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Free and In the Wild: Experiential Education in school at FernLeaf

Updated: Apr 24

Walking around the FernLeaf Creek Campus with Ryan Lubbers, the lower school's experiential education teacher, is like walking with John Muir, the naturalist from the 19th century who was famous for his incessant curiosity and awe and infectious delight in the world.

Experiential Education Teacher in school at FernLeaf

Recently, with a class of fourth graders hustling to keep up with his loping strides, Ryan took every opportunity he could to share an observation, point out a small wonder or get the students thinking critically about the place as a whole. The 26 acres of the Creek Campus, to Ryan, are not just play spaces or buildings or disconnected areas, but a unified whole, an ecosystem as rich and compelling as anything on an episode of Blue Planet.

"What is this? What is this?" he asked as the class came to the arched bridge in the center of campus. A trash can lay on its side and the previous day's trash - mostly paper goods and lunch cast offs - spilled out like the wake from a small boat. Students started postulating what happened, mostly centering on judgment and scorn that someone could do such a thing. Ryan, however, had a different theory. Pointing out the clues like a detective, he helped the students see that a bear or other hungry neighbor was the likely culprit.

The hypothesis was the lesson. Getting the students to stop long enough to pay attention to the signs was the goal, not a lecture in trash management. "It looks like it's time for us to do a stream clean up," he said. "Next week. For now, let's move on." And with a short chirp from the metal whistle he wears around his neck, they were off.

As an adult, it's hard to keep up with Ryan. His ability to meet the energy of students, to sense the needs of both individuals and the group and then respond to them meaningfully, is startling. His willingness to allow freedom and curiosity, to follow the meandering and unexpected twists and turns that elementary students are famous for while still shepherding and guiding the group toward a goal, is inspiring.

When a class of third graders recently filed into his formal classroom in Building B on the Creek Campus, a barrage of questions arose from students who noticed a change in Ryan's series of aquariums. One of the tanks was empty, the fish and tadpoles gone. Even before taking roll, Ryan embraced the opportunity to help the students realize a number of important facts about their world. First, contrary to popular belief, teachers don't actually live in their classrooms. Since he wasn't going to be able to feed the tadpoles as regularly as they needed over fall break, he released them where they are now free and in the wild. Of course, with cold weather approaching, this led to a discussion on the wood frog, "the toughest frog of all time," he declared, and its ability to be frozen solid in a block of ice, thaw out and hop away. Some of the students' eyes enlarged to frog-like dimensions, while others nodded their heads emphatically with the pleasure of knowledge confirmed. Second, they reviewed the life cycle of a frog, making initial plans for searching and observations when the first frogs of the year begin laying eggs in February. Third, still before roll, they discussed algae blooms and the challenges of water tank management. Then, roll. Then, a call for jackets and two neat lines in preparation for a trek to what he called "a spooky new trail to see a spooky place that none of you have seen before." Then, they were off.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Ryan said he always wanted what was real. "I needed to get out from my desk," he remembered about his own days at school. "The outdoors were an outlet where I could go, feel connected and explore."

Ask him to crunch numbers for an abstract math assignment and his eyes would glaze over. But, ask him to calculate the volume of water in a river, and he was involved, engaged, committed.

After earning degrees in Biology and Spanish from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ryan spent a year teaching English in Costa Rica. It would prove to be a formative experience for his adult life. Traveling between the US and Costa Rica regularly since then, and spending two years there full time with his family prior to the pandemic, he remains connected to the bio-diverse wonderland in Central America.

When in the US, he spent 10 years working as an educator at the Mountain Trail Outdoor School at Kanuga, the 1,400-acre conference and education center in Hendersonville. There, he created and led overnight experiences for groups of middle school students. The nature of the program and his work - splitting his time between adventure sports and environmental education - was perfect preparation for the experiential education role created at FernLeaf this year.

Taking parts of a traditional PE curriculum and mixing it with outdoor education, Ryan is like an alchemist for all the students from the lower school. One week, they might practice the skills and learn the sportsmanship important for soccer. Then, the next week, they might focus on the water cycle while watching Cane Creek flow toward the French Broad as it stretches toward the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and, eventually, the clouds overhead. One week may be dedicated to games in the gaga ball pit, but, even then, it's never not a good time to notice the changes in the trees by the stream, or observe the unexpected hatching of turtles or look, but don't touch, at the amazing carcass of an opossum ("We got to see its little brains," one fourth grader remembered with glee in her voice.).

