Book Review: Place-based Education

Book Review: Place-based Education

Enlivening Students


by Gregory A. Smith


Review of Sarah Anderson’s, Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (Lanham, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

or the past two decades, books and articles written by place- and community-based advocates have been largely focused on defining and justifying an alternative approach to teaching and learning grounded in local knowledge and issues with the aim of inducting children into a sense of community participation and responsibility. This literature was largely exhortatory rather than prescriptive. It did not often provide interested teachers with detailed guidelines about how to move from a broad vision to the challenge of creating and enacting curriculum and instruction not limited by either textbooks or even classrooms. These advocates asked teachers to be courageous and take risks, trusting in their capacity to experiment and learn from their failures and successes. And many teachers across the United States and elsewhere became early adopters of this approach, willing to embrace those challenges and risks. As place- and community-based education enters its third decade, however, something more is needed to make its implementation appealing and understandable to a broader group of educators. Sarah Anderson’s Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (2017) provides exactly the kind of guidance required to accomplish this end.

Anderson is a former student of David Sobel, one of the early advocates of this approach. For the past dozen years she has embraced what she learned while studying with him first as a middle-school teacher and now as the fieldwork coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon. Anderson’s work is especially powerful because of her concern about citizenship education and democratic practice. Place-based educators often focus primarily on providing students with immersive experiences in nature without necessarily engaging them in the cultural understandings, conflicts, problem-solving, and negotiation that accompany life in civil society. This is not to diminish the importance of those immersive experiences—which can be central to the development of a strong environmental ethic—but in themselves not enough to give young people the confidence or savvy required to become engaged community actors. Anderson’s work exemplifies how this can happen and how schools and communities can truly “get better together.”1

Her volume provides multiple examples of lessons and units she or the teachers she works with have developed and taught. Chapters describe ways that students can use maps to learn about their place, contribute to its human and environmental health through community science, learn directly about local history, partner with nearby agencies and organizations, explore the way different subject areas can be integrated to deepen knowledge and understanding, and develop a sense of connection with and empathy for one another and people beyond the school. The three chapters about mapping, citizen science, and local history provide detailed descriptions of units interested but uncertain teachers could profit from as they begin to incorporate local possibilities into their own work with students; they will be the focus of the remainder of this review.

Maps offer not only a good way to introduce children to their own place but to think about “What is where, why there, why care?”2 They naturally lead students to observe, collect data, and make inferences. At the Cottonwood School maps are integrated into the learning experiences of children at all grade levels. Early in the school year as a welcoming activity, everyone is invited to create and share personal maps of things special to them in their bedroom, home, neighborhood, or someplace away from home. Kindergarteners through second graders then create maps of their classroom and playground, sometimes using blocks and unix cubes to illustrate a space. Third graders map the school focusing on specific features such as sound. Fourth through sixth graders create maps to scale of neighborhood features such as parks and then compare and contrast in writing the data presented in their maps. Sixth graders map nearby features of their own choosing. They walk through the South Waterfront neighborhood and record the location of things like K9 restrooms (fire hydrants), bike racks, and food carts. They then create a formal illustrated map with compass roses and borders (and sometimes sea serpents in the Willamette River) to represent what they have found. Seventh and eighth graders go further afield and focus on the city and state. Given a map of the city’s boundaries and different districts, they identify major bodies of water, traffic routes, and one personally significant place in each district. This leads into a more extensive exercise in which they choose one data set to map. Possibilities include population, temperature levels during a heat wave, city parks, or the location of Starbucks coffee shops. They are encouraged to think about who has access to which resources by comparing demographic maps that focus on race and ethnicity. Maps offer a way to synthesize disparate but related information as well as integrate a variety of subject matter.

The school’s incorporation of community science offers similar opportunities to link lessons to students’ lives and create learning experiences that allow for observation, analysis, and curricular integration. Community science involves identifying local phenomena or issues worthy of study and action and linking these topics to the Next Generation Science Standards. One year, seventh- and eighth-graders identified the problem of animal waste in the neighborhood as an issue they wanted to explore and investigate. As they ventured beyond the school for a variety of learning activities, they found nearby sidewalks both hazardous and smelly. They decided to do something about it. Their teacher divided the class into teams who performed different tasks: one counted all of the pet waste in a six-block radius, another researched the environmental toxins found in dog poop, a third team investigated Portland laws regarding the regulation of pet waste, and a fourth researched similar laws in other cities. Once students had all of this information in hand, they analyzed what they had found and brainstormed possible solutions. They then wrote letters to public officials recommending that the city provide more public education about this problem and enact bigger fines for people who violated laws already on the books. Their letters resulted in a meeting with officials in city hall, and their ideas were incorporated into a “petiquette” campaign that the city had already begun planning. Extended units like these offers students a chance to systematically explore a topic, do so in ways that allow them to see its relevance to their own lives, and then make a contribution to the broader community. Such experiences match the call by framers of the NGSS to apply scientific concepts and practices to real life circumstances.

