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Teachers indulge in nature

Posted: Friday, Jul 12th, 2013

Monte Vista science teacher Roger Dawson with the help of a classmate measures a tree during the RGWCEI Teacher Workshop at the Trinchera Ranch last month. Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

FORT GARLAND — Science is defined as the study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Those words also sum up the Rio Grande Water Conservation Education Initiative (RGWCEI) annual Teacher Workshop held at the Trinchera Ranch in the Sangre de Cristos last month.

In its sixth year, RGWCEI provided educators from all backgrounds with the opportunity to learn how to teach in the outdoors and from the outdoors. The workshop series offers a one-week experiential learning course annually over a three-year timeframe. The series is broken into three sectors: From Watershed to Cup Year One: Following Water Through the “Creekulum;” From Watershed to Sustainability Year Two: Building a “Stream” of Consciousness; and From Watershed to Table Year Three: Following Water Down the Food Chain. The series is based out of the ranch, but uses the entire Valley as its classroom.

Completion results in three graduate credits, an extensive education in the Valley’s natural resources and their systems and the ability to build natural resources-based activities through the K-12 Project Wet curriculum, an outdoor environmental education tool.

“The thing we increasingly hear from teachers is the more we get kids out, the more they are likely to internalize what they are learning in the classroom,” said RGWCEI education specialist and workshop co-founder Judy Lopez. “When we reattach kids, it makes what we are doing in the classroom so much better. We used to be able to get kids outdoors very easily, very readily. Now we have issues because we are seeing more and more funding cuts.”

With stricter teacher and student expectations coming down from the state based on performance scores and evaluations, she said experiential learning experiences are declining, and in the big picture the disassociation between student and practical application is a recipe for disaster.

“We have this huge population of students that really can’t interact with the outdoors and they don’t know how to interact with what is around them,” Lopez said. “The scariest part of that is that we have a lot of changes with our natural resources. It is not going to be big business as usual. That is going to mean a real connection to what is happening outside if we are going to sustain the population that we have with food, water and all other resources.” 

Although the workshop lessons take place under the canopy of the forest or in the low water of a mountain creek, it does not mean it can’t be recreated in a classroom setting, and not just a lab with beakers and burners.

“When I go back, I can look at nature and see what I can pull into the art room,” said Alamosa Elementary art teacher Roberta Matinez, a 27-year veteran. “Activities like nature collages, and having the kindergartners use the textures of pine needles with paint.”

After spending a morning measuring and inventorying trees and an afternoon examining soil, Monte Vista science teacher Roger Dawson said he would most definitely find a place for such activities since they already coincide with his lesson book.

“We are talking about all of these things; soil productivity, water and biotic communities,” Dawson said . “It provides me with other ideas and different things. I was thinking of how I could get a student to build a groundwater model that doesn’t cost $700.”

Martinez continued, “I come away from this with even more awareness of the conservation that is happening in my classroom and my home. Little things like not leaving the water running when the young students are washing their hands.”

With Professional Learning Communities (PLC) trending in education policy and belief, the workshop could be considered another opportunity for teachers to learn from one another to benefit the greater good.

“The idea behind the workshop is to give teachers hands on experience and hands on ideas, and also it is an opportunity for the teachers to reinvest in their background knowledge,” Lopez said. “The teachers now have this community. Teachers understand that they are not the only one. Teachers are incredibly creative and they learn a lot from each other.”

With 90 workshop graduates in the state, the workshop will continue as long as teachers realize the need to educate themselves and their students about their Valley and its unique natural resources.

“It opens us up to whole different things,” said Dawson, who will return for his final week in 2014. “It’s cool.”

His classmate Martinez added, “I don’t think I’ve ever been treated as well as I have been here.”

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