Monday, September 30, 2013

HEAR Chicago Talk Fall 2013 Edition: Schuba's Will Set You Free

On Wednesday right around rush hour, menacing clouds gathered and released an angry sheet of rain; the downpour only let up to allow hail to move in. So we were a small but mighty crowd at Schuba's, for HEAR Chicago Talk.

We had three presenters (I was one of them; my goal is to make it so it's not me giving a presentation every time, but, until the event gets steadier on its newborn legs,  I'll carry it).

My question was a broad one: What is the most effective path to educational equity and quality? If we could answer that, we could Solve All The Things, so I don't think it was a very good question, but it's the one that I've been chewing on, or that's been chewing on me.

 To answer, I talked about Finland's school improvement strategy of increasing the standardization and rigor of teacher education while simultaneously decentralizing control of the actual schools, leaving curriculum, instruction, and assessment up to the teachers.

 It could be that there is little causative relationship, that their impressive achievement does not result much from their approach to teacher preparation and work, but I thought it well worth introducing this difference between the United States' system and Finland's.

My ending question for the audience was, How can our country take the long view required to get this done, and what do we do in the mean time to mitigate teachers' working conditions and disengaged students? I got some great questions from the audience--ones that were as chewy and complex as the ones I presented them with.

Dennis Anthony Kass, a former lawyer and current sociology teacher at Little Village High School, asked us, "How do I teach students to be free thinkers?"

He took us through the topics his students tackle in their first semester of his sociology class, using as metaphors and touchstones The Matrix, Fight Club, television show Family Guy, and other popular media.

His ending question wasm Having exposed students to the Matrix (that is our society, how free should I expect their thinking to become? Questions for him centered around the relationship of the class to the rest of the school, the principal, and parents.

The third speaker was Don Whitfield, Director of Great Books Discussions, a literature-based discussion program developed by the Great Books Foundation. Don is my former colleague, from my days directing the K–12 side of the Foundation's work. His question was, How do we get veterans to love their books more than their M16s?

Don recently led the publication of an anthology of short writings and discussion questions meant for veteran's groups.  The hope is that the discussion groups open up other ways to think and learn about the world--and to access emotions, memories, and hopes.

Don's ending question was, How do we know if these groups have a lasting positive affect or not? Audience questions centered around his ending question as well as the possibility of applying this type of program to groups with other challenges or traumas.
 I ended the night with a couple brief clips from the Green Bronx Machine talk from the Big Ideas Fest 2012 (3:17–4:58 , and 9:36–9:52).

If the theme of the June HEAR Chi Talk was Everything Old Is New Again, I'd say the theme of the September one was Let My People Go. How can we free educators to do their jobs artfully and effectively? How can we release students from the oppression of preconceived destructive patterns? How can others' experiences help veterans move out from under the siege of memories?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: North Park Village Nature Center

In April I visited North Park Village Nature Center, a miraculous little jewel of a preserve on the Northwest side, on land that used to be a tuberculosis sanitarium and somehow escaped  development. I didn't manage to post about it, but that's okay, because I went again today and now I get to put pictures from two different seasons side by side.

This pond can be seen from the Wetlands area, which is one of my favorite locations in the preserve. Here's the wetlands path in two seasons.

It looked so different today from my April visit, when foliage were dried, flattened stalks. The variety and wild abundance of plants today was impressive.

You couldn't see anything over this wall of foliage. I think the pond was behind there--in the spring it  looked something like this.

 I love the North Park Village wetlands in their wintry state, too, though. On mild days in the winter and spring, it's the sunniest, warmest place around.

Around the education center in the Woodland area, near the bird blind, the cicadas were out in force. I never noticed this bird blind before.

Near it are feeders, and inside it are signs about different bird types and behaviors you might see according to season.

When I visited in April, there had been abundant rain, and the west side of the woodland area had flooded. 

 It was much friendlier looking today.

Deer are often visible in the woodlands area. I know they're very common--a pest in many areas, a danger because of road collisions--but I still find them majestic and calming. You can see them any time of year. Look carefully: there are two visible in each picture. I wonder if they are the same two?

