Willingness to Wonder: A Q&A with Educator Beth Ann Drinker

Beth Ann Drinker is an educator at Chester-Andover Elementary School in Vermont.

What does PBE look like in your classroom?

PBE has mostly meant exploring the school grounds and the village where my school is located. It usually begins with a question about science and then branches out into all areas of learning. There are always surprises, but because I know what my objectives are for my students, I can frame those surprises in ways that help us get to where the curriculum would have us land. That said, PBE always goes out of bounds: it takes more time, it takes us to unexpected locations, and students often break out of their usual roles in our classroom. All of this is what makes PBE lively and invigorating for all of us.

Why do you incorporate PBE into your curriculum? What benefits are most important to you and why?

When my students are participating in PBE, they demonstrate initiative and curiosity in ways I often don’t see in the classroom. Although I might set them a task to accomplish, most of the time they take ownership of that work and pursue it in their own unique ways. There are plenty of opportunities for differentiation when we head outdoors, space for students to pursue their interests. 

On a recent trip to a stream, after learning about how water striders take advantage of surface tension to move on top of the water, some students discovered a group of striders descending on a dead bug. We had watched a video about how striders liquefy the insides of bugs before they eat them, so this was serendipitous to say the least! Some students engineered traps using buckets and rocks; others simply got accustomed to being in the midst of all that life in a stream. For one student with significant disabilities, putting her feet in the water and then navigating across the stream to the other side by herself was a major victory. There was no ranking or scoring of these different experiences; adults were there to facilitate, offer suggestions, and encourage risk-taking, but there was no sense of anyone doing better or worse than anyone else. 

One of the reasons I love PBE is that opportunity to let students experience the world on their own terms in a supportive environment.

How do you measure success related to your PBE work?  

When we are in the field, the best moments are when students make a direct connection to something we have been discussing in class ー they see in action surface tension; or feel the difference between sand, silt, and clay in a mud puddle; or observe how the breeze off the lake cools them as the sun warms the land and the hot air rises. I feel success when a student who struggles academically shares knowledge in the field, often knowledge gained from parents or grandparents who work outdoors as farmers or loggers, or from their own experience playing outside at home. I also feel success when families join in, whether it is by pulling garlic mustard on the road in front of their house after the class learns about invasive plants, taking a hike to look for tree cookies I have placed on a trail, or visiting the school garden on the weekend to do some weeding and harvest some vegetables for their dinner. These are the connections that I hope will build my students’ connection to where they live and the outdoors.

Students do more traditional academic activities, too: write in journals, collaborate on class research projects, make connections to texts we read, use math to quantify what we find or to decide how many plants we can fit in our raised beds. But it is the intangibles I value most.

Within your work, can you provide examples of how you might cultivate a sense of belonging to the community?

Here are some things I have done in the past:

  • Students placed large tree cookies (cross sections of trees) on a muddy path in the spring that gave people a way to walk there without disturbing the ground too much. The tree cookies had environmental messages encouraging visitors to look out for salamanders along the way.
  • Students pulled garlic mustard from school grounds, then made pesto that local high school students used on pizza at a community event.
  • Another teacher and I put messages on small tree cookies all along a trail behind the school during the 2020 school closure and encouraged families to “take a treasure/leave a treasure.” We did this both to get them outside, and also to keep them connected physically to the school.
  • A grandfather in the community tilled an extra plot of the community garden for us so my first graders could plant pumpkins in the spring and eventually harvest them as second graders with their new teacher. The pumpkins were then sold as a school fundraiser.
  • Students interviewed elders about their memories of food over time, which included stories of making strawberry ice cream by hand at the local inn in the 1940s, baking beans for Town Meeting every year, and packing lunch in pails to go to school. These oral histories were compiled in a book and shared with the community.

Within your work, can you provide examples of how you might “cultivate a sense of belonging to the land”?

Simple things, like a trip to pick apples or pumpkins, or to see how cheese is made, help students understand where their food comes from and how it is connected to the land. Being on the land is so important: simply playing in the stream behind the school or hiking to a vista on a trail and looking out over the town all give students a sense of where they live that is different from driving in a car. I also believe that doing this in a group is part of that connection.

Time is important, both quiet time for observing things through all our senses, like sit spot experiences, and also coming back to the same place multiple times. 

What have been some of your challenges with this work? How have you responded to these challenges?

Logistics can be maddening. Having enough adults to be safe, scheduling things in a way that doesn’t interfere with other professionals, the inflexibility of procedures and funding that get in the way of taking advantage of serendipitous opportunities. My own inexperience or unfamiliarity with a town or with the science gets in the way sometimes ー less so now that I have some confidence ー which is why my partnerships with Shelburne Farms and the National Park Service were key in the beginning. Time to manage all the logistics is always an issue, another reason why it is great to share some of those responsibilities by co-planning with others.

What gives you hope?

When I give my students time to explore an idea or concept on their own terms, I am almost always heartened by the ways they immerse themselves in the experience. Sometimes I don’t know if they are meeting my objectives, but when I probe, usually I find they did, just in an unexpected way. Often, they have learned other valuable lessons as well. Not everyone learns the same things, and that can be both exhilarating and disconcerting for a teacher who is supposed to be teaching to the same standard for everyone. It has taken time for me to have faith that this is okay.

Several years ago, someone gave me a card with the message: “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be amazed.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot this summer as I have taken my summer school students outside nearly every day to explore our weekly themes of sun, water, air, and soil. Sharing my amazement and wonder at the quirky flow of water over rocks or the sediment at the bottom of a mud puddle feels like the most valuable lesson I have taught this summer. We have daily “sit spot” time, when I have watched one student peer into a puddle for ten minutes and someone else use that same time to try calling to a bird in the tree near them. Yes, we have learned vocabulary like cohesion, properties, mixture, and thermals, but this willingness to slow down and ask questions about ordinary phenomena is what I have seen as their greatest area of growth. I fret every weekend about whether or not I have planned enough engaging and meaningful activities for them, but what makes the week successful each time is my willingness ー and now their willingness ー to wonder, pursue their questions no matter how small, and imagine what their next question will be.

Project City Chester
Project State Vermont
Project School Chester-Andover Elementary School
Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
  • environmental education
  • outdoor education, experiential education
Subject Area
  • science, math, engineering, technology (STEM)
  • environmental science, environmental studies, ecological restoration
  • agriculture, plant and soil science, food systems
Outcome Area
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
  • stewardship behavior
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • student
Demographic Area
  • rural
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)