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Harpswell Guidebook Inspires a Sense of Place

Harpswell Community School students enjoy the Devil’s Back Trail during their final Junior Ranger field trip.

This article was published in the Harpswell Anchor, July 2018.

By Kara Douglas

On a windy afternoon near the end of the school year about 40 third graders have gathered on the sloping lawn at Harpswell Community School. They sit in a lopsided circle, speaking in turns as attention moves counter-clockwise around.

“My favorite preserve was the snowy one,” announces student Morgandy Crawford.

“Everyone remembers that!” shouts a boy nearby, cueing several kids to talk at once. They’re here to celebrate the end of a year-long experiment the third grade conducted with the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) using a recently published Junior Ranger Activity Guide as the centerpiece of a series of local outdoor field trips, nine in total. As the school year draws to a close, they reflect on what they learned on their visits to the HHLT and town-managed preserves and trails. A few comment about tide pools, others inch worms, one about animal adaptations.

Emma Levy, who grew up in Harpswell, is here at the celebration. Levy is currently a sophomore at Williams College. Two years ago as a senior at Mt. Ararat High School, she created the Junior Ranger Activity Guide for her capstone project, a graduation requirement for which students demonstrate skills as self-directed, lifelong learners by working with advisors and community volunteers to complete a project of personal interest to them.

Levy had spent time helping HHLT Outreach Coordinator Julia McLeod run the organization’s Nature Day Camp during the summer months, an experience that inspired the creation of the guide. “ I really discovered the preserves when I helped at Nature Day Camp,” Levy reflects.

The guide, loosely modeled after a similar book Levy used when visiting national parks with her family, encourages kids to be observers of the natural world. How they ended up being the basis of a field trip series happened serendipitously.

“We had received a grant from the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership to print the books last spring so I brought a flyer to the school to announce that it would be available. Kerry Bailey (former HCS Principal) was immediately interested and wanted to buy some of the guides to use with students,” explains McLeod.

Things mushroomed from there. Before long, third grade teachers Megan Phillips and Elizabeth Gilley were working with McLeod to arrange for the series of field trips.

“I especially credit the teachers and the school with being open to this. It’s really out of the norm for one grade to go on nine field trips,” McLeod says. “Honestly, I didn’t even know it was an option!”

When asked if she had field trips in mind when she was working on the guide, Levy answers, “Not at all! I was so excited when I got the news last summer that the guides would be part of a field trip curriculum.”

There was work to be done to ensure that the trips met the third grade science standards and the guide’s activities would function optimally for a large group of kids at specific preserves. McLeod took on that planning.

For their part, the teachers are enthusiastic about the process and the results. What appealed to them was, “the entire idea around the Junior Ranger books, getting to know our town better and the connection with the NextGen science standards that Julia made.”

McLeod says that the science standards for third grade have a lot of overlap with what was already offered in the guide. The most work was in coming up with field trip lesson plans – adapting the guides to be used with a large group and deciding which sections of the guide to use at each preserve.

“It fit very well,” writes Gilley in an email. “We actually adopted this program and then fit our other science around it. Julia is great at matching the curriculum with the standards!”

“Most learning is more meaningful when it can be tied to the real world,” McLeod explains. “I remember learning about the rain forest as a kid and I loved that, but there was no accessible experience to reinforce it. For these students, the field trips are a way of really getting to know the place where they live; they all happen in their own community.”

Gilley and Phillips agree that some of the best learning happens when kids don’t realize they’re engaged in a learning process. “I personally think some of the best outcomes were getting our students outside and exploring our town. On top of that they are actually learning science standards and don’t even realize it,” says Gilley.

Getting students outdoors and learning about science in an experiential way has benefits beyond learning. As McLeod notes, “So many studies have shown that being in nature is good for human health. This is one of those lifelong habits that kids can develop early and sustain throughout their lives.”

Providing access to the outdoors through education is one part of HHLT’s mission, along with preserving and protecting natural and cultural resources. Currently, 517 acres of land, divided over 17 preserves with about eight miles of walking trails, some accessible only by boat, are owned by HHLT and open to the public. Additionally, HHLT has worked with private landowners to permanently conserve another 1,100 acres, though only some of this is open to the public.

McLeod talks about the importance of guiding students to develop a sense of efficacy – building the confidence to make assertions and take action. “For students, that might be something like feeling confident being outdoors or hiking, picking up trash and being stewards of special places in their town. We want them to develop a level of comfort in nature that builds confidence,” says McLeod.

In a coastal town, where everything we do on land impacts the health of our marine ecosystem and their fisheries, connecting what we do with outcomes for others and the world around us takes on a unique significance.

When McLeod first came on as HHLT’s Outreach Coordinator in 2012, the organization had not yet forged a partnership with HCS, at the time a newly consolidated elementary school that combined students from the West Harpswell School and the Harpswell Islands School. She began by offering free before and after school programs for students.

“A lot of the kids who participated in our other programs came from families who were already interested on the outdoors, But, school includes everyone – the kids who already know about and use the preserves and the kids that haven’t yet. In order for outdoor, place-based education to be most meaningful, it needs to be accessible to everyone,” McLeod explains.

Over time, she began working with students in the classroom, matching her lesson plans with newly developed state-wide science standards and developed partnerships with teachers. At this time of year, McLeod finds herself at HCS five to seven times a week, bringing programs into the classroom, taking kids out to learn in the woods surrounding the school, guiding field trips, even helping raise and release Atlantic salmon. It’s an educational relationship that Phillips and Gilley would like to see continued.

“We hope the funding is there again from HHLT, the school, the district and the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) to make it happen. We would like to incorporate this into our yearly third grade curriculum,” Gilley says.

McLeod’s work at HCS is funded by a grant from the Holbrook Community Foundation. There is no charge to the school for her time and materials. Support for educational field trips is also provided by the HCS PTO, who fundraises throughout the year to provide educational, recreational and social programs beyond those provided by the school system.

As the chilly field trip celebration wraps up, McLeod gathers up the 40 or so third graders and reminds them: “You’re now Junior Rangers. Use all that you learned to take care of these special places.”