One of Anderson’s talents lies in her capacity to find ways to make the study of history local, as well. The third grade curriculum, for example, includes a focus on Native Americans. As part of that study, students visited the Oregon Historical Society, Portland State University’s Department of Archeology, and a traditional Chinook longhouse at Ridgefield, a National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State less than an hour from the city. Returning to the school, they transformed their classroom into a longhouse with a “fire pit” in the middle of the room. They also participated in PSU’s Archeology Roadshow where after having learned about the characteristics of meaningful exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science Industry, they created a longhouse model and became the only K-12 students to share their work at an event otherwise populated with much older presenters. The opportunity to be involved with people beyond the school at PSU or City Hall demonstrates to children that they are as much citizens as anyone else in their community, lending them both a level of confidence and a sense of responsibility too absent in the education of this country’s future adults.

Learning experiences like these are deeply engaging for students. Furthermore, they demonstrate to community members the capacity of children to make genuine contributions to their common life.   Anderson’s book offers a useful and inspiring roadmap for other educators interested in realizing this vision of place-based education themselves.

1 Tagline for the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that grew out of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the first national effort in the 1990s aimed at disseminating the possibilities of place-based education.
2 In Brian Baskerville’s 2013 article, “Becoming Geographers: An Interview about Geography with Geographer Dr. Charles Gritzner (


Gregory Smith is a professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He has written numerous articles and books about environmental and place- and community-based education. He is a fellow of the National Education Policy Center at UC-Boulder, a member of the education advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools, and a board member of the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science.


E2E Grant Project Report – Alaska

E2E Grant Project Report – Alaska

E2E Grant Project Report

Evaluate EE Programs for Systemic Change in Your Community

How to improve the effectiveness of teacher professional development in environmental education


By Cathy Rezabeck, Marilyn Sigman and Beverly Parsons
illingham, Alaska is a rural community in western Alaska with about 2,400 residents, including a substantial population of Yup’ik Eskimos. It has its own school district with an elementary, middle and secondary school. The only way to get there is by plane or boat – there is no road from anywhere! Anchorage is a one-hour jet ride away. You might think it unlikely that you can compare this scenario to your own, but stay tuned. Key to our success in determining the impact of our environmental education project was our use of a Framework for Systems-Oriented Evaluation.

The Alaska Natural Resource and Outdoor Education Association (ANROE) is Alaska’s NAAEE affiliate ( In 2014 the Environmental Education Office of the EPA awarded a grant “Collective Impact: Advancing Environmental Literacy through Shared Value Creation, Innovation and Collaboration” to four Pacific Northwest states (Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon – EPA’s Region 10). The goal of this Educator to Educator Initiative (E2E) was to develop, disseminate, and evaluate a replicable model for implementing state environmental literacy plans in the Pacific Northwest.

The project team for each state chose a “problem of practice” to focus their grant activities. The Alaska team, with Cathy Rezabeck as ANROE’s Project Coordinator, chose to address how to improve the long-term impact and outcomes of professional development in K-12 environmental education. Our intention was to gain insight into how to improve the effectiveness of professional development in environmental education and the methods by which effectiveness was evaluated. The typical professional development formats consisted of a brief session during a teacher in-service, a two-day, one credit workshop, or a 4-5 day two-credit course. All three were essentially “one shot” learning opportunities for teachers with some limited follow-up requirements to report on how they applied what they had learned in their classroom in a brief reflection on change in practice.

We chose to pilot a new model developed by Alaska Sea Grant (ASG) with the goals of accomplishing and documenting sustained changes in teaching practice schoolwide with emphasis on thematic environmental education instruction focused on local environments and outdoor learning on field trips. Our “problem of practice” was relevant to two goals of the Alaska Natural Resource and Environmental Literacy Plan :  Goal 4: “Enhance professional development for educators, administrators, and community members in natural resource and environmental literacy,” and Goal 5: “Support the development of Alaska school facilities, grounds and local natural areas that provide accessible learning opportunities and serve as community models for healthy living and sustainability.”

