Close Encounters of the Dirt Kind

Science class at Crotched Mountain School is not a passive experience. There are no spectators. It’s hands-on. It’s messy. It’s fun. And it’s for everyone.

Elliott Milford, loads up his push cart with two cups of dirt. Well, that’s not entirely correct and, as the Crotched Mountain School science teacher, he would be the first to tell you — in the kind, yet authoritative, manner that seems hewn into the DNA of all science teachers — that one cup has sand and the other has soil.

This distinction is, of course, crucial, as the day’s lesson is all about learning the difference between sand and soil and grouping them all together under the “dirt” nomenclature is, frankly, frowned upon.

Science class is serious stuff at Crotched Mountain School and it doesn’t matter what a student’s diagnosis says — everyone gets to stick their hands in the soil and feel those earthen building blocks. And if some of it spills, so be it.

“The mess is irrelevant,” Elliott says. “Science at Crotched Mountain School is fun and hands-on.”

9:00 AM

Elliott’s first rendezvous is with Monica’s class. Because Monica’s students tend to have mobility challenges, he’s bringing class to them. When he arrives, Joe and Grace are sitting at the table waiting to dig into whatever gunky treasures Mr. Milford offers up.

The cart stops and Elliott deploys the day’s lessons–worksheets, science magazines, and the one cup each of sand and soil. He takes a seat and launches into a simple discussion of what grows in sand (spoiler: not much!) and what grows in soil. The students listen, eager to plunge their hands into the cups. Elliott obliges and the cups get passed from student to student.

“The mess is irrelevant,” Elliott says. “Science at Crotched Mountain School is fun and hands-on.”

The hands dip in and Joe and Grace play with the contents; they compare the differences in texture and fineness, all while Elliott gives them the lowdown on concepts like seeds and roots and growth.

“The mess is irrelevant,” Elliott says. “Science at Crotched Mountain School is fun and hands-on.”

“My goal is to help them grasp these basic concepts,” he says. “In addition, we’re able to work on speech by articulating some of these new words. This one lesson is able to cover a lot aspects of the learning experience.”

At 9:30, science class is over. Elliott bids farewell, packs up his cart, and heads back to his classroom.

2:00 PM

“What do carrots have a lot of? Vitamin A! And Vitamin A helps you see!”

It is apparent that Elliott gets excited about Vitamin A and his enthusiasm immediately finds its way to the children seated around him.

One little boy picks up on the conversation and bellows out his own comment:

“It can help me have x-ray vision!”

It’s the afternoon and Elliott is surrounded by some of the younger students from Crotched Mountain School. Cognitively, it’s a much different group than his morning class and Elliott scales the lesson appropriately.

“We’re not only working on biology, but ecology too,” he says, as he passes that same cup of soil over to the young students. They eagerly plunge their hands in. ‘We’re talking about the spring and soil and the change of weather and the right time to plant things.”

Carrots may be the the veg of the day but it’s soon clear what’s generating the star power in today’s class: the grubs. A staff member empties a jar filled with Cheerios and grubs into her hand and the kids lean in to peer at the wriggling mass and ooh and ahh at the sight of the larvae. But that’s not even the cool part.

Because biology is about to get real.

“Who’s ready to feed the grubs to the turtle?” Elliott polls the class. The response is, of course, instantaneous and seismic. Hands shoots up in the air as if they were spring-loaded.

And with that, teacher, staff, and students gather their things and exit the classroom, grub jars in hand, hopped up on the thrill of science, about to make a solitary turtle very, very happy.

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