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.
Jane Tesner Kleiner is a Registered Landscape Architect (RLA), ecologist and environmental educator with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and program coordination. She loves working with schools and communitiy partners to create spaces and programs to get kids outside, connecting with nature.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in this field?
I found of a love of working with school kids as a volunteer naturalist for the Ann Arbor Public School’s Environmental Education program. We took kids out on fields trips for all 1st – 5th graders. We were so lucky to have lots of natural areas, including Metro Parks, wetlands, streams and gravel pits. Then I met the amazing Rick Plecha (elementary science teacher) at Field Elementary School in Canton, MI and we started designing green schoolyards in his district. My work in Michigan focused on watershed improvements. When I moved to Washington in 2006, I started volunteering at my son’s school when they wanted to build a garden. The district, knowing my professional background, asked for a master plan to make sure they had a guiding tool for the garden improvements. Over 9 years, we have built 7 phases of projects at that school, including sensory, butterfly, accessible play, nature play, imagination play and outdoor classrooms.
Do you recall anything from your childhood that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator? What was your earliest connection to nature?
I was so lucky as a kid to grow up in a huge subdivision that had creeks and forests. My brother and I would roam the forests and floodplains all the time, especially winter in Michigan with snow and ice. We also had a huge hill in the backyard for sledding. We didn’t take many vacations as a kid, but I spent most of my childhood roaming Bell Creek, the forests and floodplains.
What has been a particularly memorable moment in your career?
By combining my landscape architecture skills with my love for ecology, I have been very fortunate to have worked on some great projects! Most of my work has been urban/suburban so there has always be a “people” connection that allowed for interpretive signage, places to explore and sit and observe the wildlife. While the bigger projects, like the Rouge River Oxbox restoration at The Henry Ford museum and the visitor improvements at Salmon-Morgan Creeks nature area are great, it is working with schools on their small gardens, habitats and projects where the kids take ownership and pride that make such a huge difference.
What challenges (professionally) have you had to overcome?
Great question…..as every job has its challenges. I have worked for large and small design firms, as well as local governmental agencies. One of the challenges is educating the budget folks that adding public amenities to some projects make a huge difference for folks visiting the areas. Also, finding a balance with the wonderful grounds and maintenance crews who have a lot on their plate with limited resources, while we add more gardens and natural areas. One great outcome of COVID is that people are really understanding the need and value for nature. Before COVID, green schoolyards could be seen as “Oh, that is nice and all but not mandatory.” We now know that having all types of gardens really make a difference well beyond academics.
What have been your greatest rewards?
Introducing kids to nature! So many kids I have worked with have lots of fears about nature and don’t have a lot of understanding about plants, animals, habitats, etc. My greatest rewards are when they get to see the result of their hard work, flowers blooming, vegetables are ripe enough to harvest, seed collecting, etc. When kids know that I can trust them with tools and then they can go get the job down, they are so excited. When they bring their families on the weekends because they are so excited, that is the added bonus.
What are some of the best resources you’ve found for the work you do?
We are lucky in southwest Washington to have lots of great partners working with schools. We have formed a coalition called the Clark County Nature Network where we meet to understand what the organizations or agencies are doing and how we can partner to make a difference with schools. Some organizations are great for plantings, trees and stewardship so kids get lots of hands on project based learning. Then they get to watch their projects grow. Other partners help with the planning and design of Green Schoolyards and can help get projects in the ground. A local arborist can help salvage trees to be repurposed for nature playgrounds. Our urban forestry can help add shade trees to playgrounds which are usually lacking any nature. We are starting to look at project opportunities to connect high school CTE partners to get gardens in at elementary schools, as they have the green houses and wood shops.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
It has been exciting for our two largest local school districts, Evergreen and Vancouver,which passed capital bonds several years ago. Those funds have provided for lots of improvements at existing schools and over a dozen new and/or replacement schools. I have been incredibly fortunate to work either as the owner’s representative on the projects or lead landscape architect on a few. This has allowed me to bring my knowledge of Green Schoolyards to the table and work with all of the staff and design teams to rethink school campus design. Most of the new schools have working gardens, increased native habitat for lots of species, including birds and butterflies, outdoor classrooms, accessible pathways, nature play areas, rock cycle gardens, meadows and interpretive signage. The projects include lots of natural colors, textures, plant types and features that haven’t been done at local schools. And the response has been great! If teachers want to teach about parts of the plant, they now have lots of different kinds to choose from on campus. There is now a diversity of colors and patterns to study art or writing. And lots of paths to go for walks to support social-emotional learning through the natural areas.
I am also the lead coordinator for the Clark County Nature Network working with local partners to connect our community to nature. Our partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge has stepped up to provide funding to expand our service to the community to reach more families and partners.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
As we know, there have been lots of pros and cons to COVID impacts. As a mom with two school age kids, my time has been more limited for work during the day as I help with school. While I have loved all of the time with my kids, there are also been other opportunities. I have been on some great Zoom calls with partners from around the world, like the BioBlitz program that covers ALL schools in England….so cool. There have been so many great collaborations with Green Schoolyard partnerships. I supported the Green Schoolyard America COVID 19 response to create on-line resources [https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-learn-outside]. Many of the resources are now available to schools who want to create and use outdoor classrooms as part of their solutions to getting kids safely back into school.
