Every year Lake Oswego sixth graders participate in what many consider the highlight of their middle school career: Outdoor School.
Lake Oswego Junior High students spent the last week divided between Camp Magruder at Rockaway Beach and Trickle Creek in Salem. Lakeridge Middle School students completed their time at outdoor school the first week of October at Trickle Creek and Cedar Ridge in Vernonia.
LOJ sixth grade science teacher Beckie Plaza said that the week of outdoor school is one of her favorite parts of the whole year. "There's no technology, so it's great to see kids connect with one another and connect with the outdoors," she said. "It's fun to just see kids playing and laughing and learning outside."
Plaza also enjoys interacting with students in ways different than inside a traditional classroom environment. "At mealtimes (teachers) sit with the kids, so we visit with them and get to know them in a way we don't know them in the classroom," she said.
Students learn about a variety of natural sciences while at Outdoor School, and complete field studies using the environment around them. The field studies are divided up into four categories: earth, forest, animals and water. The earth lessons involve creating a sand map to model Oregon topography and other activities; the forest category includes a native and invasive plant identification lesson, as well as a hike through the forest. In the animal lesson, students dissect a squid and search for mole crabs on the beach, while the water lesson has students test water quality, model the water cycle and catch and identity freshwater invertebrates.
Thanks to a ballot measure passed by voters in November 2016, funds from the Oregon Lottery make it possible for thousands of students in the state to attend Outdoor School. The Legislature recently awarded full funding for Outdoor School for the 2019-2021 biennium, so every fifth- and sixth-grader in Oregon
can participate in Outdoor School.
Plaza said that there are many benefits to Outdoor School for all kinds of students. "I think it's valuable because a nontraditional learner can really shine and be a star at ODS," she said. "It can also take some kids out of their comfort zone a little. They can be uncomfortable and have a little struggle, and learn that that's okay."
There are also benefits to taking sixth graders to Outdoor School so early in the school year, according to Plaza. "Part of the reason we go early is for community building. We have kids coming in from different elementary schools, so we have a large group of kids that don't know each other," she said. "There is the opportunity for kids to share a cabin with kids they might not be friends with or know very well. It makes the sixth grade a community."
Lakeridge Middle School science teacher Kiki Hueneke said she saw the same community-building in her students. "Our sixth graders come from three different elementary schools and many have classes with students they have never met before, which leaves students feeling vulnerable and unsure of their place," she said. "Outdoor school builds community through shared experiences that we cannot duplicate in the regular classroom. As a result of attending camp, students show a much more relaxed demeanor with many more acquaintances, new friends, and strengthened long-term friendships."
Another benefit of Outdoor School is providing students with new outdoor experiences. "I think students like the freedom. They learn a concept and then have a hands-on activity outside," Plaza said. "It's
also fun to just sit around the campfire with them and sing songs. I had students that had never even made a s'more before."
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