Along the Oregon coast, community partners are teaming up with the school district to encourage use of the ocean as a context for learning
by Rachel Bayor, School Liaison Partnership Coordinator
hy do kids need to know about the ocean? It may take a moment to reflect on why the ocean is important to every person on this earth whether you live on the beach or in Nebraska. For one, the ocean’s influence on weather and climate is an integral part of understanding global climate change. In addition, the ocean makes earth habitable as most of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. These and other details about the ocean are important to understanding our global system and how the system is changing.
Why do kids that live on the Oregon Coast need to know about the ocean? This one may not be as much a puzzler. Residents of the coast must prepare for coastal hazards such as tsunamis, sea level rise and storm surges. In order to make informed decisions, they must also understand the natural resources of fish, shellfish, timber and even waves that directly impact local economy and jobs.
Despite all of these reasons to know about the ocean, as a society we are largely illiterate about the ocean; even many of us folks living on the Oregon Coast know very little. In Lincoln County Oregon, the local school district decided to make our students ocean literate; that they may understand how the ocean impacts them and how they influence the ocean.
Rallying behind a common goal
Lincoln County is a rural coastal county but it is home to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. These facilities have long provided the Lincoln County School District and other schools academic programming around the ocean. Although available and in the district’s own backyard, many teachers did not utilize these agencies because they didn’t have a context for how the learning opportunities available supported the extensive requirements already before them and their students. The classes and programs had always been aligned to state standards, yet this was not enough to make the available resources essential to K-12 learning on the coast.
The leadership at the Lincoln County School District, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Hatfield Marine Science Center/Oregon Sea Grant identified a missed opportunity. The resources, staff and expertise of marine agencies was available to support learning but it was simply not being used. As a result, the agencies ended their “provider/client” relationship and developed an authentic partnership around a shared goal: Ocean Literacy. The agencies formally made a commitment to provide our local students with the opportunity to be the most “ocean literate” students in the country through their collective resources and knowledge.
The Partnership acknowledged that they were not the only agencies and resources in the area that might share the goal of increasing students’ Ocean Literacy. While the Lincoln County School District, Oregon Coast Aquarium and Hatfield Marine Science Center/Oregon Sea Grant provide much of the leadership on the project, other agencies have been invited to participate in different projects, events, etc. What has unified every party involved, though, is a clear vision that we are working towards increasing students’ Ocean Literacy and each agency is responsible for contributing whatever resource and/or expertise they have to support this end.
For the success of the initiative, there first had to be some critical leadership and commitment to Ocean Literacy. The Lincoln County School District included Ocean Literacy in their 2007-2012 strategic plan but the leadership recognized a mandate alone was not an adequate or popular strategy to reach our goals. The Lincoln County School District, Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon Sea Grant demonstrated their commitment to the initiative by allocating necessary funding and staff time to the initiative. This included staff positions at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Lincoln County School District whose primary responsibilities were the Ocean Literacy Initiative and fostering partnerships to support Ocean Literacy. Where further funding was needed, the partnership identified grants, foundations and individual donors that would support the initiative.
In 2009, the school district was awarded a Math Science Partnership grant that would provide intensive professional development to 33 teachers over three years to increase: teachers’ science content knowledge, the use of best practices and student learning. This Oregon Coast Aquatic and Marine Science Partnership (OCAMP) project began the work of providing teachers a structure for using field experiences around Ocean Literacy as a vehicle for meeting state standards. The Oregon Hatchery Research Center, Bureau of Land Management- Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon Health and Science University- Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction and Oregon State University are additional partners that have contributed their resources, knowledge and expertise in this project.
Also in 2009, a cohort of teachers were brought together to help identify what priorities existed in order for all Lincoln County teachers to successfully bring Ocean Literacy to their students. This group identified three target areas: provide quality instruction to students with the ocean as a context, deliver professional development and support to all teachers and administrators, and sustain community partnerships that support Ocean Literacy. Nationally, seven Ocean Literacy principles and supporting fundamental concepts have been developed that outline the ocean content that a person should know. This group of teachers created an Ocean Literacy guidance document for their peers that align these Ocean Literacy principles and the Oregon state science content standards.
