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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences



Cynthia Gehrie
Winnetka Teacher's Institute Committee
834 Boal Parkway
Winnetka, IL 60093
Tel: (708) 441-6536

Linda Gordon
The Earth Network
1100 Pine Street
Winnetka, IL 60093 
Tel: (708) 446-7526

Becky Cohen
Crow Island PTA Project on Native Landscaping
1028 Cherry Avenue
Winnetka, IL 60093 
Tel: (708) 441-7253

Sandy Karaganis
Greely School
275 Fairview
Winnetka, IL 60093 
Tel: (708) 446-6060

Bonita Cervantes
Hubbard Woods School
1110 Chatfield
Winnetka, IL 60093
Tel: (708) 446-0920

Mary Ann Manley
Winnetka Public Schools
515 Hibbard
Winnetka, IL 60093 
Tel: (708) 446-9400

Winnetka's schools and park district have joined together to link each school with a natural area which serves as an outdoor classroom and involves children in restoration of native ecosystems. Learning to use this link has led to changes in in-service training, curriculum and teaching methods. It has also developed a new set of teacher-parent partnerships.



  • Linda Robinson Gordon: Connecting In-Service Training with Stewardship, Connecting Parent Stewards with Schools.

The Winnetka Teacher's Institute is a teacher run in-service planning group that sponsors workshops for Winnetka teachers. The theme for 1993 was biodiversity. For the first time, parents were included in the planning and invited to register for workshops. Several parents who participate in the North Branch Prairie Project joined the planning committee. The program also brought the district's schools together as each school adopted a village parkland for stewardship.

  • Mary Ann Manley: Connecting Schools and Parks, Connecting Curriculum to Outdoor Learning Areas. 

As Curriculum Coordinator for the Winnetka Public Schools, Manley has helped develop the school's relationship to the park district to create a partnership for outdoor learning. She stresses that stewardship and bioregionalism offer good ways to teach current curriculum better. They are not an additional subject for an already full curriculum.

  • Benita Cervantes: Connecting Students in the Classroom Community, Connecting Parents to Classroom. 

A fifth grade teacher, Cervantes is dedicated to building community within the classroom for the purpose of empowering students to take active control of issues in their lives. Stewardship, which offers active participation in environmental solutions, is an excellent technique for teaching activism. By including parents in stewardship activities, it was possible to fold them into the classroom community.

  • Cynthia Porter Gehrie: Connecting Schools and Parks, Connecting Parents to Stewardship. 

Bell Woods is a 2.5 acre remnant of oak savanna that is rich in native species. The management plan for the area is developed by the park district, which works with teachers and parents to identify appropriate stewardship activities for grade school students. Parents have been trained as docents to supervise these activities. To instill confidence, parents are taught simple work skills, and encouraged to stimulate questions and opportunities for students to work quietly, without pressure in the woods. After the work session, parents and students make journal entries about their experience -- recording feelings, events, questions, etc.

  • Becky Cohen: Using Intermediate Zones to Connect Classroom and Woods, Connecting with the Chicago Botanic Garden. 

Crow Island School is a National Landmark, noted fro a design that links indoor and outdoor learning activities. Over the years, the courtyards attached to each classroom have degraded. Working with the Parent Teacher's Organization, Cohen has developed courtyards as "Intermediate Space" that bridge the indoor classroom and the 17-acre woods adjacent to the school. The Chicago Botanic Garden works with teachers and parents to connect an ecology curriculum that uses the woods as an outdoor classroom with the stewardship experience.

  • Linda Robinson Gordon: Connecting with the Forest Preserves. 

Washburn Junior High uses an advisory system where student service projects originate. In 1993 a seventh grade advisory began stewardship in Somme Nature Preserve. They return several times a year to remove brush and collect seeds. This connection with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County is potentially a stewardship opportunity for every school in Cook County.


The Winnetka Public Schools believe that science is a process through which the child constructs a world view. For years we have sought to develop scientific literacy which requires knowledge of basic principles and science process skills, basic skills of problem solving and decision making, and attitudes of wonder, care and respect for self, others and the environment. Our curriculum has done a good job of addressing this philosophy especially in terms of developing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that encourage the child to be a meaning maker and problem solver.