The Nature Reserve is a real respite from concrete, but we are still in the city, hemmed in on the west and the north by busy thoroughfares, and the traffic sounds are intrusive, especially near the woodland area. My eyes need to not-see concrete, and I love coming to the preserve for that. But my ears need to not-hear city din, and that's harder to accomplish in Chicago.

The Oak Savannah area hosts my favorite tree. I always make sure to go by and say hello.

This time, it was lushly dressed.

I didn't see any snakes this time, as I had in April. When I was a kid, I loved finding pretty, sweet little garter snakes in our tiny front yard. At North Park, a lady walking by pointed this one out.

I picked it up gently, assuring a family watching nearby that it wouldn't bite, and one girl bravely held it herself--those are her hands in the picture. A month after this walk I participated in a restoration project in McHenry County, where the garter snakes are significantly more feisty, apparently, because I picked one up and it nipped me, drawing blood. I'm really glad I didn't get those kids bitten by a snake. That would have been embarrassing.

There are interpretive signs throughout the reserve, though some are quite weathered,  and information about volunteers' restoration efforts.


 I went to the center on a brutally hot day in July to chat (indoors) with the resident educators there, Liza and Sean. They have tirelessly created a multitude of ways to engage with children of all ages. There is a Maple Syrup Festival in the spring, where children learn all about sap and then help tap trees, and Monarchpalooza in the fall, where kids observe butterflies' life cycles and then help tag and release those ready for migration. There are interpretive encounters with birds, bees, trees, bugs, plants, and woodland mammals for school groups and families. Kids participate in conservation and restoration days through the park district's Mighty Acorns and an organization called El Valor, which has sort of adopted North Park as the location for some of its community-building goals. Sean and Liza have created Neighborhood Naturalists, a multi-season, multi-visit program for third grade classrooms. And of course there are camps all summer.

The Center also supports new, independent program ideas--Sean told me one woman organized some open-play mornings for children, in the middle of winter. Everyone was a little anxious about the lack of structure and the freezing temperatures, but the children found plenty to do and weren't bothered at all by the cold.

Community activities for adults abound, as well. There are yoga, fly-fishing, and art classes, story-guild nights and lectures.

I love coming to this urban Island of Children Playing in the Woods. Wouldn't it be amazing if this were what our classrooms looked like? What if kids of all ages read and wrote about seasons, used trees and hills to measure and calculate, leaves and breeze to learn about gravity and friction?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Big Ideas Fest = Gigantic Inspirationpalooza!

Wow! I just checked out some of the presentations from the Big Ideas Fest 2012. They are so inspiring! My favorite so far is the South Bronx Green Machine. Holy cats!!

Yup, that's a lotta exclamation points up there, but they're warranted. Look:

(Click to go to YouTube to see the entire playlist):

These unbelievably positive, creative and persistent people answered a nagging question they had by putting into action effective, useful, compassionate, transformative ideas; now they're talking to others about it and everyone walks away enriched. This is what HEAR Chicago talk can become! Chicago educators, ed providers, designers, bring it! We can do this! Chicago needs this. Let's do it! 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

HEAR Chicago Talk, September 2013 Edition

I'm looking forward to HEAR Chicago Talk Fall 2013 edition!  Here's where you can find all the info and links to register to attend or present.

My goal is to provide a positive, engaging place to share innovative and inspiring ideas in education and to network with other educators. Help make it happen! Please spread the word by posting or linking to this link or this link (same info, slightly different formats), or by posting the information therein on your Facebook page, website, community bulletin board, Twitter feed, et cetera.

Got a great idea or a thought-provoking question? We are actively looking for presenters!  You don't have to be a seasoned public speaker to present; the atmosphere is low-key and friendly, and I will provide guidelines for creating your presentation. Please consider it; the submission form is here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Learning to read the city" with John Tallmadge and the Center for Humans and Nature

One of the folks I met on the Hegewisch Marsh tour is Gavin Van Horn, a director at a thoughtful, heady sort of thinktank called the Center for Humans and Nature. Gavin described the organization's work as exploring ethics and nature; its website explains that it partners with "philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, political scientists, anthropologists, and economists" to explore the relationships between humans and nature--"to think creatively about how people can make better decisions."

