zones and push themselves into new experiences. The results were a wide range of discoveries — intellectually, socially and emotionally.

The final night at Nature’s Classroom culminated with ‘Thursday Night Live’ — a series of short, original performances put on by each field group. Everyone participated, and even the teachers got into the act. The light-hearted evening was full of laughter and good fellowship, and it served as both a triumphant celebration and bittersweet reminder that the week was coming to an end.

“For some students, the week at Nature’s Classroom sparked an interest that will carry them through the rest of the education in the school district and even beyond into their future career paths. Our week at Nature's Classroom is hands down my favorite week of grade 7!” said Ms. Saarinen

Ultimately, the Nature’s Classroom experience was whatever each individual student chose to make it. Regardless of those choices, the memories will undoubtedly last a lifetime and the experience will help to shape the people they will become.

Hear from the students themselves as they reflect on their experience at Nature's Classroom — Video Reflections.

Editor’s note: The Nature’s Classroom program is supported by a grant from the Bristol Warren Education Foundation.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.