by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?
It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.
So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.
Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,
“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”
Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.
In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.
There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.
To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:
- When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
- When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
- Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
- The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.
Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.
It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.
In essence, the design will:
- meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
- allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
- expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
- foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
- build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!
Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:
- Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
- Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
- Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
- Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
- Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
- Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
- Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
- certifying for wildlife habitat
- becoming a state certified Green School
- supporting the national pollinator project.
(Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
- Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.
In the end, here is the winning equation:
program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan
What goes into the plan?
Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.
The physical space.
- Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
- Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
- Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
- Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
- Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
- Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
- Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
- Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
- Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.
Photo from the Intertwine
Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:
- When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
- critical thinking
Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.
- Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
- Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
- Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
- Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
- Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
- Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.
If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12). A few examples include:
- The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
- Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
- Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
- Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
- Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).
As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.
Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.
Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.
Children and Nature Network Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. http://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CNN_GSY_Report2016_Final.pdf
Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks. http://www.greenschoolyards.org/home.html
Boston Schoolyard Initiative. http://www.schoolyards.org/projects.overview.html Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.
Evergreen Green School Grounds. https://www.evergreen.ca/our-impact/children/greening-school-grounds/
National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program. http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Create/Schoolyards.aspx Attract and support local wildlife.
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Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.
 Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.childrenandnature.org/2016/07/07/grounds-for-change-green-schoolyards-for-all-children/
 Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.
A Year in the Watershed
There is no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives.
by Jean M. Wallace
It is no surprise that children learn best by doing. And, when they seamlessly integrate across subjects and spend ample time working to find solutions to real problems that will improve lives, fulfill needs, and make our world a better place, their learning reaches a much deeper level. During my 20 years in a leadership role in experiential education, establishing partnerships and supporting hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in authentic learning, I witnessed this success first hand. There is also no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives. In using this approach, students come to realize that what they are doing in school really does have meaning.
Whether describing this learning process with terminology such as STEM, STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, or EIC (Environment as an Integrating Context — the process used by my former team as outlined below), it is the alignment of the content (the “what”) and the process (the “how”) that drives these successful learning models. Integration is critical, as it is the bonding of content and process that strengthens the structure of learning for students. Rather than teach in isolation, teachers and schools should model the 21st century skills we want our students to acquire by collaborating, cooperating, and communicating across disciplines to make learning more meaningful in all subjects. The effectiveness of using the environment as the foundation for interdisciplinary learning is not new to education and is supported by research.
Founded in 1995, the State Environment and Education Roundtable (SEER) worked with 16 state departments of education to develop Environment-Based Education (EBE) as a standards-based instructional strategy to engage students in “real-world” learning experiences. Over 40 schools took part in this national study, which resulted in the 1998 publication of Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). As was the case with the national EIC research study, our own EIC program was extremely successful and proven to close the achievement gap.
Environment = Authentic Learning
Moving from teaching in isolation to teaching across disciplines can be challenging, but my firm belief was (and still is) that a powerful and deep understanding of content coupled with a meaningful and authentic process of student engagement results in deeper learning for children.
Therefore, when building an curriculum focused on authentic learning, it made perfect sense to use Pennsylvania Environment & Ecology (E&E) Standards as a foundation on which to build an integrated and student-centered curriculum: one that would shape the framework for active, authentic, community-based science teaching and learning. Along with cross-curricular, real-world, rigorous content, an E&E-based program offers students the opportunity to engage in service learning and civic action, creating responsible and caring global citizens. This is evidenced in the introduction to the E&E standards, which reads as follows:
“Environment and Ecology is grounded in the complexity of the world we live in and our impact on its sustainability. The human interactions with the ecosystem and the results of human decisions are the main components of this academic area. Environment and Ecology examines the world with respect to the economic, cultural, political, and social structure as well as natural processes and systems. This integration across systems is what sets this academic area apart from all others.” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2001)
Starting in Kindergarten, content outlined in the E&E standards also became the foundation for literacy acquisition and was used to generate enthusiasm in our youngest readers. As they were learning how to read, they were connecting what they were reading to the real world around them. The content outlined in these standards formulated a rich vocabulary upon which students could build as they progressed through the curriculum. One example that comes to mind is the topic of Agriculture, which was introduced in Kindergarten and then reinforced in 3rd grade in a multi-disciplinary, multi-week unit of study. Classroom libraries were stocked with vocabulary-rich books, and learning was enriched by field studies to area farms, nature centers, streams, rivers, and museums.
The June 2014 Progress of Education Reform Report issued by the Education Commission of the States, reaffirms the success of applying this early science literacy approach in an authentic learning environment: “Science interactions support vocabulary development by exposing children to new words in meaningful context. Exposure to rich vocabulary words predicts vocabulary development, which predicts reading achievement.” The importance of early science literacy acquisition is summed up nicely in this same publication: “Education leaders should turn a critical eye on the science teaching and learning expected for early education in their school, district or state, then determine whether there is any evidence that children and their teachers are receiving the instructional opportunities they need and deserve.”
Creating the EIC Curriculum
But how and where do you begin when creating an integrated curriculum? For our team, utilizing the E&E standards for content; the interdisciplinary, student-centered process of the EIC Model; a strong emphasis on 21st century skills; and backwards mapping became the perfect collective starting point. Our guide was Dr. Patricia Vathis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who is an expert in standards, interdisciplinary learning, and Understanding by Design. As a K–8 team, we began the curriculum-building process by going through each E&E standard statement and unpacking and understanding its content. After completing this, we moved on to Science and Technology, and then to Social Studies, which included History, Geography, and Civics and Government. We identified the content that “anchored” each standard statement and how each grade would be responsible for either introducing that content (I), reinforcing it (R), or bringing the content to proficiency (P).
As we were completing each matrix and assigning a color code to each grade, we were also looking for opportunities to connect content across disciplines to create big ideas for comprehensive, interdisciplinary units of study. Once our team completed a matrix for each of the content area standards, time was allocated for teachers to meet and plan with their grade level partners and teachers from different grade levels and disciplines. Everyone worked from the matrices they, themselves, created. Schedules were designed so that team-teaching could occur several times each week, allowing teachers to see and hear how each overarching topic was being presented through the lens of another discipline.
EIC in Middle School
In some ways, the 5–8 team had a more difficult challenge than the K–4 team, since our middle school students in 5–8 rotated through different teachers and subjects. The teachers effectively met this challenge by working together to design units of study that spanned several months, with each content area well represented. For example, one unit was titled “Disease and its Impact on Philadelphia,” and was taught over a three-month period. In Science class, students investigated how vector species transmit diseases, while in Language Arts the students were reading the book Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), a historical fiction novel documenting the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia. In Social Studies, the students were mapping out historic Philadelphia and reading and writing about a time in local history when this epidemic took many lives. In Technology, students created their own newspaper and documented the impact of the disease outbreak by writing obituaries and providing information to their imaginary community. Finally, in Art, students designed a 2-D protist from which they created a 3-D model. As students were learning across disciplines, teachers were actively teaching across disciplines. Amazing!
EIC in Elementary School
Just one example of authentic, interdisciplinary learning that was so successful during my years in school leadership was “A Watershed Year,” when each year our 4th grade students were immersed in a year-long, interdisciplinary study of the Delaware River Watershed. Students were challenged to answer the overarching question: Where does your drinking water come from and where does your wastewater go? They began by investigating the history, geography, geology, science, chemistry, and ecology of our local freshwater streams and the surrounding watershed. During their downstream journey, students interacted with experts in local history, drafted a “Water Bill of Rights,” debated ecology versus economy, conducted field studies with the Philadelphia Water Department, mapped out their local watershed, and learned from the Army Corp of Engineers how to effectively engineer a dam.
Students also documented their journey and presented their findings to various audiences. Utilizing digital technology, they even created an interactive, informational walking tour for visitors along the trails at the local historical society. The students’ Watershed Year ended with an exploration of the Delaware Estuary and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems where they discovered the ecological diversity of aquatic life in these brackish and saltwater environments. Their final real-life adventure in learning was a three-hour voyage aboard a trawling vessel out of Cape May, New Jersey where they cast nets into the ocean and hauled in their catch, while working side-by-side with a team of marine ecologists.
