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Teach Green: Lesson Plan to Create an Illustrated Nature Journal

Illustrated Nature Journals for Kids

Summary:

Whether writing for scientific purposes or personal satisfaction or to convey personal experiences in the natural world to others, what better place to start a nature journal than on the Huntington Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. Students will explore Huntington Beach, Porter Creek and the flora and fauna of the surrounding meadow lands, while expressing their creativity through writing and illustrating their own personal nature journal. Both rewarding and fun, students are sure to sharpen their analytical and observation skills while deepening their appreciation of nature.

Grade Level:

Geared primarily toward children ages 8 to 12, but works just as well for teenagers and adults with a few modifications.

Time:

Two hours per class for six weeks.

Learning Objectives:

Objective #1

Students will use real-life experiences in nature as inspiration for journal writing, illustration and personal expression.

Objective #2

Students will explore various practices of nature journaling for descriptive, informational, narrative and persuasive writing.

Objective #3

Students will learn the fundamentals of map making in order to develop a sense of place and an increased appreciation of the natural world.

Materials Needed:

  1. 8.5 x 11 three ring view binder. A “view” binder will allow students design their own cover.
  2. Pencils ( varying hardness, often sold together), colored pencils, a sharpener and a white eraser
  3. Watercolors and paint brush
  4. Bottle of water
  5. Paper towels
  6. Ziploc bags for collecting treasures such as pine cones, leaves, shells or seeds
  7. Field bag or backpack to hold supplies

Optional Items:

  1. Binoculars
  2. Camera
  3. Compass
  4. Measuring tape or ruler
  5. Field guides
  6. Map

Instructor will supply additional worksheets, including templates for field notes, writing prompts, and graphic organizers. Also, graph paper and art/craft supplies for projects created in studio will be supplied. Students will want to have their own art supplies for creative work completed on nature walks.


 

Lesson Plans:

Week One: Introduction to Nature Journals and Mapping

Background


Creating a Nature Journal

Getting kids interested in natural world teaches them to appreciate it. Once they are outdoors and engaged, they are more likely to develop a feeling of connection to the plants, animals and natural spaces in their backyards, communities and parks. And, they will be more likely to want to protect them as they grow into adulthood. Keeping a nature journal is a great way to start.

In the most popular recent book on the subject, “Keeping a Nature Journal”, author Clare Walker Leslie puts it simply: “whereas a diary or personal journal records your feelings toward yourself and others, a nature journal primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature around you.” With a subject as broad as the natural world, nature journals lend themselves to a wide range of expression. The possibilities are endless.

Keeping a nature journal helps students connect with nature through writing and illustration. They will learn how to observe nature closely and keep accurate records on these observations. They will also learn to narrate their experiences in the natural world

Developing a Sense of Place

A sense of place can be described as the fundamental ways people relate to places that convey a feeling of attachment and belonging. It develops when personal meaning is attributed to a specific location or setting and usually starts close to home. Maybe it’s your back yard or the neighborhood where you played as a kid. Or maybe it’s a park you’ve visited with your family on vacation. Whatever the case may be, studies have shown that attachment to natural spaces is beneficial to our emotional, functional and cognitive well being.

The Importance of Geography and Mapping

They also must have a better understanding of maps and geography. Studies reveal that the geographical acumen of American children consistently leaves much room for improvement over the past decade. Results from the National Geographic – Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study found that recent graduates of the US education system were “unprepared for an increasingly global future”. Just months after hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the study found that 33 % of study participants could not find Louisiana on a map.

According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “the nations report card”, less than a quarter (22%) of fourth grade students in the US scored “proficient” or above proficient” on the test. The same test for eighth graders in 2014 showed little improvement.

Understanding geography is important because helps us to better understand our world. Through the study of geography, students learn to use data from maps, graphics and texts to recognize patterns and solve problems. It contributes to global understanding and tolerance by making students more aware of of the countries and their cultures. It also helps us to understand the impact of environmental factors on specific areas. But, the study of geography starts with understanding our immediate environment and it expands with experience. Geographical awareness serves as a link between home, school and the world at large. In the early grades, basic geographical knowledge and map skills are the foundation for more complex critical thinking skills later. Later, geographically informed students will emerge as leaders and be well equipped to take their place in the global community.