ASG wanted to re-invigorate their Sea Week program (re-named as Alaska Seas and Watersheds) in the Dillingham School District and in other Alaska communities where it had been an annual tradition from 1980s into the early 2000s. They developed a new model for professional development designed to increase the use of Alaska Seas and Watersheds (ASW) curriculum materials ( and, thus, STEM teaching and environmental literacy about local marine and aquatic environments. The model involved an on-site, professional development workshop provided by Marilyn Sigman, ASG’s Marine Education Specialist, followed by the opportunity for an extended for-credit practicum that could be fulfilled by providing leadership in schoolwide instructional or curriculum change and a field trip program. ASG also provided the Dillingham School District with a $10,000, three-year grant to jump-start their environmental education program.

As part of the grant funds provided by EPA, Marilyn Sigman and Cathy Rezabeck were able to work with Beverly Parsons as an outside evaluator to identify our metrics and methods of evaluating systemic, i.e., sustainable, change.

We identified seven elements which we felt were key to our success, but all were “driven” by the Framework for Systems – Oriented Evaluation developed by Beverly Parsons. ANROE articulated the system of interest and the framework for evaluating change. In our application of the systems framework to our project, we began by identifying the specific levels within the system where change would have significant impacts on the entire system. We selected the following levels which can be viewed on the vertical axis of Figure 1: the individual teacher level (K-8 teachers, specifically, because the ASW curriculum is elementary and middle school-focused), two school administrator levels –the principals of the elementary and middle schools and the District superintendent, and the community level (specifically, local community partners). For each level, we then articulated (on the horizontal axis in Figure 1) the current status of the component of the system we desired to change, the interventions we intended to implement, the tangible or quantifiable “tipping points” we could identify that would indicate significant change, and the desired long-term end-state for the component. We designed and administered pre and post surveys to the teachers involved and used that data to inform this chart. Figure 1 summarizes how this framework was applied to our project and also shows our assessment of whether the intervention (Evaluation column) met the identified tipping points. For a more detailed discussion of the components and results of the evaluation along with our recommendations and conclusions, “Case Study: Increasing Environmental Literacy through Professional Development in Alaska” is available for download here.

The case study demonstrates that using the framework illustrated in Figure 1 can provide the means for professional development providers to evaluate their impacts not only on individual teachers, but also at other levels of the K-12 education system, including school districts, and communities, both of which support the sustained use and benefits of professional development. This systems-based evaluation approach could be used to gauge success in the implementation of effective teaching strategies in environmental education, on the use of specific environmental education resources, and on emphasis placed on environmental education in school and school district curriculum frameworks.

On the statewide level, this approach could provide the means to analyze and evaluate statewide progress on the goals and objectives of the Alaska Natural Resources and Environmental Literacy Plan. In addition, we concluded that providing even relatively modest financial support to schools and instructional resources that were locally relevant removed two important barriers to increasing instructional time spent on environmental education.
We acknowledge that the evaluation process described can be time-intensive and requires considerable professional expertise, but it provides a much more insightful and adaptive approach to professional development and the systemic improvement of environmental literacy instruction than the previous model of stand-alone professional development workshops and courses.

This systems-oriented evaluation approach could also provide the means to evaluate the impacts of other types of environmental education interventions to accomplish systemic change in the K-12 system, an area of environmental education that has not been well developed with evidence-based studies. Finally, because this approach is closely aligned with “logic models” required by a number of federal agencies, it is also useful as an evaluation framework for grant proposals and the documentation of societal impacts from federal, state and private investments in environmental education programs.
Give it a try! Make a chart of your own when you plan your next professional development or other environmental education program. We think you will discover a new way to view your efforts –and make systemic change happen.

Cathy Rezabeck is ANROE’s Project Coordinator. She recently retired from her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service position as statewide Outreach Coordinator after 26 years.





Marilyn Sigman is Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Education Specialist and an Associate Professor of Marine Education in the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She is the current Chair of ANROE’s Board of Directors.





Beverly Parsons is President and Executive Director of InSites, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that provides inquiry-based evaluation, planning, and research to support learning, growth, and change in formal and informal social systems.