Ongoing Improvements and Growth
Professional development for teachers was meaningful, focused, and ongoing. In-service days during the school year were dedicated to curriculum development, and each summer our teachers would attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s Institute for Environment and Ecology. This Institute offered a week-long, residential learning experience that took place both indoors and outdoors. Enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers through deep-rooted learning experiences inspired our teachers to become even better at creating and implementing authentic learning experiences for their students.
While standards dictated “what” would be taught, the process of learning was designed and reinforced by our teachers. They used content — E&E standards-based content — and the EIC practices to drive instruction. These experiences not only resulted in strong academic achievement, but they ensured outcomes of global citizenship through student empowerment and environmental civic action. Our K–8 EIC framework became the solid academic foundation on which we grew our program from 150 students to over 700 allowing us the financial and community support to build a 20 million dollar school and campus designed for outdoor learning. An amazing accomplishment that many said could never be done!
In the end, our state standardized test scores reflected the success of our EIC Model and its interdisciplinary framework. More importantly, these scores represented how immersing students in deep-dive, long-term, interdisciplinary research projects can be a successful approach for all students. As just one example, 90%–96% of our 4th Grade students achieved, on average, the highest level in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Science test. Our special education students and historically underperforming students thrived in this atmosphere of real-world, interdisciplinary learning. Our school was rated as a top performing school locally and state-wide, and ranked internationally with schools in Finland.
Throughout my years working with an incredible team, our EIC curriculum continued to evolve and was revised by our teachers. Success was contagious! Teachers were motivated and students were energized as we immersed ourselves in the study of the environment. We came to realize that doing meaningful work in an authentic environment to conserve our basic needs — the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat — was a bond that we shared and something that is relevant to us all.
Jean Wallace was the CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K–8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning as well as its academic achievement. She is now consulting for schools and organizations who want to take learning outside.
Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. (www.earthforce.org). As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues.
Education is a second career for Jean. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast differences between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.
This article is dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Patricia Vathis, retired Environment and Ecology Coordinator for the PA Department of Education, and the incredible teachers and staff who made the impossible, possible.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000). Fever, 1793. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Education Commission of the States (June, 2014). Progress Report for Education 18 (2). Denver, CO: ECS.
Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap. State Education and Environment Roundtable Report. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.
Pennsylvania Department of Education (2001). Introduction to the Pennsylvania academic Standards for environment and ecology. Retrieval from URL www.education.pa.gov
Canoes and other forms of human powered watercraft have been utilized by human beings all around the world since time immemorial. For this reason, the study of canoes can serve as a gateway to analyze, compare and learn from the world’s cultures and the unique histories therein.
However, our education systems struggle to connect with students’ lived experiences in ways that honor their home culture and engage in ways that are greater than the sum of their parts. Decontextualized educational experiences have shown to be problematic within the formal education system. Moreover, in our current climate of high stakes testing and curriculum reforms that fail to account for the diversity within contexts of education, students are left listless towards schooling that ineffectively attaches to anything meaningful in their lives. Each community and regional context affords seemingly endless opportunities for connecting curriculum to on the ground issues that are meaningful and relevant to students’ lives.
In this article, we are going to tell the story of how a David Thompson-style canoe served as the curricular centerpiece for a 4th grade learning expedition that explored the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
alouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) is a public, K-8 school located in the community of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow has approximately 25,000 residents and is the home of the University of Idaho. Within Moscow there are multiple K-8 schools including two public charter schools. PPCS being one, has approximately 120 students in grades K-8. PPCS espouses the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which will be discussed below. PPCS students experience two learning expeditions each year in grades K-5 and three per year in grades 6-8. Some examples of expedition topics are: historic buildings in the community, how plants grow and their many uses, regional water conservation, geology of the region, human rights with immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sixth mass extinction, and the giant Palouse earthworm, to name just a few.
The EL approach has its roots in Outward Bound and began in 1992 (Cousins, 2000). EL can be traced back to Kurt Hahn and some of his progressive boarding school curriculum that led to the forming of Outward Bound as early as 1933. The EL model is based on ten design principles that guide the development and implementation of learning expeditions. The ten principles emphasize self-knowledge, caring and collaborating with others, active engagement in the natural world, and active learning based on the whole person (Expeditionary Learning, 2011). Teachers within EL schools work to develop learning expeditions that integrate educational standards across disciplines and leverage resources within the local and regional communities to enhance the student experience by showing that there is a rhyme and reason to the educational activities that students are engaged in.
The 4th grade class at PPCS embarked on the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition in the spring of 2017. In the state of Idaho, 4th grade social studies standards focus on westward exploration and expansion and Idaho tribes. In an effort to bring the historical content alive, a serendipitous connection was made within the local community of Moscow between the 4th grade teacher and graduate students who had extensive experience in boat building and river navigation. The idea of building a canoe with the 4th grade students at PPCS quickly took on a life of its own. A David Thompson style cedar plank canoe was deemed appropriate for this learning expedition as it integrates the cultural influences of European and Indigenous peoples throughout the history of Western North America. In 1811, David Thompson, an English-born explorer and geographer, led the first expedition to navigate the Columbia River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Thompson also created a series of maps that provided the most complete record of western North America into the nineteenth century. Through his explorations, Thompson interacted closely with many Native American peoples and built seven cedar plank canoes that incorporated both European and Indigenous techniques. The David Thompson style canoe was not only appropriate for this project given the historical geographies in which the canoe was built and used, but also a feasible option for available financial resources and the time required by the canoe-building guides to complete the project.
The community of Moscow, Idaho is located on historic Nez Perce tribal lands and is situated between two reservations, the Coeur d’Alene and the Nez Perce. Additionally, Moscow is within close proximity to the Clearwater and Snake rivers, two major waterways that have historical significance for navigation, fishing, and inhabitation. Moscow is located in the Inland Northwest, and the many rivers of the region connect people, culture and historical events as they flow together and make their way to the Pacific Ocean. People and cultures coming together to influence each other, just as our rivers do, has played a significant role in the history of Idaho and the Inland Northwest region. Furthermore, there is a revival of canoe culture in Idaho and the Inland Northwest, resulting in canoes from different cultures coming together. It is with this in mind that the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition sought to build on local resources to create meaningful learning for the 4th grade students.
The building of the David Thompson style cedar plank canoe served as the thread that wove the entire learning expedition together. Rigorous history, social studies, and literacy work in the classroom was balanced with hands-on woodworking throughout the semester. Individually, each student hand-carved their own paddle and collaboratively as a team/crew, the students built a 21 foot cedar canoe. Here we explain the main elements of the classroom curriculum, as well as corresponding canoe specific activities. The curriculum for the learning expedition spread across the spring semester and included a short kick-off unit followed by three discrete month-long case studies.
Kick-off unit. In the kick-off unit, 4th grade students began learning about the historic and current mixing of cultures in Idaho, and beyond, and how this process has shaped who we are. Students started this journey by reading about interactions between Columbus and the Arawak people and critically analyzing who really “discovered” America. Then student groups were assigned one of five federally recognized tribes in Idaho and created posters to present general information about their tribe, including the types of canoes they made and used, as well as maps highlighting both historical territories and current reservation boundaries.
During the kick-off unit, along with being introduced to historical canoe styles, students were presented with a variety of activities to learn about woodworking. For example, students learned about the various tools that would be used to build the canoe and paddles. Safe use of tools and proper technique were emphasized up front. Students were also able to practice using the tools with expert supervision to ensure proper technique.
