Photo courtesy of Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School

“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 2: Developing Capacity

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

“And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.”
– William Shakespeare

Why creep, unwilling, to school? Could it be that school is, itself, unwilling? Unwilling to allow its students’ brains, wonderfully autonomous learning machines, the freedom to learn, to engage their world and discover its nature, become empowered within it?

We evolved to survive in wild environments by learning them. Our brain did this learning by finding and exploiting patterns in the world it encountered. In the end, our brain has developed into an autonomous learning machine. Students have demonstrated in many schools that engaging in inquiries in the places where we evolved causes them to become involved and invested in their educations, and empowered as persons. While significantly improving their scores on the current barometer, standards exams. Use this innate capacity we humans are born with to touch, think, learn, assimilate, to structure your curricula. Those who have are successful.

Here’s one I personally know: The faculty of the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) in Salem, OR, decided to build their curricula around experiences in the world outside the classroom. Each student’s journey is developmental, culminating in groups doing self-directed inquiry in various places: a farm in the country, a coastal estuary, the Oregon Zoo, a forest in the Coast Range. The school’s focus is not on preparing students for the state standards tests. Instead, they give their students a solid and empowering education. The last time I visited JGEMS, their students racked up an impressive record: 100% passed the science standards, and the reading and math standards in the high and middle 90s. (Check their school out yourself at Students who begin their learnings in the world in which they will live out their lives become involved and invested in their educations. The education establishment doesn’t recognize this accomplishment of classroom and environmental educators, but it is real. And doable.

There are many places you can start the journey toward effective, empowering education. One is with what I call Developing Capacity. When you have the capacity to teach science as it should be taught, you can start a science unit with words like these where you describe a spider’s web, against the morning sun, with dew glistening on its surface;

This is what life is like: The cells which make living things are composed of molecules which have been selected and put into place by little pieces of sunlight. Together, when these cells are organized into the organisms in foodwebs, they sparkle, and receive more little pieces of sunlight. As long as the sun shines, its light will add sparkle to life, and, intoxicated, life will gather more sunlight. Once entrained, this is a self-perpetuating process. Let’s study it as such an enchanting, self-directing phenomenon.

Note the difference in opening a unit on plant and animal cell physiology this way vs. saying that, in this unit, we are going to learn about the processes of photosynthesis and respiration, and the structure and functions of enzymes in cellular processes. The difference between comprehending the content you teach and knowing you can adapt your teaching to foreseeable contingencies, vs. relying on the words and suggestions in the teacher’s edition for your understanding of the content and its delivery. Altogether too many science teachers in this nation rely on publishers’ materials to prepare them to teach their curricula. This is unacceptable, and we need to do something about it now.

What follows may make you feel a little uncomfortable, like being out on a limb, sawing on the tree side. If it does, and you continue anyway, you’ll make it. In spite of the fact that you’ll never quite lose that feeling of being out there with the scratching sound of the saw in your ear. By then you’ll know there is nothing to fear, and will be on your way to taking charge of your curriculum.

Pick a project. Make it simple, but at your instructional level. Here are two to give you an example of what I mean. The first is a small flower bed your students will put into place on the school grounds. The second is planting and restoration work along a local trail. Somewhere in the continuum between these two projects, you should find something that fits your instructional level. (You don’t necessarily have to do these, but you must walk and think through the steps of the project you envision. Generating part of your curriculum in the real world wasn’t covered in most of our teacher education courses. It’s a very learnable process, you simply need to experience it and reflect on it.)

My goal here is teachers who are empowered with the capacity to build partnerships to facilitate their real world curricula. If you’ve never done a project, then you’re in the Acquisition phase of this learning curve, and simply hooking up with a local planting project done by someone else is a good place to start. Keep in mind that, while your students are there to plant, you’re there to see how the project works, who’s a good person to keep in touch with, materials you’ll need to acquire, etc. In short – develop your teacherly antennae. They’re very helpful things to have.

The first step is to check out the place where you’ll actually do the work. Look at the actual site, find where you’d have students work, envision what they would discover. Think of one piece of the curriculum you will soon teach and find it there. Get to know the place as part of your classroom.

The second, after you see a clear picture of the project, is to begin to develop helpful partnerships. These you’ll need, especially if you’ve never done a project outside your school building. For the school planting, the principal, custodian, and another teacher make great partners. For the second, you can call the parks and recreation department, a local agency, or an environmental group. You can have your students help develop a list of people to contact. This can be empowering work for them.

This is your self-directed inquiry. So, decide on a project at your instructional level, check out the place where students will work, and identify at least one or two potential partners. Next week, the blog will pick up with these examples and use them to discuss the myriad things it takes to effectively use the real world to generate curricula.

I’ll leave you with one final charge: find a teacher who already uses the environment to build curricula. If you don’t know one, your school district probably knows of at least one. Tell the teacher your thoughts and keep in touch. It’s an easy way to reduce the isolation of the classroom.

Remember; this is all doable. You just have to start.

This is the second installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that will explore how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.