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

by Cecelia Bosma
Trinity Lutheran School
Litchfield, Arizona



W3e live on a planet with limited resources that are often consumed without caution. Finding ways to engage students in pro-environmental behaviors that conserve these limited resources rather than take them for granted is a priority for environmental educators. The human population also needs to work on understanding the benefits and risks we take with our daily behavior. Conserving the use of paper towels at home and in public is one easy pro-environmental behavior that will have a positive impact on the environment. Paper towels do not just use up trees, they also require large amount of water for production and they end up in landfills which generates pollution as they slowly decompose. However there are numerous alternatives to using paper towels at home and at school. These alternatives are efficient effective and financially thrifty. Often times conservation practices are rejected because they are time consuming and or costly. Alternatives to paper towels are neither. The financial benefit is an incentive for people that don’t relate to the environmental impact of using paper towels.

IMG_1947Last fall, I designed a project to engage my eighth grade science class in a meaningful scientific inquiry project that assisted in deepening students’ understanding of the importance of conservation action through environmental education. The project action focused on eliminating paper towels in school bathrooms. There are many environmental benefits to reducing the amount of paper towels manufactured. One benefit is the reduction of trash in landfills because generally bathroom paper towels cannot be recycled. Another benefit is the reduction of chemicals leaching back into our soil from decomposing paper towels. This in turn saves trees from being processed into paper towels. Environmental benefits are also found in the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of paper towels, and the reduced amount of fuel burned transporting paper towels.

Getting started on an inquiry project that is focused on building environmental knowledge through conservation action on the school campus can be a challenge. I have been working middle school students on various inquiry projects to build environmental knowledge for several years. Each time I start a project I am learning right along with my students. This project was no exception. Sharing ideas about inquiry and lessons that motivate students to learn and build knowledge is how we as teachers can help each other build stronger lesson plans that benefit our students and communities.

Project Inspiration

Educating adolescents about the impact they have on their environment is necessary for nurturing lifelong environmental stewardship (Nancy & Kristi, 2006). In the last twenty years, environmental education has been gaining a stronger foothold in classrooms across America (Stevenson, Peterson, Bondell, Mertig, & Moore, 2013). The purpose of environmental education is to teach students how to make responsible decisions, using critical thinking in order to take action to maintain or improve our environment (Short, 2010). Educators should encourage even small steps toward environmental conservation, as they are building blocks to lifetime environmental conservation action (Short, 2010). Accordingly, the primary goal of environmental education is to instill knowledge that leads to pro-environmental actions and behaviors for individuals, groups and society (Heimlich, 2010). I have found that engaging the learners in hands on actionable learning has a positive effect on the outcome of environmental education.

The burgeoning population of planet Earth has brought about observable changes in the environment both in populated and unpopulated regions of the world (Short, 2010). Scientists have observed these drastic changes in the form of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, deforestation and global warming, all of which can be attributed to human actions (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Therefore, it is society’s responsibility to take action to improve the current environmental status that threatens the very existence of humans (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Additionally, it is important to incorporate positive actions into environmental education (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our environment. Students are motivated by positive changes that help our environment such as recycling. Inquiry style learning is one way to incorporate positive action. Increasing environmental knowledge is a crucial part of environmental education (Grodzińska-Jurczak, Bartosiewicz, Twardowska, & Ballantyne, 2003). This project incorporated the inquiry process into the environmental education program. The students construct their learning by observing, asking questions and problem solving (Crawford, 2000). The inquiry process is a way for students to do science like a real scientist. Educating school children about environmental concerns now will promote action in the future (Evans et al., 1996).

The Project
A class of twelve eighth grade students took part in the paper towel conservation inquiry project. The project began with students watching the video that inspired me “How to use a paper towel” (Smith, 2012). Upon completion of the video, students were asked what they thought of the video and if they thought there were other ways that we could conserve paper towels in the bathrooms on our campus. Following the video students took a trip to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms nearest to our classroom. Science class is at the end of the day, and students observed the piles of used paper towels in the garbage and on the ground.

They were challenged to develop a plan for measuring the volume of paper towels that were used daily for a week. Students worked in pairs to identify a plan which was presented the next day in class. Students then voted on the plan they thought would work the best and took steps to put it into action. One students brought in a scale from home and others created a data sheet for recording the measurements taken daily of the weight of paper towels used in each bathroom.


