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Learning under the trees

Groundswell helping teachers bring lessons outside the classroom

On a recent mid-October gem of a day, a group of teachers-turned-students spent two hours meandering through Garfield Park in Grand Rapids, stopping numerous times in the shade of the park’s many trees for hands-on learning about their traits from a local expert.

Southwest Community Campus first grade teacher Samantha Gibson rescued over 150 monarch eggs and larvae this summer (courtesy of Southwest Community Campus)

The jaunt, billed as “Tree School,” was led by Lauren Davis, urban forest coordinator for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, and his happy band of followers was part of a day-long workshop called “Teaching Outdoors with Forestry,” an event led by Jessica Vander Ark, project manager at Groundswell.

In addition to tree school, myriad other activities during the day were designed to help teachers who want to create educationally rich outdoor experiences for their students.

Groundswell is housed in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University and is one of nine local networks or hubs of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. It supports K-12 educators who want to take their students’ learning beyond the classroom, providing teacher training, funding for projects, connections with community partners and much more.

“We help train teachers in subject areas they want to learn about,” Vander Ark, a former teacher, said. “It’s important to us to get cross curricular connections. And we offer a program every month for teachers.”

Southwest Community Campus teacher Jennifer Hutchinson at Groundswell’s ‘Teaching Outdoors With Forestry’

Helping Buck Creek, Planting Tulips

Teachers Jane Van Hof and Bobbijo Zoerhof, of Kentwood’s Valleywood Middle School, said the Garfield Park day was just the latest in a long line of memorable Groundswell events.

“We get just a ton of resources for teaching and ideas for the classroom,” said Zoerhof, noting that when she first started attending Groundswell events circa 2006 she was often one of just a handful of participants.

Van Hof is a more recent convert. She and Zoerhof have now been to half a dozen events together and also are partnering on a project at Buck Creek, on the north side of the school’s property. Van Hof’s students are planting native plants to help with water quality, while Zoerhof’s students are operating a tethered remote vehicle in the creek to take underwater images.

Anne Keller, a sixth grade teacher at Orchard View Elementary in Forest Hills, is another longtime fan of Groundswell events. She teaches both science and language arts and appreciates the ways in which Groundswell also brings different subject areas together in events like this. It included not just a scientific focus on trees but also participants sharing their favorite books about trees.

Students of Bobbijo Zoerhof used a tethered, remote vehicle to take underwater pictures of Buck Creek (courtesy of Valleywood Middle School)

“Groundswell is really great at what they do,” she said. “I do as many events as they offer.”

Keller takes what she learns and brings it back to her classroom and her school.

In fact, as part of the Journey North project, Keller’s students planned to partner with Orchard View’s younger students the day after the forestry event to plant 100 tulips. They will then document their growth, measure when they bud out and when they bloom, and compare their results to other gardens across the Northern Hemisphere.

Connecting with Butterflies

And over the past month or so, first grade students at Southwest Community Campus — a Spanish-English dual-immersion Grand Rapids Public School — have been releasing monarch butterflies that they have nurtured in their classrooms from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.

Teachers at Groundswell’s ‘Teaching Outdoors With Forestry’ event followed in the footsteps of the man for whom the park was named

First grade teacher Jennifer Hutchinson, who has been taking advantage of Groundswell professional development training for three or four years now, recalled an “aha” moment for many of her students as she taught them about the monarchs.

“When we first started talking about them (the monarchs),” she said, “and I told the students where they end up going, that they go to Mexico, one of my students blurted out: ‘I’m from Mexico!’ It was a powerful moment of connection.”

Hutchinson points to the annual Groundswell Student Showcase as part of the inspiration for the butterfly project at SWCC.

At that showcase, held at Celebration Cinema North, students involved in Groundswell projects share one-minute videos about their community stewardship activities with parents, teachers and community members.

For Hutchinson, the event is always a great place to get ideas and inspiration. For Groundswell project manager Vander Ark, the showcase is simply one more way her organization is hoping to foster the next generation of environmental stewards.


Groundswell and GRPS GREEN project

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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