Stillness. Do we remember what it was like to just breathe? To quiet the constant din of outside distractions and just be present in the moment?
The students lined up in a row facing the prairie. They didn’t move. The fall morning contained a bit of a chill in the air causing fog to rise gently above the wetland. The students were participating in a daily ritual as part of the Prairie Science Class (PSC) called “getting in the moment.”
To get in the moment means letting go of all the outside noise and clutter – it means centering oneself so that you are conscious and in tune with one’s surroundings. When one is “in the moment” your five senses start to truly come alive. In the distance, the quack of a drake mallard could be heard. A muskrat could be seen swimming through the maize of cattails that otherwise would have easily gone unnoticed. When the wind picked up, it caused the sideoats grama to flicker and dance. There is something about getting in touch with nature that calms the human spirit. There is something about the open expanse of the prairie that puts life into peaceful perspective.
As instructor, Mona Davis, states, “It’s different here.” The approach to learning is an interactive and reflective experience. It can leave an indelible mark on how one sees the world. A senior at Pine River High School was given the assignment to write about an experience in education that was deeply meaningful. Even though her experience in Fergus Falls as a student in the PSC had taken place several years ago and she had long since left the community, she wrote about her personal journey as a PSC student in Mrs. Davis’ classroom and the impact it had made on her life. For educators, those stories are the fuel that keeps the passion for the work burning.
The PSC program was recently recognized as a 2023 Innovation Program recipient by the Minnesota Rural Education Association. The prestigious award is presented to only two programs statewide each year. Our four Prairie Science Class teachers: Mona Davis, Tia Thysell, Deb Strege and Becky Greenagel were present at the awards banquet to be honored and were congratulated by Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jett and MREA Executive Director Bob Indihar.
The Prairie Science Class is a unique partnership between Fergus Falls Public Schools and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. Threads also run through the City of Fergus Falls, Friends of the Prairie and Lakes Country Service Cooperative. How did it all begin? Like many things, it began with passionate people with a vision. Dave Ellis, Mona Davis and Chip McAllister were instrumental in developing the program in its early years. There is only one other program like it in the United States.
Dave Ellis recounted the journey of taking the concept of the PSC and making it a reality:
“Growing up on a farm brought a daily connection with nature. Though I was not mature enough as a boy to realize what a gift time outside was, the memories of this experience never left. Becoming a teacher for Fergus Falls Public Schools gave me opportunities to begin to connect my students with nature. In the early years of my teaching, this amounted to field trips. Usually one in the fall, one in the spring.
As the years passed, the benefits of taking my classes outdoors became increasingly clear. Reasons to bring them out also became more obvious. But, it did take thirty years of my career as a teacher to finally decide students should be outside every day. It was a process, a combination of experiences with students outside and exploring the ways it could be accomplished. This included the early consideration of a charter school.
Eventually, time, circumstances and administrators willing to join the adventure produced the first Prairie Science Class in 2003. Fifty families chose to involve their 5th grader in the first program. It was an instant success. The next fall the school district had added a second teacher and 50 more students.
Twenty years have passed! My response to the effectiveness of the PSC has never wavered. Integration of grade level curriculum with a study of the natural world is a perfect educational hybrid. Every student is far more than just a mind to be filled with knowledge. They have hearts and a soul. For effective education, all three must be engaged.
The PSC makes education sticky. When students have the opportunity to study the natural world while learning grade level requirements they are more motivated, there are fewer behavior issues and learning becomes meaningful. To advocate for something which so clearly and powerfully implements the education of students is easy.”
I love this program for several reasons. We are blessed with a beautiful planet. I want our children to recognize and appreciate its beauty. I also believe that each of us has a responsibility to be good stewards of the planet. The PSC teaches students how to become naturalists. That involves careful observation. Learning to ask questions and seek answers. It requires the development of scientific reasoning skills. This promotes higher order thinking skills that are tantamount to an excellent education. Finally, it is my belief that the tenets of the program promote the physical and mental well-being of our students. Breathing fresh air, learning to be calm and focused and appreciating the wonderful world around us makes us healthier.
I close with a quote shared with me by Mona Davis. It is from David Sobel's book, Beyond Ecophobia: "What's important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds."
Congratulations to all who have contributed to the development of this program. This prestigious recognition is much deserved!