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.
How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students?
by R. Justin Hougham,
University of Wisconsin – Extension
Technology in education (ed tech) is constantly changing and growing in impact in classrooms across the globe. While ed tech holds great promise for closing achievement gaps in sectors of the education community, it remains yet to be seen how this will truly live up to its potential (“Brain Gains”, 2017, July 22). Ed tech is anticipated to grow to a $120 billion market by 2019, which will largely be spent in software and web services. How might we hope to see this show up in out-of-classroom field experiences?
Unaddressed in these articles and what we explore here are the specific impacts that the conversation of technology in environmental education brings as well as a case study that shares strategies we have found to be effective when an education considers the merging of hardware (inquiry tools), technology application in professional development, and web-based collaboration tools. Important questions for environmental education ask include How does this scale for education for the environment? What considerations need to be taken to ensure that investment works? How would we know if it does? How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students? In an article published here in Clearing in 2012, we explored the instructional framework for merging field based science education with mobile pedagogies in the framework entitled Adventure Learning @ (Hougham, Eitel, and Miller, 2012). In the years since, this model has informed a collection of hardware kits that supports the concepts in AL@ as well as an examination of the questions outline above, these hardware kits are called Digital Observation Technology Skills (DOTS) kits.
In the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho you’ll see Steelhead, rushing rapids and hot springs that all tell the story of the landscape. Similarly, along the Wisconsin River, you will see towns, forests and fields that have a link to the industries that have shaped the state over the last 150 years. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you can find inquisitive young people and bright yellow cases filled with gadgets taking data points and crafting Scientific Stories about the watersheds in their state. Regardless of whether it is a wild river or a small tributary outside a schoolyard- scientific stories wait to be told in these places and technology that is appropriately considered helps unlock and share these experiences.
A naturalist assists youth with a water quality test while on a canoe trip. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
In a world where technology is almighty, wielding digital literacy is practically a requirement in our understanding of just about everything. The students of today are able to navigate through web pages and apps with ease, information at their fingertips like never before. Here, we can find ourselves removed from that information, disconnected from those data sources and collections, stifling our desire to wonder and inquire more. By investing in digital tools that can enhance inquiry of the natural world, educators can bridge this divide of both information and the ability to be a primary data collector. In equipping students with touchscreens and interfaces familiar to youth of today, they are able to partake in not only real world application of scientific observation, but also experimental design and efforts moving toward the future.
Young people in Wisconsin have been contributing to the development of this idea of digital data collection and inquiry, through DOTS. The DOTS program has been developing in Wisconsin since 2014, engaging both youth and adult demographics in digital literacies, and connecting the dots from data collection to inquiry and analysis. By involving youth in the visualization and comparison of their data collections, they are able to begin to accomplish higher order learning such as developing their own hypotheses and synthesize the meaning of their findings. DOTS has been developed for students in 4th through 8th grades but has been modified for audiences in 2nd through high school, including adult learners, continuing education, and professional development.
Case studies of this application vary widely in scale, location and content. Currently DOTS kits are used in Idaho and in Wisconsin by youth to examine water quality. A full-scale implementation is underway currently in Wisconsin to connect youth from many different watersheds. Held this past August, the Wisconsin Water Youth Stories Summit brought together students from across the state of Wisconsin who are interested in not only environment and ecosystems, but also water quality and sharing their “water stories”. Supported by an EPA grant, this Summit was a culminating experience for many of the youth, getting to collect and share their findings over their 3 day period at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (Grant Number: EPA-00E02045). This two year grant has trained and equipped educators with DOTS tool with an emphasis on water quality monitoring. Throughout the year, youth from around Wisconsin collect data and share their findings with others in real time on the web. At the Water Stories Summit, each group brought their DOTS kit to explore the environment and compare collected data sets. This experience not only brought together young scientists with a vested interest in the future of water, but also allowed students to share stories of local water quality that affects their own communities around the state.
