“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 8: Where is Curriculum?


by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

vacant-lotWe’ve been talking about our ‘Locus of Control,’ the place where the authority for what we do lies. That authority can be outside ourselves, or within. What determines where we find it? Nothing more than experience.

By experience, I mean having done something in a way that lets me understand it once and for all. Most teacher inservices introduce us to new learnings, then let us go, as if we had mastered it. Many field trips do the same; we go out, experience something neat and invigorating, then return to our classroom not understanding it well enough to incorporate into our curriculum. I think we might do well to revisit environmental education, and its partner, K-12 education.

Before environmental education was a household word, most people abused the environments they inhabited and traveled through. There were lots of reasons for this, and someday we might visit some of them. The first environmental education project I remember was Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to reduce highway litter, which was an atrocious problem. She opened our eyes, and we soon began to generalize the concept and become more aware of what was happening in our forests, plains, wetlands, and waterways.

Environmental education brought this to our attention, and we learned. Today, a large fraction of the population recycles, and votes for environmental legislation. I think it might be time for environmental education to begin an exploration of its place in the average U.S. K-12 school system. It has a lot to bring with it, and our students’ educations might better prepare them for the world they inhabit. Let’s look at some pieces of such a possible future merger.

We’re already moving in that direction. Many teachers, and some schools, have been using the natural world, and its embedded curricula to drive their deliveries. With great success. Some schools organize their entire curriculum around the environment and community. In other schools, individual teachers have built their curricula around the world outside the classroom. They all use environmental educators and local experts and organizations to partner in their works. Both environmental educators and teachers had to modify their practices to make it work, but all seem to have benefited from the adaptation.

Here is what each brings to the table. Environmental educators bring natural environments with their plant and animal populations, a great place to begin learning for understanding via assimilation. They bring an intimate intuitive knowledge of the curriculum embedded in the places where they work. And so far, all those I have known are quite willing to work with teachers to develop projects and programs which meet their needs. They also often have equipment and resources that school classrooms don’t.

Teachers bring students who are, at the very least, happy to be out of the classroom, and are willing to work while they are on site. Teachers have intimate knowledge of the strengths their students bring to the work, and are great behavior managers of students who are working on their own. Those who have been doing this work for awhile carry with them the certain knowledge that their students grow in this work, and most important for their job security, score very well on standard tests.

The interface piece which holds this together for both groups is the embedded curricula residing in the sites the environmental educators work in. Classroom curricula and real world sites; a dynamite combination. I can give you an example from a project a bright first-year teacher did. Her class was working on a restoration project in a ‘natural’ urban park. One day, she had her students stand on a high spot where they could see all of the trees on site. They counted the number of each species present, and she then showed them how to convert these numbers into fractions, and the fractions to percents. Suddenly her students could see what 13% and 48% looked like. And, when they and a class which didn’t work on the project took the tests on percents, all of the ones who worked on the project passed; far fewer in the other class did.

We’ve all been to school, and many of us have gone to college. We know something about each of the major disciplines taught in our K-12 schools. Here’s what we can do with this knowledge we’ve carried with us all these years. We can find a natural place, or a place in our community, and begin to get to know the curriculum embedded in it.

When you think of it, everything we learn in school is about the world outside the classroom. Those disciplines originated somewhere, and that somewhere is in the world we’ve inhabited. Pick three disciplines, one that you know intimately, and two you know, but not well enough to teach from scratch. Go into that place you’ve chosen, and find examples of each discipline you picked. When you’ve done that, think of how you would teach it.

Here are the disciplines I’ve chosen: Biology, creative writing, and social studies. I’ve listed them in the order that I’m familiar with them. For instance, one part of me has been a biologist since 1963; another part likes to write, but has never taken a course in creative writing; and, the third part appreciates history, but doesn’t know what a social studies curriculum contains other than history.

So, I’m going to go out right now and find the place where I’ll find my disciplines embedded in. I’ll search for the learnings, and when I find them, I’ll think of how I could get a classroom of students to locate and exploit them. I feel comfy about biology, okay about creative writing because I appreciate the power of metaphor (Which I don’t use often enough!), and am feeling pretty shaky about social studies. If you know about learning levels, I’m at my Instructional Level. The learning load isn’t at my Frustration Level (where I’d just give up), nor is it all at my Mastery Level (where I’d be bored to death).

. . . Two days later . . . .

Okay, the place is the area just off the dog walk at the Southwest Washington Humane Society in Vancouver, WA. A few yards from the dog walk, there is a chain link fence at the edge of the shelter property, and on the other side brush and brambles cover several yards before reaching the precipitous edge of a quarry. Not really a natural area, except that humans don’t tend it. Nor is it a developed urban area. But, it resides in the world outside the classroom, so fits my criteria. I’m going to check it out, and report back on the biology, creative writing, and social studies curriculum I found embedded in it. See if you can’t do the same so you’ll have some concrete referents to refer to as we continue this exploration.


jimphotocroppedThis is the eighth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores 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. See the other installments here.