A classroom in the outdoors
SULLYS HILL NATIONAL GAME PRESERVE -- Just as teacher Marsha Samson cautioned students to keep their eyes peeled and their ears tuned during their outdoor nature sketch drawing class, fifth-grader Avery Swenson broke the silence.
"Oh my gosh, look at that," she said, as a bald eagle bounded skyward, taking flight over the tranquil waters of Fort Totten Bay on Devils Lake, some 300 feet below the wooded hilltop preserve.
Swenson is one of 46 fifth graders from Central Middle School in Devils Lake who spend every morning of the school year at Sullys Hill, where they learn science, math, social sciences, health and language arts, melding the outdoor environment into their studies.
"It's not a field trip," Sullys Hill Visitor Services Manager Colleen Graue, said Tuesday. "It's really an outdoor classroom."
This is the second year of the cooperative program between Devils Lake Public School District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is patterned after a similar program in Fergus Falls (Minn.) Public Schools and the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center near Fergus Falls.
The program was put together by three administrators who since have moved on. They are: Roger Hollevoet, recently retired as manager of USFW's Devils Lake Management District; Steve Swiontek, who retired in 2012 as Devils Lake school superintendent; and Josh Johnston, former Central Middle School principal.
'Study of place'
While the day begins with a bus ride, it's not all fun and games.
Students get daily assignments that are expected to be done during the 20-minute ride between Devils Lake and Sullys Hill. This day's assignment was from math class.
Once they arrive, they take a five-minute "In the Moment" walk along a paved path just outside the Sullys Hill Visitor Center, past a birding garden, where students participate in Project FeederWatch, a winter-long survey of birds that was developed by Cornell University.
Besides having two state-of-the-art classrooms, the visitor center is home to a North Dakota Habitat Display featuring dozens of mounted animals in prairie, wetland, forest and agriculture habitats.
The program offers units on prairie, forest and wetlands, all of which is available at or near Sullys Hill, according to Graue.
"It's a study of place," she said. "They notice when the water is freezing and when it thaws in the spring. They notice when the geese are migrating."
The 46 students are divided into two classes, each rotating for trips outside for daily observation and learning.
The nature sketch assignment on Tuesday was to identify and draw a native plant.
"Last night's rain has really brought things to life," said Samson, fifth-grade environmental-science teacher.
Students wandered through the garden, scanning and inspecting the flora -- black-eyed Susan, buffalo berry, snow berry or buck brush, white sage and goldenrod -- finally picking a plant to sketch.
Jailyn Martinson and Malayna Barendt chose to sketch snowberry, also known as buck brush.
Madisyn White and Avery Swenson settled on white sage.
"If they see something they didn't know, they can sketch it and describe it," Graue said. "Later, they'll recognize it."
Back inside the classroom, students and teacher discussed the exercise, beginning with the bald eagle that greeted them outside a few moments earlier. A display in the corner of the room included a mounted eagle and two owls.
They learned more about native plants, with photographs of forbs and grasses from the Montana Historical Society. They also studied the detail in the drawings of native wildlife, as depicted in drawings in journals from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
On another day, they might focus on trees, incorporating their observations and measurements into math class.
In social studies part of the curriculum includes studies of American Indians and their traditional connection with the land.
Sullys Hill is adjacent to Spirit Lake Indian Reservation and Fort Totten State Historical Site, a military post built in 1867 that also served as a boarding school for Indians.
The school district spends $70,000 for the annual project. In addition, the Friends of Sullys Hill contributes $15,000 annually for five years, to pay for transportation. The local group also has provided rain gear and snow pants.
"We do this rain or shine, even when it's 30-below," Graue said, "although we don't stay outside as long."
Last year, students made edible Christmas ornaments to feed the birds. When the exercise was done, students were asked to take them home and hang them in their backyards, according to Graue.
"One boy said he's leave his here because they didn't have birds in town," she said. "He didn't know that there were birds in town. Now, he does. It was really cool."
This summer, program leaders conducted a two-day workshop for 18 area teachers, with the goal of incorporating traditional curriculum in environmental education, while learning about prairie, wetlands, woodlands, birds, animals and more.
Graue would like to see that program expanded.
"It's so serene and peaceful," said middle school Principal Jared Schlenker, who was on hand to observe the class earlier this week.
He would like to see other schools, such as those located near wildlife reserves, to develop their own programs. Devils Lake is fortunate that Sullys Hill already has facilities to accommodate such a program, he said.
The 46 students make up about 40 percent school district's middle school population. More than 60 applied for the outdoor curriculum, but the program is limited to two classrooms of 25 or fewer students, according to Schlenker.
He said he has started to track students' classroom achievements in the years following their studies at Sullys Hill, comparing them with grades of other students. But with just one year in the books, it's too early to draw any formal conclusions.
Swenson, the fifth-grader who first spotted that eagle that morning, offered some anecdotal evidence.
"I like that you get to go outside and explore and when you're outside, you get to learn," she said.
Added her principal: "It's one of the things that's just right about education."