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Field School adds sixth-graders, cooks up more great learning

Partnership, pumpkin bread and PBL

Northview — Layla Larsen and Ella Jones diced Granny Smith and Honeycrisp apples for a “healthy” pie — air quotes Ella’s — using their tools carefully and confidently. 

Wielding knives, staffer Rich Youngberg had explained to the sixth-graders, was “as serious as building a fire,” something Field School students learn as part of their mostly outdoor-centered learning.

At another table, Max Troyer laid out ingredients for what he had named “Grandpa Joe’s Exquisite Loaded Potatoes.” Max told a visitor the dish — with shredded cheese, scallions and bacon bits — would be made “completely off scratch.”

Others worked in pairs to come up with something to make — besides Grandpa’s potatoes and apple pie, that included tomato vegetable soup, pumpkin and banana breads, and baskets made of and filled with fruit. Then, they shopped for healthier alternative ingredients when possible and brought cooking implements from home. Afterward, all would sit down and enjoy their culinary creations together.

The day of healthy cooking was a project-based learning lesson developed via a partnership with Van Andel Education Institute. Previous lessons have centered on birding and Monarch butterflies, climate action, clean water and responsible and sustainable consumption. 

Field School sixth-grader Max Troyer, left, shows classmate Cohen Mason how to hold a knife safely

Field School Outreach Coordinator Jenna Rykse said PBL units are integrated into many of the curriculum standards of science, social studies and English language arts.  

“More importantly, kids are learning the iterative process,” she said. “They are trying to solve a real-world problem, testing ideas, giving and receiving meaningful feedback, and presenting to an authentic audience.”

Other lessons this year revolve around water quality. They will visit the Grand Rapids wastewater treatment plant and extend that learning through water testing in our more immediate area; will tie a visit to the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex to physics lessons; and study phenology, which looks at weather seasons and how climatic changes affect plant and animal life. 

Ever-evolving Program

Max has been a Field School student since the program started in 2018, when he was in second grade. Layla and Ella are new.

“When I was conflicted about (whether to apply), my parents said ‘Ella, you don’t want to have a normal (as in typical) middle-school life,’” Ella recalled. “I don’t know what a normal middle-school life is, but I do know I would much prefer to be doing school outside all day.”

Said Brooklyn VanderMolen, another new Field Schooler, about why she applied: “I usually like holding ants and other bugs, and digging for stuff like rocks.”

Since Field School began in 2018, grade levels have been added every year. This year, 26 sixth-graders joined the program under teacher Sara Pitt.

Field School is housed by grade at East and West Oakview elementary schools and Highlands Middle. There currently are some 130 students in grades 1-6, led by six teachers and three support staffers. Every year, Rykse said, there are more students who want to attend than spots available.

‘I don’t know what a normal middle-school life is, but I do know I would much prefer to be doing school outside all day.’

— Field School student Ella Jones

There currently are no plans to expand beyond sixth grade, but “we are always thinking about how to refine what we currently do and how we can continue to offer unique learning experiences as students move through Field School,” Rykse said. “Being OK with change, being flexible and willing to think outside the box are three attributes of our staff, so it is exciting to dream about what may come for these kids as we continue to innovate within our program.”

Said Youngberg of students who have been in the program since second grade: “It’s really fun to watch their progress and see that their curiosity hasn’t waned at all. They are growing into young adults who are pursuing things they were introduced to here. 

“It’s overwhelming from where we started to where we are now, in a good way. The community that has developed around Field School, and the other (district) schools have embraced what we do here. They want to learn how they can get their classes involved in some form of outdoor learning.”

Though Max said he will miss Field School when he moves to Crossroads Middle next year, he said he’s looking forward to that ultimate middle-school perk: finally getting a locker of his own. 

“And I do have a big backyard, so I can still be outside when I want.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She 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


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