Monday was the first day of school, but this year the walls of the classrooms for the first day back were groves of trees, the ceiling a warm blue sky. Given the difficulties of sending students back to school amidst a catastrophic pandemic, only students up to fifth grade are attending school in person, while the upper grades began the school year remotely. However, thanks to the efforts of the teachers of the outdoor education team — Erin Murray, Sue Herir and Megan Wise, with the support of principal Sheree Lynn — the students of Telluride Intermediate School got to head outside for a back-to-school day in nature.
While spending more time outside with students is partly a strategy to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus, fourth grade teacher Herir noted that spending the first day of school outside is something the school is hoping to turn into a tradition. This year especially, with the year’s unique challenges, teachers recognized the extra anxiety and stress students might be feeling regarding going back to school, and wanted to facilitate a fun, educational experience for the first day.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere that was safe and fun,” explained Jill Anderson, a fourth grade teacher. “These kids have been through a lot trying to persevere through a spring of online learning and many summer activities being canceled or rearranged. We also simply wanted to have fun with our new students and let them know we are all in this together. Building trust and a zone of comfort to just relax and be was also an intention.”
Herir agreed that meeting students in a relaxed outdoor setting and using the beauty of nature as a backdrop for morning ice breakers, team building games and mindfulness activities helped teachers and students get to know one another in a fun and welcoming way.
Each grade headed to various nearby locations such as Town Park, Ilium Valley and the base of Lift 7, participating in activities designed to engage various subjects such as math, science and art. The fourth grade class partnered with Pinhead Institute, who led the students in a “da Vinci bridge” building workshop, with students building bridges using Leonardo da Vinci’s ingenious 500-year-old, self-supporting design.
“The students really enjoyed the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) project Pinhead offered of creating their own bridge, and it was pretty cool seeing all the great designs, not to mention the take away learning that happened,” said Anderson. “Seeing the kids giggle, be with their friends, meet new students, learn about their teachers, create, share feelings, and bond - it was amazing.”
Students in each grade also learned about hands-on environmental stewardship by going on trail clean-up walks. Fourth-graders won’t soon forget the importance of not leaving harmful trash behind in wild places: One student pulled a bit of abandoned cord-like string from out of the river’s edge only to find a live fish attached! The fish, which had gotten hooked by its gill on a jagged object attached to the cord, was helpless to free itself. Fortunately, the classroom paraeducator was an angler, along with several of the kids.
“They knew exactly what to do,” said Herir, describing how the students helped the educator hold the fish, extract the object and release it into the river, watching it swim away unfettered.
“They saved the fish. It was a great learning experience,” she said.
Students also cultivated their artistic intelligence, creating prayer flags to hang up outside the school, and got the expressive juices flowing with some creative writing by the river. After a full day of outdoor learning, complete with masks and social distancing, of course, the classes celebrated with a festive popsicle party back at the school to ring in the new school year in style.
“All the teachers really rallied and came up with wonderful activities for their grade level,” Herir said of the teachers’ dedication to creating a positive first-day experience for students during a difficult time.
“We love teaching, we were all choked up on Monday when we finally met our students,” added Anderson. “We are teachers because of these amazing kids we get to teach and help each year. We are hopeful that we can be creative and teach our students while keeping them safe and COVID-free.”