A student uses a water quality test to find the amount of phosphorus at a Wisconsin River location. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
Many shared stories about urban run-off pollution, such as lawn fertilizers and road salt, E. coli contamination, and they discussed the ways in which humans alter natural waterways. At the end of their experience one student said they learned that, “science is being precise and unbiased about nature and numbers.” Another student said of a different Upham experience, “We went to Blackhawk Island for our project. The tools helped us take photos of what was under the rock. The tools help to see what animals were living there. We came up with a lot of new questions after we did our research and we can’t wait to find out things like, if the temperature affects what animals we will find living under a rock, and what animals live at different depths.” Through these collaborations of student generated data, participants were able to make connections between each other and drive further inquiry questions such as how to improve water use and consumption, and how the water affects all other life.
While the kits themselves are certainly an enhancement to a variety of curriculum, the training that accompanies the deployment is just as important as the tools themselves. Educators that partner on DOTS projects are supported with (1) Equipment, (2) Training and (3) a Web platform for collaboration. It is the interrelationship between the inquiry tools, inquiry methods and inquiry artifacts that provide the support for transformative outdoor science experiences.
A DOTS kit consists of a select set of digital tools to equip youth and educators with everything they need to take a basic data set of an ecosystem and microclimate. Contained in a water-proof, heavy-duty case, the tools selected are chosen for their utility, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. Any suite of tools can be selected for an individual’s classroom purposes, this is first and foremost, a framework to scaffold inquiry and observational skills. DOTS users gain field experience with hand held weather stations, thermal imagers, digital field microscopes, GPS units, and cameras to contribute to local citizen science monitoring (Hougham and Kerlin, 2016). A DOTS program training is facilitated by program staff and has evolved over time to include these six goals. While these are used in DOTS, nearly any technology implementation would benefit from these goals being outlined.
- Establish functional and technical familiarity with DOTS Kit hardware
- Orientation to DOTS Kit web interface, data uploading, and site visualizations
- Examination of mobile, digital pedagogies in historical as well as applied contexts
- Advance instructional capacities in application of observation and inquiry facilitation applicable to experiences outside the classroom
- Production of digital artifacts that contribute to Scientific Storytelling
- Facilitation of initial curricular design considerations for integrating kits into existing programs
After the training, educators have access to a suite of tools that can be lent out for deeper science connections in outdoor spaces. Further, trained educators can use grab-and-go lessons from the project website to launch the concepts with their students and watch videos produced and hosted on the site that provide further instruction on applications of the tools.
Lastly, a web-based collaboration platform is hosted to support the development of additional inquiry. To continue this mission of enhancing student inquiry and promoting collaboration, data sets can be uploaded to an online public access platform. As users enter their data online, the map displays in real time the coordinates and information of each data point. Viewers can easily navigate a Google map with their and other’s data points for comparison and post-experience observation. This immediate viewership not only falls in line with today’s student’s understanding of a fast-paced, immediately available world, but also allows no stagnation in the learning process as inquiry can continue instantaneously. Through engagement by use of digital tools collecting data in the field, reflection on process and methods through data entry into the web-based model, and through analysis and refinement of hypothesis for further inquiry, students take ownership of their data and have a voice in sharing their discoveries with others. These inquiries have been qualified in the DOTS programming through use of a “scientific story”.
The scientific story helps to build connection between qualitative and quantitative data and their respective ways of understanding. As humans we have told stories for millennia to entertain, educate, and remember. Combining these elements of storytelling with the scientific method of developing hypotheses and data collection, a story is created to share. These stories are generally 3-5 sentences and include photos taken by camera and tools such as the handheld microscope and thermal imager. In taking a closer look with digital tools, a deeper appreciation is gained and honed in on through these scientific stories and it is through these words that we can harness stories in what they do best: share. They can be digitized and easily shared across social media platforms, creating interest in the environment and science in family and community members.
This story written while at Upham woods during the aforementioned Water Stories Summit, and describes the location and inquires the youth had.
We investigated two different locations as a part of the water study blitz at Upham Woods. The first location was the Fishing shore on the Wisconsin River, and the second location was a stagnant inlet only 100 feet away. We noticed several differences between the two locations. We wanted to know more about the animal life in both locations. What kind of animals live in these habitats that we couldn’t see during the blitz? What would we find if we studied the location where the Fishing Shore and Inlet connect?