These projects were a place for the initiative to gain some grounding and guidance in scaling things up to reach all teachers in the district. They provided us a more comprehensive needs assessment around Ocean Literacy in Lincoln County and guidance to make adjustments to our implementation strategy. This insight has insured that the implementation of the initiative is sustainable and not dependent on a singular funding source, spirited individual, etc.
Ocean Literacy Provides a Context
In Lincoln County, Ocean Literacy is a context we are developing for learning. However for the majority of teachers and administrators, there was a need to more explicitly connect Ocean Literacy to the existing list of expectations they had. There was a significant need to provide professional development and cooperative opportunities for teachers and administrators to identify how Ocean Literacy could be used as a context for meeting existing state, district and school learning objectives.
In initial efforts, professional development was largely concentrated around marine science and the ocean as a context for science instruction. Lincoln County elementary teachers identified barriers to including marine science in the classroom because of the emphasis on student success in language arts and math. For middle and high school teachers, teachers responsible for other subject areas saw little value including marine science because it wasn’t inherently relevant to their curriculum. It quickly became evident that to achieve our Ocean Literacy goals, the ocean needed to be a context for learning in multiple subject areas: art, literature, math, engineering, writing, technology, social science, etc.
The priority for the 2011-2012 school year has been bringing the Ocean Literacy goal to all 200+ teachers and administrators in Lincoln County. In August 2011, the district allocated an entire paid in-service day for every teacher and administrator the week prior to the start of the school year for an Ocean Literacy Symposium. Every K-12 teacher and administrator in the district congregated in a single place to learn tangible ways to use Ocean Literacy as a context for learning in all subject areas. Nearly 50 break-out sessions were facilitated by Lincoln County teachers that could speak to their tried methods of imbedding Ocean Literacy in their curriculum. The Symposium also called on the expertise of community partners who provided additional approaches and resources for making the ocean relevant in multiple subject areas.
The Ocean Literacy Initiative has also identified professional development needs independent of Ocean Literacy. Specifically, there have been challenges around teaching inquiry, collecting inquiry work samples, working with volunteers/chaperones, facilitating field trips, identifying new literature for students, etc. The Partnership has developed professional development opportunities that address these needs while adding an Ocean Literacy context. For example, the Oregon Coast Aquarium will provide an inquiry workshop which includes strategies for collecting a state required inquiry work sample by studying a marine environment and/or species. For specific needs in which existing partners do not have expertise, the leadership has sought out new partners. For instance, Willamette University will contribute a writing and literature component to Spring workshops surrounding field investigations. By coupling Ocean Literacy with existing teacher professional development requests, we have increased our opportunity to address needs while promoting the Ocean Literacy initiative.
The ocean is an obvious and meaningful context for learning in Lincoln County because all our communities are coastal. Our quest for Ocean Literacy is imbedded in the pursuit of providing an environmental context for the K-12 curriculum so that the students that graduate from the Lincoln County School District will be better prepared for the unique citizenship, natural hazards and occupations that exist in Lincoln County. This preparation will benefit our citizens, natural resources, economy and community.
Every district, school and/or class can find a meaningful way to provide context to the K-12 curriculum. The ocean affects all our lives but your students may benefit instead from prioritizing forestry, watershed and/or agricultural literacy. They are all significant but it is important to first identify what context is most immediately meaningful to the place they live. As students begin to better understand how their K-12 learning relates to the place they live, they can better appreciate that place and their role as a citizen. This appreciation will better prepare them to attain environmental literacy more broadly as they mature into adulthood.
Rachel Bayor is the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s School Liaison Partnership Coordinator, a new position created to assist teachers with bringing marine science into their classrooms. She is a graduate of the University of Dayton, in Ohio, where she studied biology and geology. She is working toward her Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction.