By Katey Dolezal
"Where do you sleep at night on a kayak trip?" "What if something tries to eat you?" These are just a few of the questions Dave and Amy Freeman of The Wilderness Classroom receive from students through their interactive classroom website. What first began on a dogsled trip with five teachers with a satellite phone has expanded into a growing 501(c) non-profit that strives to develop students' core academic skills and appreciation for the earth through the wonder of exploration. Getting ready to start the final 5,000 mile leg of their 11,700 mile North American Odyssey on May 7 from Grand Portage, Minn., to Key West, Fla., Dave and Amy are working with over 70,000 students and 1,800 teachers as they explore the North America by canoe, kayak, and dogsled.
12 years ago, Dave Freeman was looking for a more accessible way to inspire students to get outside and start exploring. He knew exploration was crucial to developing a child's connection and appreciation for the outdoors, but flying classrooms of fourth graders across the world wasn't a viable option. Thanks to the suggestion from his concerned mother, Dave took a satellite phone with him on a trip to the Boundary Waters as a safety precaution – and discovered a teaching tool.
With satellite technology connecting them to schools, the Wilderness Classroom has engaged students on eleven expeditions to date, including trips to the Amazon, North Africa, Hudson Bay and the Bahamas. Every expedition comes with free inter-disciplinary curriculum for teachers to use, incorporating Language Arts, Science, Social Science, Math, and the Arts. Although the program is geared towards 3rd-8th graders, students in preschool up to high school can also learn alongside the explorers through the their Wilderness Classroom website, lesson plans, and school assemblies.
"No matter what age you're teaching, the children fall in love," explains Tammy Jones of Wagoner Elementary School in Sauk Village, IL. "When Dave and Amy come to our school for assemblies, it's like we have rock stars on campus. The kids are so excited because they've been tracking their journey every day for months up until their arrival." Jones has been working with the Wilderness Classroom for the past six years in her kindergarten, fifth, and third grade classrooms and says they call Dave and Amy the modern day Lewis and Clark. She reports marked improvement in her students' weakest area of the Illinois State Achievement Testing: the extended response writing component. "It asks students to connect text to real-life experiences and a lot of students don't have these to write about," explains Jones, "Now they can see actual proof. The main idea of a paragraph is that Dave and Amy are exploring, the details are that they're setting up tents and have to pack food. The Wilderness Classroom makes learning come to life for them."
As Dave and Amy prepare for the kayak trip ahead, they know there will be a lot of opportunity to reach more students. "We're hoping to connect with classrooms as we paddle down the Atlantic Coast to the Keys during the 2012-2013 school year," says Dave, "Hopefully, the kids could come out and join us for a day of our journey."
To learn more, check out www.wildernessclassroom.com and www.northamericanodyssey.com and check out Conor Mihell’s interview with the Freeman’s last November HERE. You can also see video from when the Freemans encountered a wildfire in the Northwest Territories below.