Procedure


Introduction to Nature Journals and Maps and their various uses

  1. Have students illustrate the cover of their nature journals using paints, colored pencils or markers. (Have examples of nature journal pages for inspiration.)
  2. Overview of the importance of reading maps
  3. Using graph paper, have students draw a simple map of the Huntington Reservation from an actual Metroparks map.
  4. Have the class take a break on a picnic table with healthy snacks suitable for a nature hike. (Remind students they may want to pack similar snacks for future class nature hikes.)
  5. Explain how to write a personal narrative (story) and then have the students write about their favorite memory of a time they spent in nature. Encourage them to draw a picture.
  6. Assemble materials in field bag for next class

Week Two: Flora or Fauna?

Background


  • Learning about plant and animal species as preparation for future experiences in nature
  • Making a bird feeder
  • Writing about a process (descriptive writing)

Flora and fauna mean plants and animals; the word “flora” is used to discuss plant life, while the word “fauna” refers to animal life. Recently, children are becoming disconnected from nature. So much so that they are more familiar with Pokemon characters than they are with animal species, even some of the most common ones. They can recognize hundreds of consumer brands, but only a handful of plant varieties. This week, students will become familiar with a wide variety of local bugs, birds, animals, plants and trees through art projects, games and personal observations.

Procedure


  1. Introduction to Flora and Fauna – use a game to teach familiar names of native plants, trees and animals they may encounter on future hikes.
  2. Ask students to paint a picture of their favorite bird (fauna) and add it to their nature journals. Have pictures of some of birds native to the area for reference.
  3. Take a walk outside and have the students look for birds in the yard. Show them the areas where we have bird feeders hung. Explain how it is important to feed the birds in the summer while they are nesting as well as the winter when its cold and snowing.
  4. Have students choose a bird feeder to make.
  5. When they are finished with the project have them write about it in their journals.
  6. Have students take a picture of their bird feeder in their back yard and add the picture to their nature journals to illustrate their “How to” essays.

Notes:

Create a preprinted “Sequence Chain” (step by step) diagram and pass out the class to organize information before writing descriptive essay on how to make a bird feeder.

 

Week Three: Sensory Beach Hike

Background


  • Sensory beach hike
  • Learning to use five senses in observing nature
  • Employing descriptive journaling to capture impressions of nature

One of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the Emerald Necklace chain of the Cleveland Metroparks, the Huntington Reservation borders Lake Erie on its northern boundary. Students will hike to the beach and use their senses to explore descriptive journaling to open up their perceptions of their natural surroundings. Students will be asked to write a descriptive essay on a day at the beach using descriptive journal entries and illustrations that will add depth to their writing and also deepen their awareness and appreciation of this valuable freshwater ecosystem.

Procedure


  1. Point out the path that the class will follow to the beach and make notes in their journals.
  2. Hike to Huntington Beach
  3. Allow time for students to explore the beach and find a place of their choosing to journal their impressions.
  4. Working with a partner, they will experiment with their senses by walking along the beach and taking turns closing their eyes to concentrate on what they hear, feel and smell without the benefit of sight. One partner will lead and the sightless partner will follow. Students take turns in each role.
  5. Allow students to find a piece of driftwood to bring back to for an art project in Week Four.
  6. Stop at the picnic pavilion for a healthy snack

Notes:

Use a preprinted observation chart to organize information by using the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

 

Week Four: Creek Walk Hike

Background


  • Explore habitats
  • Learn about informational (scientific) journal writing
  • Complete painted fish project

All types of living species need certain things to thrive, including food, water and shelter. Students will hike to the meadow lands bordering Porter Creek in the Huntington Reservation of the Metroparks. Along the way, we will discuss ecosystems, habitats and watersheds that sustain local wildlife in this area. We will take time to discuss keeping a Grinnell type journal and the application of informational journal writing for scientific purposes. Grinnell journaling is the method most used by professional biologists and field naturalists and was developed by Joseph Grinnell, a filed naturalist and teacher and the first director of the University of California’s Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. His method included recording his observations as they were happening, detailed observations on specific species and species counts and keeping a record of where and when specimens were collected.

