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Winchendon: From Big Cities to the Small Forest

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Teresa Arey is the MassLIFT AmeriCorps Service Learning Coordinator at Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust for 2012-13.

On a sunny, slightly chilly Earth Day, the biology students from The Winchendon School journeyed from their campus to a nearby conservation area to help with vernal pool certifications. When the students arrived, I was immediately caught off guard by their choice of attire; it went far beyond the normal occurrence of flip flops and shorts. Not only were students wearing ties and nice shoes—one wore a suit. I instantly recalled what their teacher had told me a couple weeks prior at the recon visit to the property. Most of her students grew up in large cities in China. The idea of the woods - especially spending time walking around in one - is a bizarre concept to them. The students’ inexperience with nature continued to be a reoccurring theme of the event present in each reaction to a wildlife discovery.

By this point in my second term working with youth, I’m not often caught off guard by students’ initial reactions to the different elements of the environment. Their reactions usually mirror my own. Although I grew up in a city by Maine standards, it was nowhere near as urban as the cities that these Chinese students are from. Even with the sprawl and commercial areas, my high school was surrounded by city forest that was used by teachers for leaf identification and insect observation. In addition, I spent a week each summer of my teenage years at music-theatre camp. Although most of the day was spent indoors rehearsing, there was no shortage of interaction with nature.

VP measurement w/Winchendon SchoolRecon-Winchendon SchoolSalamander-Winchendon SchoolWinchendon School at White CR

Until the vernal pool certification event, it never occurred to me how much I took my exposure to the environment for granted. In preparing for the vernal pool events, I had the same level of enthusiasm to find a salamander as the students. I had never seen one before, and when we finally turned over a rock to reveal a spotted salamander, I was ecstatic. However, as excited and fascinated as I was by finding additional salamanders, I never quite reached the same level of enthusiasm. In general, this is what I noticed with other volunteers, the opposite of the students from urban areas. Each and every red back salamander found under a log was greeted with the same level of excitement. Beyond finding wildlife, I had never seen any student, let alone a high school student, so fascinated by wildlife fecal matter before the recon visit.

Working with The Winchendon School students was the first time I held an environmental event with urban youth, and I’m happy that it was something I got to experience. Seeing their excitement helped me to fully realize how important background is to our connection to nature regardless of where we live now. I always knew that something as simple as bringing children outside for a walk in the city forest is essential to creating a connection to nature, but I don’t think it was until this event that I truly understood how that really isn't a possibility in some areas.

I might have unintentionally taken my experiences as a high school student for granted, but without them, I probably wouldn’t be serving in the environmental field today. I was fortunate to study in places in Maine that were suited for place-based learning, but this event reminded me of why we can’t just bring place-based learning to areas that are suited for it. We need to bring the environment to urban students as well even if it's just to establish an awareness of the natural world. It makes me glad to know that even without leaving rural North Central Massachusetts there are still ways that we can reach urban youth and help to forge a connection with the environment. Based on their responses on the evaluations, I don’t think this day in the forest will be one that these urban youth will soon forget.