Case study #1. In the first case study, students studied the history of westward exploration and expansion in the United States, and began to understand both positive and negative impacts of the confluence of cultures in our history. Students learned about the canoe supported expeditions of Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, David Thompson, and subsequent westward expansion (i.e. colonization), with particular focus on the impacts on Indigenous peoples. They read and examined stories about the Nez Perce War, the Navajo Long Walk, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
During the first case study, students began carving their individual paddles and also helped with canoe building tasks where applicable. For the former, students outlined the shape of the paddle based on body length measurements to ensure that their paddles would fit them perfectly. Once the shape was set, an adult used a jigsaw to cut the cedar board. From there, students began using hand planes and other woodworking tools to refine the shape of the paddle. This task would carry through both case study #1 and #2.
Case study #2. In the second case study, students discovered the power of storytelling to understand culture. They explored the meaning of “culture” by defining their own personal values, making an artistic poster to express how our design principles help us shape our school culture at PPCS, and learning about Indigenous cultures directly from experts, including Shoshone-Bannock, Oglala Lakota, San Carlos Apache, and Nez Perce tribal members. Next, students studied the structure and elements of written and told stories. They analyzed picture books to identify the structure of a story and elements of culture, learned the elements of oral storytelling from an expert storyteller, evaluated videos of Indigenous storytellers using these elements, then practiced using these elements to tell the class a myth from an Idaho tribe.
As students shaped and sanded paddles, there were numerous opportunities to work on building the canoe. For example, students measured the keel board and secured it to the gunwales using a clamp that supports bending to create the shape of the canoe. Students also laid out the ribs and measured with their hands where the ribs needed to be bent. Then they labeled the ribs to denote where the ribs would go on the canoe. Once the ribs were bent, the students helped by pouring hot water on the ribs as they were being positioned and secured which provided the full shape of the canoe. Once ribs were in place, students sawed the ribs extending beyond the gunwales flush and also sanded sharp edges throughout the process. Students participated in ways that were within their abilities throughout the project. This was oftentimes a sliding scale with some students taking more initiative than others, or showing more aptitude for woodworking. Every student was vested in the canoe building process.
Case study #3. For the third case study, each student interviewed family members about their family values and culture, and wrote stories with their “family motto” as the theme. Students used a high-quality criteria checklist together with peer and teacher feedback for multiple drafts and revisions. Then they practiced telling their stories using the elements of storytelling they had previously studied, and prepared to tell their stories around the campfire at their Celebration of Learning. Throughout the expedition, students identified words of wisdom that they would want to strive to live by and recorded them in their handmade journals. By integrating what they learned throughout the three case studies, each student wrote a nugget of wisdom that expressed a genuine and valuable lesson that they learned from experts (people and texts) about the confluence of cultures.
With the canoe almost to completion, students began preparing for the water. Students created potential names for their canoe and voted to name the canoe Burning Wisdom. Then students, their family members, and community members engaged in the canoe-building process participated in a naming ceremony where Burning Wisdom was officially given her name and wished well on all future river journeys. Next, student’s artistically wood burned their unique nugget of wisdom into the gunwale and thwarts of the canoe so that their message of understanding and hope about the confluence of cultures can be read by all who paddle in Burning Wisdom. Students then oiled the canoe and paddles and learned about water safety in preparation for the Celebration of Learning and the maiden voyage of Burning Wisdom. At the final Celebration of Learning, students paddled their hand-crafted canoe on the Snake River, together with members of their own families and traditional canoe families who brought their own dugout canoes from throughout the region.
The Work of Canoe Building
Canoes as a vessel of education allows students to draw connections between their local waterways and the cultures traditionally travelling and utilizing those waterways. Because all canoes are different and are designed in tandem with the region’s environment, the act of building a canoe with students and community members can provide an authentic gateway into deep learning. Grounded in place-based educational theory, using the canoe as a vessel for education is readily adaptable to any region’s waterways and traditional watercrafts. Below we discuss three key elements that should be considered when creating a canoe building educational experience with youth.
Collaborate with a local master canoe builder. If you are not familiar with canoe building it is critical to connect and collaborate with a master canoe builder who is familiar with the geographically relevant canoe style. It is important to connect with those who are interested in teaching their craft and working with youth, and who are willing to adjust their canoe building routines with the teachers desired scheduling. Ideally, the canoe builder would be in charge of sourcing all materials and tools; however, the teacher may be required to purchase supplemental tool/materials as needed. If you do not know a local canoe builders, here are several methods to aid in the finding of a canoe builder:
- Google search – A simple internet search using keywords such as “traditional canoes of the Pacific Northwest” or search for a “traditional canoe builder” in your town.
- Native American Tribes – Traditional canoes are built by tribal members across the Northwest and these canoe builders are knowledge keepers for both their people and the regions in which they live.
- Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA) – The WCHA serves as a gathering place for canoe builders across the country. With online forums and social media, a local canoe builder is just a click away: www.WCHA.org.
Decide on the canoe building location. Where the canoe building takes place matters. An ideal space would be outdoors in a location on the school premises. However, some canoes are suitable for indoors, provided that the canoe builder approves of the location. Additionally, for some traditional canoes a fire is a vital canoe building tool for bending wood or soaking (in warm water) raw materials. If a fire is not possible, propane burners can be used to supplement a heat source. If outdoors, a covered, dry area will ensure the students’ comfort while they build their canoe. And finally, it is critical that the space be open and large enough to accommodate parents and community members who come to observe or help build the canoe. An ideal space would be big enough for many people to gather, and have the option of serving food, having a fire, and creating a community bond.
Connect canoe building to curriculum. The degree that the canoe building project is integrated into the curriculum is left to the teacher’s discretion. However, from our experience we believe that careful integration can make this project very powerful while meeting state requirements for multiple subjects and skills. Additionally, the teacher must communicate with the canoe builder to ensure compatibility with classes and building schedules. We recommend that the students visit the canoe site at least three times a week. This ensures the student’s engagement with each step of the process and provides enough hands-on education for the students to learn actual wood working skills. So as to not completely burden the students and teacher, the canoe builder will typically continue working on the canoe throughout the days when no students are scheduled to visit.
One of the most rewarding aspects of using the canoe as an educational vessel is discovering and uncovering the myriad of ways to integrate canoe building with the curriculum and educational standards that must be met. While this requires some degree of creativity, simple lesson plans can be created to explore principles of mathematics, for example, using scale model canoes using ratios, speed, displacement and hydrodynamics or even determining the mass of a dugout canoe (compared to the log before it was carved). Additionally, environmental science standards can be met through the exploration of the species of trees and plants required to build a canoe, which opens up opportunity to explore forest ecology, invasive species, and other relevant topics. And as illustrated by the Confluence of Cultures curriculum model described above, canoe building provides a unique and culturally relevant opportunity to explore history and different cultures’ uses of canoes on their local waterways.
When possible, we advise that the canoe builder facilitate and provide a paddle carving module to the canoe building project. While some steps in canoe building are quite technical and tedious, we have demonstrated students from the 4th grade and up are capable with carving their own canoe paddle in three to four weeks. The opportunity for students to carve their own paddles allows for an individual sense of accomplishment while the canoe is a collaborative group project.
Organize a trip to paddle the canoe. Finally, canoes are built to be paddled. It is critical to plan a culminating maiden voyage where the youth launch and paddle the canoe that they built. This should take place at a local waterway that the students learned about during the course of the year. The paddle event can occur in the course of an afternoon, or more ideally, with a full day or overnight experience. For the paddling component, we recommend that you can coordinate with a local watersports organization or outdoor recreation program who can provide life jackets and expertise in water safety protocols. These culminating voyages are a ceremony to honor the canoe but also the students and community members who participated in the project.
Secure funding. Projects like this require funds. Often times in-kind resources can get a project down the path quite a ways. Depending on the level of resources needed that cannot be procured through local volunteers, plan to budget between $2,000 and $10,000 to adequately cover costs. We have found local education funds are of reasonable magnitude to support an effort such as this. For example, we recently were awarded approximately $10,000 for the upcoming academic year to build another David Thompson style canoe with PPCS 4th graders and collaborate with a regional tribal school building a traditional dugout canoe.