Procedure


  1. Point out the path that the class will take to explore Porter Creek and the meadow on the class map of the Huntington Reservation.
  2. Hike the Porter Creek Trail
  3. Allow time for students to explore the meadow and find a place of their choosing to journal their impressions in the Grinnell style of journaling.
  4. Stop at the picnic area to have a healthy snack
  5. Use the driftwood collected in Week Three to complete an art project painting colorful fish on the pieces of wood

Notes:

Create a preprinted “Network Tree” graphic organizer to help students answer key questions about their observations and organize research before writing Grinnell journal entries.

 

Week Five: Hike to the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

Background


  • Explore the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center
  • Writing a story about a rescue animal (narrative writing)

Many species of local wildlife are endangered everyday. Humans have moved into areas previously occupied by animals and habitats have been destroyed and migration patterns disrupted. Hazards such as traffic, power lines, pollution and overpopulation are threatening otherwise healthy populations. At the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center they teach visitors about wildlife through live animal exhibits, wildlife education programs and the animal rehabilitation services they provide to over 1000 animals per year. They have outdoor and indoor display areas for public visitors to view both local wildlife and exotic/domestic animals. Students will hike to the Nature Center located at the south end of the Huntington Reservation to observe and learn about native species and animal rescue programs. In addition to journaling their observations during the hike, they will then be tasked to create narrative (story) about one of the animals they have observed at the Nature Center and include this story in their nature journals.

Procedure


  1. Point out the path that the class will take to hike to Lake Erie Nature & Science Center on the class map of the Huntington Reservation.
  2. Explain to the class that they will use their observations at the Nature Center to write a story about a rescue animal they saw on their field trip.
  3. Review the steps to writing a narrative (story) account of the experience (see notes below). Explain how this is one of many ways to describe their observations and experience.
  4. Hand out a template with space for students to fill in information for the prewiting (research) phase of their writing project.
  5. Hike to the Nature Center and tour the animal sanctuary and indoor displays
  6. Stop to have a healthy snack
  7. Have the students create a story from the animals point of view on how they came to live at the Nature Center.

Notes:

Use a preprinted “Storyboard” organizer to plan a story about a rescue animal

Week Six: Working Together for the Good of All

Background


  • Call to action
  • Collaborative mapping project/Writing a friendly (persuasive) writing
  • Persuasive writing

Children have become increasingly disconnected from nature. Today, young Americans spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Causes range from parents fears of danger to loss or natural surroundings in neighborhoods and cities. Combined with the temptation of indoor activities such as television, video games and social media, a disconnect from nature has reached epidemic proportions. So much so that a wide range of physical and cognitive disorders have surged. People are losing touch with the natural world at a time when their ecological literacy is not only crucial to their own health, but also to the well-being of future generations and the future viability to our planet. Faced with increasing environmental challenges, tomorrow’s leaders must be prepared to understand the connections between human and natural systems (eco-literacy) and make decisions for the benefit of all.

Procedure


  1. Have the class work collaboratively to illustrate a large mural of a map of the Huntington Reservation. Using their entries from their nature journals, have them work to fill in the map based on their observations and experiences.
  2. As some students are working on the mural, others will write a friendly opinion letter about why someone should visit the Huntington Reservation based on the facts and opinions they have developed over the past five weeks.
  3. With the extra time left, students will go on a Nature Scavenger Hunt. They will be given a list of seasonal flora and fauna to collect and/or locate and observe. The group will take one last hike around the park and look for the species on the list. They will then be asked to journal the experience.

Notes:

Use a preprinted “Fact and Opinion Chart” as a graphic organizer to assemble information before beginning to write a Persuasive Friendly Letter

Illustrative Nature Journaling for Kids lesson plans address the following standards:

NATIONAL LANGUAGE ARTS STANDARDS , GRADES K-12

Standard 6

Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

Standard 7

Students gather, evaluate, and synthesize date from a variety of sources.

