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Get the kids outside. The potential for learning abounds.

As a retired public-school teacher, I have been heartbroken over the last two years to observe the despair of former colleagues, friends, and students as they have tried to navigate the course set by the state and by school districts to respond to the pandemic. It has occurred to me time and again that we have all suffered from a failure of imagination.

The pandemic, as horrific as it has been, has also presented us with an opportunity to rethink public education. Instead, we have decided to do more of the same, only in front of a computer screen. What a tragedy!

One opportunity that I feel has been completely ignored is literally right in front of us — the great outdoors. Especially in southeastern Connecticut, the potential for enriching, empowering, and engaging outdoor education is everywhere. The woods, the shore, the ocean, the sky, the city all are inviting us to become their students.

We have organizations like Fresh, Fiddleheads, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, the Pequot Museum at Foxwoods, Project O, scouting groups and wilderness schools, to name only a few, that are poised to help realize a vision for comprehensive outdoor education.

Individuals — like teachers and administrators at the local schools and colleges, bored and depressed high school and college students, senior citizens, perhaps the Day's nature columnist, Steve Fagin — could design, adapt and implement outdoor education curricula, mentorship programs, and learning sites that would more than "cover" the overrated state standards.

Small, socially distanced cohorts of students on bicycles or on foot could spread out over the region with diverse learning objectives that would address all the content areas in real-life learning situations. The school day might happen in shifts, with morning, afternoon and nighttime sessions. Indoor spaces could be used for breaks and small group special projects. I am just brainstorming here. But brainstorm with me. Astronomy under the nighttime sky? Winter camping trips? Why not?

What I see is the chance for public education to be truly transformative, to invite students to reconnect with the natural world from which so many of us are disconnected, and to become true agents for positive change in society, instead of mere cogs in the economic machinery. Perhaps such an education model could allow the human race to survive the existential threats that burden us in this century.

I have written all this because I saw a quote from Angela Davis on the internet.  She said, "I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept." This article may inspire people to act, or it won't. But at least, I have put the idea into circulation.

Hugh Birdsall lives in Clinton. 


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