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News from the Foundation

Posted: November 16, 2021

APS Teachers Take Learning Outside

The mission of the APS Education Foundation is to partner with the community to invest in innovative and enhanced learning opportunities to help APS students reach their full potential.  Their grantees not only think outside of the box…more of them are thinking outside of the classroom.

For years, teachers across the district have found value in learning outdoors, whether that be through field trips, school gardens or outdoor learning spaces.  When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and students turned to their screens, teachers started looking at ways in which they could engage their students beyond the building and beyond the screen when they came to campus. 

Jordan Orlovsky, a teacher at eCADEMY High School, received a grant from the Foundation for a hiking trip with Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions and took her students last year, when many needed it the most.  She has continued thisJordan Orlovsky of eCADEMY High School partnership to provide these new experiences to her students.  On a crisp and sunny fall day, eCADEMY took a trip to Bachechi Open Space.  Ms. Orlovsky explained, “eCADEMY has so many unique programs - we have the fully online independent program where students work 100% from home on their online classes and then we have the face-to-face BlendED program where students get their core classes online and they also get to come to campus and take their elective classes face-to-face with all of their core content teachers.  We also have the awesome opportunity to go on wonderful field trips and take students out exploring to learn those concepts taught in their online classes but in a new and exciting way, through experience and collaboration, so it is not as much isolation.  They get to meet friends and build relationships with all their teachers.”

Naina Panthaki, Director of Education at Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, explains “After teaching in a classroom for over seven years, I have watched kids not engage in what is happening in the classroom. Being in nature and around the things they learn about in science class or English class – that kind of learning seems to stick much better than anything I’ve ever seen.  Cottonwood Gulch works to connect the learning in the classroom to the outdoors.  That applicable learning makes such a big difference.”

Habron Botts, Field Instructor at Cottonwood Gulch, led the students through games to get their field trip started before they began observations.  He encouraged students to share their likes and learn more about each other.  “Outdoor education provides a space for formative experiences,” he said. “It challenges you and challenges your comfort zone.  The outdoors is a place for everybody and that attracts people from diverse backgrounds.  It is formative for the kids and for people like myself to be a part of those growth moments, because within those growth moments are things that I can learn.  It is an all-around learning environment so the people that are teaching and the people that are receiving the lessons are teaching each other, both academically but also sharing life lessons.  One of my goals is to foster that relationship with the environment.  If you love it, then you want to protect it.”

Emma Nelson, an 11th grade student at eCADEMY, already started to understand the goal of her trip to the bosque that morning.  “Being able to visualize what we are learning about is a lot more helpful than just hearing about it because we have been studying the river and this is really cool to see it come to life.  It helps someone like me, a visual learner.  It’s really fun, it gets you away from campus, and it gets you outside and in the sun, but it also exposes you to your home, where you live, and it gives you insight.  It’s not what I expected.  I thought we would just be walking around.  I would tell students to come with an open mind, because it is way better than what I expected.” 

When asked how she would respond to those who would consider outdoor excursions just an escape from school to play, Ms. Orlovsky passionately replied, “Play is the catalyst of learning.  We learn so much more when we are playing, when we are exploring, when we are able to get our hands on things and see things.  It takes far less repetitions to learn through play than it does through ‘sit and get’.  This is an experience students will take with them for the rest of their lives, an experience that they may never have if they don’t get out.  Many of our students have never seen our river, and now they get to see that.” 

Jordy Hicks of Atrisco Heritage Academy High School recently won a grant for an outdoor classroom.  Mr. Hicks has been working to make outdoor learning Jordan Hicks of AHAaccessible for all teachers and students by sharing his experiences and encouraging other educators to get outside.  "Students tend to compartmentalize their learning,” he writes. “We put them in classrooms and they often forget that learning can happen after they leave the room. Outdoor learning has the capacity to trick them into thinking about their classes when they leave by using a school's common spaces, or even their community, as instructional tools. I tell people to expand their class into the greater school community so students can accidentally learn at random times.  Additionally, there are physiological and psychological benefits to spending time outside that can help with attention, behavior, creativity, inquiry, and the list goes on.  All subjects can be enriched and enhanced by spending time outdoors.  Some of my most significant learning experiences have occurred while spending time outside and I want to provide similar opportunities to my students. At my school, I have worked to provide and promote outdoor spaces for student learning. This might be as simple as acquiring stumps to sit on, producing lessons that involve the outdoors, providing professional development on outdoor learning, or even working with the school community to build and develop more permanent outdoor learning spaces."

To support these efforts, Albuquerque Public Schools is bringing all these stakeholders together.  “The APS Outdoor Education Team (OET) was formed in 2019 by enthusiastic and committed APS resource teachers and staff from the Curriculum and Instruction Department, the School Gardens office, and the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center (SMNHC),” writes Vince Case, Environmental Education Teacher for SMNHC.  “We believe that APS can be a place in which school campuses extend beyond the four walls, where the outdoors is valued and utilized as an educational resource, and where the community and the natural environment are integral components of children's education. The OET is currently collaborating with and supporting over thirty schools on projects that range from utilizing and considering outdoor learning spaces, providing professional learning opportunities and outdoor learning activity resources for school administration, teachers, and staff, and assisting school garden development.  Last year, the OET facilitated several professional learning workshops during Teacher Leader Facilitator summits and we are currently seeking grant funding for additional professional development in the coming year.”

Knowing that teachers have so much on their plates that adding an outdoor component to their lessons can feel overwhelming, Ms. Panthaki said, “We give students the opportunity to spend time in nature, but we also provide a space for teachers to join in on this nature excursion without feeling they have to plan and execute all of it which is very hard.”

Partnerships with nonprofits dedicated to enriching learning through the outdoors can be transformative.  The APS Education Foundation and the APS Outdoor Education Team are actively looking for ways to partner with organizations like Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, the Bosque Ecoystem Monitoring Program (BEMP) and many others to reach more schools and students. 

Jasy Shiparski, the President of the APS Education Foundation Board of Directors, writes, “As we wrap up another busy fall grant cycle we can reflect on how each grant correlates with what is happening in all of our schools. This year, we received a record amount of grants for outdoor learning spaces. We are all continuing to navigate life amidst a pandemic and the schools are no different. Their grants for outdoor learning spaces illustrate our schools innovation for keeping learning going even in challenging times. Research shows that the benefits of learning outdoors are tremendous and the APS Education Foundation is excited to support our educators by continuing to partner with our Outdoor Education Team at APS, and with other organizations across the state to bring these opportunities to our APS students. I know that if I were given the chance to learn outdoors, it would beat four walls and fluorescent lights any day!”

Speaking of donors who initiate these innovative approaches to learning through their investments, Ms. Orlovsky said, “Their dollars are giving students life.  Some students discover on these field trips that they have a career path.  Students are getting the experience that they would never have otherwise and if it were not for our donors, we would not be here now.  In the past, the students have had to fund these trips and participation was abysmal.  Now that we have the money, we are able to bring all of our students across both campuses.”