This story highlights the questions students wanted to investigate further and spurred their desire to continue comparing locations in the context of animal life. Another story from the Water Stories Summit illustrates a group of high school students making connections between ideas and places.
When doing the data blitz at camp, we tested water for all kinds of factors (pH, Conductivity, Salinity and others). The cool thing we noticed was the differences in PH levels of the water that equaled a 9.49 level that makes water a base. This reminded us of what would happen if water had a unbalanced and non neutral PH level, that was out of control… One example of this is a sulphur pit, like in Yellowstone national park. The pH of this water is as low as 1.2, which is almost equivalent to battery acid.
By encouraging students to develop their own scientific story, they create a deeper connection with that place and nature in general. This connection evolves to a jumping off point for further inquiry and hypothesis development which can be fleshed out into full empirical science studies or harnessed into environmental service projects. Additionally, as data sets can be shared, these students in Wisconsin can use the data collected in Idaho to further their hypotheses and promote scientific collaboration.
A naturalist teaches an Escuela Verde student how to take a water quality reading. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
Throughout the use of this approach research suggests that digital tools should be adopted in environmental education whenever possible (Hougham et al., 2016). To assess participant perspectives, DOTS uses a modified Common Measures instrument (National 4-H Council, 2017) to examine student attitudes towards technology and towards nature. In a 2015 study conducted by the DOTS project research team (Hougham et al., 2016), students where engaged in two iterations of an environmental studies curriculum- one was with traditional analogue toolsets and one was with digital toolsets. In an analysis of pre/post-test evaluation responses (n= 135), students showed statistically significant and positive shifts in attitudes towards technology, the use of technology outdoors, and towards investigating nature. In a review of the data from DOTS users for both profession development and youth workshops (n=71), it was found that 97% of participants of all ages agreed or strongly agreed that they “better understand how science, technology, or engineering can solve problems after using the DOTS tools”, and 89% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they “liked learning about this subject”.
This survey data provides insight on scaffolding and curiosity building techniques. In this way, it was found that lessons on observation were most useful when they began with broad scale observations and students were invited to make more focused observations. This system allows for students to explore a part of the world that they find interesting, making them more invested in a narrative authentic to them. The practice of up close observation is nothing new in environmental education, notably Adventures with a Hand Lens was published in 1962, advancing outdoor science instruction to engage the learner in their own investigations of the world up close. Today, this observation scaffolds easily onto data collection, with students studying parts of the ecosystem that they find interesting with encouragement to find how these seemingly individual pieces coalesce into a larger system.
In moving environmental education into the digital age, educators should look to empower youth with the tools and responsibility to examine their surroundings, and in encouraging youth to take and use technology outside, educators can capitalize on students collecting their own data sets to develop deeper, more meaningful inquiry questions. And when they can begin developing their own questions that they want to answer rather than following a worksheet or handout, the exploration becomes that much more desirable and satiating. Those young people wielding handheld weather stations and thermal imagers on the Salmon River or on the Wisconsin may appear to be kids collecting some information for science project, but don’t be fooled, the next generation of scientists and scientific thinkers is out there, already developing their inquiries into the natural world.
- Brain Gains. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21725313-how-science-learning-can-get-best-out-edtech-together-technology-and-teachers-can
- Headstrom, R.. (1962). Adventures with a Hand Lens.
- Hougham, R. J., Eitel, K. B., & Miller, B. G. (2013). AL@: Combining the strengths of adventure learning and place based education. 2012 CLEARING Compendium (pp 38-41).
- Hougham, J. and Kerlin, S. (2017). To Unplug or Plug In. Green Teacher. Available at: https://greenteacher.com/to-unplug-or-plug-in/.
- Hougham, R., Nutter, M., Nussbaum, A., Riedl, T. and Burgess, S. (2016). Engaging at-risk populations outdoors, digitally: researching youth attitudes, confidence, and interest in technology and the outdoors. Presented at the 44th Annual International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Minneapolis, MN.
