A One-of-a-Kind Course

The students sat on Raven Rocks enjoying the midafternoon sun, the spectacular view across the valley, and the rest after a two-mile hike. It was the perfect spot for that day’s lesson: why ravens had returned to the area after an absence of nearly 100 years.

Learning like this is nothing unusual for the students in John Jay High School’s Senior Research Seminar in Environmental Studies. The structure of the senior elective—affectionately known as Wilderness—allows the class to spend three class periods every other day exploring Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. The other half of the time the class meets in a traditional classroom to augment what they’ve experienced through books, films, and handcrafts. The result is a learning experience unique to John Jay High School.

Using Ward Pound Ridge Reservation as a Classroom

A Class for Our Time ... That's been Taught for 22 years!

Wilderness is one of more than 30 electives at John Jay High School, an array that includes Astronomy, Forensics, and the History of New York City. “Electives allow students to nurture their interests and goals,” said Principal Steven Siciliano.

This elective is one of the high school’s few interdisciplinary classes, falling under both the English and social studies departments. Paul Saloom, a social studies teacher, has taught Wilderness the past twenty-one years—coleading it with English teacher Jill Hirshfeld for the past six.

The 2.5 credit senior elective's schedule creates a unique community among the students. “We’re together as a class 13 hours a week,” said Saloom. “A bond develops among the kids.”

“Being outdoors changes everything,” he continued. “Students learn about the natural world and they learn about local history in a very different way from their other classes. There’s always a solid percentage of kids for whom Wilderness is the first step in a life-long journey.”

As the students hike back to the trailhead and the waiting school bus, they chat easily. When asked why they signed up for Wilderness, they mention wanting to learn about the area where they live and to be outdoors. Damian Frindt said he appreciates how Wilderness compliments what he is learning in AP Environmental Science. Eddie Ortiz Arana likes learning how to use plants—they recently dyed cloth with walnuts, cabbage, turmeric and calendula, and made bark baskets. Evan Calves described a recent class in which they looked at a 19th century map of the Reservation. It reflected what he was learning to read in the landscape—rock walls indicate second-growth forests and the pastures of 18th and 19th century farms.

Indoors and outdoors, the learning is through observing and experiencing.

“We're so fortunate to be able to use the Reservation as our classroom,” said Hirshfeld. “The students receive a truly experiential education and as a result they come to understand how important the natural world is to their well-being. This is priceless.”