Table 1 Paper towel weight chart created by students


Table 2 Financial comparison of paper towels versus hand dryers created by students

The students tracked the amount, in pounds, of paper towels used in the 3 sets of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms for 5 days. This data was calculated and graphed to demonstrate the amount of paper towels that our school is disposing into the landfill each day. A total of 288 pounds of paper towels are thrown in the trash each week from the collective school bathrooms (figure 1). Students contacted the person on staff who handles the ordering of paper towels to determine that the school spends about $350.00 on paper towels each month. This information was tabulated into the final graph that compared the expense of paper towels versus the expense hand dryers (figure 2). The graph shown in figure 1 and 2 were developed by students; while it could be perfected it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of middle school students. Upon completing the charts students noticed that the older students used considerably more paper towels than younger students did.

Students brainstormed alternative ideas to using paper towels. They researched hand dryers, cotton towel dispensers and looked at the practicality of using personal towels. After researching each option, they used the data they collected on alternatives to paper towels to create a presentation to share with fellow students, parents and the church board who has a strong influence on decision making changes. The conclusion of the study resulted in the student recommending the installation of new efficient hand dryers that dry hands in 12 seconds or less. As the students pointed out in their presentation the machines are also designed to kill germs in the air and on the skin (Gagnon, 2007).

paper towel pres.The presentation was videotaped and posted on the school website. Posting the video required getting permission from all of the parents. This was worthwhile effort because the students were then able to share what they had learned accomplished and produced with their own community of friends and neighbors. This made it possible to spread the idea of replacing paper towels with hand dryers to the larger community outside of our school.

The final piece of this project was to present a written proposal to the Board of Directors for consideration. Students were given the task and some guidelines and they had to collaborate and compromise to develop a well written proposal that included their research and data results. The objective of the assignment was to persuade the board to approve the installation of hand dryers in the bathroom. The proposal was completed and presented, and is now being considered for implementation.

Action and Reflection

The benefit of inquiry learning is that it provides a method for gaining deeper knowledge about a subject, in this case environmental education, and it also builds students skills in problem solving and analysis. This project provided students the opportunity to conduct science like a scientist. They observed and questioned. Then they looked for alternatives, conducted research, devised an action plan and carried out an investigation. The final part of the project included compiling their findings and presenting to decision makers. Encouraging and guiding students to learn about their environment and then to take action is taken to authentic level when it involves real and actionable projects. It is my hope that the board finds merit in the study and takes the necessary steps to change to electric hand dryers. This action will mitigate the burden, the use of paper towels, puts on our environment.

I know that this project was beneficial in bolstering students’ knowledge of environmental issues. Throughout the project students took ownership of each step and worked diligently to complete the work. The following are several comments from students at the end of the project.

“I liked being able to go outside for science.”

“I hope that hand dryers are installed in the bathrooms”

“I worked really hard on this project because it might be good for our school”

This paper towel action-centered conservation project works to build students conservation and knowledge that works to promote continued conservation action (Stevenson et al., 2013). Schools are looking for ways to keep the material fresh and relevant for the students incorporating inquiry science works towards that goal. We have a planet with limited resources, and an economic system that often ignores that fact. As time goes by the need for action is even more crucial for the survival of all of us. Paper towel reduction is one idea that students can be engaged in environmental education. We have to find ways for students to not only learn about importance of caring for our environment but that knowledge must lead to continued environmental action for the objective to be met.

As a teacher, focusing on improving techniques to guide inquiry learning, leads to discovering ways to make projects authentic and real. Utilizing inquiry in environmental education provides students an enriching learning environment. This is my story of a journey to use inquiry as a catalyst for environmental change. Embrace your story.

Crawford, B. A. (2000). Embracing the essence of inquiry: new roles for science teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(9), 916-937. doi: 10.1002/1098-2736(200011)37:93.0.CO;2-2
Evans, S. M., Gill, M. E., & Marchant, J. (1996). Schoolchildren as educators: The indirect influence of environmental education in schools on parents’ attitudes towards the environment. Journal of Biological Education, 30(4), 243-248. doi:10.1080/00219266.1996.9655512
Gagnon, D. (2007). Paper Trail. American School & University, 80(1), 30.
Grodzińska-Jurczak, M., Bartosiewicz, A., Twardowska, A., & Ballantyne, R. (2003). Evaluating the impact of a school waste education programme upon students’ parents’ and teachers’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 12(2), 106-122. doi:10.1080/10382040308667521
Heimlich, J. E. (2010). Environmental education evaluation: reinterpreting education as a strategy for meeting mission. Evaluation and Program Planning, 33, 180-185. doi: 10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2009.07.009
Short, P. C. (2010). Responsible environmental action: its role and status in environmental education and environmental quality. Journal of Environmental Education, 41(1), 7-21. doi: 10.1080/00958960903206781
Smith, J. (2012, March). How to use a paper towel. Retrieved from:
Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H. D., Mertig, A. G., & Moore, S. E. (2013). Environmental, institutional, and demographic predictors of environmental literacy among middle school children. PLoS ONE, 8(3), 1-11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059519
Tidball, K. G., & Krasny, M. E. (2010). Urban environmental education from a social-ecological perspective: conceptual framework for civic ecology education. Cities and the Environment(1). Retrieved From:
Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments, 16(1), 1-24.

