I have been working in the field of environmental and outdoor education and place-based learning in Plumas County, California, for the past 25 years. Plumas County is a rural mountainous region in the northeastern corner of the state. For the past 20 years my work has been tuned specifically toward integrating environmental literacy pedagogy into the core K–12 curriculum of the Plumas Unified School District (PUSD). I am not the first to mainstream such efforts in California, and I owe much of my success to those who came before me and provided maps and models of what works and why. Still, we at PUSD believed it could be done better than before.
In the words of author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or inspire it.” Defining an authentically inspiring purpose can motivate everyone in a community—businesses, funders, school administrators, teachers, students, parents. Drawing from the inspiration of raising our mountain kids right, we led with the purpose of creating an inspiring mountain education for them. We looked at our local bright spots and began. Yet, for everything we did right as far as places and spaces and associated infrastructure, our outdoor education strategy evolved only because the culture of our community changed. This was not overnight work.
As we lean into the start of the 2020–2021 school year, the PUSD has to make some adjustments to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic, just like every other district does, such as in-person instruction with distancing protocol, online instruction, virtual instruction, and independent study. Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent announcement of a virtual start of the school year for 33 of the state’s 58 counties removes the immediate need to implement school-based outdoor learning strategies for approximately 80 percent of the state’s student population. However, for the other 25 counties and 20 percent of students, the need is now and it is my hope that what we have created in Plumas County might inspire, scale, and transfer to others.
Plumas County’s Outdoor Classrooms
Every PUSD school campus has an outdoor classroom that was installed roughly 10 years ago. The seats, built with local lumber and by local contractors and students, are now well worn by the seasons and students’ backsides. The outdoor classroom trails we designed and installed are now maintained by students and our local trail heroes, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. The habitat projects on every campus are ongoing, guided by local scientists and stewards with every class at each grade.
Every school has at least one off-campus field site that is within a 10-minute walk through the neighborhood. These were all identified by teachers and conserved for education and stewardship in partnership with landowners by the Feather River Land Trust (FRLT). Each property’s access was first secured by a memorandum of understanding, with some formal conservation via easement and fee title acquisition. A total of 15 properties in the region are part of FRLT’s Learning Landscapes program and include infrastructure improvements that were defined by teachers and students. These include trails, seating, interpretive signage, field study areas, and the constant need for stewardship projects. In fact, the curriculum for each outdoor classroom is studying and stewarding that property. No buses or budgets are required; we just need annual permission for walking field trips for every student.
As in the movie Field of Dreams, just because we built it didn’t mean the teachers would come. We obtained significant buy-in for Learning Landscapes by including our teachers and students in every planning and design step, but that alone would not establish a culture of connection, comfort, and consistent use of outdoor education. And at the time, rural Plumas County didn’t yield any established nonformal educators we could draw from. If students were going to go outside and learn, then it would be up to every PUSD teacher to make that possible. Luckily, one of the things we had going for us was that if the teachers could and would lead outdoor learning, then they could do it almost any day of the 180 days of the school year.
Over the past 10 ten years or so, every PUSD teacher has been growing in their comfort and capacity related to outdoor learning. To support outdoor professional learning, FRLT’s teach from the land workshops have been held with the support of local agency and non-governmental organization scientists and stewards. School staff meetings occasionally become interpretive outings with local “ologists.” Over many years, scientist, educator, and author John Muir Laws has helped establish field journaling at every grade level as a primary inquiry tool. Thus, every student at every grade level now has a field journal, or, as many call them, a nature notebook. This tool is personal and powerful.
Every school also has a Learning Landscapes field kit that includes a class set of field guides, binoculars, and hand lenses. In addition, a library of local field guides and geographically-aligned fiction and nonfiction titles was donated to every class, and teachers are supported with the ongoing purchase of any title that helps celebrate our Sierra Nevada homeland.
Every grade has a theme and a purpose. Kindergarteners are mountain gardeners. First graders are entomologists, and second graders are herpetologists. Third graders are mammalogists, and fourth graders are fisheries biologists. Fifth graders are ornithologists, and sixth graders are watershed mashups of astronomers, meteorologists, geologists, and hydrologists. Seventh graders focus on life science through the phenomena of wildlife and wildfire. Eighth graders explore physical science through the lens of mountain life and adventure. High school students apply local phenomena and stewardship to traditional courses.
Outdoor Core Mountain Kid
We capture all of our outdoor learning program under the PUSD-designed strategy we call Outdoor Core Mountain Kid. The Outdoor Core Mountain Kid strategy was born of two needs. First, our mountain kids needed more inspiration, focus, and repetition without redundancy. Learning Landscapes had gotten everyone going in the right direction but had also stayed out of the curriculum fray. Teachers and mountain kids wanted a specific focus and purpose. Outdoor Core allows kids to visit their outdoor classroom and Learning Landscapes field sites year after year, but the annual inquiry and stewardship focus is unique to Plumas County communities and so it holds them rapt.
Second, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) of the California Science Framework needed a rural path forward. The emphasis on local context and local phenomena meant that we needed great storylines that inspired kids to learn. Outdoor Core provided it all. Teachers have spent the last many years curating and developing units that fit Jenny Seydel and Jerry Lieberman’s P4BL model (phenomena-based, place-based, project-based, and problem-based) in concert with Education and Environment Initiative (EEI) resources and an assemblage of the best local resources possible. Our teachers have been heroic in their commitment and passion.
The program underwent its first major test this past spring with the sudden virtual shift to home. To accommodate home-based learning, I led outdoor Zoom meetings for every grade level and local scientists. I also created over 120 Outdoor Core videos, sharing local phenomena; accompanying homework to explore and find that phenomena was always outside. Critical was the ability of all kids to field-journal independently. Also essential was the theme of the year, which by March had been embedded. During the final weeks of the school year, further inquiry on the theme, and even stewardship projects, were designed by kids in their own yards and neighborhoods. The resilience of the program and the identity of the kids helped everyone navigate the uneven ground of spring 2020.
The 58 counties of California are home to 61 land trusts. Most of the 32 partners in Plumas County have corresponding agencies or nonprofit organizations in other California communities. If you have kids and land—and every place in California is crawling with kids and land—then you have creative potential. During times like these, it’s important not just to survive but to thrive. Infinite thinking and inspiration will not only get you through 2020–2021, but also through your entire career and further.
When I shared with Karen Cowe that we were ready for the approaching year, it stemmed from a confidence borne of years of planning and preparing. We have built an established school culture in a community of local kids who are learning outside regularly, teachers leading outdoor activities with the help of local partners, and outdoor classrooms and field sites developed and established specifically for weekly outdoor adventures. The places are ready. Partners are ready. Teachers are ready. Kids are ready. This coming year will be different for many reasons. But as we like to say in Plumas County, “The great ones adjust! And all kids are great!”