Nature as a Classroom: An Interview with Coco Loehr on Experiential Education
Classroom can be defined through many different constructs. Its standard definition, “A room, typically in a school, in which a class of students is taught,” lends to our traditional model of education.
But when the definition is broadened, we can view any environment in which learning occurs, to be a classroom. And with this definition, comes great possibility.
Caroline “Coco" Loehr is one of two instructors of Mountain Classroom, a 10-week experiential education program offered by Proctor Academy, a boarding school in Andover, New Hampshire. Over the course of the term, 10 students and two instructors travel across the country in a biodiesel and solar panel powered mini bus and study literature, history, outdoor skills, and natural science—and all through the philosophy of place-based learning.
The course equally emphasizes developing soft skills such as conflict resolution, decision-making, and building self-reliance. As both an alumni of Proctor and of Mountain Classroom, Coco is in a unique situation to lead the program. Mountain Classroom left a deep imprint on her life and the path she took thereafter.
The Mountain Classroom Bus.
Before going to Skidmore College to study Geoscience, Coco took a year off and embarked on multiple outdoor adventures including a cross-country road trip filled with outdoor expeditions as well as a NOLS and Outward Bound course. After Skidmore she went on to Colorado College and earned a Masters of Arts in Teaching, which she completed in tandem with a partnership program at the High Mountain Institute.
If you ask Coco what she loves “ice and glaciers!” may be two of the first words you hear, and with a level of enthusiasm that makes you question why you haven’t dropped your life and moved to Patagonia. Coco’s answers during the interview give a glimpse into her journey to experiential education, her passion for teaching, and a few insights from the field.
Mountain Classroom students.
Alison: By the time you got to Skidmore, did you already know that you wanted to go into education?
Coco: It’s funny, I didn’t know that I did but I was talking with my sister over Christmas and she said to me, “I remember you telling me your sophomore year of high school that when you grew up you wanted to teach science somewhere in Maine.” And I was like, “Really? I didn’t realize I had an awareness of that in high school, but apparently I did.”
I do remember completing Mountain Classroom and thinking that being an instructor would be a pretty fun position. Then, throughout college, I got more and more into science and kept thinking that I might just want to do research so I worked in Alaska for a couple summers doing glaciological research and then I remember thinking that I wanted to go to Antarctica and work down there.
I also started running an outing club and teaching courses once a week at Skidmore on knot tying and anchor building and I really liked that. Then I began to remember that teaching was something I really wanted to do, so I started to get more invested in it. I started tutoring at the public school in town and started tutoring students at Skidmore.
I remember about halfway through my senior year I knew the things that I really loved were teaching and education, ice and glaciers, and backcountry expeditions. I knew that whatever I ended up doing would include two to three of those things.
Alison: Was there ever an “aha moment” when you thought, “Yes! Education is 100% my path,” and then decided to commit to it?
Coco: I distinctly remember walking out of Heidi Johnson’s biology class during high school one day and thinking about how excited I felt after that class and how much I really loved what we were learning.
I felt like she had inspired me to want to continue with science into college and then it all of a sudden dawned on me, “Whoa, how cool would it be to be in her position and to get to be the person that instigates that curiosity or fire.” You know, when you see students’ eyes light up about something new and they just get so excited.
In terms of committing to it, I feel like I probably committed to it without even realizing it, just in accepting to go to Colorado College for the Masters in Teaching. I tend to not analyze things until I’m present and in them.
There was definitely a moment in the spring when I was trying to decide whether or not I was going to lead Mountain Classroom specifically. I had been student teaching at a public school in the fall and then I was at High Mountain Institute in the spring, which is a lot like Mountain Classroom.
I was having a huge debate about whether I wanted to go public or private and I remember realizing that I have a lot of years and that I can do both. That’s when I decided, “Okay, Mountain Classroom.” It’s a position that doesn’t open up often so I was going to go for it.
Alison: I like asking people this question about when they committed 100% because for some people, it is a really intense process to come to and make the choice, while for others they seem to simply be in it and the commitment just unfolds.
Alison: In your own words can you briefly tell me the mission of Mountain Classroom?
Coco: I would say, and this is something we’ve been saying a lot this semester, that a big part of Mountain Classroom is allowing students to wake up from their everyday life—from their life back at home, and from their life in the classroom in the traditional academic setting.
And I guess what I mean by wake up, is to have students understand what it means to turn their senses on.
So everyplace we go to we try to introduce them to the place that they are in through all of their senses, and in that, we hope to convert every space into a place and that students are connecting with these spots around the country.
And, we hope that in that process they discover a meaningful learning experience because they are deeply connected through all of their senses.