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Were You Assigned A Class You Have No Background or Preparation to Teach?


by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

One year, I worked with a middle-school mathematics teacher who decided to engage his class in some work on a wetland and lake bordering a large river. He did this partly as a diversion from classroom struggles – his background and training weren’t in middle school mathematics; there was no one else available to do the work. And, he was interested in the concept of engaging his students in their community – project-based learning.

So, we went down to the site and took a tour. As we walked and talked, he suddenly stopped, took a few steps back, and stood looking down a shallow slope to the lake, then up the slope toward a wooded copse. I waited a few moments, then he remarked in an excited voice that everything changed as you looked from the water to the slope, and on up to the trees. He said something made that change, and it had to do with the slope. Then, he described what students would explore on a transect along the slope, and how. Wow! His class did the project, and, within two years, he developed into a very effective teacher.

What happened here? He knew he wanted to do something. He knew where he was in his mathematics teaching. And he was interested in his students. But he didn’t get any further until he took a walk, talked about what was there and what students had done, and noticed a slope – geological and mathematical – and, in terms of subsequent progress as a teacher, clarivoyant. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together.

How do we move from teaching our curricula one piece at a time, a disconnected clutter of disparate parts? Parts, learned long enough to refer to in a test; then, lost in a long trail of discarded artifacts. We need clear, strong trails if we are to lead effective, self-actualized lives. Learning has the potential to help us organize our selves so that our lives produce clear, permanent trails. In his teaching the middle school mathematics teacher began to build these clear trails, both for himself, and for his students. Part of the secret is learning about the curriculum in the real world, and its connection to the disparate clutter of artifacts we teach. In the classroom and on environmental education sites. I suggest we need to integrate them.

BEETLES-2One thing this teacher did was to let the class in on the plan. Doing this at the start involved and invested them in the work, and began to empower them to take responsibility for its parts. Early on, he began to notice that students were doing good work, and that they brought different sets of skills and abilities to the work. This was a pleasant surprise for him, and he began to see the class as a group of individuals who could make the classroom work environment an interesting one to be part of.

Soon enough, he reorganized the class into work crews, each one responsible for part of the job of assessing a transect up the slope from water’s edge to wooded copse. Accomplishing this was an utterly new experience for him, but he took to it as if he’d done it for years. Within a few weeks, he was beginning to coordinate his curriculum to the work on the slope. Aware of the mathematics curricula he was charged with, he organized the school week into days dedicated to mathematics and to the project. Students didn’t divide their new sense of personal investment in school. They became reliable students each day. Why? I think, because they were learning as humans evolved to learn. How their brain is best organized to do that job. Go into the real world, find real work to do, then focus all resources on this.

I think there were several vehicles which enabled this classroom to navigate from struggling to self-powered learning place. Specifics varied among teacher and students, but each vehicle carried them through its part of the course. The teacher was charged with teaching mathematics, for which he wasn’t well-prepared to do. He was both interested in improving his teaching, and in engaging his students in learning projects in the community in which they lived. Then he saw something, a slope in a landform, that brought these two seemingly disparate entities into a dynamic construct, a conceptual foundation for real learning, learning for understanding.

His students also boarded their first vehicles: crews, embedded curricula, brain work. At first, their commitment varied, but nearly all became interested in the project when they heard about it from the teacher. At the beginning, they were randomly assigned to their groups; but, as the teacher became more aware of them as individuals, he began to reorganize them into effective working groups, crews organized to execute particular parts of the plan.

So, the relationships among the people in the class began to morph. The teacher became the project manager, and the crews became technicians and staff working with a crew leader. Project manager and crews learned to reach out to local experts for advice. The teacher, because he was managing the project, and feeling responsible for teaching mathematics, began to use the mathematics embedded in the work site and the work itself to deliver part of his curriculum.

