[This is part 2 of a two-part post]
In October 2017, Plumas Unified School District (USD) invited the entire Plumas County community to the historic Quincy schoolhouse in celebration of 30 consecutive years of outdoor education for K–12 students. How did a two-day, one-night overnight camp for a handful of 6th grade students (at what was then known as the Outdoor Education Camp) evolve into a four-day, three-night centerpiece experience that all Plumas USD 6th graders participate in? And perhaps an even bigger question: how did this evolve into the Feather River Outdoor School and Outdoor Core program—a districtwide commitment to provide environmental education to every K–12 student? The short answer is shared commitment to people and place. Nurturing, sustaining, and growing that commitment is a deeper story.
PEOPLE + PLACE: GROUNDWORK
In part one of this blog, we acknowledged Joe Hagwood, John Malarkey, Warren Grandall, and John Gallagher for their vision and commitment to building the foundation for district-level environmental education, and for centering it within the Plumas County Office of Education. Long before California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, these folks inherently understood not only the power and necessity of collaboration and partnership, but also how connection to place is integral for all learning, and supports K–12 learning across core subject areas. As Hagwood noted at the 30-year celebration, “Rob has a knowledge of the outdoors, but more importantly, a knowledge of how to transmit that to students in an outstanding way. Things change, but the one thing that has remained solid is that we could not have dreamed what Rob would do with this program.”
Before introducing some of the moving parts of the aforementioned program, it’s helpful and appropriate to note that the original three collaborators (Plumas USD, Plumas National Forest Service, and Feather River College) have company. Rob refers to them throughout our conversations, naturally and as if they are names of the teachers and students he is so familiar with. They now include Feather River Land Trust and the Plumas Corporation, as well as intersections with US Fish and Game, Roundhouse Council, Plumas Arts, and the Sierra Institute. I haven’t spoken with Rob this week, so it’s entirely possible that this list has grown, having witnessed the natural way he invites folks to join in the effort.
PEOPLE + PLACE: SUSTAINING
In very essential and practical ways, place and culture are inseparable. Whether this basic truth is ignored or accepted is variable. In Quincy, and Plumas, this interrelatedness is highlighted. It lives right out front. Case in point: I first meet many folks from Rob’s organizational partners one evening at the district building, convened not around outdoor or environmental education, but to save the historic Quincy schoolhouse building. During my time here I frequently have the uncanny sense that California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) are alive and present in the most unobtrusive and natural sense. There is a palpable feeling of shared agreement that when care and respect are given—to the land, to its resources, to its people—there is a reciprocity that flows from actions informed by that ethic and returned to the system, keeping it healthy and ensuring success. And as this is part of the culture here, evidence of it can be seen in the way its people build and sustain their structures.
Plumas USD and its partners, guided by Rob’s inclusive vision and direction, have chosen to acknowledge and elevate that cultural value. Below are the nuts-and-bolts of the Outdoor Core district science strategy which Rob has built at Plumas USD. I want to stress that this is districtwide—meaning every school, every teacher, every student accesses and receives the benefits of:
- Paid teacher professional learning in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) using California’s EP&Cs & Blueprint for Environmental Literacy at least two times each year
- K–12 EEI Curriculum training and materials
- Learning Landscapes outdoor classrooms located within a 10-minute walking distance to every school site countywide (Feather River Land Trust partnership)
- Regular monthly outdoor learning for all students (with some teachers implementing up to three times per week)
- Grades 3–12 restoration trips (US Forest Service, Roundhouse Council, Sierra Institute partnership)
- 6th grade Plumas to Pacific year-long watershed experience (Plumas Corporation partnership)
- Opportunities for youth leadership & mentoring at upper-grade levels; e.g., high school students trained to lead field trips and mentor younger students (Feather River Community College partnership)
Each one of these bullet-points rightly deserves its own blog post, as do the partners who do their part to ensure the Outdoor Core experiences integrate with classroom learning. But Plumas is just too beautiful to stay inside, so in the next section we’ll see what coordination of the above elements looks like over the course of two days in the world outside.
