ECO: An Environment of Learning

A group of sixth graders hikes along the Bristol Hills Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail. They stop to study the bark characteristics of a tree as they identify it. Their field journals are secure in their hands, providing a tablet to sketch and write their observations.

A week later the same group camps overnight in Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area. Their night walk beneath the stars is an adventure of trust and exploring the unknown. The next morning as they break camp, their field journals contain reflections on the previous night’s fears and accomplishments.

As the autumn leaves reach their depth of color, the students are found paddling the quiet waters of West River, followed by another respite with their journals as they write their thoughts of the beauty around them.

These sixth graders are not on vacation; they are in school! Who are these fortunate youngsters and how do hiking, camping, and paddling canoes shape their public school learning experience?

The four Cs
Since September 1997, the Marcus Whitman Central School District has offered a unique curriculum choice known as “ECO.” The Environmental Classroom Opportunity Program, as ECO is formally named, provides students with an experiential curriculum rather than the typical classroom fare. Students undertake a wide array of field-based learning expeditions throughout the region’s fields, forests, and waterways. During the 12 years of ECO, more than 375 students have experienced this unique way of learning. Currently ECO is a sixth-grade program; in the 11 previous years, ECO also served seventh-grade students.

Whitman teacher Malcolm MacKenzie was instrumental in founding ECO and has remained as the leader and strong advocate of its vision. A sabbatical in 1995 provided MacKenzie time to become refreshed and rethink his approach to teaching. Based upon extended reading and school visits, he became a believer that good schools are marked by four Cs: curriculum, choice, commitment and community.

Providing an engaging, relevant curriculum is paramount for student success. Choice in learning venues is something parents and students have come to want, and is a reflection of our consumer-based society. When students and parents make a choice for a particular curriculum, it forges a stronger sense of commitment to learning, both in the classroom and at home. This shared commitment through choice and curriculum is the basis of the school community, which provides a strong sense of belonging for individual students and their families.

The participants
Students are selected for ECO participation through a gender-balanced lottery. This student selection process provides a diverse student population in terms of academic skills and socioeconomic background. The program has always had more applicants than available student space (25 slots this school year), which has caused the district to limit enrollment only to district residents.

Family plays an important role in the ECO learning experience. This begins as parents make the choice to have their child enroll and continues in the tradition of ECO’s whole-school meetings. Throughout the school year the entire school community of students, teachers, parents, extended family members, and always some ECO alum, gather in evening meetings. Each meeting has a specific focus: orientation, student portfolio review, student research sharing, a pancake supper (with ECO-made maple syrup), a student steel-drum workshop concert, and a June barbecue (with ECO-grown greens). These meetings provide an important opportunity for celebration and community.

Regular communication home, through weekly assessments, quarterly student-written personal assessments, and parent-student-teacher conferences, is also an important hallmark of ECO.

Working as an ECO teacher requires a deep commitment of time and special talents. The unique field-based experiences require an array of skills and a willingness to take on responsibilities that require both planning and spontaneity. For example, the teachers may need to load canoes and drive a truck with a boat trailer, life guard on open waters, go camping and organize the trip supplies and equipment, garden, partake in maple sugaring, lead hikes, and, of course, teach the math, science, social studies, and language arts coursework, all while being available for the students. In selecting instructional team members, it is always emphasized that individuals need to be willing to work on an “ECO cultural basis, rather than a contractual basis.” This means extended hours and many additional tasks, but also lots of exciting learning activities and rewarding experiences with students in all sorts of beautiful places.

What do they do?
The activities and destinations are varied and plentiful. The Bristol Hills Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail provides hiking opportunities in the fall and spring. Students have ventured from South Bristol to Hammondsport, taking in most of the 54 miles of hill-and-valley terrain. They have canoed Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua and Keuka Lakes, along with West River, Ganargua Creek, Genesee River and the Seneca and Erie Canals.

Service opportunities are also part of ECO’s culture of community. Every spring, the group stocks fish with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Trout Unlimited. As part of a stream rehabilitation project, students planted willows along the banks of Naples Creek, and they designed and built informational kiosks at the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Wesley Hill Preserve and Canandaigua’s Onanda Park. Outhouses were constructed for the backwoods of Cumming Nature Center. Water testing in the Flint Creek and in the Canandaigua Lake watersheds has provided valuable lessons in environmental stewardship and the consequences of land-use decisions. All of these activities provide real-life skills that intimately connect the students to where they live, learn, play and prosper: their “homeshed.”

