Community Connections: Harmony’s 5th & 6th Grade Jr. Master Naturalist Program

by Sitav Elturan, current Harmony parent and Harmony Elementary grad ’03 (attended ECP-6th grade)

“The wilderness holds answers to questions humans have not yet learned to ask.” – Nancy Newhall

Humans strive to learn to ask these questions, nonetheless; the Harmony 5th & 6th grade class taught by Kathy Boone and Zevon Adkisson, for example. Thanks to participating in the Junior Indiana Master Naturalist program (JrIMN), this classroom has committed their bi-annual thematic focus to environmental education, and are learning as they forge community connections with expert naturalists from local organizations.

The mission of the Junior Indiana Master Naturalist program is to bring together natural resource specialists with youth, to foster an understanding of Indiana’s plants, water, soils and wildlife, and to promote volunteer service in local communities. This undertaking, combined with Harmony’s mission to prepare young people to live in and contribute to a heterogeneous democratic country, helps students develop community connections and a deepening sense of, and commitment to, our local community and region.

The specific topics of this course can vary, but in general each series includes sessions related to botany, zoology, geology, water, natural resources, and others. The basic requirements for the JrIMN curriculum require only a few hours of classroom or field experience presented by an environmental educator for each topic. Harmony goes above and beyond this minimal requirement, turning each topic into its own mini theme of 1 – 4 weeks of study. Kathy and Zevon add elements such as inquiry projects, an exhibition for the school Open House, class presentations, endangered species artwork, fish art, Indiana Jr. Duck Stamp art, and fishing.

At the end of each semester, the students culminate and evaluate their experiences in their own words in a ‘Letter to Kathy and Zevon.’ Their words speak volumes for the incredible experiences that are created in this program:

The IJMN Program is a great program. I think it’s cool because you learn a lot of awesome things, and I think that everybody should have the chance to learn about the natural world.    – Alice, a Harmony 6th grader who experienced the course last year

Though I already knew a lot about the environment, this theme has opened up a window I never thought to look through. The experiences were really amazing because we had a chance to test our knowledge. The many wonderful naturalists were extremely helpful in sharing their wisdom on natural phenomenon. This theme was also very beneficial to the children in our class whose families are deprived or uneducated on nature and how to care for the environment. Though this theme is not typically taught in traditional schools, I find it essential, and my new knowledge will be extremely useful in the future.   – Maya

At the end of the program, these lucky Harmony students are qualified for both the JrIMN and Advanced certifications every year, a tradition since the 5th/6th grade classroom’s first experience during the 2015/2016 school year. Every year Kathy & Zevon update and change the curriculum, in order to offer new and exciting teachings and outcomes.

The JrIMN has had a lasting and positive effect on Kathy & Zevon’s students. They observe increases in student confidence; more interest in environmental issues; noticeable decreases in free-choice computer time; increased negotiation and leadership as students follow their projects, observations, and interests in the outdoors; decreased anxiety, stress, and conflict; increased engagement in math, literature, social studies, and civics projects where environmental experiences provide real-life connections; increased parent involvement in the classroom; and more student interest toward civic engagement.

Watching these students’ experience has been life-changing for their teachers. When asked to reflect on past years with the program, Kathy Boone remembers watching multiple students who were still looking for solid footing academically, socially, or emotionally, become enraptured in discovering life and beauty around them. One magical moment stands out, a student who became a sort of animal whisperer:

They walked up to a tree and somehow saw a tiny little camouflaged tree frog that no one else saw, ended up with the frog on their finger, and all the other students gathered around to see. On that finger, the frog seemed to feel safe. They let the frog go so gently.

Kathy also recalls being able to see students discover new talents through the program:

Once a student who worked hard on reading had a particular ability for auditory learning. They learned all of the calls of frogs and toads of Indiana. They also learned many bird calls. On a walk to a forest preserve, they heard the call identified instantly as a tufted titmouse. The student led us in a path within the neighborhood directly to the bird that was calling. These images and many more linger as most memorable.

And it’s not just the teachers that have lasting positive memories from this program – 5th grade JrIMN participant Izland summarizes the benefits of this program, saying:

I have really benefited from learning so much about nature. As someone who wants to learn about nature and have excitement outside of the school, I get both. I LOVE learning new things, and now I know more than ever! It is really a privilege to be at Harmony School and in your, Kathy, and Zevon’s class. I love being in an active and interactive class! I love nature and love animals! Now I get to see and experience them in person and get to learn ways to keep them safe. In my old class, we learned about nature a little bit more than other classes, but not this much! I’m excited that we get to become Indiana Junior Master Naturalists!

Kathy & Zevon are exceptionally grateful to Shane and Sycamore Land Trust for helping provide their students with such a wonderful environmental education opportunity, and also note that they could not offer this program without the support of the parents, family, and community volunteers that help drive to the field experiences, serve as chaperones, and contribute resources, skills, and knowledge.

They are excited to see what great experiences their students continue to have in the future, through this amazing interactive program.

For more information on the Jr. Indiana Master Naturalist program, and Harmony’s 5th & 6th grade class curriculums, please reach out to Kathy Boone and Zevon Adkission. To learn more about what you can do for your local environment, and Sycamore Land Trust’s partnership with Harmony School, please contact Sycamore Land Trust at [email protected].

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