PEOPLE + PLACE: GROWING
Two days = One NGSS teacher professional learning session, one elementary school trip, one middle school trip, one Plumas to Pacific trip, one community meeting, and five interviews with some of Rob’s collaborative partners. Powered by trees, the Feather River, and fresh mountain air (and a steady intake of maté).
1.1: Koyom Bukum Sewinom Bo
It’s a sharp 28º when I meet Rob at a small dirt lot in the Plumas Forest about 30 minutes outside of Quincy. We chat for a bit while waiting for a group of middle school students to arrive for a morning of observing the river ecosystem for their science journals, which they add to all year in a variety of settings. I can hear the river, and can’t resist the pull toward it. At the trailhead I see a sign that evidences Plumas National Forest Service education liaison Michele Jimenez-Holtz’s collaboration with the Maidu Roundhouse Council. It reads:
Koyom Bukum Sewinom Bo
(Valley End Falls Trail)
Today the falls are commonly called
Let the sound of the thundering water carry you along this 600-foot trail to what is called in ancient Maidu ‘Koyom Bukum Sewinom Bo’, meaning Valley End Falls. As it has been for countless generations, the waterfall is still culturally and spiritually significant to the Maidu Indians.
Today, the area provides visitors a place for recreational and spiritual experiences. Please respect the rights of others. Enjoy yourself on your journey as you recreate or focus on the past.
I ask the reader to pause here for a moment, and consider the intentionality of the above, and how it engages visitors and contextualizes this place immediately upon arrival. Countless generations. Culturally and spiritually significant. Respect. Journey. Each sign along the trail includes Maidu names and refers to the current and historical significance of each part in this ecosystem.
Did I mention it’s cold? Hailing from Chicago and the Northeast, I don’t mind, plus I’ve got old-school layers (i.e., wool & leather). As the middle school students exit the bus, I see the proud Mountain Kid ethic crossed with the singular awesomeness of 12- and 13-year old folks: sweatshirts (or not!) and sneakers. Maybe a few hats. Zero gloves. Rob is on a first-name basis with all of them; this is consistent throughout all the outings I have the good fortune to go on. These kids are composed—at first I think maybe it’s the early morning bus ride, but as we head down the trail I understand it’s something else. Regular exposure to scientific practices, both in the classroom in preparation and applied to outdoor learning. They are engaged and enthusiastic, but not out of control. This is so much a part of their formal learning experience that they arrive down at the river at their own pace, respectful of the forest without exception. They stop and record observations in their journals and interact with their surroundings with no prompting from the adults, who are also completely relaxed. I think about other student outdoor experiences I’ve witnessed; the frequent control and correction issued forth from adults, kids excitedly running roughshod over pretty much everything, sensing the fear the adults feel around them approaching features of the environment. Rob’s Mountain Kids are free to wander along the trees, rocks, and banks of a very cold, fast-moving mountain river. To interact, observe, touch, discuss, or sit and reflect as they record their experiences here. This is a result of the work that he and the teachers and staff of Plumas USD have implemented and committed to as an expression of a culture that interweaves academic achievement with valuing people and place.
1.2: Belden Town
We part ways with the middle school group and meet 30 minutes later just across the road from the one-lane bridge to Belden that I crossed in the dark on Sunday night. We are waiting for a busload of elementary students from several classes to arrive at the foot of a PG&E hydroelectric installation, the Eby Stamp Mill, and US Forest Service restrooms. Belden has an interesting story; it is named for Susan Belden, a Maidu woman married to a miner and settler named Charles Belden. The once-successful mining town shared the spotlight with the railroad while the most rugged Trans Sierra line in California was built before falling into disuse. In the early 1980s, Ivan Coffman left urban living behind and purchased the town. It’s now an eclectic resort with a lodge—complete with artifacts from mining days, Maidu creations, pool and ping pong tables, a multitude of family board games, and a gigantic wood-burning stove— and restaurant, formidable old bar, and several cabins and camping accommodations. In the summer, it is a destination for small indy music festivals and summer vacationers. During the school year, Ivan makes the town available free of charge to the students of Plumas County for outdoor learning based on its natural and historical features.
