When I arrived at Friends School of Minnesota, I noticed a quote at the entrance of the school.
The quote is by David Sobel,
“If we want students to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”
Friends School emphasizes an education where learning how to cultivate joy and connection is as necessary as learning about any other academic discipline. Love for the world is not only a precursor to “saving it,” but actually a way to orient ourselves and realize the role we have in shaping it.
I have been interested in the simplicity of this message and how it comes alive inside and outside of the classroom. The River Study Project in the Mississippi Kindergarten class is a great example of how students flourish when they are in touch with their own integrity.
The root of the word integrity in Latin is whole, integral, complete. To me, integrity, in this academic context, is the way class programming is structured to meet and honor the real-time insights, feelings, and connections students themselves make to place. The teacher’s agenda shapeshifts to reflect the students’ authentic excitement that develops during learning.
I talked to Marshall, our Kindergarten teacher at FSMN, about the project. Marshall said, “a sense of wonder is [supposed] to be matched with adult help.” The students’ genuine excitement—checking the weather and preparing what to bring on the trip, singing songs to the river, counting their steps down to the base of the waterfall—is the vehicle through which students develop a deep and personal investment in their learning.
Each year, the Kindergarten students travel to the Mississippi River to explore and bask in the wonders of the place. They use their senses and curiosity to build a collection of questions and memories to bring back to the classroom.
Each year, Marshall witnesses the effect the project has on stirring the “imagination and the wildness” in his students.
When they return to the school, they create a visual representation of the river through an art project that combines various mediums and skills: recreating a mini map of the river, singing songs to remind them of the trip, counting their steps, and retracing their day through writing. Every year the project in class takes a bit of a different shape.
“Environmental education at Friends School is grounded in a strong connection to place.” – Marshall
Over the course of his career, Marshall has learned how important learning through exploration is in early childhood education and K-2 education. In fact, he noted that if you inundate kids with problems before letting them wonder and connect, it can actually desensitize them. He strives to support student exploration and their connection to the natural world.
Taking students and their interests seriously, and giving them a real chance to explore them, is a crucial form of integrity present in progressive education. To me the defining quality of integrity at Friends School is its relational quality, the focus on building an authentic relationship to self, to each other and with the learning environment.
Education “in” the classroom is about becoming better equipped to understand life and purpose outside the classroom. In the river study project, students learn they are capable of forming connections with each other and the world around them.
Environmental education is about better understanding ourselves and our connection to the world. To do this well, a focus on allowing students to bring their whole, wild, and imaginative selves must be at the center. It is not something that can be passed down through memorization or testing, but something that unfolds and that can be uplifted from deep within.
Supporting students by providing them opportunities to experience the natural world with a sense of joy, and reflecting on these connections, is a step towards building a sense of integrity and purpose.