To this day, Kaiti Hanger, a teacher at West Seattle Elementary School, can recall the trash spreading before her like an ocean. As part of a year-round youth leadership program, which instilled in her a commitment to social and environmental justice, Kaiti visited one of the largest landfills in the Americas. Kaiti can’t let go of that image. The bag from your potato chips, she tells her fifth-grade students. It’s there forever.
Kaiti is bringing her students to the School Overnight Program in November for the second time, and she has already begun her preparations. “What I loved about IslandWood,” she says, “is it made it all very applicable to their lives, and it’s given me ideas about how to bring that more into the classroom.”
She has designed a new project-based unit on composting, gardening, and sustainable food systems that she expects to tie in with IslandWood’s Soil to Snack. In that program, students studied plant and compost cycles, harvested vegetables and herbs in the garden, concocted their own special tea and cooked potato pancakes with a chef from the IslandWood kitchen. She happily observed her students take charge, even those who were less motivated in the classroom. One boy in particular, a child who required frequent reminders to keep reading, to stay focused, was a master with the mandoline. He was “just killing it,” she laughs as she recalls him expertly slicing potatoes. “I told him this could be a career.”
Tasting gave way to testing, when the multisensory exploration of the garden moved into the laboratory for an investigation of soil ecosystems. The students collected samples from the garden, the compost bin, and from under a tree and analyzed them under microscopes, and “not the cheap, plastic kind,” Kaiti noted. The quality equipment gave the children more than greater clarity and magnification, but palpable scientific legitimacy. Again she looked on happily, this time as the children moved from their initial disgust at the sight of macroinvertebrates to unabashed fascination, their “eews!” giving way to spontaneous shouts of discovery. One child would find a bug and call over the others, who crowded around the microscope to look.
Kaiti loved seeing this collaboration happen so organically, and to her delight, it did not end with IslandWood. Back at school, she noticed a change in “their demeanor to each other and their understanding of each other.” She noticed her students sticking up for one another more than before and attributed it to the heart-to-hearts that boys and girls alike shared back in the “wonderful cozy spaces” of the lodges after a day spent outdoors. IslandWood’s focus on the environment, both as a subject of hands-on scientific study and a resource to be tended in community, was expected and inspiring. She did not, however, expect this relationship building, something IslandWood brought to “another level.”
In the end, the School Overnight Program is brief, but as her trip to the landfill attests, the effect of powerful and empowering experiences can last a lifetime. “I don’t want the experience of IslandWood to be set into those four days,” she says. “It can come out all year long and in their lives in general. These are things you can really do in your life at home or as you get older. These are things you can do as your job. Widening the scope of what’s available to [students] is amazing, and I think IslandWood does that beautifully in four days.…As a teacher, it is my job to take that and extend it into the whole school year.”