They do this through projects, events, and writings via their journal and blog--and by posing thought-provoking questions that scholars and experts in various fields then answer, and that readers are also invited to comment on. One of their recent questions is "How is nature critical to a 21st-century urban ethic?" This question drew me, since, as you will know if you've been following my blog, I've been exploring ways educators incorporate urban green spaces and other nature into K-12 education. And this answer, penned by nature writer and scholar John Tallmadge,  just said it all for me. I tried to pull quotes but it's so lovely and wise and true in its whole that I didn't want to pull it apart. Just read it.

And once you've read it, then (and only then--seriously, go to the link first. You won't regret it) reread its final words:
So the real question is not how to bring nature back into our cities; it’s already there. It’s what makes every neighborhood, no matter how blighted, a landscape of opportunity. All we have to do is wake up and embrace the possibilities. Make ecological literacy a core value of education and reconciliation ecology a guiding principle of design. That will take us a long way toward preserving the world through an urban practice of the wild.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: Hegewisch Marsh

This spring I began a sort of survey of Chicagoland natural areas. As I wrote about earlier, I spent an April weekend at Glacial Park, a part of the McHenry County Conservation District. A few weeks later, as part of Urban Biodiversity Week, I toured Hegewisch Marsh, a lucky little wetland located in Southeast Chicago that somehow survived 150 years of intense industrialization all around it. Restoration of the marsh began in 2004 and continues today.

Isn't it beautiful?

The area was formerly a dumping grounds for the heavy industry in the area; there are still chunks of slag all over the site. More recently, it was used for recreational offroading, another significant environmental stressor. The deep gashes in the earth left by the offroad vehicles have been left alone, though, as nowadays they make good vernal pools, spring nurseries for baby frogs. 

Hegewisch Marsh is across the Calumet River from an old landfill.

You can see the landfill has been covered over such that it looks like a natural feature; in fact, there's been a moratorium on new or expanded landfills in the city of Chicago since the '80s. (On a side note, this is great for Chicago, but our garbage has got to go somewhere. In what community will the garbage you took out this morning be next week?)

Anyway. Hegewisch Marsh is part of the Calumet Basin, a treasure of wetlands, waterways, dunes, and woodlands that follows the southern curve of Lake Michigan.
This map the Calumet Stewardship Initiative website (the rest of the photos in this post are mine)

The network of organizations and people that make up the Calumet Stewardship Initiative work hard and love this place, much as the McHenry County Conservation District folks love theirs. It's heartening and motivating.

One restoration challenge that remains is less directly man-made than the industrial and vehicular damage, but equally significant: the growth of invasive plants, which choke out native plants and animals. While our little tour group talked about the health of birds and trees and the rather existentialist nature of non-native species control (we can't get rid of these species entirely, so what's the goal, I asked, and do we have to work forever simply to not lose ground?), I leaned on this wooden rail.

Whence came the ticks I found later, I'm guessing. One on my scalp and another on the rim of my ear. Gaahh! I had tucked my pants into my socks but I hadn't covered my head. After finding those two guys, I spent a full ninety minutes monkey-grooming my entire head of hair (I have a lot of hair) and checking and rechecking the rest of me and found no others--but I took a long, hot shower just in case, and it's a good thing, because I found a third on the shower wall the next evening. Yiiiiii! Fortunately, there were (apparently) no more, and none of those three had attached. Just writing about it now sends shivers down my spine and causes me to twitchily scratch through my hair again. Aaah, lovely, serene nature, except then there are the blood-sucking parasites.

But I digress. Let's see, I was talking about how awesome these wilderness initiatives are in and around Chicago, and about the Calumet Basin. The Calumet Basin: it includes the wetlands and woodlands I mentioned, but also old and new industry, railways, freeways, dams, mills, landfills. I guess that is the reality of caring for the world's natural areas today, isn't it? --Some of it is pristine, and here's hoping we manage to keep those areas pristine; but most of it is "used," available for reclamation and restoration, its existence a compromise with our existence--which seems a necessary trade, as we seem to want to exist, too. I just hope we can do so more thoughtfully as we learn about our impact.

