“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 17: Discovery of Students as Persons

Students, engaged, empower teachers; a first step toward Community and Environment Based Learning

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

Erica-raptorThe discovery and appreciation of effective student work groups often emerges from involving students in community-based learning. Probably because the work, based in and on the real world, is authentic, and entrains central nervous system processes which are already in place. This is an important developmental learning milestone, and can be exploited to move yourself toward community-based learning as an integrated view of how to teach.

As teachers make this discovery about work groups, they may exhibit a growing desire to nurture and exploit this new view of school and students. This is one of the paradigm shifts which leads to effective use of the curriculum embedded in the community. The student, as empowered person or citizen, affects the nature of a teacher’s view of his or her role in the classroom, school, field, and community.

Teachers who build their curricula around the community and environment often directly alter their students’ attitudes toward their educations. The perceptive observer will notice this in the way students become involved and invested in their educations, and empowered as persons. From time to time, I’ve heard teachers notice particular students working in the lab make an observation like, “Is that Bethany organizing her group? She doesn’t do that in my class.”

This change in students’ attitudes and work is noticeable, and most teachers who observe it are impressed, and with support, eventually changed by what they see. Students’ empowerment influences and empowers their teachers. Certainly, I was one of those teachers. I’d like to describe three teachers’ involvement in community and environment based learning, and the effect their students had on them. Each teacher is a composite of more than one teacher, but the teachers in each description approached the work of teaching in similar ways, and had about the same experience.

The first is a veteran middle school math teacher who used his authority to maintain control in the classroom, sent misbehaving students into the empty hallway, delivered his curriculum via lecture and practice, and was marginally successful in delivering content. One day he decided to try a regional watershed program where students and their teachers made observations on environmental parameters in watersheds. During the first field trip, he mainly walked around as a spectator, which many teachers do in these situations. Later, we talked about possible follow-up activities, and I suggested making three-dimensional topographic models of their station from thick poster board. This would give him an opportunity to observe work groups; hopefully one or more would be effective.

The next day, he asked me to start the project, and said he would butt in whenever he felt comfortable. Once the students started working, he expressed surprise at the work, communication, and management skills various students exhibited. He had never noticed his students were all different! He took over right away, used his own personal knowledge, skills, and understandings to run the class, and over the next two years moved from being a top-down, didactic, authoritarian teller of content to a comfortable, student-centered facilitator of effective work groups. That was a gift from his students, whose personal empowerment so impressed him. And one of his gifts to them was a dramatic increase in the scores of the bottom 25th percentile.

(In many of my blogs, I refer to the ‘bottom 25th percentile.’ I do this because, if you can raise the achievement of that particular group in a classroom of students, then the achievement of all students in the class will improve along with them.)

The second is a middle school language arts teacher who was relatively new to teaching, and who involved her students in the community and environment. One day, she decided she’d like to have her class develop a watershed model in a courtyard at the school. She organized the class into groups who learned how the fountain in the courtyard worked, and modified its flow so it resembled a stream. Others learned about rocks in streams, native plants in streams and on stream banks, etc. These students were already empowered by their teacher’s competence as a motivator and facilitator, so they continued to be involved and invested in their educations, and their success in this new project reinforced the teacher to continue to be involved in community and environment based learning.

(My last project with her was a tutor-assisted reading program in which college students volunteered to tutor groups of 4-5 students, and significantly improved the reading levels of her bottom 25th percentile. Authentic education involving effective work groups pays off in any discipline and academic level.)

The third is a veteran middle school social studies teacher who did little planning for her classes, didn’t maintain a structure in her classroom that was conducive to learning, and didn’t develop effective work groups. As part of our project we would come to her school to mentor her on field work. One time we took her class out to learn to find and map elements of watersheds. Once we were on the school grounds with the students, she left to rest in the faculty room. Over a period of two years, she never became involved in activities the students engaged in the school. But she did stay with them when they manned information booths about their projects at informational open houses at study sites in the community. She became comfortable on field trips, participated in some of the work her students were doing, and encouraged some of them to do good work. The students who grew in the projects she started did so mainly on their own; the opportunity was all they required. Her bottom 25th percentile didn’t improve.

This teacher had, over several years by the time our project finished, entered and traveled along the acquisition phase of the learning curve. In some areas, she moved into transition to the proficiency phase. Should she ever move some distance up that phase, the work might involve and invest her in her teaching. She is bright, but not empowered by her work or by her students. The fact that she did move some way into the learning curve tells me she represents a first approximation of a fully empowered teacher. If I were her mentor, I’d use that information to set the next approximation and move her toward it.

There’s a good lesson here. If we are to get our students to the point where they empower us, we have to be intimately involved in what we do. Seems obvious, but not to everyone. The third teacher was interested in the community and environment, but never became intimately involved with the work. Because the work is almost always authentic, that alone helps us to become very involved in it. That, plus our commitment to our profession, teaching.

jimphotocroppedThis is the seventeenth 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, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”