On 16 November I made a return visit to Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland, Oregon, the K-8 (kindergarten to age 14) which I first visited back in May. This time my conversations with the principal, Sarah Taylor, and with teachers and pupils, focused on what makes the school special, and on how best to help other schools keen to start along the path of Place Based Education.
I have an interesting discussion with Sarah Taylor about curriculum planning and assessment. She is about to complete a curriculum framework for the school, a document which promises to be useful for any other school starting out in a similar direction. Its guiding principles emphasize trust, intellectual curiosity, high academic standards, seasonal cycles, the importance of play and time outdoors, mixed age experiences, service learning, gratitude and joy. ‘In this framework, schools are seen as satisfying and rich experiences that instill a sense of well being, support and community into its members’. Daily rituals help to bring the school community together. The day at Sunnyside starts with a morning circle, a review of the seasonal calendar, the plan for the day and good news. Breaks for play, fresh air and silence are built into work time. The day ends with a closing circle for compliments and a waste audit. Families and the wider community are included in the life of the school in various ways, from volunteering to family and community events.
The assessment of students’ performances is broader than in most mainstream schools. While student progress is measured against State developmental benchmarks for the ‘essential skills’ – maths, reading and mathematics, much learning is thematic, project-based and cross-disciplinary. The whole school alternates on an annual basis between the themes of rivers, mountains and forests, so that each student gains a good grasp of related local and global sustainability issues. The range of learning that Sunnyside aims to help students achieve is much broader than simply the subject areas of literacy and numeracy. The assessment process is therefore as interactive as possible, involving both parents and teachers in goal-setting. Student portfolios and student-led conferences to which parents are invited allow for a rounded assessment of student development.
This school year is a ‘river’ year and I sit in on a blended middle school class (Grades 6-8, ages 11-14) and interview long-term substitute teacher Dylan McCann. The students have each chosen a river in Oregon and are researching it independently. They are monitoring the water quality and ecology of a local wetland. History, culture and economic changes along their chosen river will be written as a River Memoir, telling the story of each river from the river’s perspective. Creative arts will also be part of a student-organised River Festival.
Dylan is able to compare Sunnyside with other schools he regularly teaches in. Most notable is the culture of care and respect within the school, ‘Its very different from other schools that I teach in. It just has much more of a community feeling, so when you walk around you recognise people and they greet you by your first name and say things like ‘nice to see you again’. People treat each other with respect, between students and students and teachers.’ I ask whether a school like Sunnyside requires much more time and effort from its teachers than mainstream schools. Dylan convinces me that, while both require good preparation, there are real advantages to this more cross-disciplinary, student-focused style of teaching. He answers thoughtfully, ‘I don’t think so. I think as long as you have the mindset you need to be at the school it’s not more work it’s just different. At other schools it’s a lot about lesson plans and tests, correcting and scoring and just so much more rigid. And here the activities that are planned are much more interactive and student-focused, the students lead on many issues and take a lot of responsibility. I think it’s more interesting for the students, and more stimulating and fun for the teachers, very much so. I mean the great thing is so many of the projects here are cross-disciplinary they incorporate math and science and art and language into the same project, rather than studying just math or just science or just writing. So much work incorporates so many facets. As a teacher it’s great because you can really enter into a project, really get so much more in-depth into projects instead of doing it for a class you can do a theme for a week or a month and really explore it. It makes it much more interesting to teach.’
Dylan believes there is a greater breadth of learning for the students too. ‘Here they get life skills from this kind of learning, they are learning to be leaders and members of a community. Here they are so much more excited and involved about learning in a school where they are actually doing things, and each lesson is building on the last one and creating. They are interacting with other classes, and they are going out weekly and being members of the community and seeing real things. There is so much more interaction and they get choice in what they do and they are excited about it and they are taking their learning in their own hands, and really dealing with issues.’ I ask what qualities he believes Sunnyside brings out in its students by comparision with mainstream schools. He says, ‘I think these kids are a lot more interactive with each other and take on more responsibility, having ideas. Creativity is so much better than at other schools because they get a chance to use their imagination…. In other schools it can be just ‘memorise, memorise, memorise’ and that’s all it is. They have no creativity, no originality, no imagination whatsoever. It’s so hard. Whereas here its not memorization it’s learning, it’s getting immersed in it and really understanding what you’re doing and focusing on real issues. So when they’re asked to sit down and write a story about something they can just run with it as opposed to sitting down and saying ‘tell me what to write’. ‘
The students in the class echo these views when they are asked what they think makes Sunnyside special for them. They identify the sense of community, respect for peers and teachers, mixed-age classes and a family feel as highlights. They also like the themed curriculum and the opportunities for creativity. Emily says, ‘The river theme is a lot more fun than learning subjects separately because I love art and when we do themes I get to do more art because we have to illustrate our own river book and if I went to a different school it wouldn’t be so creative’ Her classmate chimes in, ‘I also think the river and the theme work is cool because at my old school the subjects didn’t link together and I’d get confused about what goes with what.’ A girl named Manson, obviously a strong character and very much part of the class community says simply, ‘What I really like about this school is that it lets you be unique’.
Later in the day I go outside and help kindergarten kids plant bulbs, under the supervision of Sustainability Co-ordinator Stef Rooney. Her post is funded by the Parent Teachers Student Association and she works 20 hours a week. She tries to get each of the 15 Kindergarten to Grade 6 classes out for at least an hour once a week in the school garden. She has two staff, a farm and school co-ordinator, who co-ordinates school work on Jean’s farm, the local urban farm that grows much of the school’s food, and an intern. She values the integration of outdoor learning with learning as a whole, and says her work at Sunnyside is, ‘a perfect combination of being outside with kids but in a learning setting where it is a part of the school, not just something that’s completely unrelated to what you’re doing in your classroom. It’s fully integrated here. And that’s exciting because I get to see how that works day to day… It’s all about the garden and what needs to happen, but its learning too – not just science but all sorts of other things. Its easy here because it’s all integrated. At other schools I’ve worked in there was no link and students didn’t see what they were learning from it.’
My final question to Sarah Taylor during our discussion was to ask what practical first steps she would take if she were encouraging a Place Based approach at a mainstream school. This were the six steps she chose:
1. Choose one State Standard and ask each member of staff to find something outside within walking distance of the school – either in the environment or the community – that they could use to teach that Standard.
2. Run staff meetings in a circle and start to model the sort of inclusive, respectful, listening and caring behaviour you would like to see underpinning the school.
3. Run morning meetings until other staff feel able to play a role, again setting an example through your own approach to staff and students.
4. Create a garden plot and get the whole school involved in it.
5. Find a service learning project in the community that the whole school can participate in and celebrate the positive results from.
6. End each day – whether at class or whole school scale – with compliments
Once again, my time at Sunnyside was a fascinating and a lot of fun!
Becs Boyd is exploring place-based education programs throughout the Pacific Northwest through a Churchill fellowship. Her blog can be found at http://pbechurchillfellowship.blogspot.com/