Hardwick, News

“Dare To Be Me” Shifts Students’ Focus from Doing to Being

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HARDWICK – Some students at Hardwick’s Hazen Union School are spending their time outside; walking the trails, writing poetry and growing vegetables instead of being cooped up in classrooms all day long.

In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new class arose from a community in crisis; it is “Dare To Be Me” (DTBM). 

“[DTBM] is a philosophy and practice that invites students and teachers on a personal and educational journey of courage, growth, belonging, and self-expression. . . Created by Anja Pfeffer as part of her 2021 Rowland Fellowship, DTBM is constantly evolving and expanding. It is currently being piloted at Hazen Union School in Hardwick, Vermont, USA, as a complement to the existing traditional course offerings,” says the DTBM website.

To fight the isolation that came with the only recently lifted pandemic lockdown, the class was introduced to Hazen Union students of all age groups, from middle-level to seniors. 

The course, in its infancy at the time, consisted of a variety of physical activities, mainly in an outdoor setting, in combination with mindfulness practices, reading and daily journaling. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, students would trek the Hardwick Trails behind the school building. 

When the weather was particularly tempestuous, students would stay inside and engage in yoga activities, watch and discuss movies such as “My Octopus Teacher” and “The Social Dilemma,” do art projects and drink hot chocolate. Students wrote and illustrated the first children’s storybook to post onto the Story Walk trail. They also wrote group and individual poetry for the Poetry Walk trail. 

photo from DareToBeMe.org 2020-21 DTBM students building the StoryWalk, a collaborative project between Hazen Union School, Hardwick’s Jeudevine Library, and the Hardwick Trails Committee. This StoryWalk now features monthly children’s stories that are enjoyed by visitors from near and far.

Raine Berry, a student of both DTBM and Nature Connections for one semester, claims, “I feel like these classes have rekindled my love for nature, given me a space to express myself, and look inwards and become the best version of me I can be.”

Today, the class has branched off to include Integrated Math and Nature Connections, two curriculums that integrate intentional time in nature with learning academics through a strong sense of community and personal growth. Current Nature Connection students, for instance, are learning to identify trees, growing flowers and vegetables, and researching science-related topics of their own choice.

“The amount of time we spend outside definitely helped me appreciate nature more,” says one student who participated in DTBM, Integrated Math and Nature Connections. 

“[I] enjoy seeing the students engaged in learning about their environment,” said Charlene Ramsay, an adult participant in the Nature Connection class. “The students are enjoying the experience.”

DTBM is a “new spin on education,” says another adult. Their favorite activity is sharing group meals with the class.

Why are these classes so important? According to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), “Students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors (e.g., on-task behavior). Higher physical activity and physical fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory) among students.” 

Studies by the CDC have concluded that students perform poorer academically when cooped up in classrooms. That’s why DTBM and its sister classes aim to get students outside of both the classroom and their comfort zones. 

Pfeffer is an integral part of DTBM. “One of the main goals. . . is to help students and teachers come fully alive again and to experience learning and teaching with their whole selves. Breathing fresh air and moving our bodies helps wake us up and open our hearts. 

“Once our hearts are open, our minds can also expand and therefore take in new experiences at a much deeper level. This whole system approach shifts our focus from doing to a way of being. Rather than simply going through the motions and checking the boxes, DTBM challenges people to show up fully. There is no hiding behind computers or opting out of activities. 

“Right from the beginning of the semester, everyone is invited to become an integral part of the class. Students are quickly asked to take on leadership roles, such as leading movement or gratitude circles or being the ‘trail boss’ for the week. They learn that their voice not only matters, but that it is wanted and needed. As a result, they have to dig deep and begin asking themselves who they are and who they want to be. This, in turn, helps them improve their self-esteem and overall confidence and therefore positively impacts all of their other classes.”

DTBM “has already made a big difference in the lives of numerous students and offers a vision of an education that is both healing and transformative,“ says Pfeffer.

Max Fortmann, a DTBM student, says the most meaningful takeaway he’s received from the class is “How important the outdoors [is] for my mental health.”

Megan Cane is a Hazen Union Community Journalist living in Hardwick.

Megan Cane

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