by Hannah Vonder Haar

Hannah Vonder Haar was a 2023 Columbia Audubon Society scholarship winner and attended Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine last summer. She has worked as an educator in different capacities for 15 years. She has served as an art integration specialist, an adjunct professor, a faculty supervisor for pre service teachers, an elementary classroom teacher and is presently in her 3rd year as an art teacher at West Boulevard Elementary. This year she was the 2024 Columbia Fund for Academic Excellence Outstanding Educator in a Specialized Area Winner.

“I’ve learned in the woods that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing with another.” ~Robin Wall Kimmerer

After a full day of travel that began in the wee early hours of the morning, I finally landed at the airport in Maine, only to continue the journey through tornado warnings in an hour long taxi ride, a 30 minute walk through a torrential downpour and finally a ferry ride across the bay with several other passengers. I wondered if I had made a mistake signing up for the Nature Educator Week in Hog Island, Maine.  As we unloaded our gear and were greeted by smiling faces, the calm following the storm revealed a quaint island that looked out over a sparkling ocean. There is something magical about the immediate shift of energy that I felt as I took in the ocean air. In nature, activity is followed by a period of rest and paralleled with my journey, the challenge of my arrival was followed by a transformative experience that has enriched my teaching practices in numerous ways. During my week at Hog Island, I gained valuable insights and techniques to incorporate the wonders of nature into my classroom curriculum.

One of the highlights of the Nature Educator Week was learning photography techniques that capture the beauty of nature in a session led by North Seattle College Professor, Khav Debbs. He began by asking us the age old teacher question, “What is your why?” but applied it to photography. For me the power of nature, slowing down, changing perspective and enjoying the process are at the heart of my love of photography. My love for nature is rooted in the beauty and the connectedness that exists in the natural world and being able to capture something that is fleeting makes it all the more powerful.

After exploring our why and sharing some apps, we set out to independently traverse the island and find moments to capture. I later learned that in addition to a love of photography Khav and I both have a vast knowledge of mycology and he asked me to join him in leading a session later in the week to share my expertise and passion.

My next session at Hog Island emphasized the importance of recording observations and reflections in nature through Journaling. This practice encourages mindfulness and connection with the environment while providing inspiration for artistic creations. Specifically in our session we used sound mapping. This skill set requires the participant to sit quietly outside and make observations of sight and sound. Following careful observation you create a directional map that showcases all of the sounds you hear around you. This is a great way to encourage students to slow down and really get in touch with their spaces and places.

I begin every one of my art classes with a waterfall on the smartboard and some quiet meditation and breathing to help my students and myself get regulated and have the mental clarity to have a successful artistic practice. I was very excited to see that my next session would be titled Breathwork for Kids. This session led by Kayla Carrington shared new ways to frame breathing practice that I have since incorporated into my art room. Her session reaffirmed my belief that mindfulness and breathing can help educators encourage focus, emotional well-being and resilience among students.

The sessions led by group leaders were informative and transformative, but truly connecting with fellow educators that appreciate the value of nature is what made the week so incredibly special. The food was all prepared locally with a farm to table mentality and every bite was to die for. One evening was spent observing what we named, the Squid Squad, which was a colorful night viewing of seals twisting and turning in the bay as they looked for a bioluminescent dinner. One afternoon was a boat ride out to observe real life precious PUFFINS! And the session on mycology that I ended up co-teaching ended with me showing fellow teachers how to identify mushrooms and create a spore print.

While there was an entire week of laughter and connection with teachers from across the United States, one of the final and most important sessions was an open and honest “fishbowl” discussion about Community Based Environmental Learning through DEI. DEI or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are not always at the heart of place based learning conversations, but as spoken by Robin Wall Kimmerer, “there is no such thing as random” and I do believe I was meant to be part of the powerful conversations that were had and know that connecting with these fellow educators and bringing it back to my places and spaces will create opportunities to make necessary change in our schools.