The Bristol Township School District had a lot to celebrate in recent weeks. Students at Keystone Elementary learned about nature’s connection to their mental health, while two Mill Creek Elementary teachers were recognized by the Bucks County Intermediate Unit.
At Keystone in Croydon, the nonprofit conservation organization Heritage Conservancy created a pilot program to explore the idea of using nature as a way to support students’ social and emotional learning. Mental health affects these areas – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – and spending time in nature may have the power to make a positive impact.
About 100 Keystone students are in the program, formed in partnership with Fairmount Water Works with funding from the Alliance for Watershed Education.
Fourth-grade teacher Kati Bryson’s class participates in activities every other week. When available, she utilizes the outdoor classroom at Heritage Conservancy’s Croydon Woods Nature Preserve, which is located behind the school and consists of slabs of stone that students can sit on for lessons or story time. Croydon Woods provides 80 acres of woodlands for the students to explore and enjoy.
Students complete a “feelings assessment” before and after each activity, which could include walking in nature, listening to water noises and visualizing the scene, watching a video or journaling.
“These activities focus on visualization and reflection on how things in nature make the students feel,” said Bryson. “It’s amazing to see. Around 75-85 percent of my students have an increase in positive feelings.”
Bryson has been collaborating with Shannon Fredebaugh-Siller, community engagement programs manager at Heritage Conservancy, for several years.
“Supporting their social and emotional development now and offering nature as a resource for their mental wellbeing will serve them throughout their lives,” said Fredebaugh-Siller. “Fostering this connection with nature may also help students to become the future protectors of our environment.”
Additionally, Heritage Conservancy donated backpacks filled with supplies to Keystone to help students explore nature, and is currently planning to provide students with reusable water bottles and support a recycling program at the school.
“They are willing to work with us on everything and anything,” said Bryson. “They are eager to help and get involved in education to promote nature positively. Many kids wouldn’t be able to have these experiences without Heritage Conservancy.”
In other Bristol Township news, two Mill Creek Elementary teachers – Eve Lubin and Michelle Petty – won the Caring Community Award from the Bucks County Intermediate Unit for their inclusivity of blind and deaf students. Both were nominated by Bucks IU employees for the award, which each year recognizes locals who have made an extraordinary contribution to the Bucks IU.
Olivia Dettore, Bucks IU teacher of the blind, nominated Lubin, a second-grade teacher at the Levittown school. Lubin has two blind students – Daniel and Sham – in her class and Dettore is their vision teacher. Dettore said Lubin has been very flexible and motivated since the start of the school year.
“A lot of teachers are afraid to have blind students in their class, but Eve was excited to work with them and to find ways to adapt,” she said.
When class went virtual, Lubin’s students utilized whiteboards for their counting unit. However, Daniel and Sham couldn’t use them. Lubin purchased cookie sheets and magnets for them instead. She also explained their blindness to the rest of the students, who were accepting. Lubin is set to retire at the end of this school year. In her 35-year tenure, Daniel and Sham were her first blind students.
“I learned a lot about myself and making adjustments,” she said.
Audra Ronzano, Bucks IU teacher of the deaf, nominated fifth-grade teacher Petty for the award. Petty has a fully deaf student named Rachael in her class this year. Ronzano is accompanied in the classroom by Bucks IU educational interpreter Christy Galdi, who supported Petty’s nomination.
“I’ve worked with many excellent teachers over the years and have never nominated anyone else for the award,” said Ronzano. “Even with the multiple challenges doing virtual/hybrid/in-person instruction, Michelle has gone over and beyond to include Rachael, Christy and I into her classroom.”
Petty taught partially deaf students before, but this was her first time teaching a student whose first language was American Sign Language. She regularly gives Ronzano her lesson plans ahead of time so they can modify them accordingly for Rachael. Petty also works to make sure Rachael is part of the class by allowing her to teach her peers a “Sign of the Day.”
“It made me emotional to know that I really made an impact,” Petty said of the award. “I always strive to be inclusive and this year, I learned that I can do more than I ever thought.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org