Standard 8

Students use a variety of technological and informational resources to create and communicate knowledge.

NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS, GRADES K-12

Content Standard A

As a result of activities, students develop an understanding of scientific inquiry and abilities necessary for scientific inquiry.

Content Standard C

As a result of activities, students develop an understanding of life sciences.


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The Home Team Advantage: Beware of the “Summer Slide”

Snapshot 2014-08-13 23-20-24We have reached the time during summer break when kids are bored and many parents struggle to find ways to entertain them until school starts again. This seems counterintuitive to me. It has been well established that American students have slipped in the international education rankings. As a result, the Common Core State Standards were created in order to better prepare our children for college and careers in a global economy. We are constantly demanding that school systems and teachers do more with less. But they can’t go it alone. It’s time for families to make some additional adjustments and raise the standards at home as well. Instead of filling free time with meaningless activity, why not use some of it to prepare students for the challenges they will face under the new system?

Parents are a child’s most effective teacher. We need to find time in our busy schedules to build on the information our children learn at school and bring these lessons to life at home. This begs the question…

What is the responsibility of parents in preparing their children for success in the 21st century?

Summer Enrichment Helps Prevent Learning Loss
Summer vacation always seemed like a mixed blessing to me. On one hand, it’s the perfect opportunity for kids to take time away from their studies – time to play and explore, time to observe and experience the natural world around them, and time to “just be kids”. On the other hand, too much time spent away from a structured environment can result in learning loss, sedentary habits and other problems. According to the National Summer Learning Association:

• All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer and typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).

• Students can lose two months of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).

• Children lose more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).

• Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004).

Nature as Context for Learning
With summer break drawing to a close, now is the perfect time to fill idle time with activities that will ease children back into learning mode. You don’t need expensive programs or a degree in education to create meaningful learning experiences at home…and it doesn’t have to be summer. There are so many ways to turn after school or weekend family time into a teaching moment. Nature has proven to be a great context for learning and it’s also the perfect way to get kids outside and active. Once you get started, I think you (and your children) will find it very rewarding…and fun!

Simple Ideas for Year-round Family Enrichment

Start a Family Book Club
The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort among dozens of foundations, lists summer learning loss as one of the three major obstacles to reading proficiency at the end of 3rd grade. Children (especially low income children) are losing ground at an alarming rate and the negative consequences reach far beyond elementary school. In fact, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers”.

I have found my own children were far more likely to “do as I do”, not just “because I said so”. Thus, it is important to encourage family reading time and also important that children see their parents reading along with them.

So, pick a topic and get started. Find beginning readers for the little ones and more in depth materials for your older children. Set a time frame to complete the reading assignment and reconvene to discuss your findings. Then you’ll be ready for a family field trip to personalize the learning process. This brings the topic of their assignment into the realm of their real-life experience.

Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Create a program that works for your family and your schedule…so long as everyone is reading and engaged in the process. I think you’ll find that these sessions will open up new lines of communication that will not only promote good reading habits, but also enable parents to instill positive family values as well.

Family Field Trips
A family outing to the zoo or a local park not only creates happy memories and strong bonds between parents and their children, but this special time can also can become an extended learning experience with a little forethought before you go. Call a family meeting (possibly at the dinner table) to plan your field trip. Be sure to get the input of each family member (even the little ones) to learn more about his or her interests. Then, make a plan. Once you have decided on your destination, have everyone do some research and reading beforehand. Use you imagination. Go online or visit the library to find books, maps or articles that relate to your outing. Even young children can participate. Older children or parents can help younger children find age-appropriate materials and explain more advanced concepts to jumpstart their reading comprehension. Learning how to access useful and accurate information is an important skill they will need for success in school and beyond. This will also promote strong bonds between siblings that provide them with immeasurable benefits throughout their formative years and even into adulthood.