What inspires you now? What people have inspired you?
The research is so abundant now on the benefits of nature for our overall health, it isn’t hard to make the case to add nature back into our communities. I am inspired by the teachers who can’t wait to add more features, the kids who can’t wait to show you the caterpillar they discovered and the families that spend more time outside now that they know where to go and what to do with their kids. My colleagues are definitely my current inspirations as they have retooled how they deliver their work, due to COVID, to still reach kids with on-line learning and inspire kids to explore their own yards, schools and neighborhoods.
Who are your environmental heroes?
I have always been inspired by Rachel Kaplan, professor from the University of Michigan, who helped guide my graduate school work with schoolyards and her book Design with People in Mind. The writings of Rachel Carson, walking the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and Mardy Murie about her time in Alaska, are my go to readings. I was also inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. And then there are the biggies, like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall……what can I say….they are amazing.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
I am currently reading David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. It feels so imperative to get kids to know their local landscapes, to understand what birds, insects and plants are here and why they are important. As a parent, I want my kids to know and understand what we see everyday.
Do you have favorite places to go when you need to connect with nature?
Oh yes! I am a big fan of those little known places, like the back trails along the Salmon Creek, the long trails at Vancouver Lake and Lacamas Lake here in Vancouver. My ideal adventures are to the Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier trails, especially up in the alpine meadows. They take your breath away…..I could just sit up there for days!
Are you hopeful about the future?
Oh yes! There are so many talented people working on the Greening of Schoolyard front, that I know we are making a difference and this work matters! So many partners are rethinking their approach for diversity, equity and inclusion, I have faith in their ability to connect with even more families. And our local schools have put their efforts behind sustainable landscapes that are more natural. Growing up in nature, I had the joy of wandering the woods for hours and sitting in meadows in the fall opening milkweed seed pods, just to watch the seeds float away. Robert Michael Pyle said at the UERC conference last March, that kids are facing the extinction of experience. This really stuck with me. My job is to help recreate spaces to allow kids the experiences that I had everyday. At one local school, we were able to create a 1-acre meadow…..a first for the district. I can’t wait for students to have the opportunity to just sit in the middle and listen to the wind blowing through the grasses and the endless parade of cirtters calling that space home.
Kindergarten students admire a sunflower held by an Oxbow Farmer Educator while snacking on carrots during their fall field trip. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Science Through the Seasons
by Shea Scribner
Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center
igns of the shifting seasonal cycle are all around us. Children are especially keen to notice and appreciate the changing colors of leaves, frantic activities of squirrels, and blossoms slowly turning to fruits on apple trees, but how often do they really get to explore these wonders of nature at the place most specifically designed for learning—their school? With so many subjects to teach and standards to meet, how can teachers follow their students’ passions and incorporate environmental education into their curricula? With an entire class of kids but only one or two teachers to supervise, is venturing outside the classroom a safe and productive use of precious class time?
Beginning in 2016, with funding from an Environmental Protection Agency grant (EPA grant #01J26201), Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s team of Farmer Educators and Frank Wagner Elementary School’s Kindergarten teachers dug into these questions to co-develop and teach monthly environmental education lessons in the classroom, around the schoolyard, and on the farm. Through intentional relationship-building meetings and workshops with the teachers, we worked to better understand the specific needs and opportunities we could address through the new partnership between our nonprofit organization and their public school. We found that by following the natural curiosities kids have about the world outside their classroom window, we could address curricular and behavioral challenges and build programs that both captivated the student’s attention and nurtured their enthusiasm for learning. The early learner-focused lesson plans and activities, best practices, and key lessons learned from the project now populate an online compendium on the Oxbow website. We seek to share our story with other formal and informal educators who are working to address similar challenges, and spark ideas for how to incorporate seasonal, developmentally appropriate, place-based environmental education into their practice.
The “Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons” compendium takes the form of a beautiful tree, a fitting metaphor for a natural system where all parts contribute to the tree’s wholeness and growth to reach its full potential. The roots and trunk serve as the main base of support for plants, representing the foundation and core of our growing partnership with the school—take a peek into the planning process involved in this project, other organizations we partnered with, academic literature which informed our lessons and methods, and best practices for working with students and fellow educators. The branches growing from the sturdy trunk are specific place-based and Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS)-supportive lesson plans, suggested activities, and short videos recorded by the Oxbow educators, linking learning themes throughout the three seasons of the public-school year: fall, winter, and spring. With the overall goals of connecting lessons to the students’ specific environment and building skills of science investigation and inquiry, each experience was additive and built upon to together tackle the NGSS of K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.”
