The TREEhouse at Abrams Hebrew Academy

By: Amy Hamacher
from Abrams Hebrew Academy

Learning Environment

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Science

Blended Learning

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
K, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, Elementary school

Abrams Hebrew Academy introduces the TREEhouse; an outdoor classroom that provides learning opportunities for all Abrams students from nursery through 8th grade. The TREEhouse, Teaching in a Revolutionary Educational Environment, is a specifically and thoughtfully designed space that allows for class in both secular and Judaic curricular areas.

Entry Narrative

Abrams Hebrew Academy would like to tell you about our newly constructed outdoor classroom that has revolutionized instruction at the school and impacted the curricula in every content area for its students. It all started with an idea…..

 DREAM: As a science teacher, I have always believed that connecting children to the outdoors is an important part of the learning experience. Educational research says that children benefit in many ways with connecting with the outdoors.  Improvements have been seen in education as students are able to create connections to what they are studying to real life hands on experiences.  Also, positive impacts have been seen in behavior. Children benefit from the fresh air and sunshine, along with creating opportunities for team building and cooperative learning.  I always found it challenging to teach students about the environment from a book, particularly when the outdoors is just an open door away.  I often took the students outside, but there was no specifically designated space for us to use.  We balanced notebooks and equipment on our knees as we sat in the parking lot and driveway. We were often interrupted by parents dropping students off or the school buses lining up at the end of the day.  I dreamt of a safe, enclosed space permanently installed on the school grounds to hold class – not an area for “recess”, but a true outdoor classroom.

DESIGN:  I first researched the idea using online and text resources from across the country, and then partnered with Leslie Ann Kornsgold (Associate Principal) and Dale Sattin (Director of Communications) to design a classroom space in the front of the school.  We started by visiting other area schools to see the elements they incorporated in their designs and to gather ideas for our available space, needs, and budget. We agreed on creating an “outdoor classroom” that had all the elements of an indoor space, such as tables, chalkboard, and books. But the space would be flexible in that the tables can be easily rearranged or grouped making the classroom flexible to a number of educational experiences.  The TREEhouse can host a play, “restaurant”, quiet reading or writer’s workshop. We submitted a grant proposal to an Abrams benefactor and were awarded a generous grant to fund this project.

BUILD: After interviewing a number of landscape design and garden businesses we chose PLANT, a local design company that is committed to working with area schools.  Their expertise was invaluable as we started to build.  Broken fences were removed and new ones installed. The wood from these fences is from trees native to Pennsylvania and has been “baked” for sustainability. This wood is preferable to chemically treated wood that is not environmentally friendly and can be hazardous to children’s’ health. A retaining wall and proper drainage was installed, and large trees were trimmed for safety.  A water feature made from locally quarried rocks was installed and allows students to appreciate earth material from local quarries in Bucks County.  The classroom includes a chalkboard, a storage shed, and large planters that provide students with gardening experiences.  An Abrams student built all of the benches to earn her Girl Scout Silver Award, and the benches are designed so that they can be flipped into tables for the students to sit and work.  Construction was completed in the Spring of 2018, and the TREEhouse was opened to all classes. Abrams finally has a safe, enclosed space specifically designed for children of all ages that allows teachers to utilize the outdoors for classroom instruction.

Enjoy:  While still in the first year of use, the impact on our students has been profound.  The space has been used by the preschool teachers for exploration and story time. Our science classes have used the space continuously as a way to encourage students to experience science rather than just read about it. Secular classes take advantage of the space for reading and writing workshops.  Beyond the classroom learning, our Judaic studies classes have used the classroom as a way to connect to Torah and Hebrew language. One of my favorite stories is of our first grade teacher, Janet Zuazo, who brought the “Read to the dogs” to the school.  In the TREEhouse, the students read stories to three dogs how have been specially trained to provide a patient and encouraging listener to the students. These opportunities have been impactful especially for the struggling readers and writers.

DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE: The installation of the TREEhouse had an immediate and positive impact on the students at Abrams.  What I love about this outdoor classroom is that it holds the prospect for future ideas to be added.  Students decided to design and build a pollinator garden this spring after they learned about the decline of butterflies and bees in Pennsylvania and their local ecological importance.  The Hebrew teachers are planning a biblical garden that highlights plants and herbs mentioned in the Torah.   A student from the local community is volunteering his time to complete his Boy Scout Eagle project to build a lending library “birdhouse” so that students will always have quick and easy access to reading outdoors.  The TREE house is a dynamic space that will be able to organically change and grow as student-inspired ideas lead to exciting new projects.

In conclusion, I am excited to share our Abrams TREEhouse because it is a great example of revolutionary teaching that benefits all students and teachers at Abrams. Therefore, I would like to nominate Abrams Hebrew Academy TREEhouse to receive the 2018 Kohelet Foundation Award for revolutionary learning environment.

Entrant Bio(s)

Amy Hamacher is in her 5th year as Science coordinator at Abrams Hebrew Academy. She teaches middle school classes (grades 5-8) and goes into the elementary classes to support teaching and student learning in STEM areas. In addition to standard science content, the program includes computer and engineering activities in all grades. Amy's loves to see her students involved with hands on activities, and sharing her excitement for science and technology.