- National 4-H Council. (2017). Common Measures 2.0.
- Technology is transforming what happens when a child goes to school. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21725285-reformers-are-using-new-software-personalise-learning-technology-transforming-what-happens
Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Extension where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education for sustainability.
Marc Nutter manages the facility of Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center located in Wisconsin Dells, WI which serves over 11,000 youth and adults annually. With the research naturalist team at Upham Woods, Marc implements local, state, and federal grants around Wisconsin aimed to get youth connected to their local surroundings with the aid of technology that enhances observation.
Megan Gilbertson is currently a school psychology graduate student at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. While working at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, she collaborated on grant funded projects to create and curate online data platforms for educational groups and facilitate programs for both youth and adults on the integration of technology with observation and inquiry in environmental education.
Quinn Bukouricz is a research naturalist involved with technology-integrated programming statewide, funded on grants and program revenues. He is also responsible the creation and care of programmatic equipment which includes the “Digital Observation Technology Skills” kits, and the implementation of grants.
Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
(see Part One here)
Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned
Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:
- Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
- Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
- Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
- Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
- Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
- Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.
Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.
Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.
Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.
Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.
Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.
Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”
Paying It Forward
My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.
Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.
Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.
Know and Do What We Teach: How many times are we assigned to teach a subject we know little about?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor
t a riparian ecology training for teachers a few years ago, I met two who epitomize a perennial problem in education in America. One of the teachers was in her third year of teaching, said she had no background in science, was never trained for teaching it, but was assigned to teach all of the 6th grade science in her middle school. The other was a teacher who had been a fisheries biologist for several years, and was now teaching high school science. Two teachers, each of whom is assumed will deliver equally effective, student-empowering curricula in their schools. Who are assumed to be teaching at the same level of experience and expertise. How do we rationalize this? How do we deal with it?
Many teachers who lack confidence in teaching the content they are assigned forces them to simply use and parrot the instructions in teachers’ editions of their assigned curricular materials. If we are simply in the schools to prepare our students for the standards tests they will take, adhering to the status quo may be able to make the attempt; although, to date, this effort has produced no nation-wide positive result. But, if we are in schools to involve and invest our students in authentic and challenging concept-based curriculum, and to deliver our curricula in a way which empowers them as persons, then we all need to comprehend the concepts we teach at a level which makes us comfortable in determining our own ways to deliver our curricula. The only way to do that is to know and do what we teach.
As long as we are able to build a learning environment which involves and invests our students in their learnings and empowers them as persons, their brains will do the work. While there are many reasons posited for the poor performance of US students compared with their global peers, assumptions about student capacity based on demographics ought not to matter, not be a reason for poor performance; the brain is an autonomous learning machine. If we allow it.
Why should I want more than a good set of published curricular materials?
All teachers of empowered students that I’ve observed have a content background strong enough to allow them to design their own curricular deliveries. And their students, regardless of demographics, respond to this in a positive, participating way. I’ve also observed teachers with little or no background in the curricular content and/or grade level they are assigned to teach become exceptional teachers when they receive competent mentoring in their classrooms while they are teaching. Just as with their students, these teachers’ brains became autonomous learning machines when they were allowed to. Our expectations re teachers’ preparation for the content they are assigned to teach is a strong indicator that many of us do not allow that. They are assigned to teach what they are assigned to teach. Beyond that, most receive precious little support in the way of developing professional competence in their assigned content area.
Would we accept a world in which only about half of automobile mechanics have training to repair the motors they work on? Where half of dentists have the training to perform a root canal on their root canal patients? How about only half of surgeons with training for the surgeries they perform? Only half of lawyers with training for the cases they proceed with in the court? Half the baristas with no training for the coffees they produce in the coffee shops where they work? We have, and assume, the right to people who have had effective training for the work they perform. Except for teachers. It’s almost as if there is an assumption that teachers can “just do it.” In fact, I’ve heard this claim. More than once.
