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Teacher leads students into the great outdoors

Award-winning teacher brings education to the outdoors

Grand Rapids – Erin Fettig is a rockstar teacher. And she has the hardware to prove it: a Swell Teacher of the Year award from Groundswell Michigan

For Fettig, teaching has become about more than just the traditional classroom. Some days – and not just on Earth Day, April 22 – she thinks her best classroom might be the great outdoors. 

Brookside Elementary teacher Erin Fettig

And Groundswell loves to see it. 

Launched in 2009, Groundswell is housed at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, and helps teachers who “want to move beyond the classroom walls and teach students through exploring their own communities.”

That’s exactly what Fettig has done, said Sally Triant, a GRPS environmental education consultant. She has worked with Fettig as she has taken her first-graders at Brookside Elementary into outdoor areas all around the school’s physical location on Madison Avenue SE just half a mile north of 28th Street.

Though taking her students outside did not come naturally, Fettig has quickly become more comfortable with the experience, Triant said. That’s something that is true for many teachers who over the years were not taught ways to take lessons beyond the classroom.

But Fettig’s willingness to go beyond her comfort zones allowed her students to thrive.

“Erin knew that taking students outside would benefit their mental and emotional health during the pandemic, and though it was completely new to her, she decided to try it, even though it would probably be hard,” Triant said. 

Fettig agreed with Triant’s assessment of her initial misgivings.

From left, Sally Triant, Erin Fettig, with her Swell Teacher award from Groundswell Michigan, and Groundswell manager Jessica VanderArk (courtesy)

25 Kids in an Open Space Can Be Scary

She has been with GRPS for a dozen years now, including a decade at Brookside where this year she has 25 first-grade students. They are full of energy and enthusiasm and some days not nearly as willing to fall in line as the ducks that she and her charges now observe periodically at nearby Plaster Creek. So, she said, yes, the idea of going outdoors took a little time to get used to.

“We are so tied to our standards that sometimes thinking about doing something new feels overwhelming,” Fettig said. “When you go outside you also open up a whole new set of variables with kids. One teacher, 25 kids in a large open space can feel a little scary. It feels like you have less control over the situation than when you are inside your four walls.”

And control, Fettig admitted, can often be elusive in education.

“There is a lot right now that feels heavy in teaching,” she said. “But even before the pandemic, educators have not been supported in the ways that we need. Testing, teacher observations and evaluations, understaffed schools, there’s just a lot that doesn’t always feel fun or within our control in our classroom.”

In the face of all that, getting outdoors seemed like it might be worth the risk. 

“I wanted to bring more joy to my teaching and to my classroom,” she said. “I love being outside and active, but I am not an expert on gardening or learning outdoors. Often that feels scary and disorganized. But it also feels empowering.”

Erin Fettig’s students observing Plaster Creek as part of an outdoor lesson last fall (courtesy)

Tapping Into Prior Kroc Center Relationship

Fettig said that being at Brookside provided some built-in advantages because of the proximity to backyard neighbor, The Kroc Center. The school and the Center have numerous partnerships, both past and present. So when Fettig began to research how to create a school garden space where flowers, herbs and vegetables could be grown, it was a natural fit for Brookside to use the Kroc Center’s community garden space. 

In the fall of 2020 her first-grade class planted garlic thanks to a Groundswell grant that allowed her to purchase the grow light that helped start the vegetable seedlings, as well as tools, books, a composter, a garden cart and more. 

“I can’t even begin to say enough good things about Groundswell,” Fettig said. “Obviously without the grant money many of these opportunities that our classroom has been involved in would just not be possible. But Groundswell doesn’t just provide you with grant money, they also support teachers with lesson plans, professional development, connections with community partners. They want to see teachers and classrooms succeed at place-based learning.” 

After garlic, Fettig and her students expanded their efforts, and last summer and into the fall, they harvested beans, peas, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, parsley, basil and more.

‘I am definitely learning right alongside my students. Often that feels scary and disorganized. But it also feels empowering.’

 – Erin Fettig, Groundswell Swell Teacher of the Year

This spring they decided to take on a rain garden project at Brookside and have spent time in recent weeks learning all about the topic, including the value of native perennials. That project includes financial support via a state-funded grant facilitated by Groundswell, which is giving her students an opportunity to learn about the Plaster Creek watershed and the benefits of creating habitat for wildlife such as songbirds and pollinators. Plaster Creek runs through Brookside’s backyard and in the early 2000s gained infamy as West Michigan’s most-polluted stream.

Erin Fettig, right, and Sally Triant prepping garden plots at the Kroc Center last spring (courtesy)

Good Stewards of the Earth

Fettig and her students have spent time observing Plaster Creek, learning where water comes from and where it goes; observing rain and how it flows on the school playground; reading books about ways the earth is being affected by the things that people do; and all along, Fettig said, “recognizing there are ways we can prevent or reverse our negative impacts.”

And while Fettig realizes that she and her students won’t be completely restoring Plaster Creek via their efforts, she does believe that they can play a small part in its health and in bigger environmental efforts.

“I want my kids to learn to be good stewards of the earth,” she said.

She smiles now when she recalls some of the early days of their outdoor adventures together.

“Going to the garden was chaotic,” she said. “Every kid wanted to do everything at the same time. Lots of kids didn’t want to get their hands dirty, and then they would see a rollie pollie (pill bug) or a spider and everyone would scream. Or want to touch it. 

“So just like a classroom, you have to have procedures to be outside. We talk about it a lot, about what it should look like and sound like when we are learning outside. Learning outside should be enjoyable and fun, but it is not recess. By the end of last year, I had kids running to show me worms or spiders, holding them gently in their hands in wonder.” 

That sounds pretty swell to Triant.

“Erin is offering her students an interaction with nature that is good for their health,” she said. “It also will also create a connection that will call them to protect the natural world in the future. That makes her a real rockstar in my opinion.”

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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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