When asked when she first started working with students, Linda Torgerson laughed and said, “About a hundred years ago.”
It was actually in the early 1980s. Torgerson worked at the Juneau Cooperative Preschool for about 18 years before becoming a classroom teacher at the Juneau Community Charter School in 1998. She retired after 11 years and now works at the charter school part time teaching nature studies.
“I think one of the things children need very early in their life is to fall in love with the natural world,” the 67-year-old educator said.
This sort of philosophy is one of the reasons Discovery Southeast is giving Torgerson the Discovery Award on April 30. Every year, the outdoor education nonprofit honors a teacher who’s excelled at integrating nature into their teaching.
One of the ways Torgerson does this is by focusing on a new plant each week with the students she works with. She brings in samples, such as salmon berries, fiddlehead ferns or yellow violets. Sometimes Torgerson will share poisonous examples, like false hellebore or yew plants. She’s planted amaryllis bulbs with her students.
“The majority of them fall in love with nature just by watching those plants and watching them change,” Torgerson said.
She doesn’t claim is to be a botanist, but she does claim to know young children very well and to know what they like.
“I’m kind of like a young child myself in that I am still caught up in the wonder,” Torgerson said.
Her teaching activities are interactive experiences. It might be a treasure hunt, looking at the underside of a leaf or a game of tag that involves knowing the difference between a conifer tree and a deciduous tree.
“I can teach them forever and they don’t necessarily remember, but if we play a game where you have to tag a conifer, they will remember it that way,” Torgerson said.
Torgerson brings the natural world into the classroom and she also takes the students outside. They go to Evergreen Cemetery to look at trees, Basin Road and the beach.
“There are just so many nice places to take kids,” she said.
Every fall, Torgerson takes students on the Mount Roberts Tramway and they hike as high as they can go.
“For a lot of kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the alpine,” she said.
Harborview Elementary School kindergarten teacher Elisabeth Hauser learned a lot about being an early childhood educator when Torgerson volunteered in the classroom. Hauser said Torgerson loves the outdoors and engages students.
“They just have an instant connection with her because she’s able to draw in every single child with the activities that she does. A lot of that is her passion and her excitement,” Hauser said.
Whether it’s through painting with the juice of blueberries or dissecting herring, Hauser said the students are involved and connected.
“Those experiences are going to draw them to the natural world and make them feel more comfortable,” Hauser said.
Hauser is also on Discovery Southeast’s board of directors. The board selected Torgerson from several nominations.
“Every nominee was incredible. They’re all doing amazing things with their students, but Linda is this legacy in our town. This is her life and passion. We just really felt like she not only deserved the honor but also should be celebrated,” Hauser said.
For teachers who may be looking for ideas on how to incorporate nature into learning, Torgerson suggests bringing the natural world, like things from the beach or plants, inside.
“Bring interesting things into the class and let children explore them. Show your own interest and your own learning about those things and the children will come along with you,” she said.
Torgerson said it can be as simple as going outside with students during recess.
“There are lots of things to look at outside even at a playground or on a town walk,” she said. “I think you have to model what you want them to do. If you want them to notice the natural world, do that with them.”
Discovery Southeast is presenting Linda Torgerson with the Discovery Award during its annual banquet and auction. The event takes place at 5:30 on April 30 at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or email@example.com.