Much like our tree changed through the seasons, the students involved in the journey with us sprouted, grew, and transitioned throughout the school year. We invite you to channel the mind of a child as we guide you through the journey of a Frank Wagner Kindergartener experiencing outdoor EE with Oxbow and their teachers.
A volunteer farm naturalist asks kindergarten students about the crops they’re finding on the Kids Farm during a fall fieldtrip. Photo Credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Throughout this season, the remaining produce is plucked from Oxbow’s farm fields and pumpkins begin to turn from shiny orange to fuzzy black goo. As vibrant native trees and shrubs drop their leaves, humans and critters alike stash away the remaining treats of the season and work to prepare their homes for the cold, dark winter ahead. So too, young people across the region pack their backpacks full of snacks and supplies, bundle up in rain gear, and transition from summer beaches and sunlit backyards into the warm halls of their school every fall.
For some kindergarteners at Frank Wagner—a Title 1 school where many did not have the opportunity to attend preschool—the first time they transition into the fall season in the classroom can be understandably scary. The students are navigating a whole new environment, different schedule, and unfamiliar social expectations, all without the support of the primary caregivers whom they’ve relied on for so many seasons prior. Teachers are faced with the exceptional task of setting routines, helping every student feel safe, and helping students understand their role in their new classroom community. We found that many of the challenges of the early school year can be addressed through activities and practices that focus on building trust, sharing personal stories, and setting expectations for the new relationships students will build with teachers and one another.
Two students sit together behind large rhubarb leaves, playing a game of hide-and-seek (and finding hidden frogs and insects living in the field) during their spring fieldtrip. Photo Credit: Jess Eskelsen
Oxbow Educators visited the classrooms in the fall and collaborated with the students to construct a “CommuniTree” contract. Together, we used the structures of an apple tree to guide discussion of what sweet “fruits” both students and teachers hope to reap from their experience at school and on the farm, which “beehaviors” will help those fruits mature, and what obstacles to learning might be acting as big “rocks” in the soil, keeping the class’ roots from growing strong. We then began exploring the concept that learning can happen both in the classroom and outdoors through the Inside-Outside sorting activity. Students were given opportunities to express their own understandings of food and nature through prompted drawings, which we used as a baseline for assessing student growth throughout the school year. The Kindergarteners also came out to Oxbow for a Fall Farm Adventure, an introduction to how food grows and the many plants and animals that call a farm home, stoking their curiosity and excitement about the ongoing Farmer visits throughout the year. The fall season also included an introduction to the concept of “habitat,” a recurring and kindergarten-friendly theme that connected student learning about plant and animal needs throughout the rest of the year.
For most of us on the west side of the Cascades, winter is cold, dark, and most of all, WET. Farm fields throughout the Snoqualmie River Valley rest quietly under risk of flood while puddles grow into lakes in school parking lots. Rain has shaped the landscape for thousands of years and water continues to connect rural farmland with urban neighborhoods. Dormant plants focus on underground root growth, and many animals must also conserve energy by hibernating or digging deep into warm piles of decomposing fall leaves to survive frosty temperatures.
An Oxbow Farmer Educator helps students find and sample tomatoes growing in a high tunnel during their fall fieldtrip, catching the tail end of the growing season on the Oxbow Kids’ Farm. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Building on the relationships forged through the fall, winter was a time to begin channeling student’s excitement toward specific learning targets, helping them dig deeper into their wonderments and explore the systems connecting us to one another, and the greater planet we’re all a part of. With now-established routines and a classroom culture helping kids adhere to behavior expectations, students were ready to build on the basics and learn how to ask specific questions, make and share their observations, and consider new concepts. The weather during the winter months kept most of our lessons in the classroom, but certainly didn’t keep the kids from hands-on learning opportunities and ongoing nature connections!
Since things are a bit too muddy at Oxbow in the winter, we brought the farm into the classroom in the form of real live wiggling worms, giving students a chance to gently interact with the creatures as they sorted through the contents of their habitat during the Soil Sorting Activity. Students also identified what components serve as food and shelter for the decomposers to come up with a definition of what “soil is” and then used their observations to design and build a small composting chamber for the classroom. The teachers took this introductory lesson and built on it throughout the winter to address other parts of their curricula and learning targets: helping their students develop fine motor skills by cutting pictures out of seed catalogues and newspaper ads, then sorting the foods into those which worms can eat and those they cannot, and finally gluing their colorful collages onto posters and practicing writing the names of the foods in both English and Spanish. Further exploring habitats and plant and animal needs, we followed student curiosity into the schoolyard to investigate if the schoolyard is a healthy habitat for squirrels and learned how Squirrels and Trees help meet each other’s needs.
The Snoqualmie River flowing past Oxbow joins with the Skykomish River right near Frank Wagner to form the Snohomish River, a perfect natural connection to frame an investigation! As winter transitioned into (a still wet) spring, a Watersheds lesson helped to reinforce the link between farm and school, giving students a chance to work with maps of the actual landscape to trace the route of a raindrop as it would flow down from mountaintops and through interconnected rivers, and illustrate many human and natural features that use and depend on this water.
