For her first classroom teaching experience, University of St. Thomas alumna Celia Hanson ‘23 has a setting that’s more unique than most teachers encounter. Tucked among the trees at the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center near the small Minnesota town of Marine on St. Croix, stands a yurt that doubles as a classroom for her first graders at River Grove Elementary.
This sturdy tent is the learning spot for these students as construction finalizes on their permanent building in downtown Stillwater.
“Just because we are in a yurt, that doesn’t mean we’re not at school,” Hanson said.
She added that although the weather and other sounds in nature can be a distraction, what she learned at the School of Education at St. Thomas prepared her well for this atypical experience.
Here’s part of Hanson’s conversation with the St. Thomas Newsroom:
Q: What inspired you to teach in a yurt?
This opportunity really just fell into my lap. I had heard of outdoor-based-education before but never had thought that it would be what I chose to do. When I looked more into this specific charter school, I realized how cool this would be. As our school is in a transition period moving from one location to the next, the yurts were a new thing. I thought about how I will have my whole life to teach in a regular public school, so I pushed myself to branch out now. I have really been enjoying it.
Q: Have you found it to be difficult?
The most difficult parts of teaching in a yurt are definitely all of the distractions and the weather. As it is obviously not a regular classroom, we had to start the year off strong with routines, procedures, and my expectations for the kiddos. Without having these set in place early, this school year could have been drastically different.
The weather was another difficulty as the weather slowly became colder. Each student brought a pair of slippers from home and our school provided a blanket for each of them to use. They looked adorable but this was definitely another learning process for all of us!
Q: What differences have you noticed between having students in a traditional classroom vs. a yurt?
A huge difference is their creativity. I feel as if students being outside just pushes them to think outside of the box compared to how they do in a regular classroom. It has been amazing to see how students see math, reading, and more in nature and how that can be used to learn. Along with that, there also can be a bit more silliness that comes along with not being in a traditional school/classroom. I love being silly and chatting but we have had to find the correct balance and realize that just because we are in a yurt, that doesn’t mean we’re not at school.
Q: How do the students respond to the atypical school environment?
Students are much more creative, invested in learning, and excited to be at school. It has been so wonderful to see how much they enjoy coming to school. Though it is an extremely atypical environment, I’d say that my group of kiddos has handled this transition so wonderfully that I would love to continue doing this every year. It is so important for students to see how learning can be everywhere and being outside is the perfect way to do that.
Q: How has your education from St. Thomas helped you advance the common good?
My education from St. Thomas prepared me so well for this experience that I have felt confused why I have been handling this all so well Being able to move away from the norms and deal with issues and challenges on the spot has been largely expected of me. My professors and peers at St. Thomas have challenged my thinking and teaching style in so many ways that I felt as if I was prepared for any type of student or situation that could be given to me.