Once the day of the field trip has arrived, be sure to provide ample time for spontaneous discovery and play. And by all means, take your electronic devices along…but have children use them to expand their world, not insulate them from it. Technology is a tool, not the evil babysitter. Teach your children how to use digital cameras to record their observations. Tuck a tablet or smart phone in your backpack. It’s a great way to take notes or learn more about things you discover along the way. And remember, using technology is not intuitive (children won’t automatically know how to use it properly); it is a learned skill that requires adult guidance and supervision to produce positive learning experiences.

Create an Eco-journal
People throughout history have kept written accounts of their experiences in nature. From primitive inscriptions on cave walls to the detailed journals of early explorers like Lewis and Clark, John Muir and Charles Darwin, detailed descriptions of their experiences have made an incalculable contribution to many scientific principles we know and still rely upon today.

With a topic as broad as the natural world, eco-journals lend themselves to many different forms of creative expression. Keeping a nature journal is also an excellent way to for students to hone their writing skills and begin to think critically about the world they live in. Young naturalists may start out by noting simple drawings of their observations. Later, they can add detailed descriptions and tell about their experiences. As their reading abilities improve, they can learn to research and record additional factual information to support their perceptions. Finally, as they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, they will begin to form opinions about the world around them. All of these writing activities are excellent practice for when they return to the classroom. Be sure to bring your eco-journals on family field trips!

Adopt a Cause and Volunteer
Just as learning is a progressive process and basic concepts are needed to understand more complicated subject matter, the same is true of learning about nature. Environmental education is best understood through experimentation and hands-on experiences. First, children need to experience and learn about the natural world in order to care about it. (See my earlier blog “A Sense of Place”) Once they do, it is interesting to note that children are quite willing and enthusiastic to become stewards of the environment and active participants in green initiatives. At this point, make a family decision to get involved in a cause and volunteer your time together.

Remember, you don’t have to live on a farm or near the park to learn about nature or get involved in the green movement. In fact, some of the most innovative “green” ideas are being tested in urban areas where space is limited and the need is greatest. One way budding eco-journalists can really make a difference is by recording (and reporting) the effects of human activities on the environment within their own neighborhoods. It’s already happening in cities all over the world. So, join in! Your children could eventually provide valuable information to environmentalists who are looking for ways to minimize our impact on the environment.

And it is here that we arrive at our intended destination – learning brought to life – raising children who are prepared to enter adulthood armed with the knowledge and skills they need to live healthy and successful lives.

Isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?

Oh yes, and before you know it, the only “summer slide” you’ll need to worry about will be watching your home team at the ball park.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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Introducing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs: A Multimedia Approach to Environmental Education

1525366_695396423825150_1412516447_nIn celebration of National Environmental Education Week and Earth Day next Tuesday April 22, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who read my blog in the United States and around the world. TeachGreenBlog now has readership in over 30 countries! I appreciate your continued support and shared interest in environmental education.

Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of The Green Beans & the Litterbugs at www.getgreenandgrow.com. For the past three years, I have been working with three of my talented and accomplished cousins to develop a unique model of interactive green entertainment for young children and their families. We envision The Green Beans & the Litterbugs as a franchise of engaging children’s programs, trade and ebooks, online games, webisodes, toys and other associated products. The Green Beans stories are designed to entertain young audiences, while promoting basic environmental themes, cultural diversity and positive social behaviors.

We have carefully constructed The Green Beans & the Litterbugs with an international worldview. We adhere to environmentally sustainable practices and support the United Nations’ definition of sustainability, “to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Initially, we are using our newly launched website and social media to spread the word.

Teach Green with Ecofriendly Characters
It is well documented that children like learning activities more if they involve beloved characters. When they see them on television or online, they want to imitate their behaviors. So why not use these influences to encourage good habits rather than unhealthy ones? In addition, popular characters can also be influential in shaping the ideas, behaviors and purchasing decisions of families with young children.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs features five members of the Green Bean Team – Ruby Monkey Bean, Bella Brontosaurus Bean, Bentley Bear Bean, Gibbon Monkey Bean, and Crawford Crab Bean. With the help of their roving satellite Bloorb, the Beans travel the globe solving environmental emergencies caused by the Litterbugs. Each Green Bean story highlights a different ecological issue that becomes part of the plot. Real world environmental challenges are placed in the context of animated action that children can absorb and understand.

