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Profile of Larry Volpe, 2010 Natural Teachers Award Recipient

– November 23, 2010
By Sara St. Antoine

Profile of Larry Volpe, 2010 Natural Teachers Award Recipient

Sara St. Antoine is a C&NN Senior Writer and Switzer Foundation Fellow

Visit Dan Lairon Elementary at lunchtime on most school days, and you’ll find Larry Volpe out tending the vegetable garden with a pack of students. “I started gardening shortly after I started teaching,” he explains. “Nothing gives me more joy than to spend time with the kids and their families.”

The fifth grade teacher works extra hours to connect to his students—and connect them to nature. He leaves the house by seven to get to school for a full day of teaching. He works in the garden at lunch and after school. He regularly spends dinners with his students’ families. Weekends you’ll find him back in the garden or out hiking, rafting, or camping with his students in nearby canyons. “Fortunately, my wife is also a teacher,” Larry says. “She shares my passion for teaching and she understands my commitment.”

Larry draws inspiration for his work from his own childhood. He grew up in the mountains of New York, in a family without a lot of money. Still, Larry felt lucky to be able to fish and play outdoors nearly every moment in countryside free of “keep out” and “do not fish” signs. In college, he added backpacking and rafting to his pastimes. When he started teaching, it seemed…well, natural…to incorporate these activities into his teaching.

In his classes, Larry uses every chance possible to teach from nature. His classroom is a mini natural history museum, its shelves stuffed with pinecones, antlers, snake rattles, and jars and jars of specimens. The students raise silkworms from eggs. They have an aquatic tank where they study diving beetles and dragonflies. They rear garden pests to learn about their life cycles. They put a plastic bag over a leaf on a sunny day and watch the condensation form as they learn about transpiration. They eat the fruits of their garden labors. As Larry points out, “What better way is there to learn about how photosynthesis produces sugar than to eat a fresh organic heirloom tomato or grapes right from the vine?”

It’s in the garden that Larry sees some of the biggest transformations in his students. “These kids can apply this hard working ethic, which many get from seeing their folks working in our garden, to many life skills, including succeeding in school.” The students also train to become garden docents and take pride in showing visitors the garden and the native landscaping on the school grounds.

Out on trips, too, the students find new motivation to cooperate and be responsible. Larry makes it clear that if they don’t listen and follow directions, they won’t be invited to come again. He says the kids get it. In thirteen years of trips, only two students have ever been dropped because they didn’t listen. As a side project, Larry leads trips for Inner City Outings where many of the kids are troubled, some of them wards of the court. In his experience, these young people are always well behaved and eager to learn when they are out hiking and exploring the natural world.

Larry does such a remarkable job staying connected to his former students that many of them come back as high schoolers to take part in the Inner City Outings adventures. In fact, many of these older students are now mentors to his younger group, nurturing the nature-focused community that Larry has created.

“Connecting children with nature is the best way for them to learn,” Larry says. “The kids never stop asking to go out in our garden,” Larry says. “These experiences are the best part of our day.”

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