Hazen Students Learn In, and From, the Outdoors

photos and story by Doug McClure
Dare to Be Me students on the Hazen Trails include (left to right) Gavin Bell, Jacob Davison, Alder Hardt (behind the tree), Daniel desGroseilliers, James Montgomery, Noah Friend (far back)

HARDWICK –This year, Hazen Union introduced a new pilot program, “Dare to be Me”. World Languages and Martial Arts teacher Anja Pfeffer and Hazen Union Makerspace coordinator Hilary Maynard co-teach of the class, which features a different approach to learning than traditional, classroom-based programs.

While largely unfamiliar in American education, the “Dare to be Me” approach is utilized in schools worldwide and incorporates similar strategies to those used by Native Americans, Pfeffer said. In lieu of a classroom setting, “Dare to be Me” utilizes the Hardwick Trails behind Hazen Union where students learn to focus on exercise, self-awareness, and journaling.

Teacher Anja Pfeffer (left) with Dare to Be Me students (left to right) Daniel desGroseilliers, Alder Hardt, Gavin Bell, Jacob Davison on the Hazen Trails.

“If we’re really serious about the health and well-being of students as a priority, why not prioritize movement and intentional time in nature?” Pfeffer said.

Simply taking students outdoors is not the point, Pfeffer said, but rather teaching them to interact with the environment and become familiar with it. While journaling, students use their senses to become more aware of and connect with their natural surroundings. “Naturally, that leads to social and emotional learning, which leads to curiosity, then communication and writing,” Pfeffer said.

The program covers all subjects taught in a traditional classroom, but the natural environment leads to greater confidence of expression and a sense of personal connection to the coursework, Pfeffer said. “The kids know all the trails inside and out,” she explained. “We have so many kids who are disconnected from themselves. This is a glimpse into something better.”

Pfeffer said the requirement to apply traditional rote-learning grading standards to the program remains a challenge. “It’s still a hindrance,” she said. She said Hazen Union’s new report card system, which includes a “narrative” measuring a student’s individual progress against their own development goals, is more informative. Pfeffer and Maynard spent hours writing narratives for the students, she said, because she believes it is the best way to meaningfully communicate evaluations of each student.

“Is our standard that [students] can sit at a seat and write an assignment?” Pfeffer said. “If the light in their eyes is our standard, then, well — what is more important than a student’s smile?”

In their own words, this is what students in the pilot program say about “Dare to be Me”:

James Montgomery, 16

“We’re able to be outside, do our walks, and do our work. I’ve never been fully successful inside the classroom, so out here doing my work is a lot easier for me than being in a classroom. When I’m in the woods, it just almost centers myself a little bit better. I’m way more calm, way more focused on what I’m doing. I can hear the birds chirping, the air is a lot different, especially in the woods. And I’m learning more about myself, more about I think, how I feel, I guess.

[I’ve noticed] how calm I am now when I’m in a classroom, or at home, when I’m outside for two hours in the morning. We meet in Ms. Pfeffer’s class in the morning after TSA [Teacher-Student Advisories]. She takes attendance. We usually start off with a walk, walking the trails around here. While we’re walking on the trails, she’ll make us think of a question about the trees or something around the area, how we’re thinking. Then she’ll make us be silent for ten minutes and then we’ll have to write in our journals. And then we come here to sit, and we do some more work here. Then we’ll walk back to school. This class has helped me, not just in this class but in other classes. I think every kid who doesn’t work well in the classroom will be able to work well in this class.”

Daniel desGroseilliers, 14

“I heard it was going to be independent learning, and it was going to be journaling, not using computers. A good class for walking, a lot of journaling when you’re on the trail. It’s a lot easier to be outside than in class [where] they have a lot of distractions, and when I’m outside I can kind of calm down.”

Alder Hardt, 15

“I like being outside, and I don’t really like the conventional classroom learning. I like being outside in nature. There’s a whole classroom outside the door. I can concentrate better. I don’t have to worry about COVID so much. I think our teacher’s doing a pretty good job and we should keep up this class.”

Jacob Davison, 15

We still do work, we do activities while we’re working. It’s just so much more fun to be in nature, I love that so much. And I know there’s a whole bunch of trails out here, so I’d like to learn the trails and then come up here with my bike someday. I feel like I’m learning more about nature than [in class], the science behind the tree, stuff like that. I used to be like wicked wild throughout the day. And this class just helps me get my energy before the next class. So, if I have math, or I have history, I have to be really focused in those classes. This class helps me get my energy out before those classes so I can do my best before those classes. I used to just be crazy and distract everybody. Now kids in my class can get their work done and I do my best at my own pace.”

Julian Lapre, 14

“I really don’t like school, but this class actually makes it so I do. I like to be out in nature with people and not having to do as much work online. [To] do it more in-person because there aren’t as many distractions, it just, I guess, helps me focus. In a way, we get way more done. In my [regular] classes, I got a lot of homework, and I wasn’t doing my best at that. I will admit that I don’t do my best at this for homework, but it just makes it easier because in a way there is less but it’s still covering a lot of subjects. I think this would help plenty of kids. Some of us just, we need help focusing and this kind of a place to do that. When you need to take a break, just go sit by a tree or something for a couple of minutes and then get back to work.”

Gavin Bell, 14

“I love being outdoors, and I have a lot of energy so when I heard this is an outdoor class, I got excited about it. It’s a lot more calming [than regular class], and there’s exploring, and I can pay better attention and I’m getting better grades. I’m walking, daily, now, because of this class. In a classroom there’s a bunch of distractions.”

Noah Friend, 16

“Ms. Pfeffer is just a great teacher. But also, the outdoor experience is something that really interested me. Just because in most of my classes, we don’t go outside very often, and so having a class where I have dedicated time to go outside is really valuable to me. I get to be outside, I get to move around. And, yeah, it’s fun. I think I’m probably learning about the same, but it’s just it’s in a different way. For me, learning at the school is more just repeating what they’re telling you. But for this class, it’s talking about how you feel about different things. And I feel like that’s a great way to learn. I’m happier with myself now. Less down all the time, I feel happier and more energized. Just walking all the time is challenging. I was out of shape. It’s just enjoyable being outside all the time.”