A kindergarten student carefully draws in her science notebook, documenting a specific apple tree she observed in the orchard. Photo credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Early-season native pollinators like blue orchard mason bees are a Farmer Educator’s best friend. Not only do these cute little insects help flowers turn to fruits and seeds, but they do so in a kid-friendly manner, hatching from hardy cocoons into adults friendly enough to hold without fear of a sting! With the warmer weather, students were able to spend more time outdoors exploring nature around the schoolyard and came back out to Oxbow to see how the big pumpkins they harvested back in the fall get their start as tiny seeds in the cozy greenhouse. With spring’s official arrival, the time had come for all that fall fertilizing and deep-winter pondering to transition into a growing, independent entity—be it a seedling or an excited student!
Springtime is a season full of vigorous growth and the kindergarteners were practically bursting to share with us all they’d been learning about through the winter. The students were ready to dynamically explore and understand the many connections between their lives, the farmers, and the plants and animals they saw popping up from the warming soils. Lessons in the springtime harnessed this energy by playing active games during multiple field trips to the farm and further investigating the nature around the schoolyard, all with a focus on connecting students more intimately with their sense of place.
Through an early spring field trip focused on Animals in the Water, students participated in a macroinvertebrate study, closely examining the “little bugs” that rely on cool, toxin-free water in the oxbow lake, and played games embodying the flow of nutrients through the freshwater food web these bugs are an integral part of. Their Spring Farm Adventure field trip and Orchard Stations had a focus on lifecycles and natural processes they could observe firsthand: how the buds on the orchard trees would soon (with a little help from the farmers, sunny and wet weather, and pollinators) become summer’s sweet fruits, and how the growing season for most food crops in this region is really just beginning as their school year comes to an end. As an end-line assessment of the student’s change in environmental understanding, we asked the students to again “draw a picture of nature” and were impressed to see the concepts of life cycles, interdependence of organisms, habitat needs, and where food comes from recalled and illustrated so eagerly by the students.
Behind every future environmental steward there is a spark of wonder which must be fanned to a flame, often with the support of dedicated educators and an array of tried and tested strategies. The Foundation of the tree includes a selection of Best Practices, which are continually growing. These ideas and strategies are intended to prepare students for outdoor science learning and provide teachers with the tools and skills to feel confident teaching in the outdoors.
Of course, none of the curricular branches would be strong without the solid structure of the trunk and roots. Building strong relationships with the teachers, school district, and other nonprofit partners throughout the project was integral to understanding the specific needs of the kindergarten classes and how informal educators can best support their in-class learning. We look forward to continuing to work with the students through this spring and beyond as we help build a school garden on their campus, giving students of every grade more opportunities to discover the magic of growing plants, harvesting food, and caring for worms and native wildlife. Our Earth Connections compendium will continue to be populated with additional resources and we hope to hear from educators like you about how you’ve used the materials, your recommendations for improvement, or ideas for expansion!
We are thrilled to share the fruits of this partnership with fellow educators and hope you find inspiration to continue exploring and learning from nature, both inside the classroom and around the schoolyard, maybe even taking a field trip to a local farm or community garden! You can learn more about Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center at www.oxbow.org.
About the author:
Shea Scribner is an Environmental Education Specialist and Summer Camp Director at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation, WA.
On a sunny fall day in Oregon students are outdoors learning about the new citizen science observation site in their schoolyard. With a mix of 4th and 5th grade exuberance and the seriousness of adults they are taking on the mission of gathering basic data for a section of their school yard scientific study and research area. These students are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H classroom program that is regularly getting them outdoors for real world science. As the teacher explains, this is the first of many data gathering sessions as part of their yearlong commitment to the program. This real world data will support researchers to gain a better understanding of climate change across Oregon.
regon Season Tracker (OST) 4-H classrooms are a companion to the Oregon State University Extension Oregon Season Tracker adult citizen science program http://oregonseasontracker.forestry.oregonstate.edu/ . In the adult program, volunteers are gathering and reporting their observations of precipitation and plant seasonal changes in a statewide effort. Started in 2013 and targeting adults, it quickly became evident to everyone involved that the program had clear applications to outdoor hands-on “experiential” science learning for students.
The foundation of the OST program is based on a partnership between OSU Extension and HJ Andrews Experimental Forest located in Blue River, near the midpoint of the Cascade Mountain range https://andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/ . The Andrews is a leading center for long term research, and a member of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. The 16,000 acre research forest in the McKenzie river watershed in the Cascade Mountains was established in 1948, with paired watershed studies and several long-term monitoring programs initiated soon after. Today, it is jointly managed by the US Forest Service and OSU for research into forest and stream ecosystems, and the interactions among ecological dynamics, physical processes, and forest governance.