In order to shape a positive message, we created the Green Beans content with two important themes that run through the story lines. The first is a “green” theme highlighting an environmental issue in a specific geographical location that becomes the setting of the story. Young viewers will have the opportunity to observe how the Green Beans work as a team to respond to the problem, determine its cause and use logic to find a sustainable solution.

The second element that runs through the stories is a “character” theme. Virtues such as truthfulness, helping others and the importance of family are just a few of the positive traits that are subtly embedded into the plot to reinforce pro-social behaviors. These traits are demonstrated in the actions of the Green Beans and help children learn tolerance and conflict resolution by observing their positive example.

Children Virtually Explore the World
Each episode features a different location where a local child and indigenous animal assist the Green Beans in solving the ecological problem. As a result, viewers gain a global perspective of the challenges other kids may face in their part of the world. The stories are fictional and fun, but environmentally, culturally, and geographically correct.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs is designed to also provide factual information about nature and the environment that can even be used as a supplement to classroom curriculum. Our website is full of interesting “field facts” pertaining to geography, habitats, flora, fauna and cultural influences on the environment. We host “Bloorb’s Blog” with up-to-date information on green events, activities and crafts, as well as sustainable tips for healthy living. We also welcome feedback from children who are making a difference in their communities. It is truly a green movement designed just for kids.

It is our ultimate goal to lead young viewers to a better understanding of the world around them in order to prepare for a sustainable future. We are seeking to partner with like-minded organizations that will join us in further developing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs for the benefit of kids everywhere. I hope you will visit our newly launched website at www.getgreenandgrow.com and “like” us on Facebook.Green Beans Logo

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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My Take on the Flipped Classroom

There’s a grassroots movement trending in communities across the country. It started with a handful of tech-savvy pioneers and a few innovative educators. Slowly, it moved in to the mainstream, catching the attention of parents and kids searching for a better way. Forward-thinking businesses and avant-garde entrepreneurs saw the immense, untapped potential and jumped on board. Now, it’s cropping up everywhere.

No, people aren’t protesting on the city green or picketing the statehouse. But don’t be fooled, these demonstrations are no less transformative than the acts of dissent that you read about in the headlines today. Don’t worry … the demonstrations that I am referring to are peaceful (far more effective) and available online for participating students. Watch and learn. Once this movement goes viral, it just may change the world.

So what’s going on?

An increasing number of educators are experimenting with an innovative learning model using technology to streamline the delivery of subject matter, increasing access to quality curricula and also freeing up valuable classroom time for creativity, experimentation, collaboration, remedial work and further exploration of topics that can help students better understand the world around them and their place within it.

A caveat before I continue … It’s not my intention to be overly critical of our current education system. I was raised in a family of educators and know first-hand the positive influence that they have had on their students. But I truly believe this is a topic worth exploring. Here’s why …

The world is changing faster than we can understand it. To make matters worse, too many of our children are not receiving the education they need to be personally successful, let alone the information they will need to make a positive contribution to complicated issues of global significance. Salman Kahn, a former hedge fund analyst turned online educator, states in his book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined,

“To be successful in a competitive and interconnected world, we need every mind we have; to solve our common problems regarding relations among peoples and the health of our planet, we need all the talent and imagination we can find. What sense does it make to filter out a percentage of kids so early in the game, to send a message that they have nothing to contribute? What about the late bloomers? What about the possible geniuses who happen to look at the world differently from most of us and may not test well at an early age?”

