On a rainy day just before Thanksgiving, Director Jeff Lucas paid a visit to teacher Tod Morrish and his GRITS class at the Eatonville School District’s Kjelstad/ Burwash farm in the Ohop Valley.
The four-acre site is what remains of a 114-acre homestead farm, centered around the main barn, built in 1910. The farm was gifted to the District by the Nisqually Land Trust, a regional organization working to preserve and restore the Nisqually watershed, which usually includes removing any structures. A joint effort between the Trust, District and community groups found a way to preserve the heart of the historic farm.
Today, Mr. Morrish leads our efforts to “Grow Relationships In The Soil”, (GRITS). The program seeks to blend STEM learning with outdoor and agricultural experiences available to all of our students K through twelfth grade. There are plans to house student teachers at the site in an effort to address the shortage of teachers in rural areas and expose them to a community they may otherwise not encounter while in training. Work is underway to build learning spaces inside and outside, all over the site, including classrooms, lab space, gardens and orchards.
The GRITS class is a high school group who work at the farm a couple days a week, assisting younger classes and working the farm through a unique learning curriculum. It has been a great way to increase elective and dual credit opportunities for students who do not always get the most benefit from traditional credit courses.
Their trail crew, three dedicated positions, have been tasked with building a lahar escape trail up the valley wall to a safe elevation, in the event of volcanic activity from nearby Mt. Rainier. Their early efforts, attacking the slope with their youthful energy and meager collection of tools resulted in slow progress. About twenty feet of a planned two hundred plus were achieved.
During the district’s Focus on Education Day, a tour of our facilities with local community members, leaders and legislators, Mr. Lucas learned of the trail, viewed the progress and came up with an idea he brought to Mr. Morrish.
Mr. Lucas is a firefighter and 26-year wildland fire expert. A significant part of fighting wildfire involves digging trails to stop them. He offered to come out for a day with specialized firefighting hand tools and show the GRITS students how to use them as a cohesive team.
Training was an introduction to each tool, how it was intended to be used, its strengths and weaknesses, and how each one was an innovation based on earlier tools. Next, demonstrate how to “line out” the tools. Which one leads based on topography, soil, vegetation and the task at hand, and then the order of the rest of the tools. Finally the teamwork. Each tool leaves a specific mark on the trail; make a few swipes, move a few steps, repeat. Over and over, every tool works the same ground in different ways and those few swipes from a dozen tools soon turn into a trail. Everyone learns to trust those around them to be careful swinging, and to do their little piece of the trail, so the last couple of tools do not end up doing most of the work.
After a slow start, the work began to smooth out and advance up the hill. You could watch the communication develop and the teamwork blossom into a teen powered machine! Mr. Lucas and Mr. Morrish each donated some of their own sweat and helped steer the direction of the trail, but at the end of a very short afternoon, our 12 GRITS students had blazed almost one hundred and fifty feet of new trail!
During a debrief everyone shared what they learned and any thoughts about the day. A new sense of accomplishment began to fuel ideas to get this trail finished and maybe even expand it to an observatory above the rim of the valley that hosts students throughout the year.
This is just one small piece of the innovative ways Eatonville Schools are reaching out to all of our kids through non-traditional practices and places. The Eatonville School Board of Directors is committed to growing these ideas, finding a way to say yes, finding the funding, finding the space and encouraging our staff. We believe these ideals have made Eatonville a great place to learn, and attract the kinds of educators, like Tod Morrish, who seek to do the most for each individual student, wherever and however that may be!