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6th Graders Chart New Paths through Outdoor Ed

Students hiking

The incredible landscape and biological diversity of the Marin Headlands draws thousands of nature-lovers from across the world each year, but for three days in January its beautiful shore was both classroom and home-away-from-home for Gateway sixth graders’ annual overnight trip.

Leading 100 or so eleven and twelve year-olds through the semi-wilderness is no small logistical feat, but the academic and social rewards for students in the midst of a formative school year are so rich that the excursion has quickly become a GMS tradition. Seventh grade students also take a shorter, one-night camping trip to Rob Hill in the Presidio; (eighth grade students participate in an on-campus retreat in lieu of an overnight trip).

“For a lot of our students, this is their first experience outside of San Francisco and spending time in nature for an extended period of time,” said sixth grade teacher Aimee Heckman. “It’s an opportunity for our students to reach outside of their comfort zone and take new risks in a new environment supported by their teachers and peers.”

GMS teachers collaborate with the non-profit NatureBridge to guide students through several days of hands-on learning tied to the marine biology content students are learning in science class. Through field excursions, hikes and interactive lessons, students get to see firsthand the creatures and natural processes that make the Bay Area’s biosphere so unique. The highlight of these activities is often the night hike.

“Most students often begin the hike feeling nervous and unsure of what to expect, but by the end of the hike, they’ve totally leaned into relying on their senses of sound and touch, and always report really enjoying the new experience!” said Heckman.

But academics are just one aspect of the trip. Just as important are the opportunities for independence, taking care of a shared living space with others, and bonding over a shared experience with the students they will go through the rest of their middle school years with.

“It can be quite a culture shock for many of our 6th grade students to experience a new place with new people and a totally different environment than they’re used to,” said Heckman. “By having the trip span over two nights and three days, we see our students slowly acclimate to their new environment, and it’s so cool to see them learn and interact outside of a traditional classroom setting!”