Andrew H. Wilson Elementary fourh-graders fidget in their seats in a log cabin auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bay windows that face a stretch of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve — woods and more woods. They're in the first few minutes of a three-day field trip.
The program coordinator introduces herself as Redwood. She huddles the adults into a corner and issues a disclaimer: "It's going to be a little goofy," she says. "And it's going to be a little chaotic." Another rule: "We don't allow anyone to wear watches," she says. "If the kids ask what time it is, just say, 'It's time to have fun,' or 'It's time to go on an adventure.'"
The program teachers, the "guardians," introduce themselves — Slider, Paulownia and Loon.
Welcome to Earthkeepers, a part of Teaching Responsible Earth Education's (TREE) network of programs that turns science class into a camping trip.
The fourth-graders line up for their wooden medallion nametags and their backpacks, which hold their Earthkeepers Training Manual, a magnifying glass and a pencil. A parent-chaperone and five teachers from the Broadmoor school lead color-coordinated groups outside. Slider and Paulownia lead one group down the park's boardwalk until the auditorium, school buses and lunch bags are a bit farther away than some would like. The group hops off the boardwalk and sits in a wide circle.
"This is our outdoor classroom," Paulownia says. "Pretty cool, right?"
The students look up, down, left, right. They're in the middle of the woods, far from Broadmoor, but they agree that sitting in the dirt is way better than sitting in class.
Since 1995, TREE has taught more than 12,000 public and private school students, parents and teachers in the New Orleans area. The curriculum is based on program models provided by the Institute for Earth Education, a Greenville, W. Va.-based network of environmental educators, with international hubs in Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The institute was founded in 1974 as an alternative provider of environmental education, using program methods with names like Earthkeepers, Sunship Earth and Sunship III.
A former fifth-grade teacher at John Dibert Elementary, TREE director Sue Brown visited a Sunship Earth program in Pennsylvania and immediately brought it back to her classroom.
"It just captured my imagination," she says. "I guess I had these little kid feelings from being outdoors. My mother had allowed and fostered those things, and I felt like my fifth-grade kids weren't getting those kinds of attachments to the world."
Brown developed the New Orleans Sunship Earth program in 1985 and continued teaching until 1995, when she left Dibert to create TREE. With TREE, Brown wanted to open Sunship Earth to fifth-graders in other public schools and expand programming to include spinoffs for fourth- and seventh-graders (Earthkeepers and Sunship III, respectively). TREE teaches its programs at Jean Lafitte in Barataria and at the TREE Outdoor Classroom near Covington.
"We wanted kids to have amazing experiences," she says. "In the city, vacant lots are not enticing places for any of our kids, so being out in nature and having natural woods —one kid said, 'I got two trees in my yard, I thought that was the woods!'"
"A lot of these kids, when they first come out, are like, 'I've never been in the woods. Are we in the woods right now?'" says Alyssa Denny ("Paulownia").
The first schooling in the outdoor classroom begins with a song: "All living things on the Earth are connected." Paulownia and Slider explain, using a few props and balls of clay, how sun, soil, water and air compose the natural world.
Later the students break into groups to join a "speck trail." Armed with magnifying glasses, they follow the life of a "speck" named Howard Humus, a bit of soil that moves from a plant to an animal and starts over in its droppings. After lunch, the guardians explain food chains ("munch lines") with lunch trays and stuffed animals.
Paulownia concludes the day's lesson with a story about mosquitoes in her backyard. Birds got sick and eventually stopped visiting her yard when the mosquitoes were sprayed with pesticides. To keep the birds in her backyard, she stopped spraying pesticides and removed standing water where mosquitoes bred. All the lessons of the day — munch lines, speck trails, "all living things on the Earth are connected" — boiled down into an environmental message so effective one could almost see the lightbulbs blinking above the fourth-graders' heads.
"All of this stuff could be taught in the classroom, but outdoors, it sticks with them," says Patrick Norman ("Slider"). "I mean, I learned about the water cycle in school, but it wasn't as fun — I wasn't doing the 'Water Cycle Boogie.'"
In an executive report on TREE programming, the University of Arizona determined Earthkeepers "meshes well with state standards and helped students accomplish many curriculum objectives."
The university evaluated Earthkeepers from September 2004 to May 2005. That year, TREE offered the program 13 times with 474 students from seven schools as well as an after-school program from two other schools. All but one were public schools from Orleans or St. Charles parishes, and most students lived in high-poverty areas (the rates of students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch among the schools ranged from 24 percent to 99 percent).
Brown says TREE programs are capable of teaching nearly a third of a student's curriculum. "Schools do that. Textbooks do that. But we wanted to do it in an imaginative, role-playing way that kids get concepts they can hold on to and grow themselves," she says. "They're kernel ideas they can have for larger-scale concepts. Some people are going, 'You can't possibly (teach a third of the curriculum) in three or four days.' We've had teachers come back and go, 'I didn't believe you when you started, but you do it.'"
TREE says it meets 100 percent of state content standards for science; 71 percent in English and language arts; 50 percent in social studies; and 33 percent in math. The program also accounts for 37 percent of state benchmarks met with relevant grade-level expectations in science and English and language arts; 8 percent in social studies; and 13 percent in math.
