MADAWASKA, Maine — In a state where outdoor recreation and the natural world are some of the biggest draws, Maine students spend very little time outside.
It’s not just a shame kids don’t get out more, but a shortcoming of the public education most kids are receiving, St. John Valley teachers say.
Middle school teachers in the Valley Unified school district in northernmost Maine are working on new curriculums that will get students outside and engaged with their communities. In their eyes, teaching kids outdoor skills and encouraging them to study local history and the biology in their backyards is essential for instilling confidence and keeping them invested in their education in a region where young people typically leave for other places.
“Throughout all of human history we have had daily [interaction] with the land, with the soil, with other living animals,” Wisdom Middle/High School life sciences teacher Jonathan Hayes said. “Only in the last 150 years have we divorced ourselves from that lifestyle … I really believe we have countless children suffering from nature deficit disorder. They don’t even know what they’re missing, but something’s missing.”
Alongside the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation, interested teachers spent three days of harvest break working on ideas for projects to get students outside and in their communities.
This year, kids in some of these classes will research and develop pamphlets on the ecosystem of the Deboullie area of the North Woods to distribute at businesses and potentially at the entry point to the park.
Other ideas include field trips to historical sites, research on ecology and incorporating outdoor life skills, like how to build a fire and navigation, into classrooms.
Tom Gerard, a former teacher at Madawaska High School, an Allagash canoe guide and a member of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation board of directors, organized the group. During his decades as an educator, Gerard saw first-hand the impact time in nature had on his students.
Gerard demonstrated what he saw from kids who felt cooped up in the classroom during a meeting of the teachers on Thursday afternoon. He sat forward on his chair, propping his elbows on his knees and tucking his toes under his feet, like he was about to spring up and start running.
“From my perspective, middle school kids especially, sit in a chair like this,” Gerard said. “I still remember what it was like as a seventh- or eighth-grader — it was hard.”
During his time as a teacher, Gerard brought students outside frequently — to go tubing at a park in the winter and to plant trees in the springtime. That made all the difference, he said.
“I think it helps instill a sense of belonging to a place,” Jean Haeger, a senior associate from the Great Schools Partnership, said. She’s been consulting with the Valley teachers on the finer points of what she calls project-based learning. “Getting outdoors helps them appreciate where they live and why they’re here … and really invest in the area they can honestly call home and understand what it feels like to belong.”
Creating a relationship between students and their community is especially important to educators in the St. John Valley, which has seen the mass outmigration of its young people over the past several decades.
Census data show drastic decreases in the population of the St. John Valley since at least the 1990s. In Madawaska, where teachers met Thursday, the population has fallen from nearly 5,000 in 1990, to 3,700 today. The town has a median age well over the state average — 56 years, compared with Maine’s 44.7.
Teachers hope exposing kids to the region’s history, and the natural wonders of northern Maine could slow the outmigration.
Amateur historian Roger Morneault has compiled a binder of research on the so-called ghost trains: a site deep in the North Woods populated by abandoned rail cars and steam engines. He’s offering teachers tours of the site and access to his personal library of books on northern Maine history.
“The first time I went through there, it was like I’d walked through the Magic Kingdom,” Morneault said. “That’s just one place … There’s something to be felt out there.”
Over the long term, Gerard hopes that he and his fellow teachers can develop a curriculum on St. John Valley ecology and history to distribute to students across the state.
From the connection to the land, to the safety benefits of being knowledgeable about the outdoors, the teachers said that curriculum should begin outside more often. Not only do they believe it will be educational for students, but the change could inspire teachers to reconsider what they offer in classrooms.
“The No. 1 reason I agreed to do this [was] for the chance to purely be a student, be a learner,” Travis Lynn, an English teacher at Valley Rivers Middle School in Fort Kent, said. “I find during the school week I’m so busy between meetings and grading and dealing with student concerns — it never ends. There’s no time to spend three days just building my skills as an educator.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation.