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Camping for credits? It’s a thing

The quartet of Eastern High freshmen seemed pretty capable as they worked together to pitch a tent on a grassy area on the north side of the school. Truth is, none of them had ever been camping before.

“Not unless you count my backyard,” said Ella Bowen. “And I just remember that being very wet.”

Things shaped up to be much drier for Ella and her classmates. Tent Assembly 101 is part of the curriculum in the new Wayfinder Navigators class. As is backpack adjusting, camp stove lighting and compass-knowing-how-to-using (orienteering is the fancy name).

Teachers Jacquie Brown and Dolores Keeley received a $14,500 grant from the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation to become a pilot school.

Their first backpacking trip was to hike the Manistee forest May 24-25.

Ready to start the 12-mile Manistee River Trail in May (courtesy photo)

The year-long pilot class offered to freshmen at Eastern High combines honors biology or biology with health and physical education requirements into a two-hour block. The 30 students in this year’s class are learning wilderness training, problem-based learning and environmental awareness, as well as about DNA and how genes play a role in nutrition.

Jacquie Brown, left, and Dolores Keeley co-teach the Wayfinder Navigators class at Eastern High

“We had many more want to get in (the class) than could,” Keeley said. And when the class was offered to eighth-graders for next year, she said, twice as many applied than there was available space. Students whose schedules allow for the fourth- and fifth-hour class are selected at random.

The class utilizes the Project Wayfinder toolkit taught at Stanford University’s d.school, which integrates educational standards through outdoor experiences and adventures.

A Groundswell grant through Grand Valley State University provided funds for first-semester hikes every Friday on the North Country Trail and the development of trails in a wooded area on Eastern’s campus.

Jude Cleveland, left, and Grantland Lancaster work to assemble their tent poles

“Everyone has grown to look forward to those hikes to decompress from the week,” Keeley said. “It’s been a great way to combine the benefits of physical fitness, environmental awareness and mental health.”

Not only that, she continued, “The feeling of self-esteem and self-reliance they get from packing and carrying their own gear and finding their way, nobody else can do that for you.”

An unexpected benefit Brown and Kelley have noticed: relationships among students.

“It’s been interesting to walk behind them on hikes and see how they pair up in ways you don’t see them in school, and their conversations about their learning,” Brown said.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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