Fifth-graders gain new experiences with School of the Wild

Monticello fifth-graders Jasper Tobiason and Alex Shover test their throwing abilities with atlatl spears as part of an archaeology lesson. Last week and into this week, the students took part in School of the Wild at Central Park and Wapsipinicon State Park.

Showing off their successful attempt at a Wikiup structure at Wapsi State Park are Ava Gatena, LeeLand Peterson, Gavin Hinrichs, and Eli Moestchen. (Photos submitted)

This group of fifth-graders explored identifying trees and birds throughout Wapsi State Park.
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     Last week and into the early part of this week, Monticello fifth graders spent some time outside of the classroom, exploring Central Park and Wapsipinicon State Park with School of the Wild.

     This is a program geared toward fifth through eighth graders that explores six areas of study: woodland ecosystems, wetland ecosystems, prairie ecosystems, ornithology, archaeology, and outdoor skills.

     The curriculum with School of the Wild encompasses science, language arts, social studies, art, math, and physical education.

     School of the Wild is facilitated through the University of Iowa. Jay Gorsh has been with the program for six years.

     “This effort is rather new,” he said. “This is the first year we’ve launched outside of the Iowa City area.”

     In the fall of 2019, School of the Wild did a test run and reached out to various schools and naturalists across the state. In the fall of 2020, Sacred Heart School was part of the initial rollout.

     School of the Wild is a five-day program. Monticello students spent part of their time at the county park and state park, working with Naturalist Michele Olson.

     Gorsh said the idea is to get kids outside and away from electronics, especially during a school year that had to rely heavily on technology during the pandemic.

     “This is a chance to see learning done in a different environment,” said Gorsh. “It’s not all done in a classroom setting.”

     MCSD Curriculum Director Robyn Ponder echoed Gorsh’s sentiments.

     “We decided to participate because we knew it would be an excellent learning opportunity to get students out of the classroom and learn in a new environment,” she said. “Students are emersed in the outdoors where they interact with natural ecosystems and wildlife learning through inquiry and exploration.”

     Kids learned through exploring Central Park and Wapsi Park. Gorsh said, depending on the resources available, they allow the district to make the decision on what parks are best for a program like this.

     “There is no prescribed curriculum,” he explained. “We developed it to be an organic process.”

     The 64 Monticello fifth-graders took part in the following activities and lessons:

     • Prairies (insects, bird life, plants)

     • Wetlands (water quality, macroinvertebrate studies)

     • Outdoor skills (canoeing, fishing, camping)

     • Woodland studies (identifying trees, bird studies)

     • Archaeology (Wapsi Park history, building a shelter, Atlatl history)

     • Geology

     A representative from School of the Wild, such as Gorsh, initially meets with the school district and naturalist for a planning session on how they envision the program.

     “The major variable is what the teachers are interested in teaching,” said Gorsh. “We train and prepare the teachers to lead the show. They lead a theme and develop the curriculum and lead the activity.

     “This is different than a normal fieldtrip,” added Gorsh. “The teacher is an equal player in the instruction process, as is the naturalist. The naturalist is the expert on the park.”

     “Our staff,” Olson offered of Jones County Conservation, “are facilitators and resources that the teachers can utilize. We are available to help lead lessons or help direct teaching staff in proficiency or a topic.”

     Gorsh said an added benefit to School of the Wild is that all kids stand to gain from the experience.

     “Some kids struggle with abstract thinking,” he explained. “School of the Wild is so concrete that they can see and learn with their own eyes and experience it. It’s multi-sensory.”

     As schools find creative ways to develop and carry out curriculum amid a pandemic, Gorsh said the positive to School of the Wild is that it takes kids outside for small-group activities.

     “We’re grateful to those schools who look at this as another perspective,” he said.

     Ponder reflected on what she witnessed as a positive to School of the Wild: “How students reacted the first day compared to later days in the week. The first day if felt more like a fieldtrip where students were excited about being outside the classroom. Their excitement shifted to what they were going to learn and their inquiry about the environment. Every student was engaged and eager to learn as much as they could!”

     School of the Wild is made possible through a REAP CEP (Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program) grant. This year, they were able to work with 1,200 students across Iowa.

     “This would cost a lot without grant funding,” noted Gorsh of the materials and supplies needed.

     Participating schools take part in the program at no cost.

     “We hope to add more districts here in Jones County,” offered Olson.

     “We appreciate, in a complicated year, having counties and schools who are willing to try something new and fun,” thanked Gorsh. “We hope this can continue.”


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