Candy Blesse, a fifth-grade teacher at Truckee Elementary School, knows her stuff. As an experienced teacher of 23 years, she’s aware of the power of taking education to the streets — or, well, the fields! Thirteen years ago, Blesse realized a dream to utilize the power of the outdoor world to help inform and educate the youth far beyond the classroom.
She began a collaboration with the Sagehen Creek Field Station, the University of California Berkeley’s field research station located just outside Truckee, which is a hub for outdoor education. Blesse and teachers Kathy Echols and Katie Old started the Sagehen Outdoor Education Program, where all fifth-graders in the school district now go to enhance their learning.
The students are given the opportunity to learn about the natural world with the help of researchers and professionals in the science field. They study concepts in class, then visit the field station to see what those concepts are really all about.
“It brings out the kid in [the students]. Being out there, the fun of being together and playing in the dirt … it gets them excited,” Blesse said.
After several successful years, another collaboration struck Blesse. She wanted to deepen the learning her students were getting at Sagehen, so she and first-grade teacher Julia Lawrence started a partnership where the fifth-graders would help teach first-graders the science concepts they learned. This year, coming full circle, the crop of once-first-graders who entered the program in its first year will teach their young buddies.
Each fifth-grade class at Truckee Elementary is paired with first-grade reading buddies. The students study and read about concepts together in class such as grasshoppers and birds (big parts of the first-grade curriculum), then the older kids teach lessons out at Sagehen in three learning stations.
“We just know as educators that when you start teaching someone, that’s when you really get that deeper learning,” Blesse said.
The fifth-graders are given free rein to develop lessons in whatever way they like, using posters and other tools and brainstorming what information they want to pass on to their “students.”
“Each year it’s different, what they come up with, which is awesome,” she said. “It’s always fascinating and so fun. Even kids who are the most problematic kids, they totally rise to the challenge. They are so understanding and helpful. They’re just right on.”
Laura Brown, executive director of the Excellence in Education Foundation, knows the program inside and out. Not only has EEF partnered with other key organizations in sponsoring the outdoor program, but Brown’s own three children have been through it.
“It was fun to see the older students rise to the occasion and take their teaching role very seriously — wanting to pass their learnings on to the younger students,” she remembered. “My son also said it gave him an appreciation for his teachers and what they do on a daily basis.”
Beyond the first-fifth partnership, she also says that Sagehen itself is an invaluable asset.
“Sagehen offers opportunities to explore and learn about our local environment and test what it feels like to conduct scientific research. Students do activities [then] are guided through the scientific steps of collection, observation, and analysis,” Brown said.
“They [also] take water collections and measure the PH balance and how it impacts water ecology. Not only do these experiences expose the students to real-life, hands-on application of science, it might also spark an interest in a student and seed a future career path.”
She added that many local students don’t otherwise have the opportunity to explore the outdoors, or go away to a summer camp, like the experience the fifth graders get from the two-night, three-day excursion they take in the fall. There, they are immersed in everything from meal prep to sleeping in cabins, and of course, experiencing the scientific method first-hand.
Blesse said that this first-hand type of experience is key to learning.
“We want to keep them excited about learning,” she said. “That learning actually can change their life forever. They may not know what their passion is, but there’s something out there for them. A lot of kids start feeling defeated by about fifth grade, and I think Sagehen gets them excited again.”
Though this is Blesse’s last year of teaching (she’s retiring), it’s clear that her impact is a lasting one, and that the Sagehen program will live on.
“I’ll have second or third-graders come up to me and say, ‘my favorite day was out at Sagehen,’” she recalled. “It’s all just positive emotions about the day and the whole program.”