So, why are we so complacent about having teachers in classrooms who may be only marginally trained in the content they deliver? Jaime Escalante taught calculus to students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, where 85 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-fee meals, and faculty morale was low (Scientific American, Aug 2011, p. 14: Stand and Deliver). His unpopular, to some, attitude toward his students’ brains’ capacity for learning was displayed in a banner in his classroom which declared, “Calculus does not have to be made easy – It is easy already”. In spite of opposition from the school administration and some faculty to his teaching, more of his students took the AP calculus exam than at all but three other public schools in the nation. Two thirds of his students passed the exam. He possessed a background in calculus which allowed him to develop and execute a very clear demonstration that the brain is an autonomous learning machine when we allow it. And proved it.
In a recent article, Climate confusion among U.S. teachers: Teachers’ knowledge and values can hinder climate education, published in the 12 February 2016 issue of Science magazine, the authors report that fewer than 25% of teachers have the training they need to teach the basics of global warming. This, in spite of the fact that climate change may be the most important challenge that today’s students and their children will face. Why aren’t schools allowed to provide the training their teachers need to become more effective teachers of climate change in their classrooms? A large fraction of the business world does just that. Especially when there is a demonstrated authentic need for it.
What do I need in addition to good curricular materials to better prepare my students for their future?
A suggestion: I submit that we need to work together to develop an effective method to ensure that teachers have access to the training and support they need to teach inquiry-based science in their classrooms. Every day. We don’t think of students as the people who will set our nation’s place among the other nations in the world, but they are. We need more than a small fraction of K-12 students who excel in school. My experience tells me that nearly all students have the capacity to either excel, or do very well in school. Dysfunctional families can certainly hold their children back, and schools have very little influence over what happens at home. But, they ought to have influence over what happens at school. That’s where their power lies.
Schools, can, and do, produce environments in which all of their students can excel, or at the least, do very well. For instance, one school I’ve known for a long time does just that. The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS), a public charter school in Salem, OR, does that consistently every year. Entering students are selected via a lottery which covers Salem’s demographic spectrum. While the faculty don’t focus on the standards, each year 100% of their students pass the standards exams, 90% or more at the two highest levels. Oddly enough, all of their teachers have strong backgrounds in the content they teach.
In many of these cases, teachers have engaged in summer workshops and institutes which deliver hands-on experience in doing science inquiries they have conceived, designed, and executed in natural environments, and using those experiences to develop in-depth content knowledge of the subject of their inquiries. This is a context in which regional environmental educators and experienced teachers can collaborate to plan and execute workshops and institutes which can provide the training and support to produce classrooms which are facilitated by teachers who are experienced in science inquiry and have deep knowledge of the content they teach. And which deliver students who are involved and invested in their educations; and empowered as persons. A strong content and process background gives teachers the confidence it takes to deliver a student-centered, active-learning based curriculum. Something we all need to learn to do. Well.
How can you help?
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.”
Climate Change Education: A Student’s Perspective
by Eliot Brody
At my recent high school graduation, I found myself reflecting on the 12 years I spent in Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools. While I sat through the speeches in my oversized, wrinkly gown, I thought about all that I had learned in those 12 years. And all that I hadn’t.
As I sifted through the many topics that had been covered in my schooling, my thoughts lingered on the conspicuous absence of climate change education—I had known nothing about the greenhouse effect until a guest speaker came into my science class in eighth grade. As a few members of Franklin High School’s graduating class crossed the stage wearing their beaded “wood-cookie” necklaces, my mind conjured vivid images of the place they got those keepsakes; a week in sixth grade that we all spent learning environmental science in the woods near Mt. Hood. Again, though, my nostalgia turned negative as I recalled that we were the last group of students to have the full six-day Outdoor School experience; the following year, Multnomah Education Service District shortened the program to three days. My reflections left me with the conviction that the school system as I knew it could not be counted on to teach climate science.
Reversing the consequences of climate change grows increasingly difficult each day. With this is in mind, we must find ways to teach our youngest students about climate change as early as possible, because they will be the ones most affected by it.
