Polk County students plan the future of natural areas near schools
“You see how eroded the banks are,” says eighth-grader Blake Cole. In spots where people love to come and fish, the banks of Laughter Pond near Polk County Middle School are worn down to bare red dirt. During a hard rain, so much soil runs off that the pond turns a dull, muddy orange. Even on this sunny, spring day, the green water looks murky.
The pond is so close to the school that it took only a few minutes for Blake’s class to walk there. They’re glad to be out in the sunshine, laughing and ripping up English ivy. This hands-on activity—removing an invasive vine that’s growing on trees near the pond—is part of a larger project in which the students plan for the future of natural areas near their school.
The students are looking at three places—Laughter Pond, a proposed outdoor classroom, and Little White Oak Mountain where nearly 1,000 acres of new public land adjoin the middle school. Students have been working in groups on proposals to improve these places, in order to provide more benefit to their community.
Blake’s teacher, Jeanne Ferran, says that her language arts students see that community as including humans as well as other living beings. For example, the community at the pond includes students, fishermen, families, trees, turtles, beavers, bats, birds, and fish.
All winter, they’ve been diving into readings about land ethics and even a manual on pond management. Finally, with the warmer weather they’re exploring the pond in person.
Ms. Ferran says, “Spring is the ultimate time for them to be part of renewal—the renewal of the pond.”
An Ugly Before Picture
Laughter Pond (pronounced Lotter Pond) is a favorite fishing spot and some students have been coming here with their grandparents their whole lives. But some parts of the banks are getting loved to death, worn down by frequent visitors. That causes the exposed clay to wash away in the rain. “All this dirt goes into the pond,” Blake explains. “When that happens, it clogs up the water so that fish swimming around in it are just swimming in filth.”
Much of the pond is rimmed by grassy banks that are mowed short, rather than offering reeds, shrubs, or trees where wildlife could flourish. And in the nearby woods, English ivy is choking trees while multiflora rose crowds out wildflowers.
Laughter Pond is a place where turtles line up on logs to bask in the sun and the students run to see them. But they know that if the pond offered more diverse, healthy habitat, they could be hearing more music from migratory songbirds. They could be seeing hawks soar overhead, spotting animals like beavers or muskrats, and watching tadpoles grow into frogs. They could be seeing more spring blossoms like trillium and silverbells. The pond could also offer better conditions for fishing, with cleaner water. And it could be a place that attracts more people, whether or not they like to fish.
Ms. Ferran says, “They basically look at Laughter Pond as an ugly ‘before’ picture. Their work is about the potential.”
Standing on a dock that overlooks the opaque green water, Blake explains his group’s idea. “If we have native species set around the pond, that would help with erosion control. Also, species that nest in those plants or feed off of them will come to this area,” he says. “And that would be real nice to sit here and be like, ‘Oh, there’s a bird I haven’t seen in a while.’”
His classmate Reggie Owens says, “My group’s proposals are to add birdhouses and bat houses that are specially designed for the native birds of North Carolina, such as Carolina wrens, woodpeckers, and cardinals. But the main birdhouses we want to set up are kingfishers. And bat houses can be set around so the bats can hunt at night and get rid of pesky insects such as mosquitoes, aphids, anything that will harm the plant life around this pond… Going off of Blake’s idea, setting up native plants could offer food for the birds which sets up a healthy ecosystem.”
“They Can Make Change”
This spring is the first time that school has felt remotely “normal” to these kids after a long disruption. Two years ago, they got sent home at the onset of a deadly pandemic. Some family members got sick. Some lost jobs. Worry and distrust spiked. Sports, clubs, and friends disappeared from their lives.
Ms. Ferran says, “COVID has been really hard on everybody for a long time and I think everybody felt really powerless about all of the changes that were happening. I think this project is helping them feel like they can make change.”
The project is led by four teachers—Andrea Walter who teaches fifth grade science and social studies; Jeanne Ferran who teaches language arts to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders; Stephanie Luedi who teaches eighth grade science; and Karen Rhodes who weaves this project into her Early College English classes. The project is supported by RootED—a local initiative that encourages place-based, experiential education with a focus on problem solving.
There are also guest educators, including Laura Baird from Polk County Parks, Recreation, & Maintenance and Pam Torlina from Conserving Carolina. Laura coaches the kids on how to work with local government to shape decisions about the county-owned properties near school grounds. And Pam teaches them about subjects like native and invasive plants, songbirds, owls, and watersheds.
Torlina says, “I love being involved with the schools and the kids, teaching the next generation the importance of paying attention to their surroundings. Hopefully, they’re learning how things would be better if we were a little more respectful and did our part to make the world a better place.”
Ms. Ferran says, “We’re looking at problems as things that can be fixed, using creative ways of fixing them.”
She says, “My kids are very concerned about justice and fairness.” This project encourages them to think about positive changes that can benefit everyone in their community. “We can sit here and complain or we can actually do something to make things more equitable for our whole community. I think that taking ownership has made them feel a lot more confident and a lot more engaged.”
Some of the students’ ideas include improving the dock so it’s safer for young kids and building raised platforms so people can still fish in their favorite spots while plants grow in at the water’s edge.
Sixth grader Abby Lewis shares some more ideas: “We’re thinking about putting milkweed around for butterflies and pollinators. And also flowers and native grasses to hold in the side of the bank.”
Once they’ve developed their proposals, students will pitch their ideas to RootED and to Polk County. If successful, they could gain funding and support to implement them. The kids are also suggesting hands-on ways that they can make things happen—for example by having school clubs fill bird feeders or remove kudzu.
Outdoors Isn’t Just for Field Trips
Ciera Weathers, a sixth-grade student, says, “Usually kids—including me—whine and stuff trying not to go on a camping trip or a hiking trip. But I’m planning on making interactive signs that they would probably want to take part in. One of my ideas is to tell about the three local owls, the screech owl, the barred owl, and the great horned.”
Other students suggest signs with QR codes linked to information about catfish, turtles, snakes, beavers, oak trees, and mushrooms.
Some interactive signs could go up along new trails at Little White Oak Mountain, where Conserving Carolina protected over 1,000 acres in 2017. Since then, most of this property has become public land. Part of it was added to the Green River Game Lands and part was added to a local park that connects to the middle school. The students are excited for the 7-10 miles of planned trails for hiking and mountain biking. They are full of ideas for cross country races, sports practices, a mountain biking club, and an outdoor stewardship club. And the hiking club won’t have to get in a bus every time they want to do an activity.
Similarly, Ms. Ferran is looking forward to teaching outdoors without jumping through all the hoops that make field trips so few and far between.
“It’s really cool to look at school in a different way,” she says. “Instead of worrying about field trips and going places, we have so much right here in our backyard.”
Her students already appreciate opportunities to learn outside. When school was shut down due to COVID, some had the opportunity to spend more time outdoors—for example, fishing with their family at Laughter Pond. Now it’s tough to find themselves confined to the school building all day long. “It is for me, too!” Ms. Ferran says.
Seventh-grader Grayson Meyer says that he thinks the outdoor classroom will improve his experience in school. “I think it’s going to be really nice for learning because you’re not in a classroom anymore. It’s a change of scenery. When I’m outdoors learning, it doesn’t feel as strict. It’s not as painful as normal school.”
His classmate, Charlie Wagoner, says, “We looked up studies and they showed that learning outside increases learning, productivity, and understanding of the lesson, and there’s more energy. And sometimes if we finish everything, we might just go out there to listen to the birds and just relax.”