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‘Take the chance to be a child again’
Outdoor school student leaders reflect on their experiences
May 5, 2023
Outdoor school is an academic program where sixth graders spend a week outside, learning about nature, plants, animals, water, and soil. High school students are able to become student leaders and mentor the sixth graders throughout the fall and the spring, and help in teaching the sixth graders about environmental science.
Student leaders consist of high school students who aid in education, advising, and activities planning and execution. Palmer Wirtz, junior, and Kaitlyn Falcon, sophomore, are student leaders at outdoor school.
[Garrett Arendt]: How many times have you been to outdoor school?
[Kaitlyn Falcon]: I’ve been two times, and both were pretty good. I enjoyed it a lot, and I liked being a student leader, so I decided to come back to do it again.
[Palmer Wirtz]: I’m going into my fifth session. I did two weeks last year, a week in the summer, and a week earlier this year. I’m now heading into my fifth week.
[GA] What do you enjoy most about attending outdoor school?
[KF]: I really enjoy working with the kids and I also enjoy meeting new people, especially here in Oregon because it just varies out.
[PW]: I really enjoy working with the kids. Outdoor school when I went in sixth grade it was such an amazing experience for me. It’s really special for me to be able to continue and pass on the experience to the other sixth graders. It’s a very rewarding experience. It’s really amazing, I honestly think it’s one of the best academic and outdoorsy opportunities you can get as a teenager. It also helps give back to the community and gives you learning opportunities. You learn about teaching, you learn about childcare, and you meet some amazing people there. Plus it looks great for colleges.
[GA]: What activities do you do?
[KF]: Well usually I’m a counselor, so I take care of the kids. So what I have to do is watch over them for an entire week. That means I have to stay in the cabin with them, take care of them, get them dressed, and make sure they’re doing all their hygiene stuff. We have four field studies which are soil, water, plants, and animals. I teach them about soil and it’s pretty nice. Since it’s two sessions, one in the fall, so some of them are fresh out of elementary school but the spring one gave time for the kids to be in middle school.
[PW]: We mainly specialize in discreetly teaching the scientific process, teaching kids how to think not what to think. But we do that through the lens of teaching them about plants, animals, water, and soil. I’ve taught plants, animals, and soil but I mainly teach plants.
I really enjoy working with the kids and I also enjoy meeting new people, especially here in Oregon because it just varies out.
— Kaitlyn Falcon
[GA] What’s the most challenging part about leaving for a week?
[KF]: Your grades will plummet to the ground when you’re there. You really have no Wi-Fi or anything so you can’t really start doing school work especially if most of the work is online. Since all my work is online I’d also have to bring in my computer. But I didn’t have a lot of time during the experience to get it done. The only time to get it done there is after you put the kids to sleep. We went to a social hour where we had time to do homework. Social hour is when you hang out with the other student leaders and just talk without having to watch over the kids.
[PW]: I think the most challenging part is coming back. I don’t think there has been a single time where I haven’t cried leaving because I love the staff, I love the kids, and I love the site. Catching back up on school wasn’t much of an issue for me personally, because my teachers have been very understanding and it’s an academic opportunity. It’s counted as an excused absence which teachers are required to honor. So it’s not stressful getting back, you just got to be on top of it and coordinate with your teachers.
[GA]: What did you want to achieve when going to an outdoor school?
[KF]: I did outdoor school to get volunteer hours so I could join the National Honor Society next year. But I also just wanted to do it because I just really wanted to help work with kids because it’s something that I would probably do outside of high school.
[PW]: I think I’m always just trying to learn how to better connect with the kids. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that success looks different for every student and that not all kids are going to thrive in a traditional academic environment. Not all kids work taking notes, and some need to learn through different teaching methods. It was very difficult for me to understand, but I tried to understand that more and more, and I tried to be more flexible and empathetic because there are no bad kids, it’s just bad behavior. Unfortunately, you can’t always get to the root of the problem within the week, but I’d say that more often than not, it just takes a bit of connectivity with a kid and you’ll understand their needs.
[GA]: What were the obstacles that you had to face?