Locating embedded curricula seems difficult at first thought, but once you try, it becomes relatively easy. For instance, students can measure the maximum width and length of a leaf, and calculate the width to length ratio. They repeat this with other leaves from the same tree to see if that ratio holds true. Then they can see if there is a ratio for the maximum width of a fir or pine cone and its length that is consistent among a sample from the same species. As they do, ratio and proportion becomes sensible, a conceptual tool to use, rather than something to memorize for a test.

This doesn’t apply just to mathematics and science. Look for examples of alliteration in a natural area or in the school’s neighborhood. I’m looking at an example just now – a small tree whose leaves are attached to thin branches in an alternating sequence. When I see a set silhouetted against the sky, their leaves tripping along the branch, I see alliteration. Looking out the same window, I see many metaphors. Metaphors which can activate the same parts of my brain that are activated when I am engaged in close pursuit of the answer to an inquiry question. A very useful brain tool.

Looking past the leaves and metaphors, I see examples of social studies, music, art, drama, history. It’s all out there, the curricula we teach, in a form our brain is organized to use. Once it is engaged, we can then move into the prepared curricula which lives in classrooms. With one difference – this curricula will come to life because it will be engaged by a need-to-know generated by the world we live in. And learned in a way that ensures it will be used. In time, you will find that you can milk the prizes found on one excursion from the classroom to the schoolground, neighborhood, or riparian area for more than the embedded curricula you find. What you find and use generally has links to other curricula, and you can extend these threads quite far before you’ve either used them up, or have become tired of them.

These are things the teacher I worked with learned during the time we explored learning for understanding. By moving into the world we live in and discovering the curricula embedded there, and the involvement and investment the experience invoked in his students, he began to reorganize his teaching. The mathematics he discovered on site clarified what he was trying to teach in the classroom. The energy and growing expertise his students brought to the work helped him learn them as persons, to know when they engaged what I call the moment of learning, and to use their individual strengths to overcome their weaknesses. And they all grew. Because, in my opinion, they engaged their brains in the way brains evolved to learn and cope. Once engaged, they were ready to enter the more formal, abstract curricula which lived in their classroom. To learn it, not to pass a test, but to build their lives.

jimphoto3This 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.”

Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Teaching Science:

SalmonWatch1811-72Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Let’s say you wish to incorporate an activity in the neighborhood of your school into a unit you are planning in science, and have been thinking about asking the math teacher if she would be interested in working with you. Then you learn from a friend that plants on the bank of a stream, when they are in leaf, pull water from the ground to use for photosynthesis. In fact, she tells you, they pull so much water up that the level of the stream drops visibly. This observable change in the height of the stream seems to you to be a door to math, writing, science, and perhaps even art. So, you begin thinking.

There is a creek which runs past the southeast corner of the school grounds, and you decide to use it as the site where your students will make their observations. You check it out, and find a spot where they can set a meter stick on a flat bottom rock to take their measurements. The creek is no more than twenty inches deep at its highest level on the bank, so you don’t have to be overly concerned about student safety while they take their measurements, and you decide to plan for doing the work.

Students will work in groups of four, which, for this class, means seven groups. If the creek traveled farther through the school grounds, you could have each group set up its own measuring site. Since that’s not the case, you decide to have the groups make quick depth measurements so that you can walk to the creek, take measurements within 15 minutes, and return to the classroom. As they wait their turn, each group estimates the percent leaf cover, based on what they think 100% leaf coverage would look like. You could have had the groups observe different aspects of the creek, but decided that would involve too much planning and confusion. This is your first effort outside the classroom, and you just don’t want to make it more complicated than it already is. A wise decision.

Now, you have to work out how the observations they will make tie to more than one curricular area. This is the tricky bit. You decide to have each group hang a data sheet on the classroom walls, depicting the data they have taken in ways they feel best illustrate their observations and interpretations. To enable them to do this, you and a math teacher help them learn to make data tables, how to organize these tables to make best sense of the data, learn to graph the data and how to make decisions about what to place on the x- and y-axes. As the work progresses, you and the math teacher have students review and assess their tabulation and graphing practices. Here’s a question for you: Are any of the above activities covered in the math standards?

As students move through this work, you coordinate with their language arts teacher to build in writing and reading activities which are tied to standards that teacher is working on. For instance, you want your students to describe what the project is about, how they are making their observations, what they think these will show them, and how this whole system works from the time rain falls from the clouds until it is either incorporated into carbohydrates, or enters the creek. How many disciplines’ standards describe this kind of work?

