When one typically thinks of Forest Park, a lot of thoughts come to mind: the names of our fabulous cultural institutions, the burst of excitement during a first kiss at the Emerson Grand Basin or the sound of children’s laughter as they sled down Art Hill after a much anticipated St. Louis snowfall.
While these moments are all synonymous with Forest Park, the Forest Park Forever Voyage of Learning Teachers’ Academy (VOLTA) recently outfitted more than 20 teachers with a lifetime of new experiences and connections to share with their students that the typical Park visitor could only dream about — from mapping the Park's waterways to investigating the environmental impact of the World’s Fair, from creating sculptures in the style of Andy Goldsworthy to comparing Missouri habitats.
Now in its 14th year, Forest Park Forever's VOLTA is a summer program for St. Louis teachers that builds meaningful connections between students, teachers, their schools, Forest Park Forever and the cultural institutions in Forest Park. The fun and unique program is generously supported by The Saigh Foundation, the Employees Community Fund of Boeing and the Norman J. Stupp Foundation. Throughout eight days of intensive professional development programming, the Voyage of Learning faculty immerses the teachers in experiences of the Park, allows them the opportunity to reflect on these experiences and connects it to their curriculum, with the ultimate goal of encouraging teachers to utilize Forest Park as a natural extension of the classroom.
This year, teachers were introduced to habitats in Forest Park representing three different ecosystems: water, savannas and prairies. Teachers explored areas off the beaten path to better understand the variety of educational areas and resources readily available to regional educators.
Teachers found new uses for their senses in the savannas of Forest Park. These extensive areas are part of a nature corridor known as the Forest Park Nature Reserve. This area was intentionally designed and maintained to maximize the Park’s ecology and generate positive environmental impacts, natural balance, educational opportunities and wildlife habitats.
While in the savanna, educators learned how to use their fists as telescopes, as well as how to dab a little water under their noses to help intensify the smells of leaves and other vegetation. They also found that they could listen more closely and create detailed sound maps of wildlife when they used their ears in the same manner as the rabbits and deer that inhabit the area. Participants also found new uses for their senses as they clapped to awaken their hands for more detailed plant exploration.
VOLTA has long been a model of collaboration. The expertise of the facilitators stems from their work not only with Forest Park Forever, but also the Missouri History Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Zoo, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Throughout the academy, teachers could be found exploring these institutions but also investigating the Park through the lens of art or history, adding depth and context to the landscape.
Teachers were also exposed to other unique locations of the Park not seen from the steps of our cultural institutions or from the traditional car ride through. These include Council Circle, an area perfectly set for an outdoor classroom, and the Fish Hatcheries, where they learned to catch and release. It was in these locations where participants learned the interworkings of each ecosystem through more hands-on activities and interactions with nature.
Throughout the program, Voyagers learned how to take the information they’d learned and translate it into lesson plans for their students. Teachers were also informed about educational materials offered by the Park’s cultural institutions that they can incorporate into their classroom experiences to further educate their students.
Over the past 14 years, the Voyage of Learning Teachers’ Academy has trained more than 375 St. Louis teachers, impacting more than 70,000 students throughout the region. These teachers and students alike still have those popular associations with the Park millions of others have. But they now know so much more — about the Park, the world and themselves.