“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 23: Notice is a Powerful Verb:

Noticing something in your environment entrains your creative powers

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

diacklogoYou’ve decided to have your class study two water bodies near your school, one  a vernal pond which is dry during part of the year, and the other a permanent pond which has water all year round. During the three years you’ve taught at this school, you’ve noticed the ponds, and wondered what lived in them. You feel committed to this school, and have been thinking of using the ponds as a source of some of your language arts, art, science, and mathematics curricula in your seventh-grade, mostly self-contained classroom.

So, you visit the ponds during spring break to see what’s actually living there. One thing you notice is a healthy frog population in the permanent pond. After wandering through the area, you recognize that the ponds and their environs present lots of possibilities for language arts and art, as well as for science and mathematics; you decide to do it.

You feel a need for a partner, at least to act as a sounding board, so tell your incipient plan to a colleague, who teaches the other seventh-grade classroom, about what you want to do. She is interested in the idea, but is uncomfortable about taking her students out of the classroom. You both agree she will act as a sounding board for you.

You don’t have any equipment for doing the work, but your colleague knows a teacher in another school who has received a grant for equipment for his students to use on field trips. You get in touch with him, and he directs you to a web site where you can review real world projects other teachers have done, locate workshops on using local environments to teach ecology, and submit proposals for funds to purchase equipment. The site just happens to be the Diack Family Ecology Education Program site, www.diack-ecology.org, and you check it out.

One thing you learn while you visit the web site is that you have to have a plan you can describe in writing. This acts like a switch in your brain, and you begin to visualize your students at the pond site, doing all sorts of things. Some are things you could do now, others are things you, and they, would need some experience to do. Then you see it: Students cataloging what is living in the area you want them to study. This will be your plan for next year

As you see the parts of this picture more clearly, you begin to write down your plan. You’re generally not excited by writing goals and objectives for your curricula, but have a feeling you’ll need to do that here, since it’s new territory for you, and you plan to build a significant part of your curriculum around the site.

While you’re working, the first part of the project begins to clarify itself. You’ll divide the site into sections, and assign a student group to each section. Pleased with this, you suddenly see it – they can first map the site, then they can decide on a plan to divide it into workable sections. Now you’re at home. You’ve got a handle on the project, and can simply use your teacherly knowledge, skills, and understandings to develop the project. Basically, students will map the site, organize it into sections, then, working in groups, catalog the things which live there. Nice and tight

You will need plant and animal identification manuals and binoculars for the work, so you go to www.diack-ecology.org and submit your plan. After a few days, you receive a reply, saying the plan sounds interesting, but the grant committee suggests you consider ideas about how you can involve students in a self-directed inquiry while they are on site. They also suggest you might include rubber boots in your request. You think about this, talk with your colleague sounding-board, and together see that your students could ask a question about where animals and plants they see in the Fall will be in the Spring. Each group will ask its own question, which may not be the one you have modeled. You’re not totally comfortable with this, but you both think you should give it a try.

You hop on the computer, make the changes to the activities and budget, review what you have written, and send it off. Three days later you receive a reply – the project is approved! Not only that, but the Diack Program is sponsoring a workshop on place-based student science inquiry this summer about thirty miles from where you live. Things are really falling into place. And, the grant committee recommends you request additional funds for a class set of rubber boots.

As the excitement recedes, you go to tell your colleague you’ve got the grant, then realize the curricular and logistical load you’ve just taken on. Fortunately, you’re a pragmatic person, and see clearly that you, yourself, have to go out and actually do the work that the students will be doing. Your colleague agrees to go out with you after school on Friday.

On Friday, you go out and discover that environments aren’t as orderly as a lab table in school. All of the edges of the pond aren’t equally easily accessible, the plants don’t grow in orderly species groups, frogs aren’t lined up waiting for you to count them. But, you can find plants and animals which can be identified; can, with patience, find lots of frogs; and, best of all for your plan, the site can easily be divided into as many interesting sections as you will need.

On the way back to the building, you both realize that the work in the field doesn’t look exactly like the written plan, but that it can accomplish what was written. You also have an incipient understanding that it would be very easy to diverge from the written plan, and will have to keep from becoming distracted by what you will experience on site. Your colleague suggests you take a notebook with you to record these distractions, saying they may suggest activities you might use to follow up this year and next.

Filled with ideas, happy at the prospect of your project, you enter the building, get your things, talk with your colleague, then drive to your favorite coffeeshop to begin your real planning.

(If you’ve read this, and think you might wish to try a project of your own, but would like a sounding board, leave a comment about this, and I’ll get in touch.)

jimphotocroppedThis is the twenty third installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a 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.”