A note: I took pictures and ticks home with me, but not notes, so much of my memory of the tour was fact-checked and supplemented by this and this article.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If it ain't broke, replace it with something ill conceived and untested

Montgomery County, MD's school system has been looked to as a model and inspiration by other districts for good reason. Kids, teachers, and principals excel, stakeholders collaborate, and resources are allocated reasonably. One of the many things they are doing right is their teacher evaluation system, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), which prioritizes and fully funds and supports peer coaching for new and struggling teachers. The system is proven effective and is highly regarded, yet, as this WaPo blog posting details, it is unacceptable under Race to the Top rules because it does not include students' test scores as part of the evaluation. What stupidity. This has been coming down the line for a while--this article is from June 2011.

I think Race to the Top has some reasonable principles and many strengths. But there are parts of it that were not thought out well, or not done knowledgeably. This sort of outcome is idiocy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: McHenry County Conservation District

This spring I've been applying myself to learning about the State of the Nature here in my native Chicagoland, as my experiences with nature--recreational, pedagogical, emotional--were mostly forged in the Bay Area in California, where I moved after high school and accidentally lived for fourteen years before returning to my hometown. I backcountry camped in Yosemite and Big Sur,  went hiking almost every summer weekend on Mount Tamalpais, and sought solace and solitude in walks up Twin Peaks and bike rides through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach. Mount Tam was particularly special to me.

So, I signed up for McHenry County Conservation District's Weekend of Restoration in April, taking place at Glacial Park. MCCD manages over 25,000 acres of open space, including the woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and oak savannahs that marked much of Illinois prior to European settlement. They provide outdoor recreation spaces, environmental education programs for children and adults, and hands-on opportunities for volunteers. Their mission is "to preserve, restore, and manage natural areas and open spaces for their intrinsic value and for the benefits to present and future generations."

We "camped" outside of this interns' bunkhouse, down a gravel road from the visitor's center. Nighttime wind, rain, and temperatures were chilly for the three-season tent I borrowed, especially the first night, but the days were perfect for working--low '60s, abundant sunshine.

Newly created kames, location based on local memory
Nippersink Creek's restored meandering curves

MCCD's restoration work is focused on removing or controlling invasive species and restoring the landscape to its pre white-settlers appearance. (The Weekend of Restoration  facilitators made a point to observe that what one considers a "restored state" is arbitrary and, in this case, ethnocentric, as, of course, Native Americans manipulated the landscape as well.) Settlers first came in the mid 1800s to farm; in the first half of the 20th  century, they got more ambitious with the expanse and extent of their cornfields, flattening out kames (hills formed from glacial deposits), straightening and damming creeks and rivers, and filling in wetlands with soil and
 thirsty invasive plants.

McHenry County staff have pieced together clues from ecological considerations, physics, and living memory about how the landscape used to look. From elderly folks who lived in the area as children, they learned hazel bushes grew in thickets and oak trees often grew nearby; so, our task for the Weekend of Restoration was to plant 300 oak and hazel bush saplings on a rise near a (newly restored) marsh.

The term "restoration" is in the weekend's title has two meanings, as the weekend is meant for  personal as well as ecological restoration. We learned as much about local history and folklore as we did about the local ecology and restoration methods, and there were readings, discussions, and activities meant to help us identify our personal connections to the area and the work we were doing. Also, the food was excellent.

We visited a beautifully preserved mid-19th century farmhouse on the property and learned about its history and restoration. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of the inside.
Regular ol' 19th c. farmhouses like this one are rare, as most have long been torn down
The first evening we went for a night walk, led by ecologist Tom Simpson. We walked among kames, through prairies and past marshes, as night took over and bugs and frogs started calling. We were standing next to Turtle Marsh, which, Tom was telling us, had in 2011 and 2012 been recovered from underneath farmers' fill and ringed with tree seedlings--when we heard a frog chirp or two. Tom fell silent for a moment, and then said, with reverence and emotion, that the frogs must have have discovered and recolonized the newly restored area--that this is the first time frogs had been heard here. It was a lovely moment.

