A group of teenage boys walking through a field of tall grass and plants towards a large tree covered hill under a clear blue sky.

Students Learn More Than Survival Skills on This TFA Alum's Farm

Jay Renfro (Greater Nashville '13) runs an outdoor education program on his family farm in hopes of helping to transform his students into community leaders ready to tackle local environmental issues.
Friday, August 19, 2016

When students from Nashville’s Knowledge Academies arrive at the Renfro Farm for five days of outdoor education, they might initially encounter a hill the equivalent of 25 flights of stairs.

By the time these youngsters—who are already hauling 50-pound bags on their shoulders—finish giving their necks a workout by staring up and down the steep barrier, the challenge has become unequivocally clear.

“This isn’t a Disney summer camp,” laughs eighth grade teacher Jay Renfro (Greater Nashville ’13), whose family owns the 85-acre property. “For those who want to explore and climb it, it’s quite a task. But they all end up making it over, and that’s only the beginning of what they’ll uncover about what they’re able to do.”

By the end of this school year, Renfro projects that over 500 boys and girls from his school will have made the trip to the farm, which is located in southwest Nashville. We caught up with Jay, who shared how the program came about, the impact of outdoor education on his students, and his ultimate vision for the program to empower his kids to serve their local communities.

You’re entering your fourth year bringing students to your family farm, and officially, your first in conjunction with the school. Where did you get the idea for hosting outdoor education?

Kids aren’t going outside anymore, and I feel like they lose a piece of who they are emotionally and socially. To experience the outdoors allows them to reclaim that, and brings a sense of holistic nurturing to their person. Several studies show that being outdoors builds concentration and creativity. As a teacher, I want my students to be more aware of the world around them.

My students knew I was into nature based on the pictures in my classroom, especially the farm. They’d always ask me questions about it and tell me they never get to climb trees living in the city. So when I offered a couple of my students to visit and got their parents’ permission, that’s kind of how it all got started. Then I'd get calls from kids saying they were bored at home, or that there was a lot of gang activity going down in their neighborhood, so we'd just gather a crew and head to the farm for a couple of days.

After the initial small groups were successful, I pitched it to my administration as something I’m passionate about, that I’m knowledgeable about, and something that I think can benefit our students. I have a very innovative director, and he saw how the kids responded, so he agreed to do it.

We make the appropriate accommodations so everyone can participate, and every student at our school will have done the trip by the end of the year.

students starting campfire
One early challenge that requires students to work as a team involves starting a campfire and keeping it ablaze.

In this era of technology, it can be quite a challenge to separate students from their smartphones. How do they respond at first?

In a way, they enter this journey thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park, but this isn’t a Disney summer camp, especially for those who are walking around and encounter this massive hill that’s the equivalent of 25 flights of stairs. For those who want to explore and climb it, it’s quite a task. But they all end up making it over, and that’s only the beginning of what they’ll uncover about what they’re able to do.

Then they expect to get to some cabin, and it’s just trees, and they’re distraught thinking, “We have to put up our own tents? We have to be here for five days?” But it doesn’t take them long to adapt to it and to actually enjoy learning survival skills.

We’re making fishing poles out of bamboo and not only catch fish, but clean and cook them, too. We’re making fires with nothing but matches and showing them how to utilize pocket knives.

The solidarity that builds is really cool. We have a diverse school with African Americans, Caucasians, African immigrants, Latinos, and Eastern Europeans. So when they get here, they don’t always have a lot in common. But kids learn that everyone needs everyone. One kid shirked on his responsibility to get water from the stream, and when we couldn’t wash our clothes, or wash the dishes so we could eat dinner, he noticed how important everyone’s role was—and so did everyone else, so he went right back to the stream. You can’t not carry your weight. We’re all in this together, and the kids get it.

I’d say about 80 percent want to go home immediately, but they all end up sticking with it. So far everyone has. Give them time, and they’ll treat it like home, and they end up loving it. They’re running around in the open air and swimming in the creek. They end up being pretty sad when they have to leave, as if they forgot their smartphones existed. (Laughs)

A man in his thirties, wearing a gray shirt and beige shorts, sitting in a red lawn chair, in a field, with a large cottage in the background.
"I want students to be empowered to feel like they can change policy and transform the community," Jay Renfro (Greater Nashville '13) says.

What long-term results do you see after the kids finish the experience?

The group culture and camaraderie among the kids has some lasting effects when they get back to campus, but they also develop a toughness that they haven’t had before. Yes, they’re being pushed physically, but we’re testing their mental strength as well.

For example, I had one student who couldn’t carry his gear up the hill, so without even asking, a couple of our “veterans” got everyone to help him with his stuff. It was a good gesture of compassion and display of leadership, but thought that was that.

Well, weeks later, the kid’s mom came up to me after school one day and said, “Did you notice my son has lost a lot of weight? He was tired of being out of shape and having everyone help him, so he’s been running and walking every morning.” So they’ve taken on a little bit of a healthier lifestyle. One student said how he was just surprised how free his mind felt just not having his phone for two hours.

Also, I joined Teach For America to help the kids who need it the most. Before it became a school-wide thing, I invited some of the students who weren’t doing too well, either academically or from a behavior standpoint. One kid we had was reading at a third-grade level and was frequently getting sent to the principal’s office. Since the program, his teacher told me his behavior has gotten better to where he’s been able to stay more focused in class and improve a full reading level in a short amount of time.

A man in his thirties, smiling, wearing a grey shirt, wide brimmed hat, and a beard, standing next to a teenage boy in a purple shirt, smiling, holding a fishing rod and fish, in front of a lake.
Student Amanuel Benti (right) and Renfro proudly present the catch of the day.

What is your ultimate vision for this program as it evolves?

For one, this is a model that I think can work in other communities, but with anything, you need the right people who are passionate about nature and passionate about helping all kids succeed.

Above everything, I want my students’ education to be meaningful beyond bubbling in a multiple-choice question for a standardized test. Instead of it being a consumer-like experience where they sit in front of a teacher and bank the knowledge from a lecture, I want them applying what they’re learning and making the world better.

With a lot of low-income communities, environmental science is an issue. We always see reports on global issues like polar ice caps melting, or ocean pollution, and look, those are important, but what about studies on our local environment? I would like to ultimately see our kids use our program to build the skills for advocacy and community planning through longitudinal studies of water and air quality. That way, these subjects are more relevant to the kids.

I’m hoping as the program grows in popularity, we’ll be able to build more community partnerships toward that end. I want students to be empowered to feel like they can change policy and transform the community.

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