Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Fruits of our Labor: Bountiful Community Action

It's harvest time here at Dodge.  Once again, we are enjoying the sweet and savory fruits of our labors.  Our young students are plucking the last fall golds from the raspberry canes, picking ripe apples, pressing tart cider, delighting in digging monster 'taters from the black dirt beds and having a helluva good time heaving heavy squash into their little red wagons and rolling pumpkins right down the Farm Road.

This fall finds us savoring the less tangible fruits of our labors too.  The colors, sights and smells of autumn enrich our senses and remind us to be thankful for the natural gifts of Minnesota.  We can also be thankful that the Dodge mission to connect folks with their environment continues to resonate with our community and our neighbors in a variety of exciting ways.

We just hosted a very successful annual Dodge Ball at the new Radisson Blu at the Mall of America.  I am delighted to report that we harvested quite a bit of "lettuce" for my favorite cause:  The Dodge Nature Preschool Scholarship Fund.
Thanks to Jose Luis Villasenor, community activist and Dodge parent (of no less than three siblings in our Oak Room class!), attendees heard a heartfelt, firsthand account of the impact and rewards of land-based education for the youngest members of our community.  This fall, we are also reaping the rewards of sharing our mission with educational partners in our community.  Dodge has played host to a number of visitors who have been so impressed by our efforts in and examples of place-based, hands-on, environmental education that they have taken immediate, exciting action that will directly impact even more kids and families in our metro area.

As we welcome new families to Dodge Nature Preschool this fall, I feel it is important to let them know that their decision to join the Dodge community and to support place-based education is a terrific first step in what will likely be a lifelong, joyous and rewarding relationship with our natural world.  My new teaching colleague, Kari Ryg, recently shared her thoughts with parents at our annual Curriculum Night.  She said, "I've changed fundamentally as a person since I started working here.  Teaching outside, working with kids outside every day, has changed me, who I am and what I think about the world-- for the better."  Your choice to visit and enjoy Dodge and to enroll your children in our Nature Preschool makes abstract concepts--nature and education--real and concrete.  The people that use Dodge actually make the Nature Center and our School what they are:  places to explore the environment, to learn and practice stewardship of that environment and to grow in all ways that a person can, in partnership with the earth.  This is vital stuff!  What we do here at Dodge every day, not only means something to you who participate in day to day exploration and stewardship, it sets a terrific example and provides a guide for our neighbors.  I myself am delighted to crow about the fact that, after visiting Dodge, and seeing how we do what we do, the Lakeville school district has decided to make place-based, hands-on, environmental education the signature of their new STEAM initiative.  Dr. Lisa Snyder is now playfully calling the District initiative, "E-STEAM," and you can guess what that E is for.

Readers of this blog know that my own kids attend school in Lakeville.  I live in Lakeville.  I'm a teacher and a naturalist, and, more importantly, a concerned mom.  My own middle school daughters, while getting a great public school education, are not currently afforded the opportunity to partner with their own back door ecosystems in the same way that my Dodge Preschool students are.  I know that my Dodge Nature Preschool students benefit in all ways--cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically--from an integrated, emergent curriculum that partners with the natural world.  So I contacted Lakeville Superintendent, Dr. Snyder, and suggested that our school district might want to think about using our own local, natural resources to deepen and enrich the education of kids and families in Lakeville.  I cited Dodge Nature Center as a model for place-based, experiential education and I invited Dr. Snyder to visit us.

Guess what?  Dr. Snyder did in fact visit, and so did her District colleagues in Curriculum and Early Childhood.  Dr. Snyder and the District liked what they saw at Dodge.  They liked it so much, that the District is pursuing a sizable grant, in partnership with Lakeville Parks and Rec, to use local parks for classes and experiences.  They are working with the Jeffers Foundation to train teachers to use their own school sites for environmental curriculum integration, and they are planning a pilot series of environmental field days as early as this spring with the help of none other than our very own Dodge Board member, Chad Dayton, and his ground-breaking, wonderful organization, Wilderness Inquiry.

So, my own children are going to benefit from these efforts almost immediately.  And my friends and neighbors here in Lakeville can look forward to an exciting new level of inquiry and integrated learning that can only make our kids more engaged, more flexible, more resilient, more creative and more ready to shape the future.  Our kids, in turn, will share their new enthusiasm and their strong relationship to the local environment with us!  I've no doubt Lakeville will see an uptick in interest in our local flora and fauna, and in education.  Lakeville kids will get out there and learn more about the world and themselves.  Think of all the wonderful opportunities for cross-pollination that await!  ISD 194 can cooperate with a variety of local stakeholders in new and exciting ways.  Just think what will happen when the District works with our Area Arts Center, our Senior Center, YMCA Camp Streefland, Community Ed and Parks and Rec-- all in the context of environmental education.  So, Way to go, Lakeville!  And, Way to go, Dodge!  Without the Dodge example, Lakeville might not have emerged as a new regional, public school leader in integrated environmental education.

Community activism actually works.  So, I say joyfully to our new Dodge Nature Preschool families, "Your choice matters."  What we do here at Dodge, day in and day out, how we connect kids and families with their local environment, it's important and it matters, and it has a big impact on our friends and neighbors.

We often say to our Preschool families, "Thanks for choosing Dodge," and I'll gladly say so again and again.  I'll also say this to our friends and patrons, to the schools we serve, to our volunteers and to our supporters, "Thanks for choosing Dodge."  Thanks for investing in the idea of connecting people to the natural world.  Your choice means a bountiful harvest, in the gardens and beyond!  Without you, there would be no Dodge, and no Dodge legacy.