In high school, I practically worshiped my creative writing teacher because he often wrote out hall passes that allowed students to leave the dank confines of the English building to sit under a tree and compose poetry. But he was the lone rebel in a sea of traditional pedagogues.
So I remember the sense of freedom and joy I felt as a first-year at Pitzer College, when on a particularly temperate autumn day, Professor Al Watchel coaxed my Survey of British Literature class out onto the Mounds where we all sat cross-legged and dreamy-eyed as his lecture on Sir Gawain and Green Knight seemingly came to life. And who can forget sneaking blood oranges from the orchard with Professor Norma Rodriguez during a break in her Theories of Personality class, which was often held at the Grove House’s outdoor classroom. Moving beyond the walls of the institution to march in a protest alongside Professors Hal Fairchild or José Calderón, was more than just practicing what we preached but it was feeling the breeze on your face, the earth beneath your feet and knowing you were young and alive.
At Pitzer, the outdoor classroom was an integral part of our education. It was the rule rather than the exception. These were the moments where epiphanies were reached. Removed from the four walls and the blackboard backdrop, our professors became just people that we could talk to. What better way to create a teachable moment. Somehow in nature, learning becomes more natural.
When I graduated from Pitzer and pursued a teaching career, I strived to create the same environment for my students. I had been teaching for seven years in a fairly traditional school arguing with administrators about taking kids on weekly walks into the community and making use of the empty planter boxes on campus for growing vegetables, when I finally applied to Sycamore Elementary. I had admired this little school ever since Rich Tsujimoto’s Internship in Psychology had placed me there my junior year to work with children challenged by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I found the campus teeming with students who were learning outdoors. Any given day you would find the lawn littered with students reading quietly under the shade of a tree, children congregated in the courtyard to rehearse presentations, planting organic gardens on the patios, and writing reflective pieces at the picnic tables.
Lucky for me, my enthusiasm for Sycamore Elementary’s unique style was embraced as I joined the teaching staff. My first year at Sycamore, I was asked to chair the Leadership in Environmental Education Partnership (LEEP) for our school. Since I was a Pitzer alumna, my principal thought that I might enjoy reconnecting with the College through the LEEP program in which Pitzer students instruct elementary children in Environmental Studies at the Bernard Field Station on a weekly basis. Safe to say, I jumped at the chance.
—Melissa LaLone Jackson ’97