“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 11: Assimilation Continued

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writeschoolbuildingr

We’ve been talking about assimilation, where we start in the real world, integrate new learnings into old concepts, then use this auspicious beginning to move into the abstract. It’s like building a boat that lets you explore an uncharted ocean. It helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to navigate changing environments. It is still embedded within the brain that was selected for by the consequences of its activities.

And it served us well until our environments became brick, steel, asphalt, and concrete. Now, instead of learning about the world in the world, we learn in rooms. Not that that’s a bad idea. It helps us to focus and concentrate our thinking. But, because it’s generally only an extended exercise in developing short term memory, twelve or thirteen years of it doesn’t leave a student well equipped for the environment he or she will inhabit.

Contrast this with the preparation a young hunter-gatherer has received. Their stupendous knowledge, skills, and conceptual understandings about the world they inhabit has been documented, and is impressive. That’s because they’ve learned much of it by assimilation. This is echoed in those few U.S. schools which build their curricula around the standards and benchmarks embedded in their communities and environments. In those schools, typically 90-100% of students pass the standards tests in all subjects. They, like their hunter-gatherer ancestors, have learned by assimilating, not memorizing, new material.

If you wish to make your curriculum do a better job of empowering your students, the only person who can make it happen is you. There are people and organizations out there who can support you, but the job of doing it is yours. If you’re already using the real world as the starting point for your curricula, find someone to mentor, even if it’s just a casual survey of what is living in, on, or around your building. They’re concrete, they live real lives in the real world, and they carry embedded curriculum with them every day.

So, while you’re in or outside the building, look for living things: birds, shrubs, grasses, insects, molds, anything alive. Don’t worry about how few or how small the living thing is. Our job will be to start with this and build. I’m going to go out now and find something, then will use it to develop some kind of learning experience.

The living thing that I found that I’d like to work with is a cherry tree just outside my classroom. (Note: I’m cheating a bit. I left my classroom years ago. I did use the cherry tree.) It has branches close enough to the ground to touch, and twigs on the branches that I can reach up and break off. The twigs are leafless now, and don’t do many neat things. But, they do have living cells just under the bark, and they do different things in each season. I wish I’d started this in September so there would be more seasons to explore. But, we can find out what they do in winter and spring.

Remember, we’re doing this ourselves, for our own personal and professional growth. Afterwards, if we’d like our students to do it, we can generate an appropriate curriculum for them. The main reason for doing this is to see how this sort of thing is done.

I’ll pick out a twig, snap it off, probably with some cutters, then will explore a section of it to see what’s there. Then I’ll look in the books for a nice, clean picture of the layers of a twig, and will compare that with what I found. If you found yourself thinking about what I’d find (especially if you imagined my students actually doing that work) and about what the dissections would look like, you might see how I can do the same with my students, and anticipate and use their thoughts to get the class into some serious learning for understanding.

Perhaps I’ll start a drawing of a typical twig, and ask myself what I know about a particular piece. Then I’ll use words and arrows to name and describe that piece. (I should tell you that the scientist part of me is, or was, a marine invertebrate ecologist. I don’t know a lot of particulars about trees! Have to look them up.) If I was describing this for what I would do with a class, you’d soon notice that I’d not be teaching them; they’d be filling in information from what they’d already learned themselves. They’d been learning for understanding; assimilation.

When I’ve learned about the cambium layer, I’ll think about its fate from one year to the next. If I were working with students, I may have to do some teaching, but I could probably get them to do most of the learning themselves. For instance, we could do an activity I love to do – check the cells in the cambium for enzyme activity. All cells do things with, or supported by enzymes. One job is to convert starch to simple sugars, or those same simple sugars to starch, depending on their immediate needs. We could talk about the seasons and reasons they may need one or the other. I’m going to do the same thing. It’s actually not very hard to do, at least to get a rough idea of what’s there.

To check for enzyme activity, I’ll scrape some of the cambium off and add it to a starch solution. Then I’ll get a little Benedicts solution from a high school teacher, college or university biologist or chemist, school district science specialist, local pharmacy, or a science supply house. I’d put some of the cambium/starch solution in a test tube, place it in a beaker of hot or boiling water, and watch for a color change. If you actually try this, you should be able to google for the meaning of the colors which evolve.

Or, I can get some iodine and add it to a solution of cambium and simple sugars (maltose works best) and look for a color change. I’d also have to test the cambium itself with each test, and the pure starch or sugar that I used. That’s a control, and kids of all ages appreciate it, the concept of being very fair.

When I’ve done this once, I’ll know that I can do it again in Spring. I’ll do it late in May, try to figure out what the results might mean in terms of the life of a cherry tree, and decide whether to try it with my students. If you’re hesitant to do this sort of thing, that’s a perfect excuse for trying it. As long as you’re careful around the hot water, you can’t get hurt. And I can give you a 99.9% guarantee that you’ll be interested in the results of doing the work twice, Winter and Spring.

Think of an art teacher who has students learn the various art genres, read about mixing paints, study the shapes and histories of various sculptures, but never has them lay brush to canvas. Or a college art program founded on this model. To understand art, we first need to experience it. The perspective we acquire from that work influences what we subsequently learn about genres, techniques, etc. We, ourselves, can learn for understanding – assimilation. To appreciate it, you have to experience it. Break off a twig, get some Benedicts or iodine, and try it.

jimphotocroppedThis is the eleventh 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.