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Elkins High students explore nature through new program

The Inter-Mountain photo by Brooke Binns Students at Elkins High School engage in variety of outdoor activities Tuesday morning as part of a Wonder and Grow: Mindful Nature Experience lesson designed to ignite a sense of wonder among young adults.

ELKINS — A group of students at Elkins High School were challenged to explore nature and express themselves in a new way during a Wonder and Grow: Mindful Nature Experience this week.

Andrew Carroll, chair of the English department at EHS, said he and Amanda Sacks, a history teacher at EHS, invite innovation to their classrooms with hopes that their students will be successful.

“We brought Wonder and Grow: Mindful Nature Experience to our class today for three key reasons: to benefit the wellness of students, to improve our classroom culture, and to create an extended metaphor about how we want students to think about reading and writing during the course,” Carroll said.

“For Amanda and I, our American Studies Honors course — English 10 Honors and US History Honors — is our space for innovation,” he said. “It’s a living laboratory to try unconventional research-based practices. We want to constantly defy what students expect out of school. … We want to stack up as many of these advantage for our students so that they are more likely to succeed.”

According to its mission, Wonder and Grow’s intent is for children to love and appreciate where they live and become stewards of their communities and the planet. Furthermore, according to information provided by their website, Wonder and Grow: Mindful Nature Experience ignites a sense of wonder and grows scientific understanding and connection with the natural world through curiosity driven exploration and mindfulness practices.

“We also are using mindfulness as a metaphor for how we want them to behave as readers and writers. The best example of this is the ‘wide view’ activity we did today,” Carroll noted.

Kate Reed and Valerie Warner, the “mindful outdoor guides” of Wonder and Grow, guided students through a “mindful nature experience” Tuesday morning through a series of activities including meditation and physical and breathing control exercises. Reed said the goal was to have a positive impact on each student’s well-being.

“Kate and Valerie had all the students spread out and adopt a wide gaze of the world and try to observe the world around them. This kind of vision is exactly what Amanda and I want our students to do as they read and write,” Carroll said. “They have to see everything all at once, but not discount the individual pieces. They have to see the relationships between ideas. They have to realize that reading is an active task and that not all meaning will always be obvious at first glance.

“It’s powerful now to have that shared experience to refer back to as we begin to read increasingly difficult texts and answer increasingly complicated questions.”

Carroll went on to say young adults are faced with stress on a daily basis, whether it be related to school or their home lives.

“Today, students are dealing with a lot — whether it’s typical stress related to being a teenager or trauma related to a rough home life; so, we have to not only tell them that we care about their well being, but also equip them with skills to deal with stress,” he said.

“That’s exactly what this Mindful Nature Experience did — it gave them a strong foundation to build a framework to cope with the stress they face. This is supported by the research. In ‘Visible Learning,’ John Hattie’s meta-analysis of over 1,000 educational studies, it identifies mindfulness practices as ‘likely to have a positive impact on student achievement.'”

At the end of their lesson, Reed and Warner asked each student, if they felt comfortable, to reflect on their experience and share their thoughts with their classmates, whether their experience was negative or positive. Students offered a variety of opinions, ranging from their observation of bees or insects, or feeling comfortable among their classmates in a judgement-free environment to feeling uncomfortable or anxious.

“We also feel that it helps improve our classroom culture, by giving students a shared experience and space to be vulnerable with each other,” Carroll said. “You heard them out there today, some of them really shared how they experience the day and it wasn’t easy for them. That kind of sharing creates stronger classroom cohesion, which Hattie suggests has a ‘potential to accelerate student achievement.’

“Additionally, this framework of mindfulness allows Amanda and me to have a better-managed classroom, which is also ‘likely to have a positive impact on student achievement.'”

Carroll noted that he and Sacks have incorporated breathing exercises into their classroom lessons in the past and have seen successful outcomes, adding they are hopeful that their students will take what they experienced during the Wonder and Grow lesson and incorporate it into their daily routine.

“Last year, Amanda started using breathing exercises and short meditations as ways to start class and as a way to transition between activities,” he said. “We found it really improved the atmosphere and classroom culture — and it really made us both better classroom managers. Since then, we’ve been eager to build on that first experience.”

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