The Black Rock Forest Connection

Far from 74th and 81st streets, away from the hustle and bustle of our urban landscape, Calhoun has a forest as a classroom, where our students connect with nature and deepen their learning.

Black Rock Forest, in Cornwall, NY, is a pristine natural oasis with 3,838 acres of verdant landscapes, soaring mountains and untouched streams, as well as a thriving scientific field station, hosting visiting scholars of all levels for in-depth research and fieldwork. Since 2003, Calhoun has been a member of the Black Rock Forest Consortium, a network of leading scientific and educational institutions that includes Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History and the Central Park Conservancy. Our special relationship to the forest gives our students access to a wealth of resources and expertise.

Over the years, students from Lower, Middle and Upper School divisions have traveled to Black Rock for experiential, on-site learning in multiple disciplines: They have conducted experiments in Black Rock’s streams and well-equipped science center; examined the flora and fauna during hikes through the forest; and used the scenery as inspiration for art and writing projects. Black Rock’s resident team of experts frequently co-teach classes alongside Calhoun faculty, and engage our students as research assistants. In one such collaboration, Calhoun students planted red oak seedlings on our Green Roof as part of a Black Rock study comparing the growth of trees in urban and rural environments.

Fourth Grade Trip to Black Rock

4th Graders at Black Rock Forest

Calhoun students go to Black Rock Forest for the first time as fourth graders. The two-day trip—the first overnight for our young Calhouners—is a capstone experience in the Lower School. The children spend time exploring nature through hikes, hands-on science labs, poetry and journal writing.

“Having an outdoor adventure with their peers is an incredible bonding experience,” says LS Director Alison Max Rothschild ’85, “and teaches children how to assume responsibility in a community setting.”

This trip to Black Rock also serves as the culminating event in the fourth graders’ studies of environmental science. Earlier in the school year, they visit a hatchery and collect brook trout eggs, which they then bring back to the classroom to raise. The interdisciplinary project takes them through the process of measuring and charting the fish’s growth, regulating the temperature and chemical balance of the water, and learning more about the history of the Hudson River watershed. When the trout reach the fingerling stage, the students transport the fish to Black Rock Forest to release them into the wild, with the goal of boosting the low population of this New York State fish.

This contact with the outdoors brings the lessons learned in the classroom to life. “Seeing what we’ve talked about in class—not just in a book or a film, but on a walk through the woods—makes it all real for them,” says Lower School science teacher Meg Siddiqui. “It has a much deeper, more profound impact.”

“ Changing location from New York City to the natural world reinvigorates the brain, and as a result, students learn a lot more than they would in a traditional classroom.”
— Francesco Filiaci, US biology teacher

Upper School Trips to Black Rock

Upper Schoolers at Black Rock Forest

Black Rock is also at the center of the Upper School biology curriculum. Calhoun eleventh graders kick off the school year with an overnight trip to the forest. While there, they go on long hikes to survey wildlife and plants, stopping along the way for “teach-ins” inspired by what they observe. They collect water samples at Black Rock’s various ponds and reservoirs, and examine aquatic organisms beneath a microscope. These outdoor explorations serve as an introduction to key biological principles, such as biodiversity or the definition of life, which they’ll later delve into in class.

Seniors who elect to take Advanced Biology return to Black Rock for more in-depth research. In recent years, these students have dissected a deer as a complement to their studies of comparative anatomy, and they have identified the skulls of mammals that inhabit the forest. Using actual tree cookie samples, they have analyzed the age of Black Rock’s oak trees and measured the trees’ growth using a special scientific tool called a dendrometer.

Eugene Padayogdog ’18 has traveled to Black Rock five times over the course of his Upper School career. He describes the experience as “the difference between seeing a Broadway play and [watching] a movie on the screen. It’s one thing to learn from a textbook, but it’s completely different when you see it in real life.”

Indeed, the learning that happens in a setting like Black Rock Forest is exponentially more powerful. “It all goes back to how the brain works,” explains biology teacher Francesco Filiaci, who leads the eleventh and twelfth grade trips and represents Calhoun on the Black Rock Forest Consortium’s board. “Changing location from New York City to the natural world reinvigorates the brain, and as a result, students learn a lot more than they would in a traditional classroom.”

But even more beneficial is that place-based learning reinforces the link between abstract knowledge and its concrete application. Teresa Chico ’18 recalls an impactful moment when, after she observed oak trees during a hike in the forest, the concept of photosynthesis finally clicked for her. “As students, we always want to know why we’re learning about a certain subject. When you go outside and make these connections, then you realize why it matters,” she says.

Especially in a setting like Black Rock, which is a refuge for many endangered plants and animals, students gain an intimate understanding of human impact on the environment. They observe the effects of invasive species or acid rain on the forest, and hear from Black Rock’s educators about their conservation efforts. Most of all, students’ hands-on experience in nature teaches them that they, too, have a role to play.

“ As students, we always want to know why we’re learning about a certain subject. When you go outside and make these connections, then you realize why it matters.”
— Teresa Chico ’18

On the final morning of the fourth grade trip, a buzz is in the air. After breakfast, the group heads down to the water, trout in tow. One by one, the students gingerly lift each fish from the buckets, slipping it into the still waters of a man-made dam. Then, finally, the trout are released.

Each fish swims into the river, joining the wider ecosystem of the Hudson River Basin. And as the fourth graders turn back to head to the bus, their sense of accomplishment is palpable; even at this young age, they realize they’re actively participating as members of their school community and stewards of the environment.

When even a forest can be your classroom, there is no separation between school and the outside world. Every place, and every lesson, is an opportunity to engage. “Calhoun is a place where you’re not just expected to learn for the next test—they want you to learn for life,” says Teresa. “Everything you’re learning, they want you to carry with you outside.”