‘Not all classrooms have four walls’

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Turning Nature’s Mountain Playground into Nature’s Mountain Classroom – that’s the goal of Snowshoe resident Tracey Valach and her outdoor curriculum Adventure Pocahontas.

Valach addressed the Pocahontas County Board of Education at its June 1 meeting to present her plans for implementing this curriculum in county schools.

“The goal of the program is to foster a love of our beautiful Pocahontas County, through outdoor recreation and experiential learning opportunities,” Valach said. “When I moved here, I expected to see this huge, mountain enthusiast community, but so many of my children’s friends have either never been to Snowshoe, never skied, never hiked to the falls, never biked the Greenbrier River Trail, and these are things that are in their own backyard.

With all these things in mind, Valach said she has developed a curriculum for second through fifth grade, which would not only expose students to the beauty and activities of Pocahontas County, but also meet content standards for each grade level.

“The dream program kind of brings all of those things together,” she said. “The Adventure Pocahontas curriculum would be a four week program – one day a week – during the regular school day for all students. We would spend half the day learning a new lifelong sport – like biking, hiking, skiing or water sport – and the other half of the day doing project-based learning and experiential education meeting content standards that teachers are already required to meet.”

For the second grade, the curriculum calls for the students to learn to ski at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, where they will also learn about the water cycle and how the snowmakers take water from the lake and turn it into snow for the slopes. Each student will also be given a ski helmet.

The third grade will focus on hiking and ecosystems. They will learn about wildflowers and ecosystems at Elk River Touring Center and hike trails near the Scenic Highway, Williams River, Droop Mountain and Beartown. The students will also be exposed to a beginners cave near Beartown.

Third grade will also learn a first aid lesson and students will come away with their own first aid kits.

In the fourth grade, students will learn about watersheds and West Virginia history. They will go fishing on the lakes and rivers of Pocahontas County and do freshwater snorkeling in the Greenbrier River at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The students will all receive a life jacket.

The fifth grade students will focus on mountain biking and the solar system. They will bike the trails at the Green Bank Observatory and Greenbrier River Trail and learn about the solar system at the GBO, as well. The students will also go through CPR training and receive a bike helmet.

All levels will include literacy lessons and journaling to improve their writing skills, as well as a community service project like a trail cleanup.

Included in the curriculum will be lessons from 4-H books including the Know Your State program.

“So many programs that we do with our kids just scratch the surface,” Valach said. “We teach them something and then we move on. I want this program to be an opportunity to really go deeper with our students and not just throw free stuff at them, not just do it one time, but really drive home some of these activities as well as the physical activities.”

With that in mind, Valach built in a refresher day for each grade level at Snowshoe for skiing lessons. This will also include a fifth grade graduation ceremony. It will be a way to celebrate the students finishing the four year program and becoming “Pocahontas County Ambassadors.”

“I want them to think of this as their county passport,” she said. “We do the National Parks Service passport books for our kids.”

In regard to funding, Valach said she has received a commitment from Snowshoe Mountain Resort to provide $875,203 in in-kind donations of equipment, passes and rentals for a four-year term.

“I wanted you to see what Snowshoe has already committed and how much they already believe in this program,” she said. “I was floored. When I presented this to the senior leadership team, they were blown away by the opportunity that I’ve created for our community, and they really want to see it happen.”

Valach is also reaching out to other organizations and businesses in Pocahontas County to help with funding. She is writing grants for the program, as well.

Depending on the success of the program, Valach said she hopes to expand and create a middle school curriculum, which will be geared more toward leadership and safety.

“My big dream – after this is a huge and wild success – we will make it into a middle school leadership type program,” she said. “It would be Leadership Pocahontas to where we could do more programs that are centered around safety. So ATV safety – that’s huge in our county – and something that I’d like to see more done with. Drug prevention, life skill type things – still sticking with the adventure theme because that is what our county does.”

The board thanked Valach for her enthusiasm and work creating the outdoor curriculum. It unanimously approved to implement the Adventure Pocahontas curriculum starting the 2021-2022 school year.

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