It is important to realize that the traditional American education system was modeled after the Prussian philosophy of the early 19th century. Among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and mandatory primary education, the Prussians did not create their education system to produce independent and innovative thinkers…quite the opposite. They wanted a uniform population of capable workers prepared to fill the jobs of the early industrial age and to produce loyal and law-abiding citizens with strict instruction in duty, discipline and obedience.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all important qualities that should be instilled in our children as part of their education. In truth, the current education model served our nation remarkably well up to this point in time. American democracy has been one of the greatest experiments in human governance that the world has ever seen. I believe our education system played a vital role in unifying our nation of immigrants, while preserving the rich diversity of our individual cultural heritages. It has encouraged us to live peacefully under one system of government through many challenges that could have just as easily divided us. However, as Thomas Jefferson once said:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions … But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their …ancestors.” – Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816

So, here we are in the 21st century. Human minds have certainly progressed since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Our nation has matured and become more enlightened. Many new discoveries have been made. In fact, Jefferson never could have imagined the transformative power of the Internet, but he certainly left provisions for change when the need arose.  Well, it is no longer a question of when? That time is now. The U.S. education system has already been slipping internationally over the past three decades, according to the Council for Foreign Relations’ Renewing America Initiative. The more relevant question is, how?

Today, the stage has been set for digital learning. The Internet pervades our society. Social media has been dubbed “the single most disruptive innovation in the history of industrialized civilization”. It has changed the way we interact with each other, how we access information and get our daily news, the tools we use to conduct business and shop for consumer goods … even how we express our approval or dissatisfaction with everything from people and popular trends to government policies. However, when it comes to how we educate our children, we are still surprisingly behind the curve.

Fortunately, more and more educators are using technology in their classrooms, but challenges still remain. How do they successfully cover all of the requirements of the Common Core State Standards in the time they have allotted for each subject, and still adequately address students with different abilities and learning styles? Some have suggested extending the school day, or even the school year. However, many legal and logistical obstacles stand in the way of these changes, which may take years to implement. Meanwhile, kids are falling through the cracks year after year. Why not rethink the way we engage students within the existing system to ensure that they assimilate the information more efficiently?

The flipped (or blended learning) classroom is one such alternative where students first study the topic by themselves, typically using video lessons prepared by the teacher or third parties like the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational website created in 2006. In the classroom, students apply the knowledge they learn at home by solving problems, participating in discussions and doing practical work. The teacher has an increased amount of class time to tutor students when they become stuck, rather than lecturing the entire class period.

Complementary techniques used in a blended learning environment include differentiated instruction, providing students with different ways to acquire and make sense of ideas. Teachers develop lesson plans and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively regardless of differences in ability. Online resources allow teachers to tailor instruction to student’s individual needs, providing real-time measurements of achievement and concept-level proficiency. The flipped classroom structure also allows time for project-based instruction where students first learn the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce real results.

Both of these methods incorporate digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative instruction; refocusing the motivation to learn on the student, promoting a greater depth of understanding of concepts, a broader knowledge base, enhanced communication and leadership skills, increased creativity, and improved writing proficiency.

For most of the students who now populate our schools, the Internet has always been a part of their lives and social media is their preferred method of communication. So it makes sense to reach (and teach) them where they live. Refitting the classroom with innovative technologies is a powerful way to customize the learning experience and promote increased engagement with subject matter, to ensure that all students are prepared to meet the rigorous demands of an ever-changing world.

Elizabeth

“Education is a powerful instrument of change. Let it be the first tool that we reach for in our arsenal of solutions, when facing life’s many challenges.”

Up Next:
Environmental Education in the Flipped Classroom, and
Making a Teach Green Nature Journal


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We Cannot Allow Newtown to Become Anytown

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, how can we expect to create innovative new learning environments for our students and prepare them to be meaningful contributors to the 21st century when they are locked in their schools with armed guards standing watch at the doors? How can this possibly be conducive to learning and creative thought? This is America – leader of the free world – and our children deserve better. We need to find a way to make it so.

First and foremost, my condolences go out to all of the families who have lost loved ones in Newtown and in other cities around the country where mass shootings have occurred this past year. No citizen of this nation (or any country for that matter) should ever have to experience such grief and loss. However, in reality, there are many school systems in the United States where fear, violence and even death are a regular part of daily life for students. Unfortunately, we don’t pay attention until something terrible happens en masse in a place where we are least expecting it.