Part of the success of the Oregon Season Tracker program is that we have also collaborated with national programs, Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) https://www.cocorahs.org/ and National Phenology Network (NPN) Nature’s Notebook https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook, as well as our local partner. A key role of our national partners is their ability to collect, manage and store the data, making it available both to professional and citizen scientists. This national connection makes sure the data is available long-term and easily accessible locally as well as nationally and beyond. Both of our national partners have easy to use web based visualization tools that allow volunteers and students to easily look at and interpret data. In the classroom this means not only are students helping ongoing professional research, they can also investigate or research their own science questions using the data of others. Partnering with these national database sites also allows OST to stretch our resources further, spending our time and energy supporting the volunteers and classrooms in our program.
Zero is important data when reading the rain gauge!
Back at the school, it is 8:30 am and a student team is checking and recording the level of precipitation for the last 24 hours. The rain gauge station is set up outside the school entrance and is clearly marked with a sign explaining what the students are doing. Parents and visitors can clearly see they are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H program collecting precipitation and plant phenology data as citizen scientists. The sign calls attention to their efforts and gives the students a sense of pride in what they are doing.
Students use a program approved manual rain gauge that is standardized nationally. They become comfortable reading the gauge marked out in hundreds of an inch and how to conform to set data protocols. They learn not to round measurements for accuracy, to read using the bottom of the meniscus, and how to deal with an overflow event. All skills that have math applications for what they are doing. Depending on the grade of the students these skills are new or a refresher of what they already know, but important none the less.
Students learned the rain gauge skills at the beginning of the year in outdoor relay races using Super Soakers to simulate rainfall in their gauge. Teams vie to see who can get the most “rainfall” into their gauge. The casual observer might mistake this activity for recess, but they are having fun learning the needed math skills. By learning to read the manual gauge to .01 of an inch they are following the protocols set out by our national partner CoCoRaHS.
The daily precipitation observations are establishing a piece of the scientific process. As part of the team approach, the observations readings are verified before dumping out the day’s accumulation. Students begin to get a feel for what an inch of precipitation looks like, both as it falls from the sky and what it looks like in the gauge. The data collected is then passed on to another student team that hovers over the classroom computer, entering it in the national CoCoRaHS website. Data entered by 9:00 am is shared on an interactive map, for any visitor to the website to view.
The data submitted to the CoCoRaHS website is accessed and used by meteorologists, hydrologists, water managers, and researchers. It is also captured daily by the PRISM Climate Group, one of our local OSU partners. PRISM gathers climate observations from a wide range of monitoring networks (including CoCoRaHS), to develop short and long term weather models that are in turn used by still more groups and agencies reporting on and studying weather and climate. This is an important thing for all our adult and student observers to realize: their data is real, it is important, and it gets used.
So for those students that are worried that their data will just get lost in the mountains of reports submitted every day, I’d like to share this experience. This past year, I worked with a teacher that received an urgent email from the National Weather Service within a short time after the Monday morning rainfall report was entered in the database. The Weather Service continuously monitors for extreme weather, and were checking on the accuracy of the morning report of over 2 inches of rain. Quick sleuthing found the students had made an error in submitting their data. Instead of making a multiday report for the weekend they had made a single day report. This was an eye opening experience for the students, not only to realize their data is being used but also that scientists are depending on them to be accurate.
Monitoring a rain gauge is an easy lesson to expand or extend into other topics. Students can be challenged to look for weather patterns by comparing their own station with others across your county, state, and even the nation. Alternatively, by graphing daily data or comparing the rainfall data against topographic maps. These types of observations can challenge students to see patterns and make connections. This leads to investigating essential questions such as: how do these weather and climate patterns play out across the state and how does this effect what and who lives in these locations?
Observing fruiting on a common snowberry shrub.
OST students are also tracking plant phenology or growth phases over the year. They will be reporting on leaf out, flowering, fruiting, and leaf drop. By pairing these plant change observations with the precipitation readings, researchers have a powerful tool in the study of climate and the role it plays in plant responses. The OST program has identified eight priority native plant species that we encourage using if possible. These priority plants 1) mirror plants studied at the Andrews Forest, 2) have a large footprint across the state, and 3) are easy to identify. By targeting this small group of priority plants, we add density to the data collected making it more useful for our research partners. Our research partners at the Andrew’s Forest have many long-term studies looking at phenology and climate. They not only look at plant phenology but intensively study the ecosystem connections with watersheds, insects and birds. OST phenology data collected by students and volunteers allow the researchers to apply their findings and connections on a larger statewide scale.
Back at school, we now shadow a High School class. Students in an Urban Farm manage and work in a small farm on the school grounds, growing market vegetables and managing a small flock of egg laying hens. As part of their Urban Farm, they have planted a native pollinator buffer strip surrounding their large market garden. In this pollinator garden, they have planted vine maple, snowberry and Pacific ninebark, several of the OST priority plants, which they are observing weekly. They started their strip by studying the needs of the plants looking at soils, sunlight, and water needs. They then matched appropriate plants with their site, found a source and planted their buffer strip. Adding native plants to their buffer helps to attract and sustain the native pollinators in their garden. These students carry a field journal out to the garden and collect phenology data weekly as one of the garden jobs.
