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Helena alternative high school students combine science, English studies with wilderness survival

Tug of War.

Boys vs. Girls.

A rope made of grass.

That was the scene Thursday afternoon on a 21-acre parcel of riparian land near the town of Cardwell.

About a dozen teenagers at Helena’s alternative high school have been spending four hours of almost every school day outside, combining wilderness survival skills with elements of their science and English studies.

This ‘Primitive Elements’ class is being co-taught by Project for Alternative Learning (PAL) teachers Emily Petersen and Sarah Alling. Petersen’s been handling the science end, teaching about subjects like water purification and fire. Alling has them studying poetry and literature about the elements and the wild. The teens are writing stories and journaling.

“For them to not only really appreciate nature,” Alling said, “but to find out what nature can teach them about themselves.”

PAL provides another educational option for kids who struggle in a traditional high school setting. Students take classes in blocks lasting just a few weeks at a time. Many of those classes emphasize hands-on, experiential learning out in the community or, in this case, out in the woods.

So, back to the grass rope; making a rope solely by weaving and twisting grasses together is totally part of the modus operandi of this ‘Primitive Elements’ course—the hands-on, experiential part. The kids have been learning how to stalk animals barefoot or to start a fire with just a stick and a bow. PAL Senior Kacey Kottas said the class made wooden bowls by putting hot coals on logs and blowing on them with straws made from a plant growing near the river.

“That was unique, I’ve never done that before,” he said.

It’s been a packed schedule of caveman-style survival skills, culminating in an overnight camping trip on the land near Cardwell. The students made their own teepee-like shelters out of found materials like bark, sticks and grasses; girls slept in one shelter, boys slept in the other.

Alling said for these kids, who have struggled in school and may have dyslexia or another learning disability, it’s these kinds of real life experiences out in the world which can generate excitement about learning.

“Because they haven’t had that,” Alling said. “That’s why they’re here with us. They’d be dropped out.”

Senior Mittzy Guillemette said she didn’t feel she was getting enough help at Helena High School. She came to PAL last year and said the teaching style just works better for her. She said that style makes her want to come to school.

“It makes me feel like I don’t have to just sit there and hear a teacher lecture us,” she said. “We’re out doing stuff instead. It’s really cool.”

As for the tug of war game, as soon as the battle of the sexes began the rope promptly broke in half right down the middle, sending boys and girls to the dirt. Unfazed, the class took one half of the broken rope and continued to play in a nearby pond.

This reporter did not happen to see the final result.

Credit Dan Boyce

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