On Fridays in the Forest, Juneau teacher makes the outdoors his classroom

Juneau third grade teachers Geoffrey Wyatt and Ellen Canapary pose with their students in the forest on April 1, 2022.
Juneau third grade teachers Geoffrey Wyatt and Ellen Canapary pose with their students in the forest on April 1, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/ KTOO)

Most students who attend public elementary schools in Alaska spend their days learning indoors, but one Juneau teacher is making sure his students have at least a little time with Mother Nature.  

Geoffrey Wyatt’s third grade classroom at Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley School in Juneau looks like most others.

There’s a whiteboard lined with children’s books, tiny desks and chairs, and lots of colorful posters. But on some Friday afternoons, Wyatt’s students throw on their raincoats and Xtratufs to head to the forest.

“The very first time I ever took students out here, I had this little boy who was really, really quiet, and he started signaling for me to come over,” Wyatt said. “He’d found a little inch worm.”

Wyatt had never seen that student get so excited before. 

“That was the first time I saw that kids find things in the forest that really bring out their personalities,” Wyatt said.

Juneau third grade teacher, Geoffrey Wyatt guides his class through an outdoor lesson on April 1, 2022.
Juneau third grade teacher, Geoffrey Wyatt guides his class through an outdoor lesson on April 1, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/ KTOO)

About five years ago, Wyatt was listening to a podcast about educators who were teaching lessons outdoors for one day a week. 

“I started doing some research, and I found out that there’s so many benefits to bringing kids outside,” Wyatt said. “Kids tend to be happier, and it actually will improve reading and math scores.”

So he decided to give it a shot in his classroom, taking the kids out to the woods about once a month for half a day.

“The kids loved it [and] I loved it,” Wyatt said.

Eventually, he dubbed those field trips to the woods “Fridays in the Forest.” At first it was just play time, but now it’s a little more academic.

“The first time we went to the forest, one of the students really freaked out a lot and he was afraid of the devil’s club,” Wyatt said. “He’d never seen it before, and another kid said it was poisonous because they thought it was.”

After that, Wyatt took the kids back to the classroom for a lesson about the plant.

“We took a little bit of devil’s club, we looked at it and we felt it,” Wyatt said. “We talked about its uses with Alaskan culture, medicinal uses and then it became a really celebrated plant in our class.”

On a lot of Fridays in the Forest, Wyatt asks his students to sketch what they see around them. Makayla Fisi is one of those students.

“I’m drawing the branches on here because I like the way the trees give us oxygen,” Makayla said.

Another student, Ben Catalioto, decided to sketch some devil’s club.

Juneau third grade student, Ben Catalioto draws what he sees in the forest on April 1, 2022.
Juneau third grade student, Ben Catalioto draws what he sees in the forest on April 1, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

“Devil’s club is like a guardian of the forest. Like, if you touch it, it would hurt,” Ben said. 

The third-graders have also been learning Lingít words and songs for what they see in the forest, like skunk cabbage. At the end of their lesson, they always have a little time to just run around and be kids.

“I like how nature moves and how it’s so much green and moss and trees,” Ben said. “One thing I don’t like is that it’s just very rainy whenever we go on Fridays.”

Wyatt has also been recognized by the Juneau School District for his creative lesson plans.

Bridget Dowd

Local News Reporter

I keep tabs on what’s happening in Juneau’s classrooms for the families they serve and the people who work in them. My goal is to shine a light on both stories of success and the cracks that need to be filled, because I believe a good education is the basis of a strong community.

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