Just like precipitation data, observing and reporting on plant phenology has a set of protocols that need to be followed to standardize the data, and ensure accuracy. OST and Nature’s Notebook (our national partner with the National Phenology Network) are looking for the timing of some distinct phenophases or plant lifecycle stages. The students concentrate on looking for leaf bud break, emerging leaves, flowers and buds, fruiting or seeds, and leaf drop. Nature’s Notebook has defined criteria for reporting each one of these stages.
We have found students as young as 3rd graders can be accurate and serious phenology scientists with a progression of training and understanding. It all starts with being a good observer, one of those important science skills. We have found one of the best tools to teach observation is to consistently use a field journal (e.g., field notebook, science journal, nature journal) when working outdoors. A field journal is a tool that helps to focus students and keep them on track, and to differentiate their outdoor learning time from free time or recess. A simple composition book works well, is inexpensive, and is sturdy enough to last through the seasons.
Start with a consistent expectation of what a field journal entry will include and help students to set this up before they go out in the field. Page prompts will help younger students focus on the task. At a minimum, all field journal entries should include the date, time, weather, and location. Depending on the focus of the day, have students include sketches, labels, and notes on colors. Have students include at least one “I wonder” question they would like to investigate and learn more about. Use the field journals as a tool to help students focus in on the plant they are observing for OST, but also encourage them to observe everything around them. This broader look is what leads students to make those ecological connections that just may spark their interest in science and lead to a lifelong study.
Phenology photo cards help with recording data.
As students get comfortable using a field journal we introduce phenology. Phenology is the study of nature’s seasonal changes, and a scientist who studies phenology is looking at the timing of those seasonal changes and the relationship to climate. Although OST focuses on plant phenology, the observational skills can apply to wildlife and insects, for example reproduction and migration. Phenology is an easy observable phenomena that can lead your science study and help meet Next Generation Science Standards http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/phenomena .
We use a fun activity to introduce phenology and help students focus on what is happening outdoors in the natural world. Start by having students brainstorm in their field journal a list of all the things they can remember occurring outside during their birthday month. They can use plant cues, animal migrations, weather and light. For example,, “the earliest bud break has already happened, daffodils are blooming, the daylight hours become equal to the night hours, and the early bird migrants have arrived” (March). Once they have their list, pair them up with someone who does not already know their birthday. Then have them trade clues to see if they can guess each other’s birthday month. For younger students you may decide to help them with a class brainstorm and write the different nature clues on the board under headings for each month.
Once the student have a good understanding of the concept of phenology we go outside to start observing. OST has developed some handy plant phase field cards that have pictures and definitions for students to refer to and compare as we learn the phenophases in the field. Nature’s Notebook has printable data sheets that students can take out in the field to record their data. We have found that by copying these data sheets at the reduced size of 87%, they fit into the composition book field journal and can be glued in to create a long term record of data at the site.
Using technology to create an informational video.
Technology also plays a key role when doing citizen science with your students. Both Nature’s Notebook and CoCoRaHS have developed easy to use free apps. The versions work with both Apple and Android devices, so you could use them on phones and tablets as well as entering data online with classroom computers. We take it one-step further and use the tablets to document the student learning. Each student team works on creating an informational video of the project over the school year. We give them the option of creating a video to train other students or make a video to communicate their work back to our partner researchers at the Andrews Forest. This video becomes an assessment tool for teachers and is something that the students enjoy. We limit the videos to no more than a three minutes, which means they need to plan it out well. They spend some of the slower winter months creating a storyboard, writing scripts, filming and editing. A 5th grade teacher at Muddy Creek School said, “The iPads engaged my most distractible students. Also, everyone was vested in this project because of the fun the iPads bring to the table. Basically, iPads were a great motivation to learn the science.” For Apple products, you can download a free version of iMovie for creating and editing your final product. There are also free editing apps that can be used on Android devices. Here is one of our early attempts using a movie trailer format https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KdNPZp-1Fs
In exchange, “Researcher Mark” (Schulze) from the Andrews Forest is in a video we created for the students. Walking through the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest we visit one of the many phenology plots at the forest. Mark explains how the phenology plots are scattered across a gradient of elevations at the Andrews. This allows them to look at plant responses to weather and climate as well as delving much deeper, making connections to insects, birds, soils, drought and much, much more. Mark explains that he is gathering data on some of the very same species as the students, and looking for the same phenophases. He takes them on tour of one of the many meteorological stations at the Andrews to see the many different climate instrumentation and variables that they are studying. In the end, Mark shares how valuable their citizen science data is to the future study of climate.
