Thursday, May 16, 2013

What does stewardship look like?

At Mountain School, we try to teach our students how to be stewards of the earth. When we visit the students at their school a few weeks after they came to Mountain School, we try to get them to make connections between the environment out here in the mountains and the environments closer to their home and their school. At some of these post-trip visits the students participate in stewardship activities at parks near their school. We wrote about this on our Chattermarks Blog back in 2011 when we first began facilitating these stewardship events.

Here are some shots from the Sunnyland Elementary stewardship event at Memorial park in Bellingham. The students, their teachers, and Institute staff removed blackberry, mulched and planted red-osier dogwood and Sitka spruce. They also got VERY muddy!

Here are the shots from Geneva Elementary's stewardship event at Euclid park, also in Bellingham. There, students, teachers, and Institute staff got rid of a TON of ivy and planted some spruce and dogwood.

Leading photo: Students from Geneva Elementary, gathered around the tree they just planted. All photos provided by Jeff Anderson

Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University's M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Check out Ryan's other writing at:

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Having fun outside

The sun has returned, at least for this week, and Mountain School students and instructors are taking full advantage of it! With temperatures in the mid- to high-60s, there are lots of opportunities to learn and play in the great outdoors without needing to huddle inside a shelter or under layers of rain gear. Who knows how long this incredible weather will last, so let's eat it up while it's here!

Nocturnal Mountain School instructors lounging in the late afternoon sun, waiting for the Diurnal instructors to bring the students back from the trails

Cohort 12 graduate student, Sahara playing a game with her trail group at the end of the trail day

Leading photo: Colonial Peak, still snow-covered. All photos by the author

Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University's M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Check out Ryan's other writing at:

Saturday, March 30, 2013

We're Back!

The first week of spring Mountain School finally has already come and gone. Our first school was Islandview Elementary from Anacortes. This was their first trip to Mountain School so the excitement among teachers and students was apparent and infectious. A perfect way to get us back in the game.

Students building mountains on the beach to illustrate orographic lifting and glacial movement

 (above two photos) Journaling along the Deer Creek Trail

A student showing me a close-up of the drawing in his journal

Students exploring the aquatic environment

A group photo of the Islandview students before they headed down to the parking lot on their last morning

Leading photo: Mountain School instructors (L-R) Stamati Anagnostou, Andrea Reiter, Cait McHugh, Kim Hall, and Sahara Suval getting ready for the first day of school. All photos by the author

Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University's M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Check out Ryan's other writing at:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

As Fall Comes To A Close

On September 17th, the first Mountain School group of the fall season arrived at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. It was a bright, warm, cloudless, sunny day. The mountains were still snow-free and the ground was parched from the summer drought. Now, eight weeks, approximately 779 students, and more than 15 inches of rain later, we have just watched the last group drive away in their yellow school bus.

What’s ahead for the Learning Center folks now that our usual Monday through Friday commitment is gone? For the full-time staff it’s time to hunker down and start planning for next year, for the seasonal staff it’s time to head off on new adventures, and for the graduate students it’s time to put the “student” hat back on.

Before all that happens, however, it's time to reflect on the past few months. And to celebrate.

Some of the students, teachers, and parent chaperones from Fidalgo Elementary enjoying the beautiful fall day

As I sat down and tried to reflect on this whole season, I found myself thinking about how much I've grown and changed as an educator these past two months. I thought about the ownership I feel over the curriculum, a feeling that has allowed me to switch up how I teach the lessons and how I convey certain concepts. I started thinking about next spring, after which I probably won't come back to Mountain School. In that moment, I found myself both happy and sad, excited and nervous about new adventures yet to come.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Entering the Rainy Season

October ended with a wet and cloudy Mountain School session. Students from Columbia Elementary in Bellingham donned raincoats and ponchos before venturing onto the dripping trails at the Learning Center.

A student working on a reflection activity on the final day of his Mountain School session

The nearly two inches of rain we got on Tuesday didn't keep us from spending time outside, though. On the contrary, our instructors used the weather as an incentive for improvising and trying out new lessons and ways of teaching.

Andrea did a tracking activity that she learned from one of our seasonal instructors. Using a long sheet of butcher paper and a pan of water, she had her students step with their bare feet into the water and then walk on the paper. They talked about length and width of stride and how you can estimate how big an animal is based on where its feet land.

Kim used the rain as inspiration to focus her teaching on water.

Lauren, one of our education interns, discovered the challenges of teaching in the rain this week. "I think the depth of the lessons suffered a little because the kids were uncomfortable and their journals got soaked," she said, adding that she used excerpts from an essay by Saul Weisberg in Impressions of the North Cascades to set the stage and help her students learn to appreciate the weather:
Rain is the signature of the North Cascades; it makes the land. Glaciers, mountains, rivers, and the inland sea we call Puget Sound are all molded by its wet embrace. If you come here you are going to get wet.
[Learning in the wilderness] requires listening to the voices of the land. If we listen well, the land will change our lives. It has changed mine. Rain is one of the essential ingredients of place. The basic tenet of ecological truth in teh Pacific Northwest is that the land is the way it is—in shape, smell, texture, sound—because of the rain. It sings sweetly to the cedars. Our job is to listen to its song.

Leading photo: A spray of yellow-leafed Vine Maples on the Diablo Lake Trail. All photos by Ryan Weisberg.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Students Conduct Carnivore Studies at the Learning Center

On a sunny fall day, 56 sixth through eighth grade students conducted field studies on carnivore habitat in the area around the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. What makes this group of students different from all the other middle-schoolers who have done similar studies at Mountain School? These kids attend Evergreen Montessori—in Colorado.

This school recognizes that time spent outside the classroom walls is just as valuable as time spent learning in the classroom. Because of this, all students go on field trips once a month, sometimes venturing to other states or climbing to the tops of Colorado mountains!

