group of 5th-grade students jump for joy with the Tetons behind them

A Local Tradition Stays Strong – The Return of TCSD 5th Grade Teton Science Schools Program

Two log cabins with the Tetons prominently visible in the background

The Kelly Campus of Teton Science Schools is a dot on the map in the southeast corner of Grand Teton National Park. Just south of Shadow Mountain, with an unparalleled view of the Tetons, this collection of historic cabins holds memories for many. Typically, groups of all ages from across the globe travel here to learn more about themselves and their world through customized educational programs. But not all of our visitors come from far away. Awakening a sense of wonder is core to what we do, and that includes for those whose eyes have grown accustomed to the sudden rise of the Teton Range out of this high mountain valley. 

Many local residents have a unique shared experience of taking an extended school field trip to the Kelly Campus as ten- and eleven-year-olds. Since 1971, fifth-grade classes from the public elementary schools in Teton County, Wyoming have come here for a two-and-half day-long field education program. Students spend their days exploring the natural world, undertaking scientific investigations, and developing interpersonal skills. Typically scheduled early in the school year, the trip plays a key role in class bonding that bears fruit for months to come. Given the long history of the program, many of the parent volunteers who come on the trips share stories of what it was like when they had this experience as fifth-graders. 

The program couldn’t run as scheduled last fall due to the pandemic, but with local schools back to in-person learning this spring, we invited all the Teton County School District (TCSD #1) fifth-graders and their teachers to join two, daylong sessions of learning and fun in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Given that our Field Education programming is also just beginning its ramp-up operations and staffing, the teaching team featured TSS staff at senior levels of leadership who jumped in to help, dusted off their teaching kits, and joined TCSD 5th graders in the field. We’ve collected some of their reflections from the experience and are pleased to share them with you.

Josh Kleyman, our Chief Philanthropy Officer, has a deep history with this partnership and shared:

A group of 5th-grade students walk down a trail in a wild landscape dominated by sage and aspen.“I first taught 5th-grade students from Teton County in 2002. After years of building deep relationships with the stellar 5th grade teachers that we partner with, it was a joy to return to teaching in the field for the first time in five years.

A highlight – at the top of the glacial moraine at Bradley-Taggert, stopping for lunch, one of my students turned around to look out over the landscape. His eyes lit up, and it was clear a smile formed behind his mask, as he shared “This is where we get to eat lunch?”

After lunch, we dove into a research project inspired by student interest from the day before, trying to understand if lichen would be more prevalent on rocks or on downed and dead wood. Students spread around the landscape, deep in exploration and scientific discovery. 

Working with Teton 5th grade students, teachers, parents, and administrators any year is special. Doing so in the spring of this year so impacted by Covid seemed even more important, as we continue the nearly 50-year history of this local partnership.”

Coby Mitchell, Partner Sales Director, had this to say about his time with students:

“There’s something exceedingly fulfilling about showing someone something new about their home. Many of the groups that visit TSS come with limited context for what Grand Teton National Park is or what it represents. That novelty makes the act of fostering engagement a lighter lift. A large part of the value I ascribe to Teton 5th is how closely it aligns with our belief that learning is more relevant and enduring when it starts with local context and broadens to regional, national, or global scales. A group of 5th-grade students with excited expressions shining through their face masks pose in front of a lake in Grand Teton National Park.

It was heartening to learn on my first day with Wilson Elementary 5th graders that all of them had been to Taggart Lake before – I’m glad they all have had the great honor of walking these trails. But they were familiar, maybe to the point of complacency. The students were confident they could lead the hike. And then the wonder returned to their eyes when I veered to the left at a familiar trail junction and led the group up the Beaver Creek trail – a lesser-traveled approach to Taggart Lake. That wonder remained as they viewed the mountains, the forest, the streams with fresh eyes. Thankfully, this engagement endured throughout their second day with me, fueling their field research project which explored animal presence in different plant communities. It’s probably not wise to always assume I can teach folks something new about their home, but it sure is inspiring when I find that I can.”

Kendall Peacock, Field Education Faculty and TSS AmeriCorps Hub Site Coordinator, shared this honest and beautiful reflection:

A victorious group of 5th-graders pose at the top of a steep climb in rainy conditions.“I admit that even as I was driving up Ditch Creek Road on the morning of the first field day I was thinking ‘This is not going to be fun. It’s wet, it’s windy, I haven’t taught Teton 5th in five years, and I’ve only gotten slower.’ Then the kids arrived with all of their questions and energy and ‘hey, look at that’-ness that makes every 5th grader impossible not to like being around. We hiked Lobo Hill in the rain and wind while realizing that with the encouragement of friends and teachers we could all succeed and even have a short dance on the summit. Deep in a conifer forest, we led and were led by our friends to meet different trees while wearing a bandana over our eyes. Afterward, we came back together as a group to discuss different ways of knowing the world around us and how it feels in our body to fully trust another person.

We traveled through Narnia looking for magic and saw two foxes. At Taggart Lake, we investigated our local watershed for health [issues] and identified species indicating low pollution levels. We shared riddles and jokes and became one long snake on the trail to let others pass us respectfully. The days were short and this was simply a flash in time for these 5th graders, but after a hard year, and before their world transforms again in year one of middle school, it’s these kinds of flashes that last forever.”

We’ll “leaf” you with two quotes from an exercise often used by TSS educators to invite learning and reflection from participants. It goes by the name of “Rock, Leaf, Stick” and uses these familiar objects as discussion prompts for what “rocked” or made you especially excited or proud, something you want to leave behind (attitude, belief, fear, etc.), and finally something you want to stick to, or keep doing moving forward.

“What rocked was getting to watch two foxes forage and walk around in the park. What’s gonna stick with me is learning about macroinvertebrates and what they mean for water health– I’m going to look every time I’m by the water from now on. And what I’m going to leaf behind is thinking I couldn’t hike all the way up Lobo Hill, because I did!” -Zulibeth, 5th-grade student 

“What I’m going to leaf behind is my small moment of dread before getting started. What rocked was getting to know fourteen students through experiencing our place together. What’s going to stick with me is remembering why we do field education: to change our world for the better.” -Kendall Peacock, TSS facilitator

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