[KF]: A lot of kids have a hard time listening to you since they’re sixth graders, so it’s very difficult to get kids to stay on task. It’s also difficult to put the kids to sleep, which was the most difficult part for my cabin. Me and my cabin partner took about an hour on average to put them to sleep each night and because I had such a hard time sleeping it really took a toll on us. That was a hard part, also just juggling school on top of that is really hard but I kind of just forgot about school when I was there.
[PW]: As I said earlier, leaving is really hard. Another really bad thing that could happen is some kids may have issues going on at home that you learn about when you have them for a week. I think the hardest moment I’ve had at outdoor school was when one of my kids in my cabin group broke down crying telling me that her mom’s boyfriend had been abusing her and it’s our responsibility as student leaders and the organized responsive program to get them help. Obviously, I’m very glad that we were able to contact CPS and do the proper legal motions, but I think that was the most heartbreaking moment I’ve ever had. I truly hope she’s okay wherever she is now.
[GA]: How did you manage to get around any challenges you faced?
[KF]: I asked for help from the other staff members, and I did all my schoolwork once I came back. Considering there are 18—20 staff members it wouldn’t have been too hard to get an answer.
[PW]: I think generally just by remembering the fact that they are 12. They are middle schoolers, they are in sixth grade, and they don’t exactly know how to be a person yet. Like they’re still figuring out the whole life thing exactly, and it’s a little silly because it makes them say something where I should be allowed to be like “Why would you, why, in what world do you think that’s ok?” So I just have to remember that they are 12 and for some of them, they just learned that Santa wasn’t real. It’s a very odd age because some of them are like, further into life, and some of them are still losing teeth. So while one half is really mature while the other half are just children. That’s been an obstacle to appealing to both sides while not making a complete fool of myself.
[GA]: What does starting outdoor school feel like for you?
[KF]: It was very exciting but also very nerve-wracking because I’m doing something new that I’ve never done before. But I’ve always wanted to do it ever since I was a sixth grader and went to outdoor school. It was also nerve-wracking my first time as a student leader because you need to set a good example for yourself because the sixth graders will see you as the coolest person there.
[PW]: I signed up on a whim, I need [Careers in Technical Education (CTE)] credits and they gave a CTE environmental science credit. When I first went I knew nobody, and I went alone. It was pretty scary considering I was out there for a week and had no contact with anyone back at home or my friends. But I just had the most fun ever. I think one of the best parts about outdoor school is because it’s such an intensive program to be a part of, everybody that’s there is there for the right reasons. You’re either there because you like kids, or you’re there because you need to volunteer. You’re either there for nature, kids, or volunteering. So everybody that is there that you’re working with is pretty like-minded about goals and success.
[GA]: What should people who are starting outdoor school for the first time know and do?
[KF]: It’ll be a little difficult, it will be scary at times. It’s because you just have to make sure you’re always keeping an eye on the kids but it can be very simple at times if you know what you’re doing. Make sure you’re understanding of the kids because the kids will come to talk to you about their day and stuff, and just listen to them. Just listen to the sixth graders.
I’d say don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be goofy. I mean, the kids are always obsessed with us.
— Palmer Wirtz
[PW]: For the middle schoolers, there are usually big issues with feeling homesick or just being afraid in general, and if I could tell them anything I tell my kids all the time, we’re here for you. I don’t know you, but I do love you and I got you. I’ll take care of anything you need, it’s okay, this is a safe space. And for the student leaders, I’d say don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be goofy. I mean, the kids are always obsessed with us. I remember when I was in sixth grade, I was obsessed with my student leader, they think are the coolest person no matter what. So like be goofy with them, if you need to make stupid puns, make stupid puns. If you need to chase them around and play tag, do it. They’re 12 and they like it. Take that chance to be a child again.
[GA] Any other things to say?
[KF]: I recommend anyone who plans on doing outdoor school to it. It’s a very fun opportunity, and you should take that chance, especially since our high school offers it twice a year, one in the fall and the other in the spring. The fall has four weeks while the spring has 11. Each week is a different school.
[PW]: [Outdoor school] is an amazing program, and I would really, really, really recommend being involved in any scope you can, and I have yet to meet a student leader that regrets going. I have friends that have done it multiple times, I have friends who are just starting, and I have friends that have gone out of the program and ended up becoming staff members or working in other child education sectors because of it. I don’t think there’s any risk involved in putting yourself out there.