The university tested students with the Ecological Concept Questionnaire, and students' understanding of ecological concepts increased 43 percent from a pre-test assessment. When asked about their personal environmental actions before and after the program, 92 percent of the students reported making significant changes in their daily lives. All teachers said students have lessened their environmental impact in the classroom, and 68 percent of the parents saw changes in their children's behavior with saving energy and materials as well as their awareness of environmental issues and the natural world. The evaluation found similar results for that year's Sunship Earth program.
With such good numbers, why aren't more schools lining up for the program? In the weeks leading up to federally mandated standardized testing, Brown shows TREE's calendar is empty. She says school administrators would rather keep their students in the classroom.
"But why not give the kids a break, have them learn something and feel good about it?" she says. "I'm all for testing, but the way we do it needs to be looked at. (Teachers) are under pressure. I understand their plight in all of this — they're under the gun. It's counterintuitive to take their kids out of the classroom. But most of them have come to one of our programs and now see the advantage. It's a little unnerving (for them) to do the opposite of 'do what you think you got to do, just drill it into them.' As a teacher that wants this city to bloom and blossom, it's a little scary for me."
New Orleans public schools hit another speed bump in getting their classes to the programs: money. As a nonprofit, TREE operates largely on grants and donations. The organization's board members, using grants, will fund half a student's tuition, but the schools must make up the difference. The tuition per student in Earthkeepers, for example, is $250. Andrew Wilson Elementary's trip is partially funded by a recent grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Broadmoor Improvement Association picked up the remaining costs.
"Most kids that live in the city of New Orleans, specifically — the parents and schools don't have $125 per student," says Earthkeepers coordinator Debi Theobald ("Redwood"). "When you multiply that by 50, it's quite a bit of money."
Program costs include site fees, instructional materials, pre- and post-trip packets, insurance, meals and snacks (for overnight trips) and, most important, the teachers. Each program has five or six students per adult in a total group of 25 to 35 students.
With no commercial pull — TREE doesn't advertise and uses schoolteachers and word-of-mouth recommendations as its publicity — TREE continuously searches for outside funding to fill the gaps. Brown says she hopes to one day institutionalize the program into state schools, or at least within the Recovery School District.
"We do have people that support this in New Orleans," she says. "It's just that they're supporting a lot of things in this city and there are lots of needs here."
TREE programs incorporate three components: head, heart and hands, or "knowledge, experience and doing," Brown says.
"What we tie it to is that 'doing' part: Now that you know about the planet and you care about the planet, what will you do about the planet?" she asks. "It may be as simple as turning off a light switch. But now they understand where that fits in a bigger piece of the world, so they're not just doing it because someone told them to. I don't think we want the 'greening' to be just, 'OK, we've done the light bulbs, we've recycled.' Kids come out of (the program) with their own feelings of power. They come out feeling like, 'I can do something.'"
The programs are designed with a focus on experiential education, but the students are required to hook someone else into the lessons they learned once they come home, including changing their energy-use habits. "They're seeing that what they do will make a difference," Brown says. "They're bugging their parents. They're spreading this information."
Students are asked what they hope to accomplish after the program. "One kid last session said, 'Learn to live with less,'" Denny says.
TREE also requires students to spend more time outside once they return from the program.
"When we take them on a Diary Walk, we take the kids through a walk in the woods, and the kids are always like, 'Are we going to go trail hiking again?'" says Chelsea Keenan ("Loon"). "They're like, 'Oh, there's a place like this by my house, I'm going to go there.'"
In the outdoor classroom, Paulownia leads the group to another patch of woods off the main boardwalk. She lowers an imaginary "veil of silence," and the group slowly gets quiet. The fourth-graders are given a blue mat and a place to sit by themselves — their "magic spot" — with their classmates just out of earshot.
"When you sit still and think, magical things happen for you," Brown says. "You process information; you get a chance to write beautiful poetry, where amazing kinds of thoughts come. We set aside a time of day to have that solitude — a place to be alone but not lonely."
The students poke around at the dirt and giggle at first, then get frustrated. "I ain't never been out in no woods before," one girl says. Then they reach for their journals and pencils inside their Earthkeepers satchels and begin to write.
"That's a lot of city kids, not saying anything, sitting in the woods by themselves for the first time," Theobald says. "Some of them are petrified, but it gives them a chance to understand, 'I can do this. I have control of this thing right here and I'm doing it, and I'm doing it well.'"
Redwood signals the end of their magic space with a few notes on an ocarina. The group gathers into another circle, where Paulownia asks if anyone wants to share his or her journal. A few hands shoot up — one student recites T.I. lyrics, then his own nature-inspired rap. Another offers a poem.
"My magic space is very beautiful," he reads.
Some of the fourth-graders snicker, but another student chimes in with his journal entry. So does another.
"That's the self-esteem component that goes with (the program)," Theobald says. "They're mixed and matched all the time and forced to work with kids they may never have talked to.
"The playing field here is leveled. Nobody's smarter, nobody's prettier. They're all just out in the woods together."