Carly Miller stands in the wetlands at Hashawha Environmental Center, a group of sixth-graders lined up in front of her, most knee-deep in mud.
"This volunteer needs to, No. 1, trust me," Miller tells them, looking around at the kids, "and needs to know this might not be a clean experience."
Hands immediately shoot up.
It is just before 4 p.m. on a Wednesday toward the end of November, and temperatures are in the low-30s with a biting wind chill. But despite the weather that forced children and educators alike to bundle up with multiple layers, energy is in the air.
Miller, a teacher for Carroll County Outdoor School, chooses Newlyn Owen, 11, who immediately hops through the tall grass and water over to her. He peels off his scarf, earmuffs and hat, tossing them onto a scarce dry piece of land.
"Do you trust me?" Miller asks him. "One hundred percent," Newlyn responds. "That might change momentarily," Miller jests back.
Newlyn stands there, eyes closed, the anticipation palpable as Miller dips her right hand into the mud. She lifts the mud-covered hand — kids giggling as they watch — and takes it like a starfish to Newlyn's face to give him a mud handprint.
Laughter explodes from his classmates, as Newlyn opens his eyes and lets out a triumphant cheer.
"Oh, yes! Yes!" he bellows.
One by one, the rest of the students dip their hands into the mud, some — like Newlyn — covering their entire faces, others adding small and decorative designs, like a smiley face.
For some, the activity might seem silly, and certainly messy. But for those at Carroll County Outdoor School, it's just another day in the classroom, an experience Miller says later is just what kids need.
"This place is the perfect recipe for a child. Period."
Decades of outdoor education
For sixth-graders across the Carroll County Public Schools system, Outdoor School is a rite of passage — it's an experience they all have and, for most, one they hold on to. Each week brings a new group of students to spend Monday through Friday, including four nights, at Hashawha Environmental Center in Westminster. The program has been in place since 1976.
Principal Gina Felter, who was a teacher years ago at Outdoor School and is now in her fourth year as principal, exudes energy that is contagious throughout every step, from the bottom of her boots to the tips of her spiky blonde hair. She's been a driving force in the continued growth of the program.
When it began, Outdoor School was about getting kids outside into the environment and helping them to gain an awareness, Felter explains. Today, the program is completely aligned to the environmental science curriculum for sixth-graders.
Throughout the week with every lesson, students are using the EII — Environmental Issue Investigation — method, which encourages students to ask a question, collect data, come to an answer and work toward action to fix the problem. Lessons learned at the school expand far beyond the five-day event, Felter says.
"We hope that students that leave Outdoor School take the knowledge that they've gained about environmental topics [and] environmental issues and become positive environmental stewards in their communities," she says.
But the week is about so much more than that.
"They're not just learning about the environment all week long. They're living together," she says. "So part of our mission at Outdoor School is to help students learn how to make effective decisions."
Felter loves being able to teach the students, and to watch them grow from the time they arrive Monday until they leave on Friday.
"I value being able to change students," she says. "Being able to teach them about their environment and about themselves. But most importantly see them change and see them transform."
A home away from home
On the first day, Monday around 8:30 a.m., eight student counselors from Liberty High School arrive on-site for Outdoor School. It's been a handful of years since the high-schoolers were campers themselves, but for many, their memories from their own trip are fond and exactly what brought them back.
That's the case for Maddy Mooney, a junior at Liberty. "I wanted to be a counselor because I had a great experience when I was here in sixth grade," she says.
Mooney thinks being a counselor would be a great opportunity and a chance to come back to Hashawha. She remembers her own counselor fondly, she says, and is looking forward to bonding with her girls this week.
Counselors stand in one of the student cabins, listening as Anne Riddle, a teacher at Outdoor School, walks them through their duties. Once students arrive, she tells them, counselors are to help the kids get settled. Riddle goes over emergency procedures and offers tips for how to handle potential situations that could arise.
If a child is homesick, for example — and often, many are at the beginning — counselors are the first line of defense. Riddle tells the high-schoolers they should work to try to calm the children and let them talk so they can get to know them. If that doesn't work and a kid can't calm down, she tells them, an adult can step in.
But, Riddle says, "we want you to try to attempt first."
Just before 10 a.m. Monday, the luggage bus arrives and parks in front of one of the pavilions as a steady rain falls. Counselors work assembly line-style to unload the belongings of 54 Oklahoma Road Middle School students. Moments later, the next round of buses pull up, unloading students. Some jump off the bus excited, others with more reservation, as they file inside.
After a short orientation with Felter, students are grouped off with counselors and head to their cabins to unpack.
In cabin 4 East, about 10 girls drag suitcases, pillows and, for some, stuffed animals into what will be their bedroom for the next five days. They choose their bunks and begin pulling items from their bags, working to make the wooden room lined with bunk beds more like home.
Some struggle as they try to put a fitted sheet onto the teal plastic mattress. Others work in teams, one climbing the ladder to their bed as a classmate passes up pillows and sleeping bags.
Twelve-year-old Erin Thimmesch is one of those students standing in 4 East after setting up her bunk.
For Erin, Outdoor School brings with it some anxiety, because it's a long time to be away. But, it also brings with it a world of possibilities.
"I'm really, really excited," she says.
A routine for success
While Monday came with nerves and jitters, for most, by Wednesday, a routine has kicked in.
Jessica Saylor, 11, says while she isn't used to being away from home and her dad for this long, once she got into her classes, she was having fun. For Jessica, the night hikes are one of her favorite parts.
"We get to see cool stuff like last night we heard an owl and a fox," she says.
Going to the wetlands for exploration class was another favorite.
"[I liked] exploration class and getting muddy, as you can tell from my boots," she says, laughing, looking at her muck-covered rain boots.
Even in a time when many kids Jessica's age are glued to devices, the sixth-grader says she doesn't really miss being plugged in.
"Instead of looking around on phones to try to find something cool we get to go outside and be quiet and listen to something cool and hope we see it," she adds.
That break from technology, the solid schedule and the regular meals really help the kids thrive in Outdoor School, says Miller. It puts everyone on an equal playing field, and helps alleviate their fears and anxieties.
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, students make their way to a half-dozen cafeteria tables for breakfast — scrambled eggs, bagels, bacon and fruit. Student helpers, known as KOs, which stands for kitchen opportunity, wipe down tables, set up for meals with place settings and help serve food. After meals, they're in charge of cleanup, as well as trash, recycling and compost. Each day, the students designated as KOs change.
"They always know what to expect. I think that oftentimes nowadays, kids need to know expectations upfront. And that's not just behavior-wise, that's what's happening. We have schedules for them," Miller says. "It's clear, it's posted, they always know what's next."
The kids who come to Outdoor School come from very different parts of the county, she says, and they don't always have that type of consistency at home.
But that consistency — the care and respect they receive — is what makes everything work. And, the lack of screen time.
"So it's this beautiful break from technology," Miller says, "… and then they're mentally stimulated throughout the day and they're learning experientially and getting all these new experiences so it's like this perfect little five-day program of what kids really need in life.
Hands-on learning a key
After breakfast Wednesday, a group of students heads over to the Reptile Room for the first part of their watershed class with Riddle to learn about the Chesapeake Bay.
Riddle breaks students into groups with specific tasks to test water, be it looking at temperature or oxygen levels, pH or nitrates, before she has them predict what areas within Hashawha will have better water quality.
As time ticks on during the morning lesson, students move into that hands-on learning. They begin to make their way down behind the main building on site, winding through a field before trekking down a hill in the woods and down to stop one, Lake Hashawha.
Riddle gives instructions to collect water samples from the lake and they are off. The kids lay flat on their stomachs, leaning precariously over the edge of the dock as they dip their test tubes into the chilly water.
A large portion of each class, even in the cold weather, is spent outside so kids can learn in a tactile way.
Riddle, who's been in the position for a little over a year, though in the school system since 2004, said dealing with the weather, and building curriculum around it, is one of the more challenging parts of the job. In the warmer months, most of her habitat class is spent outside.
"I never stay in that long," she says of Wednesday's morning lesson. The job requires you to be flexible because "if the weather's not cooperating, [it's important to have] that bag of tricks that you can do."
Even in its most challenging moments, Riddle says, the job is one she loves, and an opportunity that comes along "once in a lifetime."
Up the hill from Riddle's class, other students are with instructors Andy Cunningham and Dean Mann for stream ecology.
Excited chatter and occasional shrieks trickle out of the building as students stand around buckets, wading through leaves, water and rocks from water sources at Hashawha.
In a sort of organized chaos, students work to find signs of life during the stream ecology class. They find a number of specimens, including Mayflies, pill bugs, a handful of fish and, occasionally, salamanders.
Alivia Rout, 11, stands in a circle with classmates using small paintbrushes, trying to find every last living organism.
"We've been finding little roly-poly looking things," she says, as a classmate behind her shouts "Just like this!" and triumphantly holds up a bug.
Stream ecology allows students to test the water in a quicker way than chemical testing, Mann explains. Students make their way down to the stream and perform a physical assessment first.
"We're using our eyes, our ears, we're looking at the physical traits of the stream," he says.
And from there, they collect materials to look for bio indicators, specifically those that are sensitive organisms.
"The sensitive organisms are sensitive to pollution," he says. "So if we find a sensitive organism, that is a really fast way to tell us if the stream health is good."
‘The best parts of teaching’
After a noon lunch of pizza, salad and peaches, a group of students goes upstairs to the Reptile Room for the first part of habitat class with Cunningham.
Cunningham asks students to take a look at four glass tanks that are embedded in the wall and find four words that describe all four enclosures, laying the groundwork for the four elements that make up a habitat: space, water, shelter and food.
Cunningham is in his second year teaching at Outdoor School. Prior to this position, he jumped around in different elementary schools in CCPS, but this job is by far his favorite.
"The best parts of teaching [are] out here," Cunningham says. "You get to do the really hands-on stuff. The kids really benefit from it. It's really impactful. You get to see everyone and have an impact that spreads throughout the whole county, so it's just a really great way to be, like, totally involved in the really meaningful parts of teaching with a lot of different kids."
Even with the minor challenges a job like Cunningham's can bring, like the schedule and odd hours — teachers work about one 36-hour shift a week because they stay over with the students one night — everything is worth it.
"The challenges are minimal compared to the benefits of being out here," he says.
Cunningham brings students outside to show them just what makes a good habitat outside.
He stands them on a grassy mound outside the main building and began counting down — eight, seven, six, five — as students scattered around, looking for a place to hide. Four, three, two, one, Cunningham shouts before calling names of the kids he could see in their hiding spots, a demonstration to show what a poor habitat looks like.
Down the road in a larger area with high grass, Cunningham repeats the game but this time, many of the students survived after remaining hidden, proof that more space and places for shelter makes for a better habitat.
‘A different type of rapport’
By 3 p.m., students in Miller's class are in the wetlands for exploration class. But before their foray into the mud, Miller has the students sit spread out on a dry section of land. As each nestles into the ground to stay warm, she asks them to just pay attention and take in the scene with their senses.
When asked what they noticed, answers vary. Some heard the sound of grass rustling in the wind. For others, it was the sound of the water in the stream. Some noticed birds calling.
The group winds through a mass of grass, water and swamp, mud deep and cold. Boots squish with each step as the group carefully walks, leaning on each other for support when need be.
After another hour passes, Miller's class, with mud-covered faces, walks up from the wetlands to the cafeteria for cocoa and a chance to warm up ahead of shower time. The sun, golden as sunset approaches, casts over the students' tired faces.
Next comes dinner — barbecue chicken, rice and vegetables — at 5 p.m. followed by time for journaling before students head back to their cabins to shower.
Outdoor School is unlike any other program in CCPS, and teachers build unique different relationships with the students.
"It's a different type of rapport," explains Miller, who's been a teacher at the school for more than a decade, the longest of the four.
But even though the teachers are only with the kids for five days, the bond can become just as powerful.
"I think it can be as strong in a different way, because we spend so much time with our kids. You know, where other teachers are going home after the school day's over, we're here at night with them," Miller says.