Maple sugaring is a favorite activity marking the transition from late winter to early spring. Students study the history of sugaring, paying special attention to the technological developments through the years. This provides them with a visual lesson on how modern efficiencies can impact the quantity and quality of a product. Students research an aspect of sugaring interest and write essays, reports, stories, brochures and poems to share their learning. They spend time collecting sap and making syrup at the MacKenzie home in Italy Valley. The culminating event is the ECO pancake supper for their families, friends and community members. The students prepare the meal, work in the kitchen and serve the diners. Social interaction based upon learning that is real and vital!

Public speaking about their ECO learning is also a great opportunity for students. Presentations have been made by teachers and students at colleges and conferences, including Keuka College, Niagara University, Finger Lakes Community College, Nazareth College, New York State School Boards Association, New York Rural Schools, Association of Experiential Education, New York Alternative Education Association, and New York State Middle School Association. Perhaps the most important presentation is when current ECO students visit the Whitman fifth-grade classrooms to share their ECO experience with students interested in participating as sixth graders. The kids share their favorite ECO experience and explain why ECO learning has been enjoyable and engaging for them.

Writing is a key element in the curriculum. Time is allotted for students to reflect upon their experiences and look for meaning and connections between their activities and other facets of life. By providing hands-on learning as an avenue for written expression, reluctant writers become purposeful, and proficient writers become prolific. The field journal is the ECO passport, stamped by unique perspectives found in the woods and waterways. The pages are often accented with mud, raindrops, paddle drips or sweat. Mementoes, such as pretty leaves, pressed flowers or a piece of shale, can be found tucked inside the journals. They mark a child’s passage into early adolescence, nurtured by nature and spirited by experience.

Another important tradition in the ECO student’s learning is the annual steel-drum workshop with an artist-in-residence. For a week in May students study the history of the steel drum and its origin in political and social unrest, along with an immersion in playing the melodic music. The week requires a great sense of teamwork and acceptance of individual challenge that culminates in a “concert” for family and friends. Many students also orally share with the audience their written reflections of the week; stitching their story’s square in the ECO community quilt.

Critics may ask, “But what about the schoolwork?” All of this is schoolwork and the results prove it! ECO students have performed as well as their regular-curriculum peers as evidenced by state test results and independent studies. Perhaps even more importantly, they develop a special appreciation of their school experience and of themselves as learners and as young individuals who belong to this special community. By learning and serving in today’s environment, they will care for tomorrow’s, which is a critical need for our future here in the Finger Lakes and the world beyond.

A home of their own
ECO’s home base is now in the middle school at the district’s main campus. Previous years ECO was located in leased space beyond the district’s boundaries at the Cumming Nature Center in South Bristol and in a former elementary school in Branchport. Those “away” locations allowed ECO to develop a strong sense of autonomy and identity, which it currently retains within the middle school. These changes in location have challenged the program to make use of the resources of new environments while retaining a unique heritage of learning.

ECO utilizes the district’s excellent transportation department to “Magic School Bus” itself to the many venues used for learning. Near the main campus is a place affectionately known by the students as “ECOland.” In 2000, Agrilink Foods (now Birds Eye) gave the district 173 acres of land three miles from the main campus. The property, comprised of transitional fields, woods and ponds, was once proposed by the district to be the site of a “green” ECO classroom building. The construction funding was not available, so ECO students travel to the site for wildflower study, tree identification, canoeing, fishing, cross-country skiing and tree planting.

Efforts are underway to encourage greater use of this “outdoor classroom” by all of the district’s students. To help make this feasible, grant money is being sought to develop some of the needed facilities and infrastructure: a picnic pavilion, toilets, observation decks, canoe docks, interpretive trails and parking.

For more information, contact Malcolm MacKenzie at Marcus Whitman Central School in Rushville or by e-mail at mmackenzie@mwcsd.org. Tax-deductible contributions to the ECO Program may be made to Marcus Whitman Central School, 4100 Baldwin Rd., Rushville, NY 14544.


by Malcolm MacKenzie