On Feb. 12, over 170 Russell Middle School’s Team Determination students and staff spent the day in Alum Rock Park of San Jose for their first annual “Nature-Loving, Outdoor-Learning, Community-Serving Field Trip.”
San Jose Park Ranger Sergeant Huy Mac spent long hours coordinating with the city of San Jose and the California Native Plants Society, Santa Clara Chapter, to provide them with enough tools and supervising staff. There were hundreds of gloves and neon-yellow vests, along with wheelbarrows, action hoes, weeding hoes, pitchforks, and rakes for the students to use. The two choices of service projects included spreading 60 cubic yard of mulch for the playground and weeding out invasive plants such as milk thistle, Silybum marianum, and poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, at the summit of Todd Quick Trail.
Team Determination consists of a mix of both 7th and 8th graders, among which are students who have recently arrived to the United States and students who have mild to severe disabilities. Despite our differences, every single student—regardless of ethnicity or ability—helped make the park a better place for both its natural inhabitants and its human visitors. The great outdoor truly unified us toward a common goal.
In addition to the sense of unity, another unique experience this field trip offered was how students were allowed to design their own itinerary for the day by deciding when and in which activities to take part. For example, some students decided to rake and mulch the playground in the morning before heading out to the creek for the afternoon, while others were determined to hike three miles round trip to see Eagle Rock before pulling weeds on the trail. There were also many unplanned surprises: the chance to pet a gopher snake brought out by the Youth Science Institute was a hit, and a few students actually got the opportunity to restore the natural habitat by spreading California native poppy seeds (Eschscholzia californica) over the hilltop. Turkey vultures soaring at eye level, deer chilling under an enormous oak tree, minnows swimming in the creek, ladybugs squirming around for a better resting spot, and a bobcat devouring a squirrel were only some examples of how impactful outdoor learning can be to students.
Most of these students have never volunteered in a park. Their community service opportunities are limited to helping teachers on campus. Many students have never used a hoe, balanced a full wheelbarrow, pulled weeds or talked to a park ranger, even though in the classrooms we teach them the science of invasive species and host career day. While these skills may not be prized as academically rigorous, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment was evident on the students’ faces as the day drew to a close.
Digital literacy is often earmarked as the most important 21st century skill worthy of funding. But in this era of growing climate change, we must also teach environmental literacy and encourage community stewardship. That’s what we’re doing at Russell. As we partner with local businesses in Silicon Valley that provide high-tech career paths to our students, we acknowledge our duty to protect and preserve the ecosystems, not only for ourselves but also for future generations.