As parents, we are all concerned about keeping our children safe. Speaking from personal experience, the threat of strangers was my greatest fear when my children were young. In reality, though, it’s not an outsider but rather people known to the child, family or community who cause most incidents of violence. Such was the case in Newtown, Connecticut and other cities where mass killings have occurred. Worse still, many of these shooting incidents are students turning on fellow students in their own communities — an ominous warning of a growing malady among our youth that, if left untreated, will surely grow to epidemic proportions.

To be clear, this is not a blog about gun control, mental illness or major breaches of school security. While they are important topics, they only address the symptoms, not cure the ailment.

A convergence of factors has led us to where we are today. Increased populations place people in close proximity to one another in ever expanding urban areas. Poverty also plays a role. Children living in poverty are far more vulnerable to violence than other segments of the population. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, in 2010, 16.4 million children under the age of 18, or 22.0 percent, were considered poor. That’s almost a quarter of our youth who are affected.

However, as we know, school violence is not confined to disadvantaged populations. In more affluent communities, tightly packed schedules and high expectations have pushed some kids to the breaking point. Standardized tests and school rankings pit students against one another in an unhealthy academic competition. Emotional and behavioral difficulties are on the rise and affect many aspects of children’s lives, including achievement in school, relationships with family and friends, and the risk of alcohol or substance abuse.

Further, kids’ lives are becoming more and more controlled. They are being confined to smaller spaces and tighter time frames, from car seats, strollers and the interior of the family SUV, to highly choreographed schedules that leave little time for free play and quiet reflection. And the stress of it all is beginning to manifest itself in unhealthy ways. Add to this mix easy access to dangerous weapons and the glamorization of violence and the results should be no surprise to anyone.

But does the pathology run deeper still? Alfie Kohn, author of What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, questions the basic structure of our American high schools and the way our students are being educated. He quotes Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University who bases the following evaluation on what psychologists have identified as key human needs. She argues that

“Many well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents’ developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline; when they need expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they experience work focused largely on the memorization of facts…”

Kohn believes that American high schools not only fail to meet the individual needs of students, but often make a mockery of them. How do we expect our children to become leaders when they are afraid to make mistakes and are forced to follow a standardized plan that may or may not address their individual strengths and weaknesses?

In short, kids want to feel like what they do and say matters. They also want to have the ability and the opportunity to make competent decisions about things that affect their lives, and all our lives. Ultimately, they want to feel connected to others… And, when kids feel like they belong, they are far more likely to want to nurture those connections, whether it is bonds formed with other students, teachers, their community or the world at large.

This is where I believe including environmental education in school curricula has the potential to make a significant difference in engaging students in their own learning processes and encouraging them to start taking responsibility for their personal acquisition of knowledge. Ultimately, it’s not about the grade or the test score or the class ranking. It’s what you know – that incredible sense of entitlement, and responsibility, when you gather into yourself the vast reality of this world. Needless to say, acquiring that knowledge is powerful and personally transformative.

Environment-based education uses human habitats and natural spaces as context across various disciplines of study. The program is characterized by kids exploring the local community and natural surroundings, with hands-on experiences of environmental discovery and problem solving, and learning that accommodates students’ individual skills and abilities. Research shows that this approach delivers many benefits to students. Results show that students tend to improve their overall GPA’s and stay in school longer. They develop critical thinking skills, experience improved motivation, more responsible behavior, and a sense of environmental stewardship. Students also show more cooperation and improved conflict resolution skills that will go a long way toward eliminating personal frustrations that can result in violent acts such as the terrible shootings that continue to plague our country.

Violence is everywhere. More locks and more guns are not going to make it go away. We need to find effective ways to connect with each other and the world around us in order to heal our social ills. It is my sincere wish that 2013 will see real and meaningful change in this regard… and that we will make the health and welfare of our children our #1 priority. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Elizabeth

Post script: In the aftermath of the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, a platoon of golden retrievers – some of nature’s finest – were called in to ease the pain of a wounded community. Their soft fur, wet noses and unconditional love eased the fears of frightened children and warmed the hearts of many… Living proof that we are truly all in this together!