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Remote learners unplug, get outdoors & connect

Lowell — When Rex Moore’s mom asked if he was interested in taking some outdoor nature study classes at the Wittenbach Wege Agriscience and Environmental Center, he didn’t hesitate. 

“She started telling me about all the things that we could get to do and right away I was like, yes,” said the fifth-grader. “I love anything to do with nature.” 

First- and second-graders built a shelter together in the woods at WWC (courtesy)

Rex is currently enrolled in LAS Academy, the remote learning option for district families who chose to stay virtual this year. In a “normal” year, he’d be attending Murray Lake Elementary. 

Also in a “normal” year, all LAS K-5 classes take trips to the center for nature classes that complement each grade level’s science curriculum. But because of the pandemic, Director Courtney Cheers wasn’t able to do that regular programming. Instead, she and her team decided to offer seasonal nature study classes for LAS Academy virtual students and homeschool students throughout Lowell. 

“It’s a way for them to unplug, get out and connect with other students and friends,” Cheers said. “We keep class numbers small so that we can be socially distanced inside if we have to be inside, but the majority of class is all outside, which is cool. It gives them a much-needed break to do a little socialization safely and get a break from that computer screen. I know the families have been really grateful for it.”

The classes still follow grade-level curriculum, and include lots of observation work, hands-on exploration and nature journaling. Because class sizes are smaller and there are fewer classes than she’s used to working with, Cheers has also been able to develop some new programs. This winter, for example, they added classes about white-tailed deer and owls. 

Second-grader Ayanna Klosner displays the compass she colored during class

One of Rex’s favorite classes was on bird watching: “I learned that when you kiss your hand and it makes a little noise, if you’re around a chickadee there’s a good chance that one will come and land on your hand, because chickadees are very curious birds,” he said. 

During the last week of February, the classes focused on some of the most popular topics: survival skills and shelter-making. The younger grades started by learning how compasses work, and then headed into the woods to build both a shelter and a fire together. The older students received a more in-depth lesson on how to build fires and what could be used for tinder, kindling and fuel. Later, they completed a compass challenge and worked on their navigational skills. 

LAS Academy fourth-grader Liam Hanley had previous experience helping to build a fire in his family’s grill at home, but said he was surprised by how different it is to build a fire in the great outdoors. 

“The wind was blowing a lot, so to get the fire to be lit you need to be more on the side where the wind is coming (to protect the flame),” said Liam, whose regular school is Cherry Creek Elementary. “It was hard to do, but it was fun to find all the sticks and try to build the fire up.”

Fifth-grader Rex Moore points his compass in the right direction

After finishing his compass challenge in the snow, Rex came inside to do some journaling and sip some hot chocolate. While he’ll be returning to Murray Lake for the third trimester, he said the WWC classes have been a highlight of his time in remote learning. 

“With virtual school these days, like, you’re always in your room, in your house; you’re just always inside learning,” he said. “It’s so great to just get outdoors and learn about nature. I go outside at home but not as much as I do here. It’s so good to see people actually with your own eyes, instead of through your computer.”

Rex’s mom, Courtney, agreed: “Virtual learning has been hard, especially socially,” she said. “He loves Wittenbach and this was a perfect opportunity to get him among other kids, since at home he’s only around me. He always comes home telling me all the cool things he’s learned here, so I feel like I’ve learned so much, too.” Cheers is currently making plans for spring programming at WWC. She hopes to be able to offer both LAS Academy/homeschool classes and also programs for in-person students, but a final decision has not yet been made. Families can follow WWC on Facebook for more information.

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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