Thinking about this, you decide to ask their art teacher if there are ways they can use her curricula to communicate student work in this project. She replies that she’ll think about it, and may be able to work it into what they will do later in the year. Encouraged by this, and the willingness of the math and language arts teachers to work with you, you decide to start exploring standards to see how they play out in the work as you’ve visualized and planned it.

What follows are three broad phases of this project, and up to three standards each addresses in each discipline. I chose 6th grade because it is at the middle of the K-12 experience. Note that the standards named in each area were chosen from a myriad of possible standards. Some may involve more than one part of the project, but are mentioned only once. Here they are:

• Choosing the location for the project, discussion and decision to estimate leafout and measuring depth of the stream, the processes it will involve, and who will carry them out. Students perform a preliminary assessment of the site via sketches which will inform an annotated collage/painting produced in the final stages of the project. Together, they involve aspects of these standards:

Art – Make connections between visual arts and other disciplines. Create a work of art, selecting and applying artistic elements and technical skills to achieve desired effect.

Language Arts – Apply more than one strategy for generating ideas and planning writing. Generate ideas prior to organizing them and adjust prewriting strategies accordingly (e.g., brainstorm a list, select relevant ideas/details to include in piece of writing). Delegate parts of writing process to team members (e.g., during prewriting, one team member gathers Internet information while another uses the library periodicals).

Mathematics – Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another. Model with mathematics. Describe the nature of the attribute under investigation, including how it was measured and its units of measurement.

Science – Explain how the boundaries of a system can be drawn to fit the purpose of the study. Generate a question that can be answered through scientific investigation. (This may involve refining or refocusing a broad and ill-defined question.) Describe the water cycle and give local examples of where parts of the water cycle can be seen.

• Students make their observations and carry out the plan for their investigation. This involves these standards:

Art – Choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas. Recognize and describe how technical, organizational and aesthetic elements contribute to the ideas, emotions and overall impact communicated by works of art. Describe how elements of art are used to create balance, unity, emphasis, illusion of space and rhythm-movement.

Language Arts – Maintain a journal or an electronic log to collect and explore ideas; record observations, dialogue, and/or description for later use as a basis for informational or literary writing. Understand and apply new vocabulary. Use multiple resources regularly to identify needed changes (e.g., writing guide, adult, peer, criteria and/or checklist, thesaurus).

Mathematics – Graph ordered pairs of rational numbers and determine the coordinates of a point in the coordinate plane. Represent a problem situation, describe the process used to solve the problem, and verify the reasonableness of the solution. Find a percent of a quantity as a rate per 100 (e.g., 30% of a quantity means 30/100 times the quantity).

Science – Plan and conduct a scientific investigation (e.g., field study, systematic observation, controlled experiment, model, or simulation) that is appropriate for the question being asked. Work collaboratively with other students to carry out the investigations. Predict what may happen to an ecosystem if nonliving factors change (e.g., the amount of light, range of temperatures, or availability of water or habitat), or if one or more populations are removed from or added to the ecosystem.

• Students are conducting the analysis and synthesis of their data, and constructing, critiquing, and presenting their reports. This work involves these standards:

Art – Respond to works of art, giving reasons for preferences.

Language Arts – Use a variety of prewriting strategies (e.g., story mapping, listing, webbing, jotting, outlining, free writing, brainstorming). Produce multiple drafts. Publish in a format that is appropriate for specific audiences and purposes.

Mathematics – Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables. Determine whether or not a relationship is proportional and explain your reasoning.

Science –Summarize the results from a scientific investigation and use the results to respond to the question or hypothesis being tested. Organize and display relevant data, construct an evidence-based explanation of the results of an investigation and communicate the conclusions. Recognize and interpret patterns – as well as variations from previously learned or observed patterns – in data, diagrams, symbols, and words.


To me, the project, outside and inside the classroom, appears to act as a vortex, drawing several disciplines into it; integrating them in the process. The effect of this activity in the students’ brains must be related to their involvement and investment in the work, and empowerment as persons that teachers and others report when they describe student work in the world about. In most cases, this outcome is also associated with success in passing the annual tests students take to measure their accomplishment of state and national standards.

It takes courage for a teacher in today’s schools to attempt something like this. What we need are teachers and environmental educators who have done this kind of work to mentor those who haven’t, but would like to. A good place to start that would be at annual state science teacher conferences, and at state and regional environmental educator conferences. I know from my own personal experience teaching and working with teachers that a little help goes a long way. If you’re interested in the idea, leave a comment. Or, better yet, write an article and post it here. Or (where did I find this thought?) be a conference presenter.

jimphoto3This 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.”