So, what does the Andrews research community hope to get out of collaborating with OST citizen scientists? With the wealth of information they are amassing, they are also interested in seeing if the trends and patterns they are documenting on the Andrews hold true across the varied landscape of Oregon. There is no stream of funding that could finance this kind of massive scientific study except through tapping into the interest and help of volunteer citizen scientist including teachers and classrooms across Oregon. In this circular process of interactions between researchers and volunteers we hope to extend the conversations about climate science, and document the landscape level changes for the future.
It is easy to see how the students benefit, both by applying “real science” outdoors on a regular basis, and their career exploration as scientists. Teacher’s surveys report taking their students outdoors to work on science an additional 8 – 12 times per year because of this program. One Middle School science teacher says, “A great opportunity to get students collecting ‘real’ or authentic data. Given that the work is from a national source it also helped students take ownership of their project and feel its importance.” Students also learn and practice many of the NGSS standards and science practices working on and experiencing real world problems, not just reading about it in a text book.
Climate change is a real and sometimes overwhelming problem for many students, leaving them with a sense of helplessness. What impresses me the most with the students in the program is that they come away with a mindset of how they can have a positive impact in the field of climate science. When asked what they liked best about this program student surveys stressed that positive connection, “Helping scientists felt good.” “That I can make a difference.” “By helping researcher Mark, it was not just for fun it was real.” A good step in building the ecological thinkers and problem solvers we need for our future.
Jody Einerson is the OSU Extension 4-H Benton County and Oregon Season Tracker statewide coordinator.
By Shimshon Obadia
hirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.
Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.
I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.
This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.
In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.
Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”.  This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.
So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.
It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.
As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”, meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”. Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.
In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.
Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”. Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.
With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”.
The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.
In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”. The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”. This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.
The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.
Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real’”. In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from. If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.
Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”. These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.
My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.
We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.
One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.
She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school. However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here. That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right. This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 159
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2
 Louv “Last Child in the Woods”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13
 Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 90
 Weintraub “To Life!”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64
 Weintraub “To Life!”
Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.
Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.
Use the Real World to Integrate Your Curriculum
In today’s test-driven schools, there’s little room for including the world outside the classroom in the curriculum, even though school is supposed to be based on the real world. And prepare us for it.
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
his year I watched good classroom programs which involved and invested students in the learning they were doing come to a halt for several weeks so they could prepare for the standards tests. This, during what is the best teaching time of the school year: January through March, when there are very few breaks in the schedule, and teachers can concentrate on the delivery of curricula. Somehow, we have to wake up, get back to our senses, and use this time for learning.
That said, students do need to go out into the world to learn. Let’s look at two possibilities, the first in a stream, the other in a school yard. We’ll do the stream first, since it is the kind of place we ought to be going to. Then the school yard, since it is often the only alternative we have.
There are many places where students can find a streambank to explore. Or a wooded area; an open meadow; some place where they can see and count the organisms who live there. Then learn about them. These are wonderful places for students to engage new content via Active Learning. There is one, a small stream, near where I live. Here’s a list of some of those who live there: Salmon fry (very small, recently hatched, eat copepods); Copepods (eat algae and organic debris); Amphipods (eat organic debris, algae); Mayflies (eat algae, organic debris); Caddisflies (eat organic debris, algae, mayflies); Organic debris (this is dead and decomposing organisms on the streambed); and Algae (plants found on the streambed and submerged rocks). This list of organisms and information about them is abbreviated, mostly out of necessity; this is a blog, not a book!
Why Employ Active Learning?
Active learning is the best way for humans to learn. It entails having a learner-generated reason to find out something, and access to the resources which will help them find out. Finding plants and animals in a riparian area always stimulates students, and easily leads to conceptual learnings. Providing their teacher is comfortable with this way to learn. This is because noticing something in the world outside your body that catches your interest can, if you’re allowed to follow up on noticing, engage your prefrontal cortex and the machinery it employs in critical thinking. That builds brains. We need to do it.
Let’s say you find a stream near your school which has been restored, and supports a small salmon population. Your class can make a round trip to it in 20 minutes, which leaves time to make observations each time they visit. When they make a visit, they’ll group to study macroinvertebrates on the bottom of the stream, algae on the stream bottom and rocks, and animals living in the water column who will fit into a small net. Next, they’ll organize themselves to learn to identify the organisms they’ve found, and find out what the animals eat. This is an opening to several NGSS standards: Let’s look at four, one each from K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. (I haven’t started this yet, but it should be doable. It’s all LS.) So, while they’re gathering data to build a food web, they can also be embarking on an integrated curriculum about diversity, thermal tolerance, diet, a John Steinbeck novel; whatever is coming up.
For K-3, look at K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, in which students use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. In this case, building the food web helps students answer the question of what do living things need to survive. That might also lead to learning how some organisms not having enough to eat might affect their food web.
For 4-5, try 5-LS2-1: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. In this case, when one species becomes scarce in its ecosystem, then is lost, this affects the movement of matter in its food web. In doing this, it also affects species diversity. This might lead to learning more about diversity, how we determine it, and what it provides for the species in a food web.
