story and photos by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Hazen Union’s new pilot program “Dare to Be Me,” (DTBM) gives students an outdoor setting in which to take control of their own learning. The program is co-instructed by Hazen Union teachers Anja Pfeffer and Hilary Maynard.
DTBM is a part of Flexible Pathways, or Act 77, which recognizes students have different learning styles and should have access to more flexible learning methods. Maynard said Hazen Union adopted the program because a one-size-fits-all approach to learning does not work for many students.
Pfeffer said, “What is most important to both Hilary and me, is to explain how DTBM encourages/allows students to come alive, not just physically and through their senses, but also emotionally and intellectually.”
Maynard and Pfeffer have been teaching a co-ed group on Mondays and Tuesdays and a girls’ and gender non-binary group on Thursdays and Fridays. Students from the Thursday/Friday group shared their experiences in their own words.
Zoey Burnor, 13
Burnor saw this class as a chance to be themselves. “We’re not just sitting in a classroom all the time, we’re outside actually moving. I’m being more myself. I feel more self-confident. It’s changed my attitude, I think I’m more responsible, and I’m more like myself.”
Alexis Quisenberry, 16
Quisenberry was intrigued because “This is a class, but it doesn’t feel like one. We’re learning about things that we actually want to learn about. I learned about a fungus called Witches butter and I love it. It’s this orange jelly-like stuff that grows on fallen hemlock trees, on the ends. It’s kind of amazing. It is edible, and it helps with some respiratory problems, and it’s good for your immune system.”
Quisenberry said the class made a difference in students’ daily lives. “For the first time, I’ve actually stood up for myself in a situation where usually I would just lay down and take the verbal beating. So, it’s kind of helped with courage. It’s made a big difference. Here, we have a group that we actually feel safe to be ourselves with.”
Megan Cane, 14
Cane said a big part of the class involves “exploring and taking pictures of stuff. Finding mushrooms, and rocks, and cool sticks, finding cool things I can collect. I like collecting things, and just coming out here and being active, and I like walking around and being with my thoughts. The forest is a good place to do that because trees don’t judge you. Trees don’t care. Trees are just here to be trees and give air. And I’ve made a few friends. A good portion of it is hanging out, being comfortable with myself, collecting stuff, being comfortable with that.
“I’m less shy and quiet. If you’d asked me maybe a year ago if I wanted to do this interview, I’d say ‘I don’t want to be in the paper.’ It kind of brings me out a bit. I’m not as shy about everything, and I’m more willing to take risks for stuff. I’d rather have a fifty percent chance of getting the thing I’m trying to get than no chance at all.”
Cane said the program has helped with art and writing, “because I find I’ll be more attentive to details. You’re more with your in-tune thoughts now, you’re more tuned in to descriptions and you have more things to write about because you’re in the forest, in the woods. You just listen for what’s around you. Not like in a classroom five hours a day doing absolutely nothing. You’re out here, you’re listening, you’re seeing and using all your sense, which is filling up papers with writing about what you did today.
The program also promotes mental health, Cane said. “This is a nice coping mechanism, just coming out here and hanging out with the weather and hanging out with yourself. Which is like, you know, when you have two cats that don’t like each other, you just have to put them side-by-side in a kennel and let them co-exist for a little bit. You learn to co-exist with [your mind] and that it’s not as bad when you’re alone with it in the woods.”
Cane advised other students, “Don’t waste your time hanging out in your house on your own. There’s a whole world out here and we don’t know how long we can have it for, so just go outside and do whatever feels right. Don’t be afraid to go pick mushrooms unless they’re poisonous. It’s helped me and it’s helped a lot of people to not just go and slack off.”
Elizabeth Considine, 11
Considine, a seventh grader, is the youngest student in the class. “I’m kind of used to it, I’m the youngest in my family so I’ve always been the youngest,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of stuff connected to history and science, and I like nature. Sometimes the weather can be challenging when it’s cold and rainy outside. But I’m definitely spending more time outside which is kind of nice, just being in nature.”
Marlow Fliegelman, 15
Fliegelman said they picked the class “because I thought it would be fun and I like being outside. I don’t really like just sitting in a classroom all the time. I like the way we take walks outside every day, even when it’s cold. I’m getting a lot of exercise. I feel more confident.”
Elizabeth Bowley, 13
Bowley said “I like animals and nature. [The best thing] has been the long walks. Being with my friends, hearing the water, listening to birds and the air whispering in the trees. It makes me feel like a new person.”
Erin Norman, 17
Erin Norman, a junior, was not present during the interviews, but wrote to Pfeffer to express her thoughts on the program: “Last year I struggled a lot in school with many of my core classes. I did okay academically and passed my classes, but I didn’t apply myself or reach for my potential, so my struggles mainly connected to my sense of hopelessness and lack of self-esteem. This year, I chose to be in ‘Dare to Be Me’ because it offers a lot of opportunities to be reflective and to feel good about myself. Walking in the woods has been such a great time to have connections with nature and my peers. I am making this choice to do something hard mentally and physically, but at the same time, I am gaining a sense of accomplishment by challenging myself to go on walks and getting more comfortable learning about myself. This opportunity is a counterbalance to my sense of hopelessness that I had last year. I am seeing who I can become and It is a huge step for me this year. There are a lot of people that are in the same place I was in last year and you cant expect these students to do well academically until they get this sense of who they want to be. Being in ‘Dare to Be Me’ will have a long-lasting impact on my life and I believe classes and experiences like this for students are essential.”