Mary Magnusson, MEd ’09

Thinking Outside the Classroom

Remember when you were a high school student? On beautiful days you gazed out the window, wishing you could be outdoors enjoying the sun on your face. Your teacher’s voice became mere background noise as you daydreamed the class away. Learning? Maybe tomorrow — if it’s raining.

Thanks to Mary Magnusson, students at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, will soon be able to experience the outdoors and learn at the same time in an outdoor classroom.

Mary teaches freshman English at Sanborn High, and has been teaching on and off for twenty years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire and got her master’s from Antioch University New England’s Experienced Educators Program in 2009.

“Antioch’s program,” she says, “is so much richer than what a traditional master’s program would be. It’s completely geared for people who are teaching. You’re there as an educator learning about the philosophy of education and assessment and curriculum, and you’re then going back to your classroom and putting into practice what you just learned about.”

Planting the Seed

Mary’s goal as a teacher is to be like the instructors in the Experienced Educators Program: the Guide on the Side who fosters two-way communication and experiential learning, not the Sage on the Stage who lectures to the classroom from a podium. As part of that, and as part of her master’s project, Mary wanted to reinvent parts of Sanborn’s older experiential learning programs. She was inspired by programs like Project Whaleboat in the late 1980s, where a science instructor led his class through the building of an authentic whaleboat, and Science Afield, where a science class would go on backpacking trips, canoe trips, and other adventure-based experiences. Another inspirational program was VIP (Vocational Improvement Program), where at-risk freshmen learned by being involved in outdoor activities.

Mary worked with advisor Peter Eppig, chair of AUNE’s education department, who helped her with the research needed for the project. “The advisor is the guide to support the research dimension of the project…so I was their consultant,” says Peter. “We would look at the overall plan of research and see what information we needed to get from which sources. Since Sanborn has a history of similar kinds of initiatives, one of the things Mary was doing was trying to interview people who were in some way connected to those projects that were fifteen, twenty, and thirty years old.”

As part of the project, Mary presented the outdoor classroom idea to the Sanborn school board. “The school board loved what they had done,” says Peter. Once the board had accepted the project, it was time to get funding to turn the idea into a reality. One of the members of Mary’s group knew of a $15,000 community impact grant available from the Walker Foundation, so they wrote up an application – and in December 2008 were awarded $8,000 to fund their outdoor classroom project. “We were told, ‘If we like how you spent the $8,000, then there’s a good chance that we’ll give you the rest,’” recalls Mary.

Nourishing the Soil

The grant money created opportunities for Sanborn to re-establish the connection between students and the environment, thereby increasing student involvement in environmental and nature-related activities. First, a nature trail was created. The high school’s environmental science class has since set up two research sites along the trail and also worked to map and write descriptions of the main habitats along the trail. A brochure has been designed for use at a kiosk that will be set up at the trailhead.

The nature trail has been used by many science classes, and for Mary’s English students, finding solitude along the school’s nature trail and writing about observations of nature and life will be their transcendentalist experience.

As a prelude to learning about transcendentalists and their writing, once a week these sophomores have spread themselves out along the trail: sitting on rocks, stumps, under trees, in a grassy spot, on a hillside, anywhere that catches their eye at the moment, and writing in solitude. During in-depth study of transcendentalists later in the academic year, the sophomores will be creating essays and poetry from the journal writing they penned along the nature trail. Some of their writing will be submitted to the school’s literary magazine and will also be included in a class anthology.

The Sapling Grows

The outdoor classroom project has led to new community connections just like Mary had envisioned during the planning stage. “If you can get something started, even as simple as an a nature trail that kids are going to use and that the community becomes aware of, it’s going to snowball,” she says. “I think one thing will lead to another.”

And it already has! An outdoor amphitheater is also in the works. The location is on a wooded hillside, close to the school, and materials have been purchased for a stage that will be large enough to accommodate students doing a skit, giving a speech, performing Shakespeare, or reciting poetry. The trees will provide natural shade. The style of seating is still to be decided, but the space will easily allow for thirty students. A SRHS student is currently creating a 3-D model of the amphitheater space. Her conceptual design will be useful when the school completes work on the amphitheater.

The Walker Foundation grant money was an important tool used to fulfill one motivated educator’s dream for her school. Yet the benefits derived from the gift and Mary’s vision will live on each year as more and more students, and members of the public, find inspiration and motivation from learning in nature.

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