Big Ideas in a Shrunken School
Two months before graduation officially concluded my Portland Public Schools journey, I paid a special visit to the place where it all began, Glencoe Elementary School. I walked through what felt like shrunken hallways in the familiar building, dodging elementary schoolers as they hurried back to class from lunch. Only seven years before, I had been in their position, but I was there now to be their guest teacher. I was accompanied by a classmate and friend, Mabel Miller, and together we had prepared an hour-long presentation on climate change for the school’s fourth graders.
Glencoe has four fourth grade classes, each with around 30 students. Miller and I planned to teach lessons in two of the classes that day, before presenting to the other two classes the following day. As we prepared our Google Slides presentation in our first class, there was an audible hubbub among the fourth graders about the two unfamiliar teenagers standing awkwardly at the front of their classroom. One brave student even called out to us, “Who are you?” Before we could say anything, Ms. Clark, the teacher, hushed her class and reminded them who we were by pointing to the day’s schedule on a chalkboard. Scrawled in white chalk was, “Franklin High School visitors,” next to, “12:00 p.m.”
I glanced out at the large group of antsy nine and ten year-olds, then over at Miller. Her face displayed my own worries: how will we keep the attention of these kids? I silently thanked her for preparing an interactive, climate change-themed activity to do with the students when they got restless. Ms. Clark turned to us with a smile and informed us that we could start whenever we were ready. I leaned over to turn on the projector, and we introduced ourselves and began.
First, we gauged the fourth graders’ prior knowledge on the subject. We asked what the phrase “climate change” made the students think about and how it made them feel. We got a variety of responses, from “it makes me sad” to detailed accounts of the polar ice caps melting. Then, we showed slides explaining:
- The distinction between “climate” and “weather,” and how climate change is different from seasonal fluctuations in temperature and weather.
- The atmosphere, how it can vary in size, and what that means for average temperatures on the Earth. We displayed a series of diagrams showing atmospheres of varying sizes, and how much heat could escape in each scenario. We also used plenty of analogies:
- “It’s like your blanket at night. You don’t want one that’s too heavy, or else you’ll be too hot.”
- “It’s like sitting in a hot car in the summer. The windows let the warmth from the sunlight in, and then that heat gets trapped in the car.”
- Fossil fuels and how humans use them.
- Greenhouse gases and how they cause the greenhouse effect. We specifically highlighted and explained carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor.
- The many effects of climate change. We made the tougher ideas as relatable for the students as possible, including talking about what coral bleaching means for the livelihood of the aquatic characters in the popular Disney movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.
- Small and big things that the students could do to fight climate change.
As soon as we got into the material, it was apparent that the kids were interested—far more interested than we had anticipated. We had expected our presentation to take the first 40 minutes, leaving 20 minutes for the activity, but the students’ many questions and comments stretched our slideshow to take up the whole hour. Instead of being bored or disinterested, the students wanted to learn more about each detail and share their own stories and experiences. We received a chorus of genuine-sounding “thank you’s” from the students as we left.
In the next class, our presentation ran even more smoothly. I was consistently surprised by how much the students wanted to participate and ask questions, and again we finished the presentation without having to use the activity to fill time or focus the students. At the end, a number of students came up to personally thank us, and one girl gave me a bookmark emblazoned with the words, “save the earth.”
The classes we presented to the following day were just as welcoming and curious. The experience we had gained from the previous day gave us more confidence as we taught. By the end of the second day, we had given a crash course on climate change’s underlying science and effects to well over 100 students. More importantly, we had showed what they could individually do to help. It had only taken four hours of our time, and the teachers had happily extended their rooms, students, and class time to our cause. The four teachers, all of whom had been around when Miller and I attended Glencoe, even gave us a thank-you card.
Education, the Best Form of Activism
So, how did Miller and I end up back in our elementary school two months before graduation?
At Franklin, we had both taken a class called Environmental Justice and Sustainability. The format of the elective was to have each student work on year-long projects related to sustainability. The class was only two years old, having been started in the 2015-16 school year, but it had already made big strides and inspired the adoption of a similar class by the same name at another PPS school, Lincoln High School. Miller, as president of Franklin’s Earth Club, had used the class to increase the club’s size and presence in the school community (this year, over 60 students were in the club). Students had also created and run a bottles-and-cans recycling system and started a vegetable garden, among other endeavors. The class had even been able to improve Franklin’s resource conservation strategies enough for the school to earn recognition as a Merit-Level Oregon Green School.
