Saint Mary's Bay Academy classroom big as all outdoors

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier
Published on July 4, 2014

Classrooms at Saint Mary’s Bay Academy are as big as all outdoors.

The Weymouth area high school sits on 81 acres of school board property and students have planted several orchards, built a community garden and an extensive network of trails through the woods—all as a part of their curriculum in Food Sciences, Agriculture, Geography, Options and Opportunities, and even English.

“The opportunity to learn something in the classroom and then go outside and put it in to practice is just amazing,” says teacher Sean Merrett. “These are practical hands on lessons they can take away and apply in their lives after school.”

Merrett’s Food Sciences and Agriculture classes planted 100 high bush blueberry plants and 50 fruit trees including apple, cherry, peach and plum trees.

“We’re learning about sustainable food systems in the classroom,” he said. “And then we come out here and we do it. It’s experiential education, learning by doing. They’ll take more from it than if we only talked about it in the classroom.”

Arthur Hatt’s Options and Opportunities (O2) classes are also often outside and their students’ projects overlap and complement Merrett’ students’ work.

The O2 students built 20 garden beds for the community garden, which the Agriculture students plant and the Food Science classes study and harvest for use in the school cafeteria.

The students also have access to a small greenhouse where they grow cucumber and tomatoes and start other seeds.

“We study the life cycle of plants in Agriculture, we study how you grow plants, we learn the various sources of food, where food comes from and the students are out here looking after the plants,” said Merrett. “Next year we’ll learn about pruning. It just goes on and on.”

Merrett says his students are more interested, more engaged and learning more when it’s hands on.

“I’ll say ‘We’ve got a couple days of classroom work, but we’ll be outside on Thursday’ and the kids get excited,” he said. “They have more patience, they’re more willing to participate.”

Merrett says that doesn’t end when the bell rings.

“Students knock on my door while I’m teaching another class and tell me they’ve got a free period and they want to know if they can work on the project, if there’s something they can do,” he said.

The O2 students have also used the woods to learn about the safe operation of a chainsaw. They’ve also cut an extensive network of trails, about 5 kilometres long, through the woods.

Merrett uses the trails for physical activity classes.

One day half a dozen students had run a bit ahead and as time ran out, he told a slower group to turn around and head for the gym while he went looking for the others.

“I could hear them before I saw them, laughing and talking happily,” he said.

When he came around the corner he found the students standing in water half way to their knees. They had lost the trail and they were waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.

“They were loving it,” he said. “Being in an environment they don’t normally experience. To see them out there enjoying this environment, happy and smiling, that’s when I knew we were doing the right thing.”

Hatt says he’s working on plans to have the O2 students build a gazebo in the woods to use as an outdoor classroom.

Junior English classes have already used that part of the woods for creative writing classes.

The school’s principal Janece McNutt says that sort of cross-curricular activity shows how much the outdoor projects mean to students and teachers.

“It’s a part of who we are SMBA,” she says. “As long as we can get approval through the board and the school insurance program, we are just running with their great ideas.

“They have made tremendous progress in a very short period of time, with the trail development, the fruit trees and shrubs and the gardens.”

The Toronto Dominion Friends of the Environment fund contributed $3,850 for the purchase of fruit trees, Lewis Moulding donated a $2,000 load of wood, and various other businesses have donated plants and seeds and equipment for the project.

Community volunteers, some of them students, will stop in over the summer to look after the plants and trees.

McNutt says the students want to do far more than the school is permitted to do.

“I have one student asking me if we can have livestock,” she said. “It’s disappointing when I have to say no, but I love hearing their ideas. It makes me realize how important it is to them.”

She says the outdoor work engages the students and that sense of responsibility flows over into other classrooms and other parts of school life.

“I can’t see a down side to this,” she said. “It creates an enriched environment. I have literally witnessed this makes some kids just more excited, more engaged.”