Eighth graders at Fuquay-Varina Middle School are experiencing a new kind of education through a pilot program coordinated with other classes and their teachers and the members of “Center for Human-Earth Restoration” (CHER).
The mission of CHER is to nurture “informed, motivated people committed to caring for the earth as a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects,” as emphasized by Thomas Berry, a prominent eco-theologian. CHER is led by Randy Senzig, (President and Board Chairman), Ross Andrews, (Executive Director) and Iris Senzig, (Chief Operating Officer).
Several teachers at Fuquay-Varina Middle School and a growing number of teachers from other schools also assist in various ways. This new form of education takes place partially on the beautiful, winding trails of CHJ Environmental Park off Wagstaff Road.
There are about 270 students participating for the next few months, gaining skills in what is usually taught in class but can now be learned through experience integrated with the classroom. These skills involve random sampling, charting graphs and probabilities, eco-systems and their relationships, scientific methods, math, journalism, reading and writing, team work, and actually growing a connection with their land and pride in their community.
The work they are doing is “synergistic with their class work” and is graded accordingly by their own teachers. Through this system of teaching, the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) goals of the New Essential Standards and Common Cores of North Carolina education are implemented in an interesting and challenging way.
The CHER program immerses students in nature, study, scientific method and more. The students are divided into three groups and led to three different starting places. As they walk the cleared trails, crossing bridges over what reminds one of a primeval world, they are instructed to walk quietly and observe everything around them. When they arrive at their destinations after about ten minutes, they are asked what they saw as they were walking.
Next, the students learn about the Chinese Privet, a non-native plant that is taking over this park in places. After a lesson in this plant’s appearance and origins, students are challenged to look for and count the Privet plants in a certain area. Students will come back in November, remove these plants and in the spring replace them with seedlings of indigenous plants, replacing those killed off by this encroaching plant. The seedlings are being grown by Catherine Duff, horticulture instructor at Fuquay-Varina High School.
Students use the scientific method to record numbers, size, and other information that will be used to develop charts and graphs.
After the activities each student sits in a quiet spot amidst the beauty and sounds of the forest and writes about their experiences, observations, feelings and what they have learned. This is a time to have a sense of the life around them and to grow an appreciation of their land which they will be responsible for someday. This time observing nature address another CHER mission: “We believe that if each person expands their connection to the Earth they will find a deeper joy in time outdoors and in turn they will protect the Earth and live with it wisely.”
Randy Senzig taught for 22 years and realized that so many kids felt “overwhelmed” and are actually afraid of the outdoors. They spend so much time indoors that they have lost the connection that students once had when about half of the families in this area lived on a farm.
Senzig decided to teach outdoors to help alleviate some of the hesitancy and increase the involvement and sense of “ownership” and responsibility for the land. Many of the teachers are noticing “transformational” changes in their students due to this system of involvement.
There are plans for more classes and summer camps with the YMCA High Hopes program in coordination with Lincoln Heights and St. Augustine College. The teachers at St. Augustine College saw a tremendous amount of change in students participating in the High Hopes camps and have requested another week to allow more kids to participate.
At the monthly meeting of the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce education committee Mark Holley, Fuquay-Varina Middle School Principal, stated that “his students had shown an improvement in their critical thinking skills and at the same time were having fun in the outdoors.”
Beth Selig, 8th grade science teacher, remarked, “Working with the CHER Program is an extremely exciting opportunity for the eighth grade students at Fuquay-Varina Middle School. Thus far, the students have had an invaluable experience of extending their learning from the four walls of the classroom to explore the natural environment. The students love the peacefulness of journaling. This partnership has truly enriched the learning of the students at Fuquay-Varina Middle School, in not only science but other academic areas as well. They are becoming stewards of their environment and as a teacher; it is an amazing sight to see.”
Funding for this project is needed to promote this revolutionary method of helping kids of all ages learn so many different things in such a diversified and productive manner. There are also programs for adults interested in learning more about ecology and the environment. Learn more about CHER at www.centerforhuman-earthrestoration.com or by calling 919 779-4079.