In recent years we have concentrated on providing opportunities for the child to become an active participant in the community outside the classroom where application of scientific principles learned in the curriculum are such a natural. Efforts concentrated on various field trips to sites in the Chicago area where formalized programs enriched and supported our work in the classroom. Several years ago we were fortunate to participate in a pilot program conducted by the Chicago Botanic Garden called the Environmental Education Awareness Program (EEAP). As part of this experience students returned to the same site in the fall, winter, and spring to study a particular environment. As we got more and more involved in this process we were delighted to find how effectively what we were studying in the classroom curriculum could be integrated with these experiences and gradually became convinced that we had sites within our own village boundaries which were perfect for us to use in order to extend our classroom experiences. Through a series of in service workshops we coordinated the best we had gleaned from the EEAP program with our district curriculum and began to concentrate our efforts on using the various sites in Winnetka for our outdoor application. Our policy now is to explore various ways to nurture, maintain, and make fuller use of the possibilities of our rich local resources.

As a district we have been very fortunate to have the resources of several agencies available to us. We have worked with representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Winnetka Park District, Village of Winnetka, Urban Design Department of Highland Park, Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, Department of Earth Sciences at Northeastern Illinois University, and Kestral Design. All of these experts have helped us better understand biodiversity and the native ecosystems of Winnetka. Our goal is to maintain a relationship with these groups and to call upon them as we more fully explore our outdoor community.

At the same time we have had a most active parent support group which has made this adventure a reality. As a result of their dedication and commitment of time, teachers have received help in providing meaningful activities for children. It is these parents who have helped the concept of stewardship become a reality for the children through being models for all of us and by giving so generously of their time.

As a district we are committed to learning more about the native ecosystems in Winnetka and their relationship to the larger environment. We see many opportunities for expansion of our own science curriculum as well as the possibilities for integration with other subject areas. We also deal with the reality that process takes time. We are excited about what we have done thus far but are very aware the our journey has just begun.



Something special was happening. Children were leaving the classroom to assist in the care of Bell Woods.They were going to work and retuning with energy, enthusiasm, and ownership. The structure of the time was provided by the place and the work to be done -- not by a set of knowledge that was going to be given in the woods.

The children were interested in returning. They owned the place. They had work to do. They had control and power over something they believed was worthwhile. They were making the paths, clearing out the exotic plants, and seeing the changes they were making. They had real tools to do real things.

This applied to very different children. The outgoing, academically oriented child was enthusiastic and loved the experience. The child on the fringe who was lacking in academic confidence began talking about what was happening. The student with learning disabilities that often limited involvement in classroom activities became strong and confident in her knowledge of the woods.

One summer I asked one of the children to take me to the woods and explain what was happening there since I had not been able to go myself. Once we entered the woods, it became his land. He was able to tell me so much about what happened. He could identify plants, explain what work had to be done and share his enjoyment of the place.

One spring vacation I asked another child to take me to Bell Woods. There again was a feeling of ownership as we walked into her woods. She knew where the paths would be under the snow. Without hesitation, she knew where the prairie and woods met, what animals might live there. She led as we followed the deer tracks from the woods, through the prairie into the golf course. She was able to say what she loved and what she wanted to do as she grew up. This was the only time I heard her speak positively of what she wanted to do. I felt so fortunate that she had been willing to share it with me. I was the guest.

Thanks to Cynthia Gehrie's initial observations, I had discovered something that was important to these children. Listening to them showed me that this met their needs of space, of community work, of empowerment over areas of importance to them. They were not just learning, they were doing. They were finding some time in the woods where they could begin to reflect on their place in the natural world. The community they had built in the classroom expanded rapidly to include the community around them. As they walked to and from their work, members of the larger village community would notice the work the children were doing and cheer them. Pride grew naturally out of their work since they were valued by themselves and others.

The initial experience was so valuable we wondered how we could keep it going and incorporate it into the regular classroom. This required the cooperation and assistance of the parents. They were needed to take a small group of children to the woods while I kept the majority of the class at the school. A small group size was important to the children. 

Fortunately, some parents were eager to join us and take on facilitator roles. A meeting with the head of the Park District and with Cynthia provided a foundation of knowledge for the parents. They found they didn't have to be experts, they didn't have to be instructors, they were there to assist the children in their stewardship and provide them with a place for wonder and questions.

In a discussion with the children of Bell Woods and what it meant to them, one child shared his love of running through the prairie. Concern was expressed that running was not part of their job, that it might be considered inappropriate. When I received this report with enthusiasm, they children were pleased to know that the pleasure of the place was as important as the tasks. 

