A class in canoes

Cultivating the Next Generation of Tech-free Teaching and Learning

Hannah Van Sickle ’96

“I think I’m done,” Cait Ward ’13 said when meeting with her academic advisor Erika Barthelmess, Piskor Professor of Biology, in the fall of 2011. Deep in the throes of a post-concussive syndrome after suffering a direct blow to the face on the lacrosse field 18 months prior, Ward had reached a staggering conclusion: digital screens were triggering her consistently debilitating migraines. Her return to the conventional classroom environment—on the heels of a summer fellowship rooted in grassland bird field research—left Ward feeling bombarded by the ill effects of technology. 

Remaining on campus and successfully completing a full course load seemed impossible. Barthelmess did some digging, unearthing a last-minute opening in St. Lawrence’s Adirondack Semester. Two weeks later, Ward was headed to Arcadia, an off-the-grid yurt village in the heart of the Adirondacks, where Ward cites her living and learning experience as fundamental to both recovering from her injury and shaping her future work with young people in the classroom.

“[Enrolling in this] totally place-based program—a huge risk on my part—was a really healing experience,” Ward says of the three months she spent as one of 12 participants in the program. She remembers the immediate allure of living with nothing but the bare-bones essentials: from the location of their base—accessible only by a one-mile hike and subsequent paddle across a lake—to the absence of running water and a single solar panel for occasional electricity. 
And the cherry on top? It’s a completely screen-free semester, one that allowed Ward a means of connecting, not only to her sylvan surroundings, but also to her own needs. She delighted in going to bed when the sun went down and waking up at sunrise; she devoured whole, healthy food, and she embraced handwriting her assignments, reading from books she could cradle in her hands, and occasionally slumbering on the dock in a sleeping bag that would be encrusted with frost come morning. For a student who had begun to feel lost in all ways on campus, the Adirondack Semester was an easy—and wholly unexpected—way for Ward to cultivate the community her mind and body were craving.

Today, Ward continues to make conscientious choices—many of which are rooted in her Adirondack experience. She lives and works at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where she is both a graduate and a five-year member of the science department. This past fall, she launched Advanced Environmental Science Research, a course designed to explore innovative approaches to research on the school’s 400-acre campus—all from a tech-free classroom. 

The landscape surrounding the free-standing Chevalier Senior Lodge at the Berkshire School is novel: the smell of fresh, knotty pine hangs in the cool air and nothing but trees are visible through the double-hung windows. Furthermore, all the trappings of a conventional classroom are absent;. Instead, the sparsely furnished space boasts practical tools for the work at hand: wooden crates hold 200-foot long surveyor’s tape and orange flags, work gloves and sit pads. A pair of Orvis hip waders are crumpled on the floor beneath a windowsill lined with glass Mason jars, and in the corner, there is an impressive stack of binders.

“Everything we need is on paper,” says Ward, who, along with her students, spends much of the allotted class time scouring their environs with nothing save for clipboards, notepads, and pencils. Collectively, Ward’s students develop a field guide to the ecology of campus through species identification, plot studies, natural history research, interviews, discussion, and personal experience. Each of the 18 students also completes an individual research project with subjects ranging from the endangered habitat of the Jefferson Salamander to the viability of sugar maple trees in the Northeast. 

“It is so important for mental and emotional health to feel connected to place and empowered by their environment,” Ward says of her students, in a nod to skills she honed during her own break from the confines of conventional classrooms. “[Students] struggle physically and emotionally with how overstimulating the world can be,” Ward observes. 
“I want them to experience this separation from technology, even if only in microbursts.” Ward speaks candidly about the huge overlap between her own healing experience in nature and what high-school students need in their own lives right now. “Building this program—this tech-free curriculum—stems from my own need not to be around screens and my own recognition that time in nature is healing and powerful,” Ward has said. This is not unlike other curricula being developed across the country as well as at St. Lawrence that challenge just how hard is it for today’s students to give up their mobile phones and disconnect from social media. 

Ward’s passion for eliciting change is palpable, particularly in light of significant mental health issues among students who are increasingly disconnected from one another and community. “Today’s students are so connected to technology [and] we are not yet balancing what they need to be healthy and whole,” she adds. 

Just as St. Lawrence’s Adirondack Semester was a transformational learning environment with profound health benefits for Ward, she is hoping to cultivate a new perspective, one that allows her students to see that space outside of what they have grown up with can be healthy and complementary to their studies. 
“If a student leaves [my class] more connected to place, and to themself, it is a win for everyone.”

Hannah Van Sickle ’96 is a writer and works at the Kenefick Center for Learning at the Berkshire School, a co-ed boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12 as well as post-graduates. The 400-acre campus is located at the base of Mount Everett in Sheffield, Massachusetts.