Hunter education in Vermont

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom:

I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter. I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.

–Liam

Whether for sport or subsistence, hunting is a big deal in Vermont.

And doing it safely is an even bigger deal.

In Vermont, fishing and hunting license sales have taken off since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Turkey hunting license sales increased by 26% for the recent start of the spring turkey season. Combination hunting & fishing  licenses are up 24%. It seems like since the Stay At Home order, where our work, school and social spheres got smaller, Vermonters have been heading outdoors to hunt. Not just adults but whole families.

Which bring us to two questions:

  • What does it take for a young adult in Vermont to get a hunting license?
  • And what do young Vermonters find so engaging about hunting? Especially as it’s an activity they do with their families?

 

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Meet Henry.

Henry: My name is Henry Parent.  I’m 13 years old and I go to Dorset School.

Henry’s a seventh grader in rural Dorset VT, and he has a new interest in hunting.

Henry: I kind of like it, because you’re just like you’re out in the woods usually, not always though.  We were outside walking around sometimes, but usually walk to a spot or something.  And – yeah, and then once you get some – then once you like get something or shoot something then its like – I don’t know, I don’t know how to describe it. One time I shot – well, first time I shot a pheasant and it was… Well, it was kind of cool, because like you shoot and then when you see it go down, it’s kind of like you feel relieved like you didn’t miss it and then you got it. It’s a good feeling.

Henry’s also the son of returning podcast contributor and Vermont educator, Rachel Mark.

Rachel: Hello!

And Rachel’s here to tell you about Henry’s emerging interest in hunting, and her own experiences in a hunting family.

Rachel: I’ve been an educator in Vermont for 20 years, and it’s taken me this long to realize how much learning takes place when young people earn their hunter safety certification. Students do a ton of work, both online and in-person, to get certified to hunt. Now let me tell you about my son.
Henry loves to be outside. He is creative and adventurous, often building things outside or whittling objects from wood. He came to me about a year ago and asked if he could learn how to hunt. Among the people in our two extended families, only my father has any experience with hunting. But when we asked him, Henry’s grandfather happily agreed to mentor him in small bird hunting.

The next step was to find a hunter safety course in Vermont.

Rachel:  Okay.  So what was it like to get a license to hunt?  What – tell me about that process?

Henry:  It was hard.  I did the online course where you have to do a lot of reading and there is this test and it takes a lot of time.

Rachel:  What do you wish your teachers knew about you and your hunter training?

Henry:  That it takes a lot of reading and it should count for like, if you have to do a reading at home.

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In 2019, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department issued almost 71,000 hunting licenses.

And of those licenses, 13% were obtained by Vermonters 18 years of age or younger.

That works out to just under nine *thousand* young Vermont hunters. 9,000 young Vermonters who choose to complete the State’s hunter education course.

So how does that course work?

In order for a young Vermonter to obtain a hunting license, they must first complete the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s *free* First-Time Hunter Education course. The course is recommended for every first-time hunter, regardless of age.

The first half of the course is an interactive online class.

Units include:
  • Know Your Firearms Equipment
  • Basic Shooting Skills
  • Basic Hunting Skills
  • Preparation and Survival Skills
  • Be a Responsible and Ethical Hunter

Materials include videos, quizzes and interactive animations. And all are geared towards a sixth-grade reading level.

The online course as a whole is pass/fail: you must get 80% or better on the final exam. But the quizzes all feature unlimited retakes. Or what we from the pre-digital era would refer to as “open book”.

The second half of the course takes place in person, at locations around the state.

They feature an outdoor shooting component along with a demonstration of tree stand safety, blood trailing and a module on survival skills. And these in-person courses are all taught by volunteer educators.

Volunteers like John Walker.

John Walker:  Yeah. Hello, my name’s John Walker.  I’m the enrichment teacher at the middle school. I’ve worked at Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington now for about seven years and we’re looking at hunter safety education. On my free time, which I don’t have much of, I am a hunter safety instructor for the state of Vermont.

In order to become a volunteer, Walker had to go through the course himself. Then the other instructors checked off his skills against a master list. He’s been teaching hunter safety now for four years.

John Walker: Now anyone hunting in the state of Vermont has to pass a hunter safety course. They have to. That’s mandatory.  Hunting is a portion of it, but a large course unit portion of it is first aid, CPR, how to survive in the woods, what to carry with you in case you get lost, if you get hurt, you know, the basic first aid techniques so that you can save yourself or someone you’re with.

And of course, there’s another test to pass.

John Walker: Once they have done that, they’ve gone through the obstacle course, passed all the questions, then I usually administer a 50-question test. It is a standardized test. We can’t modify it. It’s a multiple choice test and they have to get a passing score on that to go forward. Now there are times where we might read some of the questions to someone who is maybe 10 years old because they obviously aren’t at a sixth grade level yet, but as long as they understand what to do and can show us under certain situations they know what they’re doing, then we’re fine.