The children and I agreed that when they read or heard about prairies from now on they would feel different because they had experienced a real prairie. They were now able to validate the joy of nature as well as be proud of their work. 

When I was asked if I would ever accompany them, I responded that I would love to but that this was their place, not mine. This was theirs. They liked that. I told them they had to share it with me through their journals. From then on the journals took on more meaning. They understood that their writing could help others come to the woods.


Stewardship experiences are easily incorporated into the classroom. What better laboratory than the woods? Questions about is happening as the seasons change naturally become part of classroom discussions and further study exercises. The children help to develop the curriculum as they learn what they want and need to know.

For example, discussions about how we work with the Park District may lead to an interview with a representative. Questions of where things are in the woods may lead to a mapping exercise so the children can record changes over time. Questions about what plants come up where, what the names are, and why they weren't there last year lead to other explorations.

We will review the concepts of population, plant and animal eaters, biotic potential, food chains and webs, barriers and dispersal. During the review of the concepts we will look at a picture of the Everglades and have in our minds a picture of Bell Woods. We will compare the two different environments. 

We'll study seed development through the way different plants reproduce and grow at Bell Woods. Although we'll still build habitats for hermit crabs and isopods, hopefully we'll see a few isopods in the field. We'll also study what animals have been forced to leave their habitats because of exotic plants and animals. Through observation and direct experience, the children will begin to learn what it takes for plants and animals to grow and live.

Beyond science, stewardship experiences flow into the rest of the classroom curriculum. Writing, math, reading, oral language -- all of these fit into the program. The ability to observe details, record, classify, and infer are all important. 

Important too is how stewardship fits into life in general. The problems of the world can be overwhelming and debilitating. In the field we deal with some of the same issues such as the fragile environment and intricate communities within which we live and work. But in the field the children are taught that they can make a difference.

Journal Entries

Upon returning from Bell Woods, each child and adult facilitator contributes to the class journal. The journal provides a community record for all to read and for me to find out the themes and topics to nurture and incorporate in class discussions. Here are a few random children's journal entries.

We went to Bell Woods to cut down buckthorn which is a weed that could take over. We are chopping it down instead of pulling it out by the roots because it would be too hard but also because we could rip other things out too. In a year we will do the same thing but then it will die.

Today Niall, Eli, Terry, Nikki, Meghan, and I went on a trip to Bell Woods to cut down buckthorn that is covering the land. It is blocking the sun which helps the plants grow. On our way back, Nikki and I found some pea pods and we brought them back. Unfortunately, we didn't see the shadow. (It was Ground Hog's Day.)

I liked Bell Woods and I learned a lot of new things I didn't know before. We found a lot of neat stuff. But, the main reason why we went there was to cut down buckthorn. It smelled pretty bad. It will take two to four years to make it all be gone, but that means people in the town have to help. We also got to go in the deer beds.

My favorite part was when we went running through the five foot tall prairie grass. That was very fun.

I think we helped Bell Woods a lot by what we did.

And from the parents:

We learned what a rare ecological system it is and some ways in which we as adults can help convey the special nature of the area to our children. Through actively working to preserve and maintain Bell Woods, we can all learn to appreciate this special area more and to feel how a small group can make a big difference.

I'm sure that many children will pass on their knowledge to their families and hence spread the word.

Different Approaches

As we work with the children at Bell Woods, we teachers find we have also become part of this wonderful process of discovery. As the children are empowered and begin to change, so do we. When I discussed this with two colleagues, we realized we were approaching the resource of Bell Woods in different ways. One teacher often focused on the biodiversity of the area and fit this in to her whole curriculum. I looked at it from the point of view of empowering the children and following through on their lead. A third teacher was just beginning this program and decided to go to the Woods with her class.

As we work together and learn from each other and the children, we will change our approaches. In years following, our children may have different needs. It will be exciting to be a part of the process of change.

When working with outdoor educational resources, it is important to remember that this is a process of bringing the children and natural world together. Many children have not had the opportunity to experience the natural world in this manner. Listening to the children and oneself will allow the fullest use of the resource. 

We have visions of being able to work with children in other schools to develop native plant seed banks, share records and research, and work together on projects to help save important natural areas. These visions will change over time. But the importance of the resource as a valuable tool in the classroom will not change.


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