As I’m talking with Rob and Max Egloff, Quincy native and adult Mountain Kid who often supports Rob with Outdoor Core activities, the bus pulls up. Kids and parents stream out rapidly; apparently there’s been a de rigeur puking-on-the-twisty-road incident. After everyone has a chance to use the facilities, the kids get on the bus to cross the one-lane bridge spanning the river into Belden. Max has recently come back to Plumas after living in Hawaii, and I can see why. The cold, misty morning has turned into an incredibly clear, sunny afternoon. Walking across the bridge in the afternoon light, I realize why I hate high-definition television; I’m seeing the real thing, that effect which technology seeks to imitate but can never recreate. The elementary students have several parent and grandparent chaperones, so that smaller groups can explore without jamming each other up while discovering the answers to their scavenger hunt activity. Although this group is three times as large as the middle school group and the students are younger, I observe the same patience, engagement with, and respect for their surroundings. This includes the way they interact with the physical landscape, adults, and each other. Of course there is excited charging ahead and a mixture of personalities from silly to serious, but they are all comfortable and encouraged to explore, discover, observe, reflect, hypothesize, and draw conclusions. And they are very good at it.
Bright and early the following morning, I drive about 45 minutes out of Quincy to another Plumas USD school site. I’m escorted to a classroom where Rob and high school youth leaders are preparing the school’s 6th grade students for the day at Lassen Volcanic National Park. This will be their first trip to the headwaters of the Feather River’s North Fork; by the end of the school year they will have followed the path of the river, on foot or by travelling on the water itself, all the way to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Standing at the back of the room, listening to Rob speak to students about applying critical thinking skills to risk management strategies based on real-time observations out in the field, I am again struck by the evidence of just how much student capacity for learning is impacted by the adults in their educational system. The presentation is not ‘dumbed down’. The teachers and students do not look vacant, alarmed, or confused as the potential for snow, freezing rain, uncrossable junctures, and encounters with wildlife (including bears) is discussed. Outside Rob asks if I’d like to ride the bus to Lassen. Remembering yesterday’s bus arrival at Belden, and conscious of my impending drive back to the Bay Area, I politely decline. It turns out that the bus is at capacity, and I end up driving Rob up the mountain. I did not record our conversation as we drove through the light sleet that was falling; some part of me wishes I had, but another part appreciates that the specifics remain in that time and place. Suffice it to say it was a profound conversation about place, about the connections between the earth and its inhabitants, about our responsibilities around upholding the promise of public education and the public trust, and that if I could clone Rob Wade without it being an affront to natural law this would be a much kinder, gentler world.
The sleety rain continued as the students and teachers disembarked from the bus at the peak. Rob took a hands-off approach, and had the high school student leaders run the day’s activities as we set off on one side of the river, with Rob mostly parallel across on the opposite side. I walked a while through the snow with one of the teachers, who spoke for 20 solid minutes about the Outdoor Core program. She detailed the impact the regular, well-planned professional learning has had on her and her ability to teach science in and out of the classroom with confidence; how the EEI Curriculum and trainings have been an invaluable resource for her, her colleagues, and students; how Plumas USD and community support have elevated and put student-centered and place-based learning front-and-center; and how she felt proud and valued as an educator in Plumas County.
As I broke off from the group and turned to head back to the peak, Rob and I made eye contact and exchanged a wave. Upriver alone in the snow, I knelt beside the beginning of the North Fork of the Feather River and offered my own prayer of gratitude. Its life-giving waters filled the steel canteen Rob had given me as a gift; it says Mountain Kid, and in just two-and-a-half days in Plumas County I understand why that rightfully engenders such a deep sense of pride.
[Much respect and gratitude to: Rob Wade, Michele Jiminez-Holtz (Plumas US Forest Service), Max Egloff (Plumas USD), Rick Stock (Feather River Community College), John Sheehan (Plumas Corporation), Ivan Coffman, the teachers, staff, and students at Plumas USD, and everyone else who shared their time, knowledge, and hospitality.]