The carnivore variation of our long-standing Mountain School program is an inquiry-based curriculum that allows students to come up with their own research question, hypothesis, and study methods. At the end of their time here—we offer both three- and five-day programs—each research group presents their findings at a symposium.

At this point you may be wondering how we are able to pull off real scientific studies with 12 to 14 year olds in such a short period of time. The magic answer is that we get them excited about science.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Gift of Mountain School

Mountain School has officially ended for the spring season! On Friday afternoon, Institute staff and instructors waved a bittersweet goodbye to 5th graders from Mountain View Elementary, raising their arms and voices in celebration for another great spring spent with youth in the outdoors. By way of offering a parting perspective and ode to this spring's Mountain School experience, Kristin Smith, a two-time Mountain School student and passionate participant in the 2011 Youth Leadership Conference, recounts her most recent learning adventure in the shadow of the Cascade mountains. 

The soft light of morning greets me as I emerge from Fir Lodge, a perfect match for the brisk mountain air. I tug my navy beanie more securely about my ears and turn my eyes upward - an instinctive urge well known to any mountain dweller and sprung from years of gazing at high peaks. Dawn is painting the lofty heights of Colonial and Pyramid peaks, setting their somber flanks aflame with pale rose light. I pause to savor the moment, craning my neck to more clearly see the peaks striated with snow. These mountains have a majesty all their own; something in the way the forested hills at their feet fall in a haze of vibrant green towards the turquoise waters of Diablo Lake, while high above snowfields evoke the vestige of an echo of the ancient glaciers that once covered this valley; something running in the cold young water of Sourdough Creek as it leaps eagerly towards the valley floor. There is no place on earth like this one, and I know it will always hold a special place in my heart.

View of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks from the Environmental Learning Center Campus.

This is the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. This, for a precious three days, is home. This is the gift of Mountain School - the reason we've come. And the day has only just begun.

The previous afternoon my group had hiked up to Sourdough Falls with our diurnal instructor, Colby, no longer seven strangers but still not completely comfortable in each other's presence. Not long before the falls we paused to gaze out at the view - down valley all the way to Diablo Dam, with snowy peaks on either side and a lake between. The clouds above held a landscape of their own; a lexicon of grays written  in puffs of water droplets. A series of stone steps ascended swiftly to the falls, the cascade itself hidden around a curve in the trail. Once there we gratefully dropped our packs, scrambling onto the grey boulders strewn about the bank and relishing in the cool spray as it permeated the air around us. The roar of the falls and of the whitewater creek canceled each other out, pervading the whole scene with one ubiquitous sound. A tiny bird flew down, skimming the rapids, and Colby shared its name: an American Dipper. As it dove past us once more I found myself wondering how it kept from being caught and pulled down by the fierce current, admiring the skill of such a small, plain-looking bird. Not as noble of visage as the eagle or as piercing of voice as the red-tailed hawk, yet he dared what they cannot and lived to tell the tale.

Squalicum High School students gather around Sourdough Creek with their diurnal instructor, graduate student Colby Mitchell. The author sits in the center. 

Back in the morning light our group is slowly assembling, trickling out of their rooms like the sputtering stream  of a rusty faucet. Still drowsy, we make our way down to breakfast. While we ruminate over oatmeal and pancakes the forest brightens around us. Northwesters all, we know how lucky we are to be blessed with sunshine for the second day in a row. Conversation is minimal for the first few minutes; we are too hungry, and the food is too good, to indulge in idle colloquy.
After breakfast comes planning; the planning of today's scientific investigation. We finally decide on a research question based on the population of different macro invertebrate species due to pH, sun, and shade, and head purposefully out on the trails with our gear. Our first stop is Deer Creek. The banks are thick with moss, as are the tree trunks, and the overwhelming impression is one of verdant greenness. Coltsfoot crowds the sides of the trail as the bright pink and white blooms of bleeding hearts nod next to moss-covered deadfalls. We exclaim over each new macro invertebrate scraped from the bottom of a rock, comparing the size and beauty of our catches like bragging fishermen. My group proudly flaunts our "no mortalities" record; the specimens of the other group did not fare so well.

Sourdough Creek Falls above Diablo Lake was the afternoon's destination for Squalicum students. 

The day wears slowly on towards evening. We straggle back to the Environmental Learning Center to lounge beside the lake as we discuss our findings. Soon enough comes our hour of free time; then dinner, our last among the peaks. After dinner we forego the noisy crowd of fifth graders for our own solitary campfire in the Deer Creek shelter. The smores  intended for our mouths are soon stuck to hands and occasionally faces as the intermittent marshmallow flares up like a torch. At last we follow the hindmost sparks back to the lodges and our beds.
The next day emerges as gloriously sunny as the preceding two; a bittersweet gift, since we will leave not long after lunch. We revel in these last moments of Mountain School, watching Sourdough Creek slalom into Diablo Lake. Cynthia and Tia are engaged in a competition they have dubbed "The Stupid Game:" to see who can hold their hand in the frigid water the longest. Colby sets the limit at five minutes to avoid tissue damage. I watch the rapids rushing over the stony streambed, camera put away for now and thinking about nothing but the moment and the mountains.

The creeks are running full of spring's snowmelt. 

I am still staring at those same summits as we drive away, cheek pressed to the cool window glass as I strive for one more glimpse of Colonial, Pyramid, Ruby. As they disappear around a bend in the road I see them again, vividly, in my mind, already calling me back to their rugged splendor. Silently I make a promise to the mountains and the brilliant turquoise lake and the vast azure sky above: I will be back.

All photos courtesy of the author. This piece is cross-posted to North Cascades Institute's Chattermarks Blog