For 6-8, try MS-LS2-4: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. This might lead to learning more about how their food web reflects ecosystems, and some of the biotic interactions which affect them. Middle school students might also use their food webs to approach another NGSS standard, MS-LS2-5: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Again, they learn how to assess biodiversity, and apply those learnings to their food web.
For 9-12, try HS-LS2-6: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. For instance, they can use their food web to learn about thermal tolerance, and how it might cause the loss of one or more species in their food web. Then they might even search the literature for current evidence that, as species move from one ecosystem to another due to the stressors involved in global warming, they are replaced by other species, more tolerant of the changed thermal regime.
Can you engage active learning?
All of these can be enhanced with lab and field activities. This is in addition to the learning each group of students engages. Because they’re learning about particulars they have engaged in a stream, these learnings will become part of a readily accessible conceptual schematum, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected facts.
Pick one of these which doesn’t seem overpowering, look it up on the NGSS web site, and try it out. Read what the NGSS says about it, then think of what you understand of food webs, and see how you can put the two together. When you’ve done that, then see what area of science you will soon be teaching, and see how you can use the NGSS description plus what you know of your food web, to integrate all into a workable unit to teach.
While the NGSS documents don’t often refer to food webs, there are some references to them at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. You can just do a search for ‘food web’ to find them. I’ve used the labels and titles, and the descriptions from the NGSS site in this writing. But I’m uncomfortable with the bureaucratic way they describe a very vivacious, dynamic, interesting system. A food web is one place where much science can be effectively addressed. Then, instead of learning facts about systems, students develop conceptual schemata which tie many areas of science together in meaningful concepts, ideas of how the world works.
We’ll use the organisms I found at the stream near my home for the next step; and that is to build a food web for this riparian area. As in all studies like this, the data collected will apply to just my reach, not the whole stream. To be more confident that my sample represents the stream, I’d have to sample more reaches. This collected information can then be used to construct food webs for that extended reach of the stream. Here’s one for the stream near where I live. (I had to look in side channels and slow waters near the stream’s edge to find the fry. Then, lacking time to complete the sampling, I looked up their diets on the web. I used this information to construct the food web in Figure 1.)
Figure 1. A Riparian Food Web. Elements of the food web are organized by trophic level.
While I’ve named each organism just once, I’ve grouped larvae, both young and mature, in one place, even though they might show up within more than one trophic level if I have considered all of the stages in their lives. And for some, there are more than one species gathered under a name. Considering all species and their life stages would make a more complex, but more informative food web if done with more attention to these details. You can take this as far as your students can comprehend or stand. Complexity increases comprehension up to a point. Beyond that, learners are on overload, and their work isn’t effective. This information/concept overload point is different for each student. You can overcome these differences in capacity by parceling out the work according to each student’s capacity and instructional level. And interest!
You’ll find that active learning is evident in the negotiations within groups as they sort out the pieces of their food webs. As they learn more details about the organisms, their conceptual understandings grow exponentially. And their food webs become more complex, and more meaningful.
Now, we’ll go to a school yard to build a food web. It may not be a riparian area, but it is an area we can study nonetheless. (When I taught inmate students in the college program at the Oregon State Penitentiary, they were able to discover and report data on food webs found in the prison’s exercise yard, an ecosystem where there were no trees, shrubs, or streams. We, too, can do this, without going to prison.) Natural areas are the best to study, but as a workable alternative, you can do an effective study in your own school yard. For lots of us, this is a more workable alternative than field trips to a stream or forest. Take a look. What can you find? Jot down their names, or make names up. (As you learn their actual names, update your food web. This tactic works well with students.) Make an initial food web from your observations, then amplify this with information students research. (Food webs are easier to assess in fall and spring, when the organisms are there in greatest number. However, as compost piles remain warm in their interior, you can probably assess them any time. Be sure to cover them back up!)
Here is one I made up as an example. It’s based on what you might find in a compost pile in a corner of the school yard. If you’ve ever rummaged a compost pile, you’ll know that this is a much simpler food web than you’d find in most compost.
Figure 2. A Schoolyard Food Web.
Food webs, by themselves, provide a visible platform for thinking about organisms and their ecosystems in a dynamic, conceptual way. Both species diversity and thermal tolerance can be effectively introduced via a food web. Thermal tolerance can affect diversity as species move from an ecosystem where temperatures have gone from within their thermal tolerance range to one which offers a better thermal regime. Diversity can attenuate the effects of thermal tolerance limits by reducing the effects of losing a food web species. The more diverse the population, the better the chance that other species will utilize the food sources that the departing species exploited. And might be exploited by the same consumer which consumed the species which departed. Like the visible, dynamic structure of a drawn food web, these two biological phenomena effectors of ecosystem stability live in a dynamic relationship with one another.
So, what will they do with their food webs? In the next two blogs, let’s look at diversity first, then thermal tolerance. Both will provide valuable insights into the effects of global warming on living things; which is something our students need to become experts in.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”