In 2020 across the state of Vermont, educators and school communities have been wrestling with how, exactly, to implement proficiency-based education.

And one of the major questions around proficiency-based education concerns assessment. It’s one thing to get an A or a B, or 90%, 80% on a test, but what does that look like in the real world?

Hunter education and certification specifically address proficiencies along with a valuable real world component.

John Walker: Compass work is a big thing. We show them and a lot of this ties into school. I know in the sixth grade one of the classes here the sixth grade class does a lot of work with orienting and compass work. And we do all of that. We go through a complete compass course with the kids. And I say the kids, the adults too. The adults also have to do it. And so we go through it. We show them how it works. You know what true North is. We show them the whole thing.

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What can we take away from hunter education about making learning engaging?

Let’s ask Rachel.

Rachel: Great question! Now, I’m an educator, not a hunter. I’ve never been through hunter safety before. But my hunch is that the real world authenticity of the task — get certified to hunt —  is what makes this so compelling to young Vermonters. Because there’s a very clear goal to taking a hunter safety course: get your license and be able to hunt. Everything that you are learning is going to be literally tested in the field.

As a student, you’re not sitting in a classroom wondering when you’re going to use the skills. You’re sitting in a classroom knowing you want to use the skills this coming weekend, when you head out to the turkey blind, hoping to bag a big tom.

You pass the course when you get 80% on the test, and get your certification.

And you’re proficient in hunting when you successfully bring home the (turkey) bacon. So to speak.

It’s the job of schools and educators to support students as they gather information about their interests and think about how it might impact themselves, their world and their future.

My next door neighbor, Liam, is also a certified Vermont hunter.

Liam:  My name is Liam Walsh.  I’m 14

He’s also a freshman at Burr and Burton Academy.

Liam:  I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter.  I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.

I’ve always been in the outdoors and then one of my friends really wanted me to get into it.  So I just kind of followed him along on one of his hunts and that got me hooked.

Rachel: How old were you when that happened?

Liam: I want to say 12 I think.

Rachel: Okay, so like in 6th or 7th grade?

Liam:  Yeah.

Rachel:  And what was the class like?  How would you describe it to other people?

Liam:  You learn a lot not only from the information, but from the experiences that they tell you about, because most of the people are hunters and have been around guns and stuff.  So they have experiences that they taught us about and like I think that really helped.

I took like a little thing online before like going into the classes so that I like knew some stuff which I think helped and that was, I don’t know, it was probably took me like an hour or two.  I spread it out, but yeah, an hour or two.  And then I also read – like read a book on it about it.

Rachel: Was that required or did you choose to do that?

Liam:  It wasn’t required, but it was definitely nice to go into the class knowing stuff.  So yeah, it was definitely nice to know like going into the class like some of the stuff about it.  So I wouldn’t say it was required, but it was – I’m happy I did it.

Rachel:  Has it influenced any of your thinking about careers or jobs?

Liam: Definitely. I want to be a game warden when I get older now, because I have so much fun outside in hunting and fishing and I know the local game warden, he’s talked to me a few days.  Nothing bad, like he knows me by name now, just to like talk to me when I’m fishing, so that’s something I definitely want to do.

What is it about Vermont’s hunter safety courses that make them work for students? Are middle schoolers really up to the challenge?

We asked our expert, John Walker.

John Walker:  What I observed from the middle school kids is that they are very aware and very up on all the material. When you tell them it’s important and if they have a test at the end, they understand that because they are from middle school and they’re used to having exams and multiple choice and so on. So, they’re very up on it. They are honestly better than the adults in most cases. They will know what’s going on and they’re taking it very seriously.

John Walker:  I go through things and just highlight and I go around and randomly pick on people in a nice way to answer the question. And it’s usually the youngest people who answer the questions. The older people think they know sometimes more than they do. And I’m guilty of that. We’re all guilty of that. But usually it’s the younger people, “No, no, I know what that is. I read that.” I mean they’re really careful to read their questions.

John Walker: The middle school kids, what we find, the middle school aged kids we find are usually one and done. They can go right through it absolutely fine. You have a little trouble with the younger kids. Sometimes you just can’t let them through because they just don’t learn. But the middle school kids are very sharp. They’re probably the sharpest group that we have.

But hunting is about more than online courses, certifications and readings.

It’s also about family, and community connection.

Rachel: Since Governor Scott closed schools and issued Vermont’s stay-at-home order, I’ve noticed that Liam and his dad have been spending more time going out into the woods together. Whether it’s for scouting potential hunting spots or actually getting into the woods for turkey hunting at the crack of dawn, they log some serious hours of time together.  And they aren’t alone.

