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Clinton students spend five action-packed days at Upham Woods center

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Catherine W. Idzerda
May 24, 2013

— Here are just a few of the things you can learn at camp:

Turkey vultures are not raptors.

Getting across a stream is easier with help.

Finally, no matter where you put your sleeping bag, there always will be a rock under it.

Every year, sixth-grade students at Clinton Middle School spend five days at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center near Wisconsin Dells.

It’s not an end-of-the-year treat for kids who behaved well.

“This is part of the curriculum,” said sixth-grade social studies teacher Anita Hasseler.

It’s a week packed with botany, natural history, atmospheric science, math, reading, astronomy, ornithology, entomology, herpetology, geology, ornithology and basic physics.

Students get to hike, climb through caves, camp outside, build a campfire, canoe, explore an uninhabited island, take a hike with only the moon to guide them and spot critters of all kinds.

The camping trip has been taking place for more than 50 years, said Hasseler, who attended camp when she was in sixth grade.

As such, the teachers are well practiced, and there’s no chaos. They know what to do if it rains, how long it will take to get a group of anxious kids through the “cookie press” on the cave hike, when students will be the most tired—Wednesday night—and how to manage homesickness.

As state and national standards have changed, teachers have tweaked the curriculum to make sure camp remains relevant.

On Wednesday morning, for example, the girls were engaged in team-building and problem-solving exercises.

How do you get all the students across an imaginary stream using only a rope swing? How could you help someone who wasn’t quite strong enough to swing all the way across?

Another exercise required a group to move across a clearing on a set of widely spaced bricks.

They are given two wooden planks to move from brick to brick.

“It’s one of the things employees tell us,” Hasseler said. “They want their workers to have good communication skills, they want them to be able to work cooperatively.”

It’s a change even for educators.

“Even in traditional education, it’s always been, ‘Do your own work,’ ‘Keep your eyes on your own paper,’ ‘Don’t talk to anybody,’” Hasseler said. “What we’re saying now is, ‘Talk it through, talk it over, what can you learn from somebody else.’”

On the academic side, students learn about French voyagers and get to take a trip in a 20-foot canoe. Then they paddle around the 210-acre Blackhawk Island at the center of camp.

They have classes on raptors, amphibians and water creatures, the last of which includes wading into the Wisconsin River for samples.

On Tuesday night, the boys stayed overnight in the woods, hiking out, setting up camp, taking a night hike—without flashlights—and learning about the stars.

The girls were scheduled for a different night.

Even though the camp has been going on for more than five decades, it places the Clinton School District ahead of recent educational requirements, the Common Core State Standards, a new, more rigorous set of standards designed to help students be more competitive with their peers in other countries.

The standards require in-depth knowledge that goes beyond the ability to parrot facts. Under the old system, for example, students might have memorized Wisconsin’s rivers.

Under the new system, the names of the rivers would be part of a larger unit on the economic and cultural impact of the state’s waterways—logging, trapping, travel and how all those things came together to influence the state’s history.

The ability to “analyze” and “interpret” are crucial, Hesseler said.

At camp, students can’t take two steps without learning something, and it’s the kind of learning that sticks, said Clinton School District Interim Superintendent Don Childs.

One of the problems they’ve had in the educational business is the disintegration and isolation of information that comes from “learning factoids,” Childs said.

Often, project-based learning helps information become meaningful.

For example, after spending a night camping in the woods, Eric Espinoza, 12, said, “These woods don’t have any bears in them.”

He could tell you why, too.

Clara Lund, 12, said, “Turkey vultures are not raptors, even though they look like them.”

Behind that statement was a wealth of information she had absorbed through a presentation: Raptors versus other large birds, each one’s role in the ecosystem, where they make their nests and their range.

“Part of the purpose of the experience is to draw the academics together,” Childs said.

Hasseler said the trip is good for students in other ways, too.

It’s a week without Facebook, cellphones, video games and all the other electronic devices that make life so entertaining and so isolating.

Students see each other in a new light; strengths that aren’t visible in the classroom come out.

Hasseler sees kids mature through the process. They’ll return to school a little more sure of themselves, having successfully negotiated a week away from home.

And they’ll have learned things they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, such as “It’s hard to sleep in a tent—the ground is all bumpy.”

That’s not just a factoid. That’s a statement about geography, soil science and the joys of camping.


 
 
 
 

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