The Great Outdoors Is a Classroom
Imagine taking more than a dozen fifth-graders on their first camping trip. Now imagine doing that without a car.
That's what Larry Volpe did during his second year of teaching. "I took five trips on my bike to buy all the food," he says. Luckily, soon after that first expedition with his students, he discovered the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program. Larry, a teacher from San Jose, California, has been a 12-year volunteer with ICO, which coordinates more than 800 annual trips for thousands of young people -- many are at-risk youth -- from cities across the country. Since starting in the program, Larry has led about one trip a month.
But Larry's students do more than just visit parks, and their learning experiences goes beyond the textbook. Entering his classroom is like walking into a nature museum: pine cones, antlers, "jars and jars of specimens," an aquarium of bugs and dragonflies. When they aren't inside, Larry and his students are working on the school garden.
"Living in inner city San Jose, my students don't have access to wild places," he says. "In college, I had two professors who took us on weekend camping adventures to study botany and entomology. Field trips were the funnest part of learning. I knew I wanted this as part of my own students' learning experiences."
In November, Larry won the Natural Teachers Award for San Francisco Bay Area teachers, from the Children & Nature Network. The top prize included a trip to the Galapagos Islands for Larry and his wife.
"Nothing you see -- all the videos I've watched since childhood -- can prepare you for this place," he says. "It is a wildlife lover's paradise."
Larry's goal isn't just to inspire his kids to get out of the house and appreciate nature. He knows as well as anyone that today's kids are the decision makers of the future. Larry's lessons shape his kids' viewpoints on nature. His students often continue their outdoor adventures, and some take up gardening. These kids, Volpe says, might hold political office someday, or run a business. Whether it's polluting or it's clean and green might depend on their present-day experiences. Visit the Inner City Outings program for more information.
-- Brian Foley & Tom Valtin