Outdoor education carries on with computer classes

First-year charter school at Riveredge Nature Center uses online lessons to stay connected during stay-at-home directive
Ozaukee Press Staff

How do you attend an outdoor school when you’re generally confined to your home and supposed to do your schoolwork on a computer device?

That’s the challenge facing the staff of the Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School (ROLES) at the Riveredge Nature Center, a charter school of the Northern Ozaukee School District. 

“It’s been an interesting experience; quite an adjustment,” Lead Teacher Jessica Tipkemper said. “Our model doesn’t translate as easy.”

ROLES is in its first year, teaching about 70 children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

It is one of the few outdoor learning schools in the state, in which classes are held outside all year long, even in rain and snow.

Unlike many other schools, such as those in the Northern Ozaukee School District, each student does not have a laptop or tablet to use during school, so students sent home are dependent on whatever devices they have there, Tipkemper said.

But it helps that the school is small, with class sizes of only 15 or 16 students, she added.

“The gift is that we can be very nimble, and we can reach out to parents and see what works best for them,” Tipkemper said.

The consensus from parents, she said, is to use a blended approach that blends online resources, remote one-on-one time and self-guided outdoor explorations, which include students finding their personal “sit spots” outside for studying, just as they do at Riveredge. 

“It’s the same thing we’ve been doing all year, but just in your back yard,” Tipkemper said. “Some families have embraced going outdoors. We’re getting pictures of families going on hikes. That is a really heartening thing to me.”

Tipkemper said what students say they have missed most is spending time with their classmates and friends.

To try to maintain a sense of community, Tipkemper said, the school is engaging in live meetings online, remote face-to-face interactions between staff and students, texting and social media.

In one online session, Tipkemper said she asked her students what has surprised them most.

“One of them said, ‘I’m surprised that I’m on my computer for my nature school.’

“It’s new to all of us so each teacher is doing what’s working for them,” she said. “We are working to provide the same model of education with nature inquiry. We just have to shift and adjust to these circumstances.

“We know we have a journey ahead of us. But what’s great is we have a community that’s very intentional.”



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