Written by Annie Roth, Manager of the Teacher Network at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. As an educator most recently from Nashville, she is excited to connect her love for teaching and the outdoors through this work.  Learn more about her and her thoughts on bringing nature to the classroom below!

Annie as a child looks over the edge of a rock into the water

Little Annie fascinated by the waters of Michigan. She began noticing – and getting curious about – nature at a young age.

I’ve been called to explore and connect with the land since I was young.  Growing up in Michigan, we’d head “up north” to our little cabin on the weekends to trounce in the Little Manistee river – catching fish, finding frogs, and getting messy. This sense of exploration and curiosity has never left me. I am now able to share the beautiful mountains, streams, lakes, and rivers across our country with my partner and our dog, Maple – a mixed breed with a big sense of adventure. Throughout our journey, the Smokies have always held a special place in my heart. They are teeming with life at every turn. Hiking along a trail, focusing for a moment in any direction, and the world wakes up. I am so grateful for a return to this place.

During the last 12 years, my own “cabin in the woods” has evolved into a classroom supporting little humans with big ideas and kind hearts. Working in project-based learning schools in and around Nashville, I had the opportunity to watch as kids asked, grappled with, and answered big questions. Together we engaged in projects that looked at the fossil record to track the geologic timeline in Tennessee and we created role-playing games to tackle a civic issue affecting this place we all call home. They explored the world around them to make meaning and relevance from their learning and see how the world, and the people in it, connect. 

Annie and her dog, Maple, by the edge of a pond.

Annie and Maple love exploring the outdoors together. There’s always something new to discover.

Whether it’s standing at the edge of a stream and watching as the crawdads meander over and under the rocks or focusing in on the black and yellow spotted millipedes as they break down the leaf litter, the questions even the smallest corners of our planet generate and the continual curiosity they encourage are good for us all. These are kinds of questions that unite us as humans – young and old alike. 

I have found that giving people the opportunity to explore and experience this land first-hand is what Tremont is all about. Similarly, connecting teachers to the magic in their own schoolyards is what the Schoolyard Network is all about. The Schoolyard Network was developed at the height of the pandemic to provide a virtual space for teachers from across the country to lean into a community of practice that explores experiential strategies and reflects on ways to take those experiences back to their own schoolyard. It’s a supportive group comprised of educators from different backgrounds who teach a variety of subjects and grade levels.

For teachers, this Schoolyard Network provides the chance for professional development to go beyond the “sit and get.” Instead, they engage in the same kinds of opportunities for deep thinking, meaning-making, collaborating, and intentional “doing” that we aim to provide our students with each day.

As one teacher put it, “The monthly teacher get-togethers at Tremont have been a source of support for me and motivation to get my students outdoors.  I love the camaraderie and sharing of stories and resources.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

For me, this work builds a bridge between the equally important aspects of my identity as a teacher and a nature-lover, affording me the opportunity to do both. It’s personally rewarding, but it goes so far beyond that. We see over and over again that when teachers use nature as a tool for their classroom, the students engage more. They ask more questions, share more observations, and feel emotionally invested in what they’re learning – the goal for any lesson!

Both the adult version of myself and the curious kid that still lives inside are continually so amazed by the work we get to do each day at Tremont as we connect people to nature. I am looking forward to continuing to grow in this community and explore alongside you.

Interested in joining the Schoolyard Network? It’s free for educators to join. Learn more and sign up here.