the outdoor classroom at Walker Elementary school

Outdoor Classroom Dedicated to Late, Beloved Walker Teacher Leslie Diehl

Walker-outdoor-classroom-smThis spring, Walker Upper Elementary School dedicated a new cross-curricular outdoor classroom in memory of Leslie Diehl, a beloved science teacher at the school who passed away last year.  The classroom was developed as part of an extension of City trails behind adjacent Crow Pool.

The renovations to the trail and the classroom were a collaborative project between the City of Charlottesville and the schools.  Chris Gensic, the City’s park and trail planner, was separately looking to make improvements to the trail that are an an offshoot of Greenleaf Park, while staff at Walker School  were hoping to take advantage of the space for outdoor learning in PE, science, art, and more.

“This project is definitely a win-win. Our students and teachers will have a great resource for a wide variety of classes.  Community members will have an improved trail.  By working together, and with the help of volunteers, we really leveraged our mutual resources to do more than either of us could do on our own,” said Susan Ramsey, science coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools. Ramsey worked with Gensic at the City, who recruited help from students at the Miller School of Albemarle.  Among the Charlottesville City Schools faculty who assisted are fine arts coordinator Aaron Eichorst and Walker teachers Samantha Pagni (art), Terri Potter (math), Chris Shuma (PE), and Jason Bower, Chris Chamberlin, and Karen Power (all science).

The trail and seating space take advantage of the woods behind the school.  The outer perimeter of the trail is about a mile, and a bisecting connecter breaks it up into two shorter loops.  A new bridge improves access to Greenleaf Park.  In an existing clearing, a classroom was formed by a circle of benches whose backs can rotate to create work surfaces (with a bench’s back rotated, it’s akin to sitting at a picnic table).  Teachers can take students outside for activities relating to the environment, science, art, gym, and more.  Or classes can simply enjoy some fresh air and outside reading.

Ramsey explains, “Since sixth-graders study life sciences, the space offers a host of hands-on activities to help students become more familiar with their environment. They can measure photosynthesis, pH, temperature, wind speed, humidity.  They can identify trees. They can do soil testing, and they can even use the creek for water quality testing.  After all, the best place for students to learn about life sciences is outside.”

The arts are another important component of the space. The trails include custom signposts where students can install their own art and writing to teach their peers and trail walkers about area flora, fauna, and other environmental principles.  Already, Lara Call Gastinger, the chief illustrator for the Flora of Virginia Project, has led an art project with students to make art-science connections.

The project is made possible by a grant from the Prana Fund at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. The Prana Fund supports projects that integrate environmental education and the visual arts through hands-on educational opportunities.

Other support came from the family of Leslie Diehl, for whom the facility is being named. Before her death in 2015, Diehl taught science at Walker School. Principal Vernon Bock wrote, “Beloved by her students and colleagues, she will be remembered for her wonderful sense of humor, her passion for teaching, and her big heart for students.” In her obituary, the family noted, “Teaching science was her calling; interested students were her delight. Leslie Suzann was not only a stellar teacher, but a lifelong learner. She believed in the power of education and passed this belief on to her family, friends and students.”

Ramsey concludes, “This space is a fitting tribute to a vibrant educator.  It’s also an excellent example of collaboration, as our art teachers, PE teachers, science teachers, and colleagues from the City have come together to plan and create this resource for our students.”