My project was to coordinate outreach from our “green team” to other nearby communities, including the rest of the PPS high schools. Earlier in the year, I had focused on high school outreach by helping form a coalition of students called High School Environmental Leadership Project (HELP). HELP brings together high school students every other week to work on environmental activism and make each PPS high school more sustainable. One long-term HELP goal is to write a city ordinance that would bind Portland lawmakers to reducing emissions. The project is called YouCAN (Youth Climate Action Now) and is based on a model that has been used in four other Oregon cities: Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, and Ashland. One tactic that was used in Eugene was to have students testify in front of the city council in favor of adopting the ordinance. YouCAN organizers in Eugene described the importance of having youth of all ages testify, so HELP decided that elementary school outreach would be an important step in furthering this goal. At the end of our elementary school presentation, we told students that one of the big ways they could contribute to the cause is by attending a HELP summer camp or even testifying in front of city council at some point. Many students seemed interested in this, and we told the teachers that we would keep them posted as the project developed. HELP’s climate justice action camp will be held on August 24th and 25th this summer for rising third graders, fourth graders, and fifth graders.
Miller and I had a number of reasons for teaching at Glencoe. It furthered our work with HELP and allowed us to reach out as Franklin green team members to elementary school students in the Franklin neighborhood. Most importantly, though, it allowed us to teach about climate change to the generation that will be most affected by it. It is extremely important that students are taught at a young age to trust the scientists on this issue and not the corporate propaganda.
Get High Schoolers Teaching Climate Science
After the successful lessons at Glencoe, I wanted to continue to teach elementary schoolers about climate change. I emailed a 4th grade teacher at Atkinson Elementary, another school in the Franklin neighborhood. The teacher, Amy Nunn, seemed enthusiastic about the lessons, and about a week after the Glencoe lessons, Miller and I headed into Atkinson to teach Nunn’s class. The experience was slightly different, as I hadn’t gone to school at Atkinson. Even so, I felt more comfortable teaching this time. For the first time, Miller and I were able to fit the climate change activity into the presentation. For the activity, we gave the students “before and after” pictures of glaciers. Half of the pictures dated back to the early 20th century, and half were modern pictures of the same glaciers. They looked very different, which made the matching process difficult for the students, and also showed them the effects of climate change.
Once again, it felt wonderful to be able to teach younger students about such an important topic. Nunn also saw another benefit to the lessons. “In fourth grade, students learn and practice the speaking skills needed to effectively convey a message to an audience,” she said. “Having high school students model exemplary speaking skills provided the younger students with a real life example of how to effectively educate an audience.”
PPS and other school systems have shown that they don’t see climate education as a priority. I wish that I could have been taught much earlier about the causes and effects of climate change; I could have started my activism at a younger age if that had been the case. Sometimes, though, you have to make your own solution to problems like these. There are few roadblocks preventing high schoolers from emailing their elementary school teachers and asking to borrow some class time to teach about climate change.
Nunn added, “As a professional educator, I would gladly welcome back future high school students to share their scientific understanding of how the local decisions we make directly impact our Earth at a global level and how we can live more responsibly to prevent further, negative changes to the Earth’s climate.”
Eliot Brody is a recent graduate of Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. He has been accepted to continue his studies in climate change education at Occidental College in Los Angeles. We hope that Eliot will be willing to contribute future articles as he learns more about climate change education.
Why would a practicing teacher need a Mentor?
Is the idea of mentoring teachers an unnecessary element in our Schools?
by Jim Martin
If you were to trace your ancestry 25,000 years or further, you’d find that your forebears read no books about the natural environment. Nor did they answer multiple choice test questions about it. They lived in it, and learned in it. The environment is where they developed the capacity for critical thinking that we carry with us today.
