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Forestry class helps AAHS students break away from the screen

A total of 90 students in grades 9-12 at AAHS are taking part in a forestry class focused on tree identification in the area that teacher Jeff Pokorney hopes will get them outside exploring during a time when education systems have to rely a lot on technology to teach and communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandria Area High School student Rylee Bundermann examines the needles of a red pine for the AAHS forestry class late this fall. (Contributed photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has made for challenging adjustments to education systems for teachers and students across Minnesota.

It hasn’t always been easy, but Alexandria Area High School agriculture education teacher Jeff Pokorney is trying to use this time in one of his classes to get more kids and their families outside and thinking more critically about their surroundings.

Pokorney is in his third year teaching a forestry class at AAHS that focuses on tree identification in the area. The pandemic has made things different for students this year with their class schedules shifting a bit. The forestry class would typically start earlier in the school year when trees still had leaves on them, a common way for people to identify tree species.

Rylee Bundermann and her father, Steven, examine the regrowth of aspen trees after a fire for the forestry class at AAHS. (Contributed photo)


“Typically, if we’re all in the classroom and the students are coming here full time, we are outside for the first four, five weeks identifying trees with the leaves on,” Pokorney said. “So this year has been extremely challenging in getting them to go identify trees without leaves because we started later. Kids are looking at trees completely differently now.”

In winter for broadleaf trees, common ways to identify species is by looking at the overall shape of the tree, along with examining twigs, buds, branches and bark.

“It’s pushing me to learn more too,” Pokorney said. “The twigs and the ends of branches just give a whole different scenario. You can identify them almost as easily, if not easier sometimes, without the leaves when you look at them more closely...I have them look at the overall shape of the tree, but the biggest thing is I have them go and look at the branching. The branches and the terminal buds and the buds scales and the leaf scars, those types of things on the branch.”

The students are required to take pictures of the trees and then upload them for Pokorney through Google Slides with a written paragraph on why they believe the species is what they believe it is. Students normally identify about 35-40 tree species, but that’s in years when Pokorney is able to be with the kids and show them more trees himself.

“Now, they have to get out and explore,” Pokorney said. “That’s slowed it down a little bit, but they’re learning more about each tree and how to identify them. They’re hitting the easier ones -- the maples, the oaks, the different varieties of spruce and pine trees. I’d say they’ve identified around 15-18 different species right now.”

Alexandria Area High School student Hunter Zappe and his mother, Janel, share a day together examining different tree species at Spruce Hill Park in Douglas County. (Contributed photo)

The class is an elective, so kids are not required to take it. But it has been popular, with 90 kids in grades 9-12 taking it this fall. The class has typically had about 70-90 kids. Pokorney has started a Facebook page for the class, where he said he has been encouraged to see photos of students out with their families looking at trees.


“Most kids have trees someplace. Whether it’s around their apartment building, around their house or their hunting land,” Pokorney said. “They can get out someplace and explore. We have so many parks in town, city parks and state parks close. I feel like I’m at a little bit of a unique advantage where I can ask the kids to get out and research and identify trees and then upload photos for me through technology.”

Understanding plant identification can be beneficial for these students as it pertains to other hobbies in their lives like hunting or any wildlife watching.

“I think the first thing is to be able to identify a tree, and then after that they can start making connections,” Pokorney said. “What animals utilize specific trees more closely? What’s part of their habitat or part of their food web? Which trees or plants associate with a deer versus chickadees or all the different animals. They can start exploring all the different ecosystems.”

That exploration is what Pokorney wants students to take from this experience. In a world right now where so much communication is based on technology during the pandemic, the forestry class is an opportunity to break away from the screen for some hands-on learning.

“I want to see more kids outside looking at their natural surroundings,” Pokorney said. “I think that’s something we’re missing, so that’s my biggest goal is to get them outside.”

Hunter Zappe takes pictures of trees at Spruce Hill Park in Douglas County that he will later upload and write a description on for his forestry class at Alexandria Area High School. Zappe is one of 90 kids in grades 9-12 taking the forestry class this fall. (Contributed photo)

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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