Discovery Southeast is honoring a second grade teacher for regularly exposing her students to nature. The local outdoor education organization is giving the first annual Discovery Award to Allie Smith from Auke Bay Elementary School.
At least once a month, Smith takes her second grade class outside to walk on the trail behind the school.
“You have eight minutes to do some observations,” Smith tells the class. “Go. Make sure you can see an adult the whole time.”
The students run around the trail carrying journals to take notes and draw pictures.
Each time Smith takes her students outside, she gives them a task. She’s sent them on a hunt to find various colors in nature. Recently, she posed the question – Is it winter or is it spring?
Today, Smith lets the students come up with their own questions. She gives them an example – What would blueberry bushes look like right now? Some students have decided to focus on that question.
“That part is called a bud,” Smith says, looking at a blueberry bush with a student. “It’s turning into green, right? So what would come out of that bud, what do you think?”
“A blueberry,” the student replies.
“OK. So draw what you see and then write down what you think,” Smith says.
After eight minutes she calls the students back into a group to see if they answered their own questions. She asks for volunteers to share.
“My question was, will we find any pussy willows?” a student says. “We found the bushes but we didn’t find any.”
Smith started teaching at Auke Bay 10 years ago and has always taken her students outside. She says nature can really hook students into learning.
“I think it’s really important for kids to get comfortable with being outside and I also want to help foster that inquisitive attitude towards learning and nature, and I think that being outside and seeing the natural world around us can really help kids formulate questions and hypothesize,” Smith says.
Smith says different students have different feelings about nature. She has one student who is scared to go outside. Others think it’s too much work. But she says these attitudes tend to change over the school year.
“It kind of depends on what kids’ exposure prior to coming to second grade and coming to the trail has been,” Smith says. “I feel like the general trend that I’ve seen over the years is that the more kids come outside and do these activities, the more they notice and the more comfortable they feel.”
Shawn Eisele says that’s extremely important. Eisele is executive director of Discovery Southeast. One of its programs sends naturalists into 3rd through 5th grade classrooms for hands-on science lessons and field trips.
“There’s so many wild areas in Juneau that are right next to the schools and so it’s really easy to get kids out there. And, also, by going through the classrooms we get to reach all those kids who might not otherwise get outside,” Eisele says.
Discovery Southeast received several nominations for the inaugural Discovery Award, which is meant to honor educators. Smith will get the award at the organization’s annual fundraiser banquet Saturday night at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Discovery Southeast is also sending Smith on one of its three teacher expeditions, which are continuing education classes. She’s chosen to spend a week in the Juneau ice field.
For the rest of the nature walk, Smith gets the class to be silent for a few moments, which as you may imagine is tough to accomplish with 22 second graders. They observe the sounds around them. They check the outdoor temperature and then play a version of hide and seek where some students are hawks.
Before becoming a traditional classroom teacher, Smith got her undergraduate degree in outdoor education at Northland College in Wisconsin. She’s always observed nature, but she says by bringing her students outside with her, she’s taking an even closer look.