In 2014, Five Rivers MetroParks created the OUTstanding Teacher Award through the Cox Arboretum Foundation with generous grant from the Virginia W. Kettering Foundation. The award recognizes three exceptional educators from the Greater Dayton Area who have gone above and beyond in bringing engaging environmental experiences that inspire students to shape attitudes and actions for nature. Teachers are nominated in either the Rising Star category (less than 10 years experience), the Leader category (10-20 years experience), or the Lifetime Achievement category (20 or more years experience). Nominations come from students, parents, fellow teachers, administrators, and friends. These teachers are catalysts in facilitating a vibrant school community, encouraging teachers and parents to get kids active in nature. It’s important that Cox Arboretum and Five Rivers MetroParks supports and recognizes these educators, because they support the MetroParks' mission to provide outdoor experiences that inspire a personal connection with nature. In order to support these teachers in their quest to get kids outside and weave nature into the curriculum, each teacher receives a membership to the Cox Arboretum Foundation and the Environmental Education Council of Ohio (EECO) for 1 year, registration fees for the “101 Alternatives to the Chalkboard” teacher conference in October to Camp Kern, a plant kit, transportation for their class to take a field trip to Cox Arboretum, and outdoor education school supplies.
Lindie Keaton’s passion for fostering outdoor experiences that provide personal connections with nature has driven her teaching style with the youngest of students at The Antioch School, which led her to develop the Forest Kindergarten class in 2015. While students in her Forest Kindergarten class experience nature daily, every Monday is Forest Day spent entirely outdoors no matter the weather. Parents volunteer to tend the fire, and get to see first hand the sense of wonder, excitement, discovery, and rich conversation that only nature can provide from tracks in the snow, scat along the trails, or the fascination with insects. Lindie guides the students through their discoveries, encouraging them to ask questions, use tools around them to piece things together, and allows them to figure things out- the perfect model of showing a child where to look but not what to see. Lindie also tends the fenced garden, which is used to provide vegetables in school snacks, cooking, and baking projects. In the summer, families are encouraged to volunteer with Lindie to help tend the garden, and are able to take home parts of the harvest. Children transitioning into kindergarten, and their parents, are also invited, which gives them a chance to explore the grounds at the school and get to know Lindie. Her students’ emotional and physical well-being thrive in the outdoors. Discovery and exploration are allowed to flourish, and the children are able to drive their learning, with Lindie’s gentle guidance.
Neil Manning brings his love of nature to C.F. Holliday daily, encouraging students, parents, and other teachers to get outside for both work and play. Many of the students living in apartments and not having access or opportunity to create a garden, so Neil started the Gardening Club so students could create a garden in the courtyard. Students did all the research, decided which plants to use, and tended to the plants with Neil’s help. Once students harvested the fruits and vegetables, he taught them how to make a dish to share with classmates and teachers, which was a powerful experience for these students. He also started a beautification committee to make the school more inviting and enjoyable. With the help of the Junior Leadership Council, funds were raised to purchase perennials, bushes, and bulbs and students and their parents were invited to plant and mulch around the building. Students also volunteered to stay after school to help prune, water, and maintain the beautiful spaces they helped create. Neil recognizes how important play is for student development and well being, so he also created outdoor play areas for students including foursquare, handball, basketball, and gaga, which is a modified dodgeball game. He, along with students and their parents, built a gaga pit which gave students the opportunity to use drills and hammers to create their own play space. Through all of this, he is encouraging students to develop a life-long relationship with nature.
Christopher Bigelow has had a personal connection with nature since he was a child, so when the opportunity came to help take care of this preschool daughter’s class salsa garden over the summer, he jumped in with two feet. Once he was involved, he learned that teachers and parents had interests to grow and expand the gardens around the school, but time to make it happen was lacking- so Chris got to work. He coordinated teachers, students, and their families to establish 4 types of gardens around the school: vegetable gardens, outdoor classroom space, sensory gardens, and bible gardens- all as a parent volunteer. He has made teaching outdoors less intimidating for other teachers, and now that Mr. Bigelow is the 6-8th grade science teacher he has a daily impact on his 150 students. He shuffled his content around so that the more outdoor-relevant content is focused in fall and spring to take advantage of the outdoors for hands-on lessons as much as possible. His actual classroom has been described as Willy Wonka’s Factory, if Willy Wonka loved science and nature rather than sweets, complete with “cabinets of curiosity” and lots of plants. He provides students with real world examples, and weaves academics, character building, leadership skills together through the gardens and teaching outdoors. He also hosted free farmers markets for school families with produce from the gardens, and the school donated almost 400 pounds of produce to the food pantry. He is deeply committed to creating personal connections between students and nature through the school gardens, making lifelong impacts with all students at St. Charles.