Rachel: I myself am the child of an outdoorsman, and I recall heading outside with my father on many occasions. I’m quite sure he is part of the reason that I love being outdoors. As a young person, I didn’t love to fish, but I liked being outside with my dad. I would sometimes tag along with him to a local brook where I would sit on a large rock and read my book. I didn’t even get a pole out myself, but I liked listening to the babbling brook and watching his line dip in and out of the water. It was like this wordless meditation, and we got to experience that together.

And other Vermont families have similar experiences:

Pete Kelley: My full name is Pete Kelley.  I was born and raised in Poultney, Vermont.  And I call Bellows Falls home now.  I grew up in a farming family.

Pete Kelley: Growing up where I did by default, I just hunted the way my father and my grandfathers did on the same piece of property, the same farm, the same mountain with the same types of weapons and methods.  It just was what they taught me because that’s what they had always done.  So, for the first half of my life, probably more than that, the first 25 years or so, I just used the same methods that have been passed down through my generations.

Pete Kelley: And actually, even though I had got turkey before, I never really got into the strategy aspect of it until my oldest son decided that that was something that he wanted to do.

Pete Kelley: So, I actually have three kids.  They all have in different methods, found things that they enjoy about it.  Some like to do certain aspects, some don’t.  But it’s a kind of fun to watch them learn and find their own passions. There’s something fulfilling about teaching something to someone that you know and passing it along and seeing them take enjoyment in it.

Kelley remembers the process of getting his son certified to hunt, because he was right there with him.

Pete Kelley:  He was in a really great class.  And part of what I loved is right in the beginning, they made it clear to the kids: it’s not a reading test.  It’s not a writing test. They’re not grading their handwriting. And if they have trouble with words or phrases or terms, they’ll coach them through it. Their job is to make sure they would be safe in the woods. I looked around the room at that point, saw a lot of kids. To me seem like they breathe a sigh relief at that point.  It wasn’t one more academic test to them.  They just need to prove that they could be safe.  It was a really, really good experience.

My son loved it. And my daughter doesn’t even really hunt all that much.  She really only likes to hunt turkeys.  So, she doesn’t spend a lot of time after deer or anything else.  She doesn’t fish a ton.  But if you ask her about it, you can still see that she’s somewhat proud that she passed the course and got her card.

But some of the best lessons Kelley’s learned about hunting have come directly from his children.

Pete Kelley: But I love seeing them relate some of the things that they’re learning in science.  Some of the things they see out in nature in the field that aspects really fun to me.  Seeing them make discoveries out there, things that they’re interested in on their own, fascinating, I love that.

Pete Kelley: My daughter to this day she’s about to turn 13. And I asked her if she wanted to go out for youth weekend, which is this coming weekend. And she said, “Yeah, absolutely I want to go.”  She said, “I don’t want to shoot one this year, but I definitely want to go,” which I thought it was awesome. My kids love to go at night in roost one.

They love to walk out on the edge of the pasture stand quietly as that sun is setting, is getting dark and hear me owl hoot.  And then listen for the directions to hear that the times gobble. They get really excited and cheer when they hear one almost as if they’ve really accomplished something.

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As we live through this pandemic, we’re realizing how much we value our relationships and bonds with other people.

And it’s important for young people to feel those roots and sense of belonging, now more than ever.

The question for Vermont education has become: how do schools find a way to give students credit for the work they do out-of-school, in becoming proficient?

Not just the 9,000 young Vermonters who currently hold a hunting or fishing license, but the ones who learn to sew for a scouting badge, or the ones who can tell you exactly what your soil needs to make tomatoes grow and squash bugs vanish.

Educators in Vermont and around the nation strive to make in-school time engaging and compelling, and talk about igniting students’ passion for learning. But shifting the lens of education in Vermont also requires knowing what our students are passionate about when they’re not in the classroom. And why.

Here’s Liam again.

Liam:  I would say it’s definitely like a big thing to get your family onboard with it.  Like I could not have like got my hunter safety or anything, my license without my dad or mom.  They’re like… I don’t know. They bring me to everything, sign stuff.  So it’s definitely good to get your family onboard.

Rachel:  What do you like about hunting?

Liam:  The thrill of it.  It’s also like super fun when I go out with my dad.  It’s good bonding time

Rachel:  Tell me more about that bonding time.

Liam:  Well, I mean, we talk a lot, because we’re out there for quite some time each day early in the morning. And it’s really nice spending time with him outdoors and something that we both like doing now.

Rachel:  So in a way, it’s kind of a special connection that you have with your dad?

Liam: Yeah, definitely.

Rachel: Because he goes with you?

Liam: Yeah, he goes with me.

 

 

 

 


This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Rachel Mark and Audrey Homan, with additional material from Life LeGeros. A huge thank you to Henry and Liam for sharing their stories with us, to hunting dad Pete Kelley for his reflections, and to Hunter Safety educator John Walker, for his time and expertise. And thank you to Christ Saunders at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for providing us with accurate statistics around young Vermonters and Vermont hunter education.

 

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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