Charles Pearce and his fifth-grade students at Manchester Elementary School have two classrooms: one inside the building and one outside.
Their outdoor classroom starts with an 11-minute walk down a hill, through the woods and into a meadow, to the town's new but modest nature center.
The center and the path leading to it support some wonderful science projects. But that's not all, Mr. Pearce said. "We use science as an interesting topic to inspire students to write," he said.
Catie Hall writes poems about Diamond, the young maple tree she adopted with another classmate.
"That's my tree," she said. "Every time I see it, I give it a kiss."
And the woods along the way once served as the "Forest of Fractions," in which Mr. Pearce made a game out of fractions posted on the maples, sycamores, cedars, hemlocks and tulip poplars.
"He tries to mix work and fun all together, and he really does it good," said student April Bauerlein as she trudged back up the long, steep hill to the school. "I had a dream they put an escalator out here."
The Manchester nature center could be the talk of the elite of science and math teachers later this month, when Mr. Pearce goes to Washington to receive his Presidential Award for Excellence in elementary science. The National Science Foundation chose four teachers from each state -- one each for elementary science, elementary math, secondary science and secondary math.
"We're supposed to go to the White House," and a visit with President Clinton is possible, Mr. Pearce said. Another local teacher, Robert Foor-Hogue of South Carroll High School, won the award two years ago for secondary science.
When Mr. Pearce returns, the nature center will be dedicated and given a name, as yet unreleased. The public dedication will be April 30, and the school will have its own dedication the next day for students.
The center began as the dream of Town Councilwoman Charlotte Collett, who spearheaded it as a way to help the community and the school where she taught second grade for many years before retiring.
Town officials got a $20,000 grant from the state's Project Open Space to build the center on land it owns as part of Pine Valley Park. In addition to the school uses, town residents can hold family reunions, picnics, Scout activities and other gatherings there.
The building is 36 feet in diameter with a wood frame, concrete slab foundation, one glass wall and a few skylights. It has eight sides so that wings can be added later. It doesn't have plumbing, insulation, heat or electricity yet, but restrooms, insulation and a central fireplace could come later. The center is the only one of its kind available to an elementary school.
Mr. Pearce's students have compiled journals of their visits to the center and can add entries to their own field guides. Each time a student can identify a plant or animal and verify it through a field guide, the child can enter it into a three-ring binder, and it will remain in the classroom for posterity. Mr. Pearce has entries dating to three years ago, when students walked to the park even when there was no nature center.
The children are making another book, this one to be placed in the center at the dedication. It will be modeled after "ABC" books, in which each page highlights a letter and an item that begins with that letter.
For example, "B" could stand for bluebirds.
Each time the students have trekked to the center, they have looked for wildlife, trees, plants and other inspirations for the book.
"What are we going to do for 'V'?" Mr. Pearce asked. Someone found a vole.
"What about 'J'?" he asked.
They still haven't found anything for "Z."