In the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, there is a place Acorn Woodland Elementary 4th-graders call “magical.” Over the course of three wilderness-filled days at Hidden Villa, students watch nature come alive in the form of banana slugs, constellations, and rushing creeks.
Made possible in part through an Ed Fund A to Z Fund grant and led by 4th-grade teachers Hanna Sufrin, Sarah Horwitz, and a team of parents and school staff, the excursion immerses students in the magic of the natural world and brings to life the ideas they learn during their Environmental Justice unit.
From land to hand
If you thought farm to table was the way to eat fresh, try land to hand. In the Hidden Villa garden students make a bite-size “burrito” with all the ingredients plucked straight from the ground. A spinach leaf wraps a bit of rhubarb, an oat kernel, a thin slice of carrot, and whatever else is ripe for the picking. Once assembled, they eat it all in one scrumptious bite. “The food was so delicious!” says 4th-grader Joseph.
Every afternoon, students learn the tools of the farm trade, feeding cows, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs. They open the chicken coop to collect the eggs laid that day, and even clean the animals’ homes and prepare their “beds” for nighttime. “It’s teamwork at its best,” says Ms. Sufrin, “and no student ever looks at eggs the same way after the chicken coop chore!”
Seeing the world in a new light—and without light
Hiking is a huge part of the Hidden Villa experience, and for most students, it’s their first time. The trip’s day-long hike is demanding, both physically and mentally, but the young hikers are energized by the discoveries they make every step of the way. “There’s a bright orange mushroom!” “I just heard a bird in that tree!” “There’s another banana slug!” (For the record, the group counted 27 slugs.)
Night brings an even bolder experience. Leaving flashlights behind in their cabins, students step out into the woods for a night hike, their eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness.
“The night hikes help students discover so much,” says Ms. Sufrin, “from the power of silence to the magic of the stars. They hold hands and conquer fears, they listen for nature’s sounds and imagine what nocturnal animal might be nearby.”
“I felt like I was an animal in the dark,” says 4th-grader Nkem. “You have no single light, so I had to use my five senses to get around.”
After visiting the farm animals to say a quiet “goodnight,” the young explorers return to their cabins. With the sounds of the surrounding forest as a backdrop, they talk in their bunks about all they heard and saw, and the adventures that await come morning.
In touch with nature (and lots of mud)
Among the immersive adventures is a session at the creek, where kids make “paint” by rubbing rocks together with water. They paint their faces and emerge from the creek proudly covered in mud. “When we talk about water pollution as part of our [Environmental Justice] learning a couple months later, those hours in the creek come rushing back,” says Ms. Sufrin.
All along the way, students have opportunities to be caretakers of the environment. “When we ate our lunch on the trail during the day hike,” says 4th-grader Isis, “we made sure we picked up every piece of trash, because you don’t want birds eating what you leave behind.”
As Nkem puts it, “Our time at Hidden Villa shows us how to respect wild things and care for the environment.”
Among the trees, new leaders emerge
The trip also gives students new ways to shine. “Some students who might struggle in the classroom are suddenly the ones out there making discoveries about compost,” explains Ms. Sufrin. “It’s amazing to see them have eureka moments at Hidden Villa that would be harder to come by in the classroom. As a teacher, you realize some kids have strengths you might not have seen before.”
Often, it’s the tactile and tangible that sparks kids out in nature. “We watch kids fall in love with nature and become tree huggers without knowing that’s a thing,” she says. “They are literally hugging every tree we pass. Some students learn better when it’s an experiential process, and at Hidden Villa we see their excitement and curiosity develop right in front of our eyes.
“I’ll check in with my co-teacher Ms. Horwitz and we’ll say, ‘Did you see the look on that child’s face?’ or ‘David was such a leader on that hike!’ Every few hours, it’s a new student having their shining moment.”
Bringing it all back home
When they return to campus, the 4th-graders and their teachers are determined to bring nature back with them—at least figuratively. Students apply all they learned at Hidden Villa to their classroom’s Environmental Justice unit, which this year centered on this question: what are the environmental problems humans have created and how can we address them?
With the magic of Hidden Villa fresh in their minds, kids study what it would mean to lose an entire forest due to reckless human behavior, and explore the nature we have right here in Oakland. “On another field trip,” says 4th-grader Joseph, “we went into our community to help clean up. We learned that water from the storm drains in Oakland can end up in the ocean, so we picked up the garbage we found near the drains.”
They study climate change, deforestation, endangered animals, and more. “We cover so many issues that the kids become experts on,” says Hanna. “The Hidden Villa trip is a great base for them to care about these issues, and also to start from a place of beauty and positive experience before learning about some of the more upsetting things.” They conclude the unit by taking positive action, encouraging the school community to compost, use less plastic, grow their own food, and more.
“Learning these next steps on how they and their community can help, they bring it back around to the sense of empowerment they had at Hidden Villa,” says Hanna. “We really need that context. I don’t know what this unit would be without that trip, because it makes everything we learn so much more meaningful.”
Creating opportunity from A to Z
“Our A to Z Fund grant came at the perfect moment,” says Hanna. “We didn’t have the money for our bus, and we were getting a little panicky. Then I got the email about the A to Z grants, I applied that day, and we got the grant. I can’t tell you how much stress that took off our entire staff. I’m so grateful, and I don’t know what our environmental justice unit would be without this trip.”
If you’d like to help teachers like Hanna offer extraordinary learning opportunities for their students like this Hidden Villa trip, please make a gift to our A to Z Fund here!