"I just love it," Ryan said. "I love it more now. I love to see the world unfolding in the kids' eyes. This is their backyard, and it's something to explore and learn from and, ultimately, to protect."

Every moment, every thing, is ripe with possibility for that exploration. Making their way to the spooky trail he promised them, moving at a clip that was difficult to match even with adult-sized steps, Ryan brought the fourth grade class to a halt beside a stand of seemingly nondescript hardwoods in the middle of campus.

"Do you see that?" he asked the students. "The birds. There... a mockingbird. There... a sparrow," he said, pointing quickly as small songbirds hopped and skittered. He broke into a sparrow call and was echoed by several students trying to mimic his mouth shape and tone. "There... look. You may not be able to see the colors or markings, but you can start to learn their shapes," he told the students. "So many different birds all together. Why is that, do you think?"

In a matter of two minutes, he took the 9- and 10-year-olds through an introduction to ornithology, highlighting how the songbirds pair up and mate in the spring, becoming isolated, competitive and argumentative. Then, in the fall, they group into mixed flocks, each relying on different foods that the area provides but depending on each other for safety and security. When asked why a mixed flock was safer, one of the students quickly assessed that having more eyes watching for predators is always better than fewer. This led to a quick discussion on the difference between the warning call of a chickadee - the famous CHICK-A-DEE-DEE-DEE - and the mating call of a chickadee - a melodic string of four or five notes.

Then, they were off.

Utilizing every square inch of the 26 acres at the Creek Campus, Ryan gives his classes of young naturalists an opportunity to explore within age-appropriate boundaries and with age-appropriate liberties. Kindergarten students might make it to the field at the central athletic field, while the older students get to stretch their legs further afield. Walking with him and the fourth graders, the senior students at the lower school, feels like wilderness contained, something safe but not curated. Ryan leads the way keeping his eyes, somehow, on both the string of students that follow and their surroundings, watching for safety risks and for teaching moments.

At the entrance to the path he's led them to, he lays it out, plain and simple, honoring the students' maturity with an honest assessment.

"This trail..." he said, "This trail is not good. There are briars and holes and roses. It's spooky. Watch carefully."

Undaunted by his warning, the students plunged forward, scrambling over downed limbs, helping each other untangle from greedy brambles. Near Cane Creek, they patiently made their way over several rocks to cross a feeder stream before emerging on the banks of the water that serves as the southern border of campus.

Set 20-feet down and away from the railroad trestle that parallels Hendersonville Road, the students stood in small groups to take in the scene: a small set of rapids in the foreground framing an old, dilapidated mill on the far side of the creek. Ryan's typical wonderings and exclamations were quiet for a few moments, except for the occasional reminder to a few students to resist their understandable desire to toss rocks. It was as real as real can be - the water cycle stretched before them, the mixed flocks of songbirds overhead, the history of the place, their place, as a brick mill literally at hand as students found half-buried bricks in the sand and stones. It was a classroom, a laboratory, a lecture hall and a sanctuary.

Keeping an eye on the time, Ryan broke the spell of hushed chatter and unforced quiet with another tweet or two on his whistle. The class regrouped and turned toward the formal classrooms on the far side of campus. Short on time, Ryan led them to a different trail, one that was less spooky and more direct. Watching the students spread out based on speed or interest was PE at its best. Every one of the 23 students was active and moving and outside for nearly 50 minutes that day. Some moved faster, some slower, but they all moved and breathed air and felt the wind and saw the sky. They were off.

Back at his Building B classroom, Ryan reflected, with a soft smile, "I wasn't sure how that was going to go, but I like how it went."

That willingness to explore, to see what might be, to not know but to look closely and carefully, is the central thread that binds Ryan's work and life. It's the same thread that runs through the lives of great naturalists through time - from Henry David Thoroeau to Diane Ackerman, from Anna Botsford Comstock to John Muir - and the one that Ryan is actively weaving into the lives of every student at the Creek Campus.

Muir's famous quote, "The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on as I can, studying incessantly," might serve as the mantra for Ryan's classes. Just don't tell the students that all the fun they're having is work.

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