In the Presence of Mighty Giants: Students Study Coastal Redwoods

Each year Mount Madonna School (MMS) faculty members create a teaching goal to guide their efforts for the coming school year. In 2017, first grade teacher Cassia Laffin focused on bringing yoga and mindfulness into her classroom. This year, she is helping her students to cultivate a love for the outdoors by spending more time in nature, observing and being present, outside of their cozy classroom and “inside” their expansive campus, with its “limitless” skies and redwood-lined hillsides.

In first grade students begin to learn about their “place” in the world: about each other, family units and the communities in which they live. Laffin helps students to understand the difference (and relationship) between the city, state, and country. While studying California, Laffin introduces redwood forest ecology to incorporate science curriculum about ecosystems, photosynthesis, and conservation – and helps to nurture students’ appreciation for nature and the outdoors.

Students are learning to differentiate deciduous trees from evergreen. On a recent afternoon we left our classroom to find examples of each and drew these in our journals. This week students will also find examples of leaves and needles that fall into these two categories. First graders are learning about the symbiotic relationship between trees, and humans.  We often stop in the forest and thank the trees for their shade and for the fresh oxygen they provide for us.”

And while MMS students can appreciate up close California’s unique coastal redwood trees from their forested campus, Laffin felt that a change of scenery would be engaging for her students, so the class headed to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton to explore and see some enormous old growth trees.

First graders were excited and energetic when they arrived at the park, and played a cooperative game until their docent, “Ranger Steve,” was ready to lead their tour. Ranger Steve began by asking students to sit in a circle on the ground, and then asked them who they thought the park belongs to.

“The students called out a number of great responses,” said Laffin. “These included Native Americans, animals, people who work at the park, and people who live nearby. After he listened to their guesses, Ranger Steve told the children that the park belongs to all of California’s people, and that we are stewards who need to take care of it for ourselves and for future generations. It was clear that the students all felt so special to know they owned almost 300 California parks!! They reacted to this news by puffing up proudly, eyes wide, mouth open, with many surprised sighs and “oohhs!

“As the class continued its exploration deeper into the forest, Ranger Steve asked them to lay down on their backs, in a circle, and looked up in silence,” Laffin continued. He was carving out precious time for them to be still and present in that moment, and just appreciate the beauty and majestic and tall trees from a new perspective.”

Students were able to view a rare albino redwood tree (these trees lack the green pigment, chlorophyll), one of eight known to exist in the park (with only an estimated 60 albino redwoods in the forests of California and Oregon), and even waked through a hollowed out tree that had survived previous wildfire.

“Students were learning, playing, listening and engaged,” observed Laffin. “There is no better classroom than the outdoors. This experience was heightened thanks to Ranger Steve, who created awe and wonder, shared interesting facts, allowed time for play, curiosity and connection.”

As the students concluded their redwood learning journey, the students were asked to share something they’d learned that day.

“I never knew how cool trees were before,” said first grader Will Don Carlos.

Before leaving the park, the class poked around inside the visitor’s center, and enjoyed stamping animal tracks on paper and labeling them, touching animal pelts, and looking at animals native to the forest in several display cases. Afterwards the class picnicked by the San Lorenzo River before heading home.

“Sometimes what is so important is just to slow down and make time to be present and listen while in the company of these mighty giants,” observed Laffin. “Together we read the book What Does It Mean to Be Present? by Rana DiOrio, and then generated a list of things we do or places we go to feel present.”

Once a week the class walks into the campus forest together, and then individually students make a list of words describing how they feel while surrounded by trees. They will also draw an illustration depicting how they feel, and then take turns sharing out loud with the rest of the group.

“There are always so many things that I am eager to teach the children, and making time to foster a relationship with nature, in the same way that I work hard to foster relationships between my first grade students (as well as our big and little buddies), is of equal importance,” commented Laffin. “I want my students to feel a strong connection with nature and become more cognizant as to how they feel in the forest. How their body feel, how that may be different from when they are indoors, how their breathing may have changed, and if they feel more peaceful, are just some of the questions I ask students to consider. These powerful, outdoor learning experiences leave footprints on their hearts. Students are developing knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, are developing appreciation.”

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Photos by Carmen Virgos and Nanette Hardin

Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.