"We're dealing with things that they are not necessarily dealing with, like homesickness, you know, or going to bed. It's a different aspect. It's a different part of their life. So I think you become really close with the kids out here because they have to gain your trust — they need to know you and feel safe around you, so I do think you get really close to them."
Teachers find different ways to bond with their groups each week. For Miller, for whom sixth-graders are the "coolest little humans alive," part of what makes a difference is learning kids' names immediately, and for her, giving them a nickname.
Miller, who also teaches braiding classes at Common Ground on the Hill, will also spend time braiding some of the students' hair while they're at Outdoor School.
But above all, it's about being true, she says.
"I think you have to be genuine," says Miller, who has a young daughter and taps into her experiences as a mom. "I think that's the most important thing. You cannot fake anything out here because kids are going to read right through you — you're practically living together."
For Mann, who's in his fourth year in the job, building that relationship is really about being able to have fun with the kids.
Typically, Mann says he tries to teach the kids habitat first, because on Monday, which is a "whirlwind," he wants a class that's fun and not a cognitive overload.
Participating in the camouflage game, where students run and hide out in the habitat, plays a huge role in that.
"It allows me to be more playful with the kids," Mann says. "It allows me to kind of see where they are from a stamina standpoint because stamina out here is a big deal."
Each week is new, even though they're teaching the same curriculum, because the kids are always different. And no matter the group, Mann adds, he works to build that relationship.
"I just try to be as authentic as I can with them and be as straightforward and honest with them," he says, "at the end of the day, if I'm having fun, they're having fun."
Nights are for hiking
After journaling, as 7 p.m. approaches Wednesday, students head back to their cabins to bundle up even more — extra pants, sweaters, scarves and jackets are layered on as students prepare for their night hike.
Cunningham and Sandy Rohwein, an instructional assistant with Outdoor School, get their group organized in two lines before heading outside.
With almost no flashlight use, the pair leads students through the winding woods. In the frigid night air, the only sounds are the wind whipping through the trees and boots crunching leaves.
The group comes to a clearing and stops for a break, and a nighttime reading of the book, "Owl Moon." As the hike continues, the group walks along, sometimes converging into one line in smaller sections of the trail, before coming to a stop about a mile away from the cabins.
The students sit on a hill as Rohwein crouches, and by the light of a red flashlight, sets up a machine that creates owl calls. Minutes pass as Rohwein puts out the calls — the children sit, waiting with anticipation for an owl to call back, though no call is returned.
It's just after 8 p.m. as students make their way the mile back to their home away from home. A quick bedtime snack of Goldfish crackers is distributed before it's time for bed.
‘You are going to change the world’
For many students, the arrival of Outdoor School is cloaked in uncertainty. Jake Marion, 11, is no exception.
Jake was very nervous when he arrived, because whenever he'd been away from home before — he'd always been with a "trusted adult," he says.
"I had no idea who any of these people were when I came."
Jake says he felt better within the first day, and he had fun, especially in the wetlands and on the night hikes. By Friday, the week was "honestly amazing, just everything about it."
Friday morning, before lunch, students stand outside. Many hug their counselors, and each other, some with tears steaming down their faces.
Most aren't ready for the week to end.
Felter sits the students down just after noon on Friday, during the final moments of Outdoor School.
She asks students how they will be good stewards of the environment, a question which brings answers like recycling, turning out lights, building birdhouses and picking up trash.
And while those are all good, Felter tells them, there's one more thing they can do.
"The most powerful action that you can take to have the most impact is … to teach others," Felter tells the kids. "So when you get home today, and you start conserving that electricity and conserving that water and walking instead of driving cars and watching your wasted meals, don't just do it for yourself. Teach everyone else what you've learned. And that positive impact that you have, it's going to grow.
"And then you know what's going to happen? You, sixth-graders — you — are going to change the world. And I believe that."
The Oklahoma Road Middle School students make their way up a set of stairs around 12:30 p.m. Friday and stream into buses.
Rain comes down — just as it did Monday morning during arrival — although this time, the mood is light. Students board the buses and as they pull away, Outdoor School staffers stand on the corner and wave.
"Another week in the books," Felter says, smiling, as she turns and heads back inside, ready to take on another class next week.