Here is the new marsh. I know it doesn't look like much, but, in the eyes of those who had worked on it and the other MCCD faithfuls, it was a beautiful, treasured thing--and I have to say, that reverence was pretty catching. Our planting area is in the foreground.

Here we are walking to the site--the marsh is to the right of the photo.
Placing saplings next to holes
My first of many plantings

I have no personal or childhood connection to Illinois wetlands and prairies, and, while ecologically important, they are not terribly eye-catching--I mean, not the way Mount Tam is, or Yosemite, or Big Sur. So being around a group of people who loved this land, nurtured it, provided for it, and hoped for it as they would a child was personally and pedagogically helpful for me. I see so much more in these areas now, and I also know how very important to cultivating stewardship it is to help children and adults discover a strong, and in some ways private, personal connection.

There are more wondeful photos of this weekend on the event's Facebook page, here.

MCCD also has some pretty awesome sounding education programs--professional development for teachers as well as programs for schoolkids and families--on my list for further investigation.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Karen Lewis at City Club of Chicago talk today

I'll be live tweeting today as Karen Lewis addresses the City Club of Chicago at noon. Follow me @hear_k12. I'll be using #cityclubchi and #karenlewis.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

HEAR Chicago Talk heard and talked about; or, A Mad Attempt to Transform a Moth Into a Caterpillar

HEAR Chicago Talk 1.1 went off, pretty much without a hitch.

Here's the room where we had it.
Photo courtesy of Schubas

We had four presentations, starting and ending with questions. Mine was about the possibility of experiential learning in the local outdoors.

Yoli Maya Yeh, who teaches yoga in CPS schools, spoke about reducing violence among Chicago youth through yoga, meditation, and peace activities.

Kids gain valuable character, skills, and techniques from Peace Within YOUth

Ari Frede, founder of arts charter the Orange School, spoke about pedagogical underpinnings and everyday examples of giving children authentic choices in the classroom.

Christine Krumsee reminded us that the importance of reaching people through meaningful activities does not stop at age 18. She spoke about her work with Helping Hospitalized Veterans, an organization that brings crafts kits to veterans as a sort of informal art therapy. 

Photo from VA Maryland Health Care System

After each presentation, the audience had one minute to ask questions. As we got into the third and fourth presentations, audience questions started focusing more on connections among them, especially Yoli's and Christine's. That was unexpected and perfect.

The one-minute-question part is just questions, no answers. That way, questioners feel freer to ask wide, deep, or speculative questions--ones that can't be answered right away, but can be thought about--and presenters get more to chew on without the pressure of having all the answers. After the structured part of the evening was through, folks had plenty of time and opportunity to find each other and discuss the questions if they wished.

Following Christine's presentation was a brief open mic portion where audience members could chew for one minute on their own edu-questions; and then, people settled in for drinks and chats.

So--I think it worked! People ate and drank. Technical equipment operated. The presentations provoked thought and interest. People introduced themselves to others and traded contact information. I hope that with regular installments, HEAR Chicago Talk becomes a go-to place for educators and other communicators to reflect on their practices, articulate their goals, and trade and test ideas with others. The next one is September 18, y'all! Mark your calendars and contact me here or here if you're interested in presenting.

A reporter from Medill (Northwestern University) was there and wrote this cool little article (which content makes it clear to me that I must immediately work on articulate and pithy pitches about the format, the goal, and the reason for the not-Q-&-A part. Dear god).

True to the format of the evening I'm going to end with a question (well, several). Ironically, or something, really nothing presented was new by a longshot--rather the opposite. Learning through experience in the outdoors dates to the dawn of humans; yoga has been around for thousands of years; Dewey's work on student choice was done at the turn of the last century (as was Maria Montessori's); and Helping Hospitalized Vets was founded in 1971. What's happening here? Is the "innovation" actually the stuff that's not working: forcing kids to sit in seats all day, thoroughly separating out subjects, testing to the point that teaching and learning are punishing instead of transcendent activities?

Hey--what IS innovation when it comes to a timeless practice integral to every human society, anyway? And is wanting to transform it to be authentic, relevant, enjoyable, and equitable as naive as wanting to transform a moth back into a caterpillar?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Outdoor ed: reality check

I've posted here, here, and here about nature-based science