Throughout the building of the canoe as a narrative thread of the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition, many lessons were learned that may prove helpful for readers interested in doing a similar project within their context. We will share lessons learned from the perspective of the teacher and lead author, Ms. Hill.
- Standards-based education can be hands-on, meaningful and authentic! If it can be, then it should be. If research and practice show that it works to achieve educational goals, then when it is possible in the context, then that should be the goal. In this particular learning expedition, I was able to hit all of the required social studies and English Language Arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) standards in the classroom, AND we had time to build a canoe. So my main message is that it can be done. Teachers and administrators, I encourage you to be brave. I truly believe that you can make it work with the right types of support and resources in place.
- Spending the time on these types of hands-on projects makes the classroom work so much more meaningful. It is very clear that these kids will remember this experience for the rest of their lives, and it was all connected to the social studies content and literacy skills that they would be learning in fourth grade with or without this type of project.
- Parents and other family members became so incredibly involved in the project and engaged in the classroom learning through this project. They were deeply inspired to see their children accomplish such huge tasks such as safely using woodworking tools, hand-carving their own paddles specially fit to their own body measurements, and working together as a crew family to build a canoe that they could paddle in together. For some children and families, this was their first canoe trip.
- Students and families were incredibly inspired by the opportunities to authentically and genuinely interact with Indigenous peoples through this project and the paddle/camping trip.
- Local and regional Indigenous peoples were very willing and honored to work with us on this project, on both the social studies content and canoe-building pieces. These connections made the project authentic and meaningful. The genuine support of local tribal members was apparent in receiving invitations for future paddling opportunities and with funding for a future project to work closely with the 4th grade class in Lapwai, Idaho.
- A key element for success of a project like this is that the teacher has a very close working relationship with a local nonprofit or other group or individual to do this type of project (i.e., Voyages of Rediscovery, and local Indigenous partners). Our EL model of education at PPCS embraces this type of outreach and collaboration very well, and I would encourage other teachers in any other school system or teaching model to think about how to do this within their own contexts.
The canoe building component proved to be an invaluable addition to the learning expedition for the PPCS 4th graders. Students were able to associate the content of the curriculum to a meaningful and tangible context represented by the David Thompson style canoe. The canoe brought people together that otherwise wouldn’t have had a reason to work together, which led to powerful learning opportunities. By opening the school doors to the possibilities of building a canoe, we found that the risk was rewarded in outcomes much greater than we had anticipated. The effort was completely worth it.
Cousins, E. (Ed.). (2000). Roots: From outward bound to expeditionary learning. Dubuque, IA: Union-Hoermann Press.
Expeditionary Learning (2011). Expeditionary learning core practices: A vision for improving schools. New York, NY:
Renée Hill is the fourth-grade teacher at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) in Moscow, Idaho. Using the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, she has engaged her students in inquiry-based projects including building a David Thompson style canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
Dr. Brant G. Miller is a science educator at the University of Idaho. He teaches science methods and technology integration and does research on Adventure Learning.
Adam Wicks-Arshack is a PhD student in the Water Resources Department at the University of Idaho. Adam has facilitated educational expeditions and canoe building projects throughout the Pacific Northwest.
This article is a story of how fourth-grade students in Moscow, Idaho studied the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history by building a canoe, hand-carving paddles, and actively participating in the resurgence of the traditional canoe throughout the Pacific Northwest region. We hope you enjoy seeing our work and seeing how we went through this process!
Editor note: This article was written by fourth-grade students at Palouse Prairie Charter School during the spring of 2018. Students were guided through the process in groups and this narrative is the product of that work. The teacher and collaborating faculty from a local university supported the writing, editing, and revision process. The level of adult guidance varies in each section. Students wrote this as an extension of the article “Burning Wisdom: The Canoe as a Vessel for Learning” published in the Fall 2017 issues of CLEARING, which documented the previous year’s canoe-building project with a focus on the curriculum.
magine a life with no cars, no planes, no city buses, only canoes. Imagine you are in Idaho 200 years ago, that you are surrounded by rivers, and you mainly travel by canoe. For the indigenous peoples of Idaho and throughout the United States, the canoe used to be the main means of transportation and communication. Many tribes around the region, including the Kalispel, Coeur d’ Alene, and Nez Perce (Nimi´ipuu) of Idaho, have not built canoes for over one hundred years. For example, up until 2018, the Nimi´ipuu had not made a dugout for one hundred and thirteen years. The reason for this is that throughout the process of colonization of indigenous peoples in the 1800s and 1900s, many tribes were removed from their land and prohibited from practicing their cultures. For example, their children were taken to boarding schools and taught that it was bad to live by their cultures, speak their languages, and build their canoes. The importance of the traditional canoe for the inhabitants of this land was temporarily hidden, but it is coming back. By building their traditional canoes again, indigenous peoples are reclaiming their culture.
In our fourth-grade class at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS), we spent a semester studying the westward exploration and expansion of the United States, colonization, the impacts on indigenous peoples who have inhabited our region’s lands for centuries, and the cultural revival that is currently happening through the resurgence of the traditional canoe. During this time, we spent ten weeks building a David Thompson style cedar plank canoe. David Thompson was the first known explorer to navigate the length of the Columbia River, from headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. He also made some of the first maps of the region. David Thompson built many canoes on his voyages by combining European canoe forms and Indigenous techniques that he learned from peoples he met along the way. We built our canoe as an example and memory of the confluence of cultures in our region – the Northwestern United States.
The Resurgence of the Traditional Canoe – Native Perspectives
We are hoping to capture our learning and reflections in this article. Many texts available to children (and to people in general) are written from the perspective of settlers. We interviewed members of tribes in Idaho who are helping build canoes to bring back their cultures. We interviewed Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel tribe, and Standing Red Bear (Gary Dorr) from the Nez Perce tribe in order to tell you the story from their points of view. Both Nathan and Gary have been helping people reconnect to indigenous canoe culture by building canoes together with their tribal and non-tribal communities. We have included their stories as part of the learning and reflections that we share in this article. We have also prepared transcripts of these interviews as two separate short articles following this one. We hope that their stories help you see the importance of playing an active role in the resurgence of the traditional canoe in the Northwestern United States. We also hope that their stories help you respect people that might have a different culture than you.
Standing Red Bear, our Nimi´ipuu friend helped build New Medicine, the first Nimi´ipuu dugout canoe on the Nez Perce Reservation in 113 years. He taught us about the historical and cultural importance of canoes for native peoples and led us in ceremony to extend peace and safety to all the people who help carve and will travel in this canoe.
“Canoes were our hunting rigs, our grocery carts, we rode across the river to collect berries in them. We’re building canoes again now to reclaim part of our culture.”
– Standing Red Bear, Nez Perce Tribe
Read Gary’s complete interview here
“The canoes are bringing our communities together.”
– Nathan Piengkham, Kalispel Tribe.
Read Nathan’s complete interview here
The tribes are bringing back the canoe. And it is having a very positive impact on their lives. Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel Tribe explained, “Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. They can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispel Tribe, and they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains.” As the fourth-grade crew, we are thankful to be part of this historically significant movement.
How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?
Throughout our semester-long learning expedition, we studied many topics in order to try to answer one overarching question. The “guiding question” we started with was “How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?” Throughout our studies we continually came back to this question to reflect on our own answers. An important part of figuring out how to answer this question was understanding what confluence of cultures means.
To explain the meaning of confluence of cultures, we will break it up into separate words. First, culture is how people live and interact. Many people have a different understanding of culture. In our class, we interviewed a handful of our own students to see what they think culture means. There were various different viewpoints of culture which include traditions, stories that are passed down from generation to generation that allow people to experience the history of their culture, what a person does for a living, what a person does on a daily basis, what people do and believe in, and the values we teach, learn, and live by. The important thing that we agreed on is that we all respect each other even if we are different.
