Stepping into the Real World – What happens when you open the door

by Jim Martin,
CLEARING Associate Editor

Let’s explore what science and environmental education could look like if we were to use the real world as if it were an authentic source of curriculum, and a place to start our work. The place we’ll explore is a suburban school yard. There is a small creek at the edge of the school property. Its west side has a tall fence at its edge; beyond is an apartment complex. On the school side, the bank faces a playing field. There are trees and shrubs along both sides of the bank. Closer inspection reveals that the stream has two riffles along its length, a glide or run above the first riffle, between the two riffles, and beyond a pool at the end of the second riffle. Riffles are places in a stream where the water splashes and turns white. Glides or runs are places where the water moves quickly, but doesn’t splash. Pools are places where the water moves slowly, and has a relatively smooth surface.

The stream’s bank is lower on the school side, higher on the apartment-fence side. The vegetation is mixed, with more trees and shrubs on the apartment-fence side, and more grassy open space on the school side. Altogether, there is a little over an eighth of a mile of access to the stream from the school yard.

What can a teacher do with this feature within easy walking distance of the school building? Assuming teachers at the school have no training or experience in using the real world as a source of curriculum, years can pass before one will give it more than a passing thought. That’s a fact of life in America. School is a place where young people go, and that is more or less disconnected from the rest of the world. This isn’t actually the case. Students in school are preparing for their lives in the real world. If we value them, know them, and are committed to their development, then we ought to include real-world experiences in their studies. My experience, and that of a growing number of educators leads us to recognize that engaging the real world from time to time empowers students, induces a sense of responsibility and self-worth, and influences their potential in life.

Let’s imagine that a new teacher in the school attended a presentation at the annual in-service day conference in which another teacher demonstrated how she had used a pond near her school to develop a science inquiry unit for her class. The new teacher likes what she sees and hears, and decides to check around for an opportunity near her school. This is when she first notices the creek, which she hadn’t seen before. It’s not a pond, but she thinks it has possibilities. She knows that there is some guidance in the notes and handouts she brought back from the conference, and she can remember most of what she saw and heard. Reviewing this information, she finds some things she can probably use. The other teacher organized her class into six work groups, and assigned each group one component of the project, such as mapping, vegetation, water quality, biota, etc. She decides to start with this idea, visit the creek to see how it fits the model she is beginning to visualize, and build a preliminary plan for her class’ work there.

After school one day the next week, the teacher goes to the creek to begin the job of completing the model she had begun to visualize, a model of a teacher and her students using the creek to develop a curriculum that will deliver knowledge, skills, and conceptual understandings, and connect these learnings to the real world the students are preparing for. To her credit, the teacher decides to first organize what students will do, and determine how groupings will organize where they work and how they will learn. She has an intuitive feeling that, by doing this, she will place some of the uncertainty in teaching and controlling students outside the classroom within her control, alleviating any free-floating anxieties that may dissuade her from continuing.

So, she looks around and sees some obvious work groupings. The chattering water clamors for attention, and she thinks she can organize at least two groups around it – a water quality group, and a stream velocity-plus-dynamics group. The vegetation also announces itself, and she visualizes a third group to study it. Because of the different water velocities she observes, and the differences in vegetation, she decides a fourth group will do mapping. Then, her eyes becoming more observant the longer she is there, thinking about the place, she notices snails on some rocks and on a patch of sand under the water. She decides to assign a group to study the animals living under the water; and, as their chirping becomes more meaningful to her, assigns a sixth group to birds and other animals on the land. By now, she is tired, and decides to go home to think about it.

At home, she mulls what she experienced, and the project becomes more concrete and doable than she had imagined. Curricular connections clamor for her attention, and she pulls out a pad of paper and begins some serious planning. One question which occurs to her is how do I decide on the particular curriculum pieces to focus on, when there is so much there in that little creek. She thinks that food webs might be a good science topic to work on, and that there is some complex, but possibly doable mathematics, physical science, and geology in the water of the creek as it travels its course. She also sees that the mapping one group will do fits a piece of social studies curriculum. She decides to focus on these.

This was a serendipitous decision for her to make. One source of burnout in teachers who decide to use the real world as a source of curriculum is from trying to do too much. In this case, the teacher has taken on a big load, but may be able to survive it. Thinking over how to manage the project, she realizes that each student will only experience one piece of the project and its curriculum. In time, she decides that groups would have to report to the class on a regular basis, and that the whole class would be responsible for assimilating what is reported. Now, she is left with the specifics of each group’s work to plan. Getting more concrete now. We’ll follow and see what she does.

jimphotocroppedThis is 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.”