A new year at the Outdoor Classroom
Fourth graders learn about western fence lizards and pacific chorus frogs with Nathan, a student mentor from CSUMB. Article photos by Juan Ramirez and Madison Moreno.
It’s 7:56 am on Thursday, September 21st, a cool morning at the Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom. Our first day this year with Hall Elementary School. I can hear the neighbor’s chickens singing their egg song. Five or six birds are chirping above the stumps that will seat the kids, flying from tree to tree. I close my eyes for a moment of gratitude for another opportunity to create a space for these students to build relationships with each other, themselves, and this more-than-human world.
I open my eyes and a hummingbird zooms right in front of me. We're ready to welcome 90 fourth graders walking across the street to experience this place we all love for the first time. As Kenton and I walk over to meet them, we gather some smartweed for the kids and finally hear the vans coming down the road with 26 college students from CSUMB. It feels a little scary.
I get to Hall Road and see Denise, Mayra, and Chano—all Hall administrators—coming down the hill with their stop signs. People stop, kids are smiling, and I go into the street to high five 90 kids walking towards me. Everyone’s excited.
Today, we’ve got three stations for students to cycle through: Riparian, Oak Woodland, and Grassland/Coastal Scrub. I stay with the Riparian team that hosts six CSUMB students mentoring about 30 fourth graders every rotation. We're all standing around a willow tree while one of the mentors shares about galls and caterpillars on the tree. The students are inches away from the leaves, so close they can see holes made by wasp larvae. Mariela, a fourth grader, says "caterpillars that are fuzzy sting you," and Fernanda from CSUMB tells Mariela she's right! Mariela walks away with a giant smile on her face.
Fernanda leads a group of four students to turn over the logs they sat on and a mouse runs into the willow trees. The mouse was building a nest, she explains, asking the students what they think she used to make it. “Her fur,” one student says. “Plants,” says another. Both look and sound right from where we’re standing.
Then, Fernanda gets down on the ground, eyes level with the nest. From there, she tells the kids, she can see that they are actually fluffy seed pods. Another ten students come over; some get on their knees to look at the nest. One notices a hole under the nest and asks, "is that a tunnel?" Another says, “we shouldn't bother the mouse.” They all leave.
Soon the mouse comes back to the same log and dives in. The mentors gather the students and ask them how they think the mouse knows what log to come back to? The students raise their hands: "Smell?" "She just knows that’s her house.”
Moments later, a new group comes in. I see Ms. Miller talking to Michael, who looks like he's not feeling well or just not having a good time. Nathan, one of the CSUMB mentors, shares with the group that he has a western fence lizard and a pacific chorus frog for them to see. Kids jump up and down in excitement. I look over and see Michael, still sitting down, getting a curious look in his eyes. I sit down with him and ask if he likes amphibians. He starts talking, gives me a whole background on salamanders, telling me how cool they are and that they live with squirrels. He's hooked, I'm hooked, he gets up and goes over to look at the frog. He's talking about how frogs have suction cups on their feet!
Sharing the excitement, I invite him to come see a communal spider web. He's up for it, and a group of us go over to look at a network of spider webs, all connected to each other. We find four different spiders hidden in what looks like a bird turd—hence the name “bird-dropping spider.” It was a hit.
At the end of the rotations, two groups are at the welcome area ready to go back to school. As we wait for the last group, I ask the students what they learned from each habitat. 5-6 students share out. Justin says, "today is my favorite day of the school year.” I quickly turn to the CSUMB mentors to make sure they heard that. SMILES all around. This is what the Outdoor Classroom is about!
Photo by Kiliii Yuyan