We discovered that culture has many layers. The outer layers are the things that you can see, like clothing, food or language. As you get deeper into the layers the parts of culture get more meaningful and harder to see, like the social norms we follow, and our values and beliefs. An example of these layers of culture is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. The layers of culture
Second, a confluence is a place where streams or rivers merge or flow together.
A confluence of cultures is when cultures meet and merge. Sometimes when two cultures meet they flow together and sometimes they clash. Sometimes cultures come together in perfect balance and sometimes not. We studied the clash of cultures that occurred between Columbus and the Arawaks, and between settlers and indigenous peoples during colonization as the United States expanded its territory westward. We also studied the flow of cultures that occurred when the Nimi´ipuu welcomed Lewis and Clark, nursed them back to good health and showed them the way to the Pacific Ocean. We studied many examples of the confluence of cultures in Idaho’s history, both positive and negative. But did you know that we are an example of the confluence of cultures just by doing this expedition? We visited the site in Lapwai, Idaho where the Nimi´ipuu were building their canoe New Medicine, and we also went to the Lapwai Senior’s Center and to the Lapwai Boys and Girls Club to spread kindness. Both are real examples of the confluence of cultures in our lives as fourth graders.
The confluence of cultures has shaped our ancestors, our own personal histories, and continues to shape our lives today. We spent ten weeks building our canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures in our lives – past, present, and future.
Building a David Thompson-style cedar plank canoe
Step 1: The math
In building a canoe, the first step is the math. We had to do some mathematical calculations to see how much wood to buy and to create a good plan for building. Without doing the math for the canoe we might have bought the wrong amount of wood, went over our budget, or wasted resources. We started by making estimations, which got better the further we got into the process of building our canoe. Eventually all the measurements added up and then we were ready to start building it! Here is an example of how we applied fourth-grade math to calculate how much wood we would need for the ribs of the canoe.
We knew the canoe would be 22 feet long. We multiplied 22 feet by 12 inches (because there are 12 inches in one foot) to find that the canoe would be 264 inches long. We also knew that every four inches, there would be a two-inch rib and a two-inch open space. So, we divided 264 inches by 4 inches, to find that we would need a total of 66 ribs for the canoe. Next, we needed to find the average length of the ribs in order to decide how much wood we needed to buy to make the ribs. We used Burning Wisdom, (the canoe that last year’s fourth-grade crew built) to take some measurements. We found that Burning Wisdom also had 66 ribs and the average length of these ribs was 52 inches. Then, we multiplied 66 ribs by 52 inches to find that we would need 3,432 inches of wood for the ribs. Then, we converted this to linear feet by dividing 3,432 inches by 12 inches to get a total of 286 linear feet. So, we knew we would need 286 linear feet of wood for the ribs.
Step 2: The gunwale
Then we made the gunwale, which is two long planks bent together to make the top shape of the canoe. The gunwale consists of inner and outer planks called the inwale and the outwale.
Step 3: The keel
Xander (pronounced Zander), our canoe-building guide, built the keel board. It consisted of three small boards glued together and bent into a “C” like shape. We connected each end of the keel to each end of the gunwale. This formed the frame of the canoe!
Step 4: The ribs
Then we soaked the rib planks in water so that we could carefully bend them into the shape of the ribs. We used last year’s canoe (Burning Wisdom) to bend the ribs over so that we could get the correct shape of the wood for each rib. Then, we screwed the end of each rib to the gunwale and the middle of each rib to the keel so that the ribs would stay in place. Together the ribs, keel and gunwale are like the skeleton of the canoe.
Step 5: The planks
Next, we built the planks. The planks are like the skin on a human. The planks are many long, flat pieces of wood covering the ribs so that water cannot get in while we are paddling in the river. The planks of the canoe are like the skin on a human.
Step 6: The fiberglass layer and epoxy
Next, we covered the outside of the canoe with a transparent fiberglass cloth, covered in epoxy. These layers will help keep water out of the canoe, but still let us appreciate the wood of our handmade cedar plank canoe.
Step 7: The name
Giving a name is an important part of welcoming a new canoe into the canoe family. Our class felt very lucky to help bring culture and canoes back to the native peoples of the land where we now live. Every canoe gives a little bit of culture back to the indigenous peoples in the area, which we took away from them long ago. As a crew we decided to name our canoe Blooming Culture because blooming means coming back. Flowers bloom in the spring, but they are always there as seeds. The tribes were never really gone and now they are making a huge effort to make their cultures more visible to tribal and non-tribal peoples. We should respect their cultures and help them with these efforts. Blooming Culture will send the message that culture is blooming again and canoes are helping with that. Our canoe is helping to bring back culture.
Step 8: Family mottos and paint
After studying how indigenous storytelling reveals culture and values, we interviewed our family members about our own family values and culture. We wrote stories with our “family motto” as the theme, and we each woodburned our family motto on the inside of the gunwale.
Finally, it was time to paint our canoe. We wanted our canoe to represent the seven directions in indigenous way of life that our experts taught us about. We painted our canoe with a medicine wheel to symbolize how it will carry our greatest hopes to all four cardinal directions – North, East, South and West. The stripes on the bottom of the canoe represent the fifth and sixth directions – green for Earth and blue for Sky. And the children sitting in the middle paddling the canoe represent the seventh direction – The Center.
The paddle-making process
Making paddles is an important part of the canoe-building process. You have to have a paddle to go out on the water in a canoe. Standing Red Bear told us that Nimi´ipuu children used to carve paddles while the men did the heavy working with logs to build the canoes. Similarly, this semester we worked on carving our paddles while we were waiting to learn a new step to build our canoe, or for our turn to do a specific job. Each fourth-grade student hand-carved their own cedar paddle. Together we made twenty-four paddles. Just like our canoe, all twenty-four of our paddles also help to bring back culture.
To make our paddles, first we had to find a cedar board that was about our height from the ground up to our chin. Next, we measured the distance from our armpit to the tip of our fingers to find the length of our shaft. Then, we used these measurements to draw out the shape of our paddle on our board. Then we used a hand planer and a spokeshave to take off layers and layers of wood until we liked the weight of the paddle and its general shape. The hand planer helped with taking off large curls of wood and rounding the edges. The spokeshave was good for shaving off smaller layers and with more detailed rounding.
Finally, we were ready to sand. We started by marking with crayon the places on one side of the paddle that needed to be sanded. First, we used 60 grit sandpaper to take all the crayon marks off then repeated the process with 100 grit, then 120, and lastly 150 grit. We repeated this same process on the other side. When both sides were smooth and soft, we were done sanding and ready to decorate our paddles. We used a hand saw to cut off chunks of wood we didn’t need, like the top of the ribs that stuck out above the gunwale.
We decorated the shaft and handle of the paddles by woodburning quotes with a message about protecting the cultural and natural resources of the land that native and non-native peoples share, and the importance of creating a true confluence of cultures. We collaborated with PPCS seventh-grade students who painted coastal formline art on the blades to express the connection between rivers, salmon and orcas, work which was guided by Samish Nation artists and part of their middle school spring learning expedition.
The power of the EL Education Model
Our school, Palouse Prairie Charter School, uses the EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning) model. In this model, we balance rigor and joy. This means that we learn new things, and have fun while meeting Idaho State Education Standards for Social Studies, Literacy, Art and Humanities, and Science. The paddles and canoe we built shows how EL Education encourages us go out into the world, explore new ideas and work with and for people instead of only sitting at a desk to meet fourth-grade standards.