We try very hard to continue to teach critical thinking in our classrooms, but all you have to do is look around, and you have to conclude that classrooms don’t teach critical thinking very well, if at all. However, walk into a classroom in which the curriculum is built upon experiences in the real world, and you will see critical thinking, critical writing, involvement and investment in learning, commitment to growth, and active environmental stewardship. You’ll also encounter enthusiastic, empowered people. Environmental education is demonstrably an effective vehicle for learning for understanding in all subjects, and is the crucible for the evolutionary development of our central nervous system, “the brain,” which we use every day to learn. We learn best in the real world; the learnings we acquire express themselves in personal growth, improved education, and a commitment to stewardship.
Studies on teachers who decide to take their students into the real world reflect what I’ve heard from other people who train teachers or are teachers who have taken their students outside the classroom. Even my own experiences teaching classes in fifth-grade through college, and helping teachers learn to do that too, all say, in one way or another, that it takes three to five years for a teacher to move from not having taken students outside the classroom, to being comfortable using the world outside to deliver curricular content. (That’s a long sentence; I’ll follow with a short one.) It works. Takes time and patience, but it does work.
Might mentors assist teachers to develop their capacity to use the environment for teaching and learning?
Hopefully, many of us know that our students, and their children, will have to understand ecosystems and climate change if they are to cope with the brunt of the effects of climate change. That means we have to teach these subjects in our schools. The studies I can find of how well-equipped we are to meet this real need say that fewer than half of us have the college-level background and understandings we should possess to teach the environmental science to meet this need effectively. We really must take some first steps in filling this vacuum as a professional responsibility.
In previous blogs we’ve looked at an outline of how to approach the training that teachers need to enable their students to approach global warming effectively. Another component of an effective response to the problem is a mentoring program to help more teachers through these three to five years it takes to become proficient in using active learning outside the classroom to teach ecosystem science. Mentoring is a model that business and industry use routinely, but which is relatively rare in schools. Just now, we are the only ones who can begin to build capacity for this developmental model in our schools.
Over the years, I’ve worked with teachers making their first forays with students into the world outside the classroom. For a large fraction of them, their main concern on this first trip is the head count going onto the bus, and the head count getting on the bus for the return trip. This concern of theirs about not losing a student highlights a pertinent piece of the act of moving outside the classroom to generate curriculum – how we, the teachers, feel when we step outside the familiar safety of our classroom.
What can mentors actually do for teachers?
Those feelings, anxieties, tend to carry through that first day. Another common teacher concern at the site during a first field trip is about student behaviors as they work and move through the site’s stations. When we are anxious, our brain’s response is to seek safety instead of attending to the learnings on site and developing conceptual schemata that will help us do a better job of teaching. On that first day, teachers should have the support it takes to enjoy the field trip, and be sorting through it to re-think what will follow once they are back in the classroom. Mentors can fill that need, helping teachers grow as they experience active learning in the world about. This can involve and invest them in the work, and empower them as teachers. A mentor is another human to walk the road with. Then, the work, not concern about what might happen, will carry the day.
For teachers on a first trip where their students are actively involved in learning on-site, a mentor is an ideal person to point out the content the site contains, and how to fill in areas the teacher is weak in. They also would have the knowledge, skills, and experience to recommend particular things the teacher can do to help their students discover that content embedded in the environment. At the same time, a good mentor would also be able to make suggestions about supervision and management skills that the teacher may not be aware of. It takes time, years, to become comfortable and proficient at using the real world to enhance student learnings.
The payoffs of making mentors a part of classroom and environmental education are worth the investment it takes to get them there. One powerful tool in making this happen is attracting seasoned mentors to help teachers navigate this part of the education world. Both environmental educators and teachers. We need to build this capacity into teacher training now.
There are teachers in most school districts who do take their students outside the classroom, either on the school grounds, the neighborhood, or a natural area. Many of these teachers who take their students out of the classroom for part of their curricula have, in the past, been willing to help other teachers who think they would like to try it, but are understandably unwilling to risk it alone. They constitute a component of an ideal mentor pool. Adding environmental educators, a critical component in the pool, should double its effectiveness. We’ll take this up in the next blog. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in this topic, leave a comment below.
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.”