Reflections on Hopkins Forest Educating

The Hopkins Memorial Forest runs twice-weekly field trips during the fall and spring to elementary and middle-school aged children that focus on outdoor education. These trips are led by Williams students. Bellow is one student’s reflection on the fall season.

Students Carrying Sap for Maple Sugaring

I’m sitting shotgun as we navigate the winding, tree-lined road to Hopkins. We take a left turn onto a gravel path that passes an off-season apple orchard on the left and an overgrown grass field on the right. The car pivots into the driveway of the Rosenburg Center, a great big building that looks like an 18thcentury colonial concoction of chapel, schoolhouse, and decay. I open the door and see the familiar array of students’ desks that could have belonged to my great-grandparents, had they been in the United States at the time.

Drew, a lanky older man wearing a bucket hat and a beige Safari vest, swings open the door of the laboratory and exclaims, “Good to see you boys!” You can see all sorts of equipment behind him: ecological tools, biological containers, geological instruments. It’s the kind of scientist’s playpen that I can see Drew, the Godfather of Hopkins Memorial Forest (and our boss) entertaining himself in for hours at a time. “PERFECT weather we’ve got this morning! Greylock elementary should be coming in about a half-hour so we have a good amount of time to set up in the meantime.”

In the Fall, we lead field trips for 5thgraders whose curriculum at school includes the carbon cycle and the water cycle. In the short amount of time we have, we lead four activities for the kids: a hike, which is a straightforward twenty minute walk on either of the forest’s two footpaths; the Water Ramble, a simulation where the kids “become water molecules” to see water’s cyclical nature in action; the Web of Life, a simulation where the kids “become producers, consumers, and decomposers” to see an ecosystem’s interdependent nature in action; and the environmental investigation, pretty much code for picking up slugs and worms.

“Paul, you can take one group and start with the Water Ramble activity first and Billy and Caitlin can start with either the hike or the uhh, the investigation. It’s a smaller group today, so that’s good at least. I can take a group if you want and you guys won’t have as many kids… OR, I can make the rounds and help out, whichever one you prefer.”

We hear the rumbling of a bus motor slowly grow louder as that great big, ugly yellow vehicle becomes visible through the window. Drew’s cerulean eyes bulge with excitement. “Apparently they’re early today! Well, it’s go time!” He strides out the door and we shuffle out after him.

Kids jump off the bus excited to arrive because they can at last be knuckleheads with their friends outside of that cramped yellow prison that most public-school kids remember all too well from their middle-school days. In their neon sweatshirts and hats for all of the New England sports teams, the boys clump around to one side impressing each other with a wide repertoire of dance moves from the video gameFortnite. The girls, dressed in pink from head to toe apart from multicolored down jackets, stand on the other side and giggle among themselves. Half of the kids are visibly overweight, hopefully making the payoff of this Nature 101 crash course even higher for them.

Children by a Bog
 Students Learning about Bog Ecology

Drew is on the move. He takes several massive steps in front of the group and yells, “Good morning boys and girls, and welcome to Hopkins Forest!” Some of the teachers hush the kids, who turn to face him. “Today, we’re going to be looking at the ecosystem of Hopkins Forest. What isan ecosystem?”

A boy wearing a Red Sox hat half-raises his hand. “Where animals live?”

Drew looks at him skeptically and says, “Yes… would anybody like to add on?”

A lively, brown-haired girl wearing glasses raises her hand. “And where organisms are, like plants and fungi!”

Drew nods his head emphatically this time. “Right! And along with that, we’re looking at the water cycle. Now who can tell me what that is?” He sees the same girl’s hand linger alone in the air for several seconds but calls on the first person who raises their hand after her. It just so happens to be the boy behind her. She opens her mouth but gets a quiet, resigned look on her face when the boy starts speaking, thinking mistakenly that she’d been called again. It would be funny if I hadn’t embarrassed myself the same way countless times as a kid.

“Great answer! Now, our fantastic helpers, Billy and Paul, are going to show you around the forest today! Teachers, if we could separate into three groups, the three of us will take all of you to the different activities.” I focus back in, taking my cue that Drew just finished his standard spiel. I stand off to the side by a younger, bearded guy wearing a North Face jacket similar to mine.

I reach out to shake his hand. “Hi, I’m Billy.”

“Nice to meet you Billy. I’m Mr. Abedy. I’m a Senior over at MCLA studying education, their student-teacher.”

I look at all the students in front of me, none of whom are wearing name tags. Before we get into any of the activities, I ask them to tell me their names. They go down the line: Jorge, Ella, Paige, Gabe, Shyne (with a “y”), Adrian, McKenzie, Justin, Natalie. I recite their names back to them and they’re impressed.

To them, this part of my routine might seem like a game, but to me, it is one of the most important things I do. The kids are here at Hopkins because they have to, but they still trust me to make it a memorable experience for them. Even though I do a lot of the talking, I want there to be enough of a rapport between us throughout the trip so that we can experience how wonderful the forest is, together. Learning their names is just one way to build up that dynamic.

We go out in the forest and look at insects and earwigs and Rove Beetles and Wolf Spiders. There is the magic of discovery in the air, which I feel too. It’s not “worm shit:” it’s worm castings, packed up in tight little balls that are packed with the energy that fuels everything else going on in the forest. On the hike, they goof off and crack zany jokes with each other.

Students Learning about Stream Ecology

When their excitement starts to die down, I tell them to take a seat on a log by the side of the leaf-splattered path, close their eyes, and be quiet for a few moments to listen to the sounds around them. There are giggles at first from this new feeling they get. Kids are usually reprimanded when they are told to be quiet, but that is the last thing I intend to do. After the moment’s novelty wears off, they hear nature’s conversation with herself: Chickadees singing to one another; the wind whispering through branches; Chipmunks scurrying on the ground and burrowing into holes; the stream trickling by us, beckoning surrounding critters to drink.

It starts to rain. So much for ‘perfect’ weather. Still, we linger there for just a little while longer before I get a text from Drew to bring my group back to the Rosenburg Center. We stay indoors until the bus returns and the kids go on their way, back to school.

It’s not on the curriculum, but what I desperately hope to impart to these kids is that the world is not the one behind a screen, but the Earth that has breathed life for billions of years and the Hopkins Memorial Forest that sheltered us under its canopy at that moment when we all closed our eyes. That moments like these are as ephemeral as the raining water droplets I felt on my cheeks; they are fragments of time that are lost eventually, truly and forever disseminating into the void like raindrops become anything from the moisture in the air to the crashing tides of the ocean and even to the tears that we cry. That life will be sad, but it will be okay. It will.

– Billy Donoso ’23, Student Educator