The out­door class­room beck­ons

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Wayne T. Gilchrest Wayne T. Gilchrest rep­re­sented Mary­land’s 1st Con­gres­sional Dis­trict from 1991 to 2009. He is now ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams di­rec­tor for the Eastern Shore Land Con­ser­vancy. His email is

As we were walk­ing through a patch of young for­est on a deer trail filled with pe­ri­odic spasms of mul­ti­flora rose sticker bushes and bit­ing June flies, the “at risk” teen stu­dents from Kent County High School voiced their dis­plea­sure with screams and groans of “You can’t do this to us,” and “This is bor­ing!” Still we, the teacher and my­self, con­tin­ued walk­ing, is­su­ing words of en­cour­age­ment and adding things like, “This is what it may have been like be­fore the first hu­mans walked this land when there were still mastodons and cari­bou and bears long be­fore the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay was formed,” and “You’re walk­ing a trail like the ones the first Amer­i­cans trav­eled, fol­low­ing their food source into this un­touched wilder­ness.”

Then, as we ap­proached the older for­est of tow­er­ing oaks and beech trees, with a for­est floor shaded out by the thick canopy of leaves, thus mostly cleared of ob­sta­cles, you could feel an al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble mod­icum of at­ten­tion from the stu­dents.

The de­mands of a con­fined class­room day af­ter day of­ten cause at­ten­tion fa­tigue in stu­dents. This symp­tom is the re­sult of a set­ting nearly va­cant of nat­u­ral stim­uli and stu­dents’ in­di­vid­ual in­se­cu­ri­ties in the class­room. A teacher’s of­ten fu­tile at­tempts at, “let me have your at­ten­tion,” voiced re­peat­edly dur­ing the school day are re­placed by the an­cient rhythms of man’s evolv­ing re­la­tion­ship with the wilder­ness.

At last we reach our des­ti­na­tion: a beaver dam. I step down the slope to stand next to the lodge built into the bank at the edge of the beaver pond. Ready to ex­plain the ecosys­tem cre­ated by the beaver fam­ily, I sud­denly see some­thing move out of the cor­ner of my eye at the top of the lodge. One of my un­voiced fears is about to be re­al­ized! The beaver is break­ing out of the top of the lodge to at­tack the stu­dents. This lasts a mil­lisec­ond. It is ac­tu­ally a huge wa­ter snake. Leav­ing the warm glow of its sunny perch, streak­ing by stu­dents stand­ing on the ledge, swoop­ing down and across my firmly placed feet and into the murky mys­tery of the beaver pond, the wa­ter snake awoke in the teenagers an an­cient nat­u­ral re­sponse. Run. When I turned to look up, the stu­dents were gone. Nowhere to be seen.

Even­tu­ally, ev­ery­one stopped scream­ing and laugh­ing, and we re­assem­bled on the bank to con­tinue our dis­cus­sion of the ecosys­tem ser­vices per­formed by the beaver and our op­por­tunis­tic ad­di­tion, the wa­ter snake. Two min­utes later, a bald ea­gle flew into a nearby tree with a large fish. We watched in awe at the prim­i­tive beauty of this nat­u­ral spec­ta­cle. The stu­dents fell silent for a time. Then they be­gan in quiet earnest to use their senses to look and feel what other nat­u­ral won­ders they might dis­cover. At­ten­tion fa­tigue was gone for the day, re­placed by the ad­ven­ture of­ten found in the magic of na­ture’s de­sign. Learn­ing had be­gun. Wilder­ness can of­ten be an an­ti­dote to in­se­cu­rity and an open door to pro­found and abid­ing sat­is­fac­tions.

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