I remember feeling so present when I was on Mountain Classroom and feeling like I had never taken things in as much as I did before that.
Alison: What inspired you to teach in an untraditional learning environment rather than in a traditional classroom setting?
Coco: That was a really tough decision for me because I was able to benefit from the non-traditional and I loved it. It definitely set me on the path that I am on.
But, I know that there is a part of me that wants to be working in a public school setting with students that don’t necessarily have the choice to have that and to be able to provide that learning in some other type of way.
What I had written my thesis on was place-based education, which is what we do on Mountain Classroom, but how to do that in a public school setting in a way that is affordable both in terms of time and money.
I guess what allowed me to make the decision to go back to this environment to teach in a non-traditional classroom is that it is my ideal form of education; being able to learn about exactly where you are and in a holistic way.
So I felt like by having this experience of teaching in an environment that is the ideal form of education, through my eyes, I’d be able to bring that to more traditional classrooms later on.
Alison: So far in your time as an educator for high school students, what have been some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you were not expecting to learn?
Coco: I remember thinking that, for me, student classroom management would be really hard in a traditional setting and in a backcountry setting.
I have a hard time with that authoritative voice. And it is a challenge, but what I’ve found is that the students who tend to be the most challenging in those situations, that when you put them at a task that they really like, they can end up being the biggest help to you—and making you laugh and remember that they’re students, they’re kids, and not to get bent out of shape or think that it is something that someone is doing to undermine you.
It’s just that they are students, and that is their job.
I remember I had this one student when I was first teaching. I was teaching 9th grade earth science and there was this one kid who was off the walls. He would be up standing on the table and yelling and I just decided to make him my classroom assistant, kind of like my Vanna White kind of guy.
So he would always come up to the front of the class and help illustrate and demonstrate what we were doing and he became so awesome and made me laugh all the time, it was so fun.
I think when you can take the energy of those negative experiences and then somehow harness it and put it in the right direction it can be really exciting.
Alison: I love that! I also think it says a lot about you as a teacher. I think many teachers just want students to conform to their exact lesson plan and teaching style and be a perfect “student” in the diligent and traditional sense.
Alison: Throughout your journey to where you are now, were there specific people who impacted the path that you decided to take?
Coco: Yeah definitely. Some of the biggest influencers were Kayden Will who was my Mountain Classroom instructor. She got me really into doing observation-based science.
While doing a species ID, that was the first time I had really sat down to draw plants or animals right in front of me. I remember really liking that process and thinking that it allowed me to see things with more detail. I was always into science but remember thinking I wanted to do more field science after that.
Annie MacKenzie has been a huge factor in coming back (to Proctor) and I think that’s because she was my advisor at Proctor and then I got to continually talk to her about Mountain Classroom after I left and would bug her about what I needed to do to get hired to lead Mountain Classroom and what the path is that I should be taking.
So I’m not sure I would have pursued a Masters in teaching if it weren’t for Annie, and also for Patty Pond, the Director of Mountain Classroom. Annie and Patty both told me that I would need a decent amount of teaching experience so that definitely influenced my decision to go out to Colorado College.
Another person was one of my professors at Skidmore, Dick Lindemann. He was a geology professor and he was so passionate about tiny little fossils from the Devonian period and was just one of those guys that with every class he taught he was just extremely passionate.
He always encouraged me to follow whatever I was passionate about so he really helped me develop my love for glaciers and helped me get out to Alaska. I would always go into his office and have awesome conversations with him about what it was I wanted to do and he was always just a big supporter of doing what I love so I also don’t know if I’d be at Mountain Classroom now if it weren’t for him.
Alison: Do you have an idea of the kind of impact that you are trying to leave in the world or create?
Coco: It’s funny because we always have our students write S.M.A.R.T. goals. The acronym stands for a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, a Reach, and a Timeline. It helps students narrow their goals and set them to try to accomplish them.
I recently made a goal for myself, for life—to have an interaction with nature be a part of the common core of the curriculum. Really what I care about is that kids interact with nature more often.
I just think it is so important for our brains and on so many levels, and for our health. It’s amazing the research that has gone into that in showing how depression rates can go down and how it can be a really good alternative remedy for ADHD.
And how students are now able to pick up on more details on their environment when they spend more time outside. I just think it is so, so important and that it can turn around and protect the places that they care about.
I think that often, and not to be negative, but there is a large disconnect between what we learn in school and the places we live in.
Something cool about Mountain Classroom is that it’s such a small group that you can really see what everyone is doing, and not doing, and so that feedback loop is tightened. There’s not much time in between making a mistake or getting the feedback.