Students at Middle Township Middle School spent three days and two nights this month learning firsthand about where they live during the annual Sixth Grade Experience at Belleplain State Forest.
A combination camping trip, education experience and team-building activity, the 210 students did water-quality testing on the pond water, went hiking, learned about the history and wildlife in the area, and got the chance to try archery, canoeing, fishing and campsite cooking.
They also learned about each other and how to work together as a team and community.
That’s a lesson the team of Cody Gregory, Eddie Saddler, Elianys Nunez, Julia Mallett and Ryan Casey had a hard time figuring out during a series of challenges.
The five stood before a rope spider-web tied between two trees, trying to figure out how to get through it together without touching the web.
They started by each trying different routes. Elianys quickly discovered she could roll under the ropes, but that still left her teammates on the other side.
Cody suggested they hold onto each other, but the others ignored him. Eddie suggested they all go under at the same time, but the others were still trying on their own and paid no attention.
Teacher David Farrow offered broad hints about working as a team and listening to each other, but for a while they all ignored him, too.
Finally, just as their time was about to run out, they agreed they could hold hands and slide under the ropes.
“This wasn’t hard,” Ryan said, then paused. “Well, yes it was.”
Farrow and science teacher Tracy Reynolds organize the program. It was started by teacher David Haines, who retired two years ago but still stops by. Now in its 13th year, the trip has become a tradition that has weathered tough economic times and budget cuts.
“It just has such community support,” Principal Amos Kraybill said of the program, which costs $10,000 to $12,000 a year. “The staff likes it; the parents come out to help. The school board has seen that and supported the program.”
Farrow said they looked at other organized programs, but Belleplain is close and provides an opportunity to teach students about where they live. He said many students — and even their parents — have never been to Belleplain.
“This gets the parents out here, also,” he said. About 30 to 35 adults chaperone the students, some spending the day or overnight, others stopping by after work.
“This makes it easy for them to come by, even if only for an hour after work,” Farrow said. “That family component is really important.”
Korri Carlson participated with her son John’s team on some of the challenge events and said it allows the students to get to know each other and spend time with students who might not be in their classes at school. She said it was interesting to to spend time with other students and watch how her son interacts with his peers.
“He likes to be in charge,” she said. “This is teaching them that they also have to listen. And it’s fun. I’ll be here all day.”
Farrow said the trip is the first time some students have ever slept away from home. He typically gets nighttime visits from a few homesick students who think they want to go home after the fun is over, when it’s dark and time for bed.
“Usually they just need to call home and talk to a parent for a few minutes,” he said. “Maybe one or two will leave, but here we are close enough for parents to come get them.”
The trip has a no-electronic-device policy, and Farrow joked how it has evolved from no Walkmen to no iPods to no smartphones or video games.
“They also learn how to survive without technology,” he said.
Math teacher Kristin Stiles has volunteered for the program for a decade.
“You build such rapport with the kids,” she said. “Most of these students I won’t ever teach, but I get to know them all. It’s cool to spend time with their parents, and they all get to see us in our PJs.”
Activities from the three days are revisited throughout the year during classroom lessons. Farrow said sixth grade is the perfect age for the trip because the students are old enough to be responsible but haven’t quite hit the hormonal stages of puberty.
Students interviewed had a hard time picking a favorite activity. Asked what they liked best, most thought for a minute before finally responding “everything.”
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