A key component of EL Education are the experts that teach us and help us with our projects. We want you to know about the many people who spent their time and energy to help us in this project. Two experienced canoe builders from Voyages of Rediscovery, The River School spent ten weeks guiding us through every step of building our canoe and carving our paddles. Several additional experienced canoe and paddle wood workers in the region helped us find better techniques to carve our paddles and helped us build our canoe. Several regional tribal members taught us about their cultures, shared stories with us, led us in ceremonies, and joined us in the canoe-building process. Two experienced storytellers from the University of Idaho taught us some storytelling techniques. An employee of NRS taught us how to be safe on the water for our canoe trip. Members of indigenous canoe families performed a naming ceremony for our canoe at our paddle trip and paddled with us in their own handmade dugout canoes. And a professor from the University of Idaho helped us write this article so we could share our story with you. All of this work was made possible by the financial support of the Nez Perce Tribe Local Education Program Fund and the Latah County Community Foundation. Thank you all for helping us!
Another key element of the EL Education model is Celebration of Learning, or a public event where we share our discoveries and hard work with our community. As our Celebration of Learning, we organized a paddle and camping trip to take our canoe on its first journey. On June 2-3, 2018 we paddled our canoe on the Snake River, together with traditional canoe families from throughout the Pacific Northwest region. At this event, two members of the regional indigenous canoe family led us in a naming ceremony to give Blooming Culture her name.
A canoe is a sacred piece of art and hard work that many Native Americans had lost and now are bringing back. Canoes are culture that needs to be preserved.” -Fourth-grade student
As fourth-grade students, we gained respect, understanding and curiosity about indigenous history and culture. When our teacher asked us about the most important things we learned in this project, one student said, “I discovered that the confluence of cultures was really a clash of cultures, like Gary said. We didn’t really flow together. The settlers pushed the Nez Perce off their land and forced them to leave. I now know that my house is really on Nez Perce land.” Another student stated, “I learned about the past, how hard it was, and how we still ended up in peace. I learned that we can have peace even when it is hard.” Another student said, “Our project matters because we went back in history and talked about what actually did happen and what should have happened.”
Our teacher also asked us about our hopes for the future confluence of cultures in Idaho. One student replied, “I hope that more people will care about the past. If kids keep learning about our history, I think we can keep honoring the people who did amazing things for us. It’s incredible how hard so many people fought to keep their tribes together when we moved onto their land. We all need to remember this.” Another student answered, “I hope that this canoe keeps reminding us of the past and remembering the amazing people of the past, and the amazing people of now. We need to remember what it was like in the past and what people went through, and I think this canoe is a good reminder!”
The PPCS fourth-grade crew would like to thank the many individuals for supporting us academically and personally throughout this project. We could not have done it without you!
Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
eal Maine, now in his late-70s is an iconic figure for many environmental educators in the state of Oregon. Early in his teaching career in Seaside, he decided to shelve the textbooks in his biology classroom and base his teaching practice on the premise that “If we couldn’t do it, we weren’t doing it.” He then focused on getting his students outside onto the beach and into the estuaries of the northern Oregon coast as well as onto their city streets and into public meetings, believing that the way to stimulate deep engagement on the part of his students required personalizing what they were learning by designing educational experiences characterized by immersion, involvement, and meaningfulness.
Central to Neal’s approach is a belief that functional communities provide the authentic curriculum that should occupy the attention of educators and their students. The job of the teacher is to create experiences that provide young people with the opportunity to access the processes that make a community work. Also central is Neal’s belief that students are among a community’s most valuable intellectual resources. As he observes, “Where else in the community can you get 20 or more people in the same room that can do calculus?” Instead of teachers seeing their task as getting students ready to do something in the future, they ought to be engaging them in work and experience that is valuable to the community right now.
I first met Neal in the mid-1990s on a visit organized by my Lewis & Clark College colleague, science educator Kip Ault. Over the previous few years, Kip had worked with Neal in a variety of capacities and they had become friends. Well aware of my interest in environmental and ecological education, Kip figured I needed to get to know more about what Neal was up to.
The thing I remember most about that first meeting was Neal’s commitment to inducting children into the processes that citizens able to support a democracy need to know. He asserted that just as supportive strategies are put into place to teach kids how to play baseball (t-balls, pitching machines, smaller diamonds, fewer innings), similar supports and experiences ought to be used to teach young people how to be citizens. With regard to baseball, children learn how to play the sport not by reading about it but by getting on a baseball field and pitching, throwing, catching running, and making sure players on the opposing team are called out. The same kind of learning in context should happen in their community. To that end, he had overseen the development of memoranda of agreement with the city and county to tap children’s energy and expertise for community projects.
What I learned from Neal profoundly shaped my thinking about place- and community-based education and the impact that treating children as the citizens they are right now rather than in the future could have on both educational practice but also their civic practice as grownups. Neal claims that the most important thing children can offer to public dialogue is the fact that they aren’t adults; their thinking has not yet been fenced in by convention and conformity, and they have the capacity to offer fresh insights, creative solutions, and energy to the life of their community. Given my concerns about the link between schools and sustainability, I felt as though I had hit the jackpot.
Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Other people concerned about similar issues felt the same way after meeting Neal. When Paul Nachtigal, a widely respected expert in rural education from Colorado and the president of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a national effort in the late 1990s aimed at helping schools and communities get better together, heard of Neal’s work, he quickly enlisted him as a board member of what was then a fledgling organization. I recently stumbled upon the business card Neal gave me when we first met, and it focused on this institutional association. I didn’t know anything about the Rural Challenge at the time, but I subsequently became a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust, the organization it morphed into after the initial funding from the Annenberg Foundation came to an end in the early 2000s. Both the Rural Challenge and then the Trust were advocates for place-based education and provided important support for early adopters of this approach, an approach influenced in important ways by the work Neal had been imagining and then enacting from Cannon Beach, Oregon to Long Beach, Washington.
In the summer of 2013, Neal invited me to spend another day with him at the coast to acquaint me with some of the projects that represented the essence of his work as an educator. As he mentioned at the time, he didn’t know how much longer he’d be around, and he wanted to make sure that some of his ideas outlasted him. He hoped that deepening my own knowledge about things he’d done and helped start would increase the likelihood that this might happen. To that end, I recorded our conversation as we traveled from site to site thinking that it might eventually make its way into an article. A mutual acquaintance of Neal’s and mine, Sylvia Parker (formerly a Rural Challenge steward and now an education professor at the University of Wyoming), helped get the five-hour recording transcribed, and I finally got around to rereading, coding, and analyzing what was shared that day in the spring and summer of 2018. Larry Beutler at Clearing Magazine expressed a willingness to publish what I was able to distill, and I set myself the task of trying to capture some of the central principles that undergirded Neal’s work in the hope that other Pacific Northwest educators might continue experimenting with some of the practices that have inspired me and many others both here and elsewhere for years.
In addition to his work as a biology teacher and football coach at Seaside High School, Neal spent more than a decade supporting teachers interested in adopting his out-of-classroom approaches after being requested to do so by the superintendent of the local school district. His impact on students—often those he described as being too creative to plow through the regular curriculum—had not gone unnoticed. They sought out his classes because “they had heard rumors that you got to do something there” and wanted to be part of the action. What they got to do had really meaning and purpose. While on the surface their work could be seen as little more than a “cute project,” what was actually happening went far deeper. They were being shown that their voices mattered and that their community could be made better if they spoke up and got involved. The following collection of place- and community-based learning experiences are emblematic of the educational vision Neal nurtured in the district.
A Compendium of Educational Experiments
Little Pompey Wetlands. Little Pompey Wetlands is located just a few blocks from the town center of Cannon Beach, a resort community nine miles south of Seaside. Somewhat more than two decades ago the city was interested in developing a nature trail for residents and tourists in the vicinity of the wastewater treatment facility and had hired a consultant to assist in this project. Aware of this effort, Neal approached the city manager about whether students might be able to participate in some aspect of this work as a means of honoring the memorandum of agreement that called on city and county agencies to make use of students whenever possible. The city manager was interested; Neal then found a teacher willing to rework her spring curriculum so that many of its goals could be met through the project. They presented their plan to the board, gained permission to proceed, and then with the students decided to create a sign about the wetlands and its species that could be shared with visitors.
This project required not only gaining knowledge about wetlands ecology in general and the variety of plants and animals found in the area (including birds such as red-winged blackbirds, shovelers, eagles, and fox sparrows, and during the winter, an occasional coyote or Roosevelt elk) but also the tasks of writing the text for the sign, naming the wetlands, overseeing the spending of $2000 allocated for the sign’s production and development, shaping and assessing the work of the artist hired to realize their vision, and selecting a sign maker to produce it. In most conventional classrooms, this process would have stopped with knowledge acquisition and most often a test or perhaps individual or group reports. In this instance, students not only had to collectively determine the most critical information to display; they also needed to act as a citizen committee responsible for the wise use of public dollars and as the employer of adults who had contracted with them to fulfill specific services. A project like this treats students as the citizens they already are and gives them the opportunity to practice decision-making skills generally reserved for adults, a task few people, regardless of age, have been prepared for in school.
Naming the wetlands introduced a whole new realm of adult activity when students and their teacher learned they couldn’t simply give a name to a wetlands but had to go through a complex legal process. Investigating other wetlands in Oregon, they could find none that had been named after a child. An earlier unit had acquainted them with Sacajawea and the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery; they decided to honor her infant son Little Pompey by naming the wetlands after him. Their commitment to a name they had chosen themselves propelled them through the legal requirements of the state and introduced them to processes often required to accomplish meaningful work in a community.
Democracies depend on the capacity of citizens to engage in civic life in these ways. Not uncommonly, the knowledge required to do so is limited to people whose parents understand the rules of public participation since these skills and insights are not made available to the general population in any systematic way. By giving school children the chance to acquire such knowledge and skill, educators like Neal Maine are inviting a broader group of people into the decision-making process and cultivating in them the ways of thinking, speaking, and acting needed to accomplish tasks they believe to be important. More than simple participation in marches and demonstrations, as important as these activities might be, “this is what democracy looks like.”
Friends of Haystack Rock. Central to Neal’s educational approach is its emphasis on the value of finding ways to situate learning experiences outside the school in the community or region, and in some instances creating new institutional structures to accomplish this end. Fittingly, the next part of our tour took us to a bluff overlooking the beach beside Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach’s geological claim to fame. Scores of people were clustered in small groups on the sand, looking through viewing scopes, examining displays on tables, listening to presentations. Neal explained that what I was seeing was the work of staff and volunteers at the Friends of Haystack Rock, an organization that has a cooperative agreement with the city to provide interpretive services to locals and tourists interested in learning more about the natural features of the area. Special attention is directed to the lowest tides of the year during the spring and summer when the marine gardens surrounding Haystack Rock are more accessible.
In existence now for more than 30 years, Friends of Haystack Rock grew out of Sea Week, a project Neal had started in the 1980s. During Sea Week, regular classes were suspended and students from throughout the school district would make presentations to the public about projects they had completed related to their home environment with the aim of preserving and protecting it. Sea Week as it was implemented then no longer exists, but the Friends of Haystack Rock essentially provides the same kind of educational experiences but over a more extensive period of time with the support of volunteers, many of whom are young adults. Its volunteers also become the teachers of the community’s children about marine resources, offering programs both in classrooms and then on the beach. Although the school district ended up not supporting this effort over the long-term, its advantages were apparent to city leaders and an ongoing collection of volunteers who have sustained it now for three decades. Given the fickle and short-lived nature of many educational reforms, organizations like the Friends of Haystack Rock offer a way to perpetuate educational experiences aimed at enhancing the public’s knowledge about their region.
Coastal Studies and Technology Center. For ten years, the Coastal Studies and Technology Center, located at Seaside High School, offered another way to strengthen the relationship between the school and community. Under the leadership of science and technology teacher Mike Brown, students were able to get course credit for engaging in research projects requested by either the city or even federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. The Center provided the workspace and intellectual support that allowed students to contact resource people at the police department, the local hospital, or other governmental offices. One group of students, for example, investigated the economic impact of the Seaside youth riots that occurred over three Labor Days in a row in the early 1960s. I accompanied another group of Upward Bound students working through the Center one summer day in the early 2000s as they mapped the location of woody debris in the Neawanna estuary. Using GIS equipment, they tagged and identified the location of the debris, data that were later recorded on maps of the area that would be used to preserve and enhance salmon habitat.
The Center functioned as a non-profit entity within the context of the school. Its success in pursuing grant dollars and its independence from traditional decision-making structures in the district, however, led to the imposition of constraints that eventually resulted in a narrowing of its focus to technology education. Still, for several years it demonstrated the way that an organization that treats young people as researchers and actors rather than passive recipients of knowledge passed down by others can create engaging learning experiences and do so in ways that benefit others.
Earth Odyssey. Neal was also instrumental in encouraging two fourth grade teachers at the elementary school in Gearhart, a small town just north of Seaside, to collaborate on the creation of a curriculum grounded in the history and natural phenomena of the north Oregon coast. Modeled on a summer camp program called Sunship Earth, the teachers ended up naming their year-long educational adventure, Earth Odyssey. The day of my tour, we met over lunch with Jan Weiting, who had taught in this program for three years. The work of Jan and her partner Larry Nelson exemplify ways that Neal’s vision can be incorporated into the classroom over the course of an entire year. Students’ work in the fall, for example, started with a study of entomology. They moved on from there to the archeology of the North Coast and the Indians who have lived in the area for over 10,000 years, Lewis and Clark’s experience of spending the winter at Fort Clatsop a dozen miles north of the school, and then on to the mountain men and the Oregon Trail. Nearly all of the traditional subjects could be taught through these broad topics tied into the district-prescribed curriculum for fourth graders. Over and beyond this curriculum, students planted trees that are now a small forest outside their portable classroom, painted a mural on one of the building’s walls, and dug and planted a pond. After school Jan and Larry would take smaller groups of interested students on additional field trips to investigate things like sea kelp or to lend a hand with conservation projects, learning activities that brought them recognition as conversation educators of the year by the US Department of Agriculture.
An especially significant activity involved the annual publishing of the Coastal Geographic, a collection of student writing based on interviews with local characters like a famous clam digger. As Neal observed, “The interviews of the people were just so personal and written in such a way that only a kid could talk about, the ordinariness of a person as opposed to the world record they just set.” Although only published for three years, the Coastal Geographic served as a model for the Neawanna Journal, a project that was adopted by a high school teacher who worked with students who were potential dropouts. The students interviewed people who had been born on the Neawanna River in the 1900s, took photos, and wrote up their stories. Their efforts won them an award from the library delivered at a public reception. Neal remarked that “The kids had so much ownership, it was just fabulous.” He added, however, “What sense does this make to have to be so bad at school that you get to produce something that the people who are really good [at school] wouldn’t have a chance at?”
Other Neal-inspired learning experiences. During his years as a teacher support staff in the Seaside School District, Neal found many ways to provide similar instructional opportunities to a broad range of students. One year a group of seventh-grade teachers approached Neal about helping them get funding to take students from their health classes to Portland to see the “plastic lady” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and learn more about bodily systems. Neal persuaded them to pursue a less expensive and potentially more productive idea—a health fair the students would put on for senior citizens in which student groups would be responsible for running booths focused on physical systems like digestion or circulation or respiration. Willing to try out this idea, teachers enlisted the support of staff at the hospital to instruct students and provide equipment like respirators and blood pressure machines they could legally use with people who visited their booths. A day was then set aside for the fair, advertising went out to the public, and arrangements were made to hold the event at the senior citizens center. The fair ended up being well attended by community elders interested in helping the kids. When Neal heard one of the older teachers saying “It’s the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed seeing kids fight,” he asked about what she was talking about. She said. “They were fighting over whose turn it was to do the test next.”
Another year, a seventh-grade social studies teacher got in touch with Neal about a project he had in mind that was not much different from the trip to see the “plastic lady.” Neal explored ways that he might do something that required more involvement, and together they proposed to the Seaside City Council that students audit the decades-old city charter, something the mayor didn’t even know existed. Drawing on the six career themes that were then central to the Oregon’s educational reform—industry and engineering, natural resources, human resources, health services, arts and community, and business and management—the teacher had each of his six classes take on one theme and compare what was written in the charter to what the city was currently doing. The students early on realized they’d need support to do credible work, so they designed a resource list of people they then invited to their classes. They went on site visits and synthesized what they were learning into a presentation.
At the end of the term, the mayor called the city council to order in the middle school gymnasium. With 137 people in attendance, it ended up being one of the largest city council meetings in the history of Seaside. As Neal remembered, “The kids started going to the microphone and presenting their audit results. Some of them were pretty harsh.” The school district, in particular, came in for some major criticism for its failure to spend the required one percent of money allocated for building projects on public art. The students noted that not one dime had been spent on art during a recent $7 million remodeling effort, something that shocked them after documenting the art works that had been incorporated in other local city and state building projects.
On earlier visits with Neal I’d learned about similar projects taken on by teachers and students from elementary school to high school that gave children and youth the opportunity to do school work that showed them what it means to be an involved citizen. Fourth graders one year visited a number of the parks in Clatsop County and then made recommendations about new playground equipment during one of the public meetings of the parks commission. Middle school science students did a species survey at an old mill site the city hoped to turn into a public park with federal urban renewal funding. High school pre-calculus students used trigonometry to determine the dimensions of all of the buildings on the tsunami plain so that emergency planners could use new software to determine the impact of smaller and larger tidal waves. Another group of fourth graders surveyed their families and neighbors about whether they changed the batteries in their smoke detectors when daylight savings time comes to an end in the fall. The possibilities for investigations like these are nearly endless; all it takes is the willingness of teachers to be alert to them and for community organizations to value and then make use of the intellectual resource provided by public school students.
Asking/answering questions of the world
Beyond inducting children and youth into the processes by which a community governs and cares for itself, I learned about two other elements of Neal’s educational vision on our tour that are worth discussing. The first of these is tied to his belief that the curriculum should in part arise from questions that children raise about their world. Early on in his career as a science teacher, Neal decided that restricting instruction to textbook experiments people already knew the answer to is a recipe for disengagement and boredom. What is critical instead is acquainting students with the value of raising questions that can be answered through the systematic gathering and analysis of data. For elementary school students, he designed a process to convey this understanding.
Students were asked to predict where a rubber-tipped dart shot from a toy gun taped to and stabilized on a tripod would land on a classroom wall. The first stage was to draw a circle that you knew the dart would hit. Some students chose to include the entire wall, absolutely guaranteeing success; others were more precise. Then they conducted the experiment. The next step was to refine their prediction, something that required discussion and decision making. Eventually they found that the gun fired pretty consistently and would hit a point within a three-inch circle. As Neal observed, “What they found was testing is so valuable, getting data, because it makes your answer so much better. So simple. But for fifth grade, it was perfect. It was fun and it was interesting. They’d never gotten to shoot a dart gun in their classroom before.”
With this understanding in hand, Neal would encourage students to then ask questions of things like their watershed and design experiments or procedures aimed at answering them. For example, one day a student said that when he was out hiking with his family, his grandpa said that moss always grows on the north side of the trees. He wondered whether this was right or not. The teacher and class ran with the question and designed a project that involved taking acetate sheets, cutting them the length of the circumference of a tree, pinning them in place after checking and marking the four cardinal directions, and then recording with different colors the location of lichen, moss, and any other growth on the tree. All of this teacher’s classes ended up doing the experiment in a forest close to the school, so there were hundreds of acetate sheets. Once they had all been collected, the sheets were then laid with those on the north side lined up, allowing the students to determine how much moss or lichen grew on different sides of trees in at least this one forested area. What they discovered ended up being published in the Seaside newspaper.
Other questions led students to design experiments aimed at determining what kind of material was falling from trees in the forest. They strung up 10 feet by 10 feet tarps from trees, put a rock in the middle, and then left the tarps alone for 48 hours. They came back and swept everything that had accumulated into the middle and took what they collected back to the classroom. They then examined what was there through a stereoscopic microscope. Neal still gets excited about what they discovered: “That one was mind boggling because the number of insect larvae was shocking. It was amazing that there’s tons of stuff falling out the trees that you don’t see.” The students also wondered about what it is about the soil in a forest that allows it to produce so much vegetative matter. The teacher invited soil scientists into the classroom who taught the students about the constituents of soil, itself. The scientists were followed by a master gardener who helped the kids gather the appropriate materials and make their own soil that was then placed in raised beds. They planted seeds, and the experiment was under way. “The idea was they’d learn the scientific method as a result of trying to get, pry, answers from the landscape.”
Expanding the boundaries of home
Beyond inducting students into the processes that govern their own community, Neal believed that students’ school experiences should ideally lead to a recognition of their home community’s relationship to other towns and cities in their region. As a former football coach, he had been concerned about the way that most interscholastic contact focuses on “beating the crap out of Astoria and all that kind of business.” He wanted students from different communities to recognize the value of learning from and working with one another, as well. On the day I spent with him, he told me of three projects that sought to achieve this end.
Towards the end of the morning, much of our conversation took place at an elementary school on the outskirts of Seaside on a hill up above the tsunami plain. This location was ideal for the educational experiences described above because of the proximity of the forest but also the proximity of Coho Creek, a salmon-bearing stream partly located on school district property that feeds into fresh water marshes and then the salt water marshes where salmon undergo the transition that allows them to become fish capable of living in the ocean. Neal and teachers at the school quickly saw the learning possibilities of this site, turning it into a watershed education center for students from other schools. After learning the ins and outs of the salmon life cycle, Seaside students became watershed guides for fifth-grade students from Knappa and Astoria, towns to the north. For Neal, this kind of opportunity made it possible for students to have experiences that helped them recognize their kinship with peers in other schools in the same region.
The inspiration for the second project was a 1974 issue of Life Magazine that featured photos aimed at telling a story about what happened in the United States over the course of a single day. Neal figured that something similar could be done for the “Columbia Pacific region” stretching from Seaside and Jewell and Warrenton in Oregon up to Ilwaco and Long Beach in Washington. After getting the Daily Astorian to agree to print and publish it, staff from the paper led a workshop that was attended by 74-75 students from the region. The plan was to send these students out for 24 hours on the day of May 4, 1999 to document photographically what they saw happening in their community. The hope was that they would begin to communicate with one another as citizens of a common region. With their cameras in hand, students found that people gave them acceptance and access as they captured their fellow citizens milking goats, making taffy, cutting trees, docking a fishing boat. Few of the students had ever spent a day in their own community just observing and speaking with people they didn’t know. After this experience, one girl said that “she gave up her old eyes” and had come to realize that she lived in a kind of paradise. The project turned out to be “monumental” according to Neal, being written up in The Oregonian, the state’s largest paper. It was also selected for a Library of Congress journalism program with which the Daily Astorian was involved.
A project with a similar aim was called “Crossing Boundaries.” It involved students from five middle schools throughout the region who were asked to develop a transect across the entire Columbia River based upon the collection of bottom samples. To do this work, students had to learn how to run a boat in a straight line using GPS equipment across a few miles of river. Mastering this skill this took a couple of days. Then, with a boat captain standing behind them, some of the students kept the boat on course while their compatriots dropped scientific gear into the water and gathered data. The report based on their findings, “New Designs: Youth Voices Building Communities,” touched on important land use planning issues for the region and became the foundation for subsequent investigations, like strategies for protecting beach areas inhabited by sanderlings, a kind of small sandpiper. What is striking about these projects is their creativity, the depth of learning they elicited, and the meaning they possessed for both student participants and the people throughout their region.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.
Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
(see Part One here)
Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned
Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:
- Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
- Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
- Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
- Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
- Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
- Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.
Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.
Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.
Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.
Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.
Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.
Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”
Paying It Forward
My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.
Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.
Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.