by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

W3e left the teacher we have been following as she was planning a project she and her class will do on a creek at the edge of the school property. What she is doing, as well as her plans, appear to approach what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposes as five important characteristics of competent teaching. The last time we saw her, she was getting ready to plan the first steps in what could become a long-term project. (By the way, her name is Meredith.) Let’s see what the main pieces of the project are, and get some idea of how they look to her so far. The first step is to provide her students with background information which will help in the Acquisition Phase of this new learning. She plans to do it by using some standard curriculum delivered more or less as usually taught, but with students working with it in groups which may or may not become the work groups who do the particular jobs at the creek. This way, they might be more likely to transfer those learnings to the field. Topics they will study are food webs, water quality, and the riparian.

Her initial plan is to use published and on-line resources to provide background on riparian areas, then move to riparian food webs, and after that to how to measure water quality, and what the measurements mean in terms of the riparian and its food webs. Her hope is that, by learning something more dynamic than an array of facts, her students will approach the creek with more nuanced expectations than if they’d simply learned some nomenclature that applies to creeks.

Next, her student groups will visit the creek site. Her plan is to prepare work groups to assess the site to decide their stations. To this end, she supplies them with tape measures and rough sketch maps of the creek and its banks. Their job is to locate the best stations for doing their work, and measure the station’s dimensions. Then, in their work groups, they will decide how to go about making their observations. The Meredith knows that these plans will probably be modified by experience.  Then, each work group will posit questions they think may help them know their part of the creek. This is most difficult for the macroinvertebrate group, because they won’t be collecting on this first trip. However, they will be asked to assess the makeup of the bottom of the creek, where the macroinvertebrates live. This completes the second part of her plan.

Designing inquiry questions takes quality time, so they will do that in the classroom. After they have posited good inquiry questions, they’ll use them to design their investigations. Meredith’s plan is to start this process while the class is making their visit to the creek site. She’ll prep this by asking them to keep track of things they notice while they’re doing their work on their particular station. As part of this prep, she suggests that they will use these things they notice to write inquiry questions to investigate. When the class returns to the classroom, they will do a quick debrief and go on to other things. (Meredith has been incubating an interesting thought that, by carrying out investigations, the class might develop a useful knowledge base about the creek and its banks. She is even contemplating using that base to drive a language arts unit and part of a math unit.)

The next class day, students will meet in their work groups to begin writing a report of their observations and decisions about locating their work stations, and a list of the questions about things they had noticed which are most interesting to them. Afterwards, each group will report its findings and questions. Then, Meredith will review the broad areas that each work group will investigate. She will ask each group to review relevant thematic information she has collected for them, and use it, along with their on-site observations, to design a plan for doing their work. As part of this work, students will be introduced to the equipment they will use, and will practice using it. After they have done this, they will meet with Meredith to review the work, receive suggestions, organize jobs within the group, and develop a fine-tuned work plan to follow when they are on the site. This is when she’ll suggest that students in each group pair up to work on their own inquiry projects. Then, she will start a discussion of inquiry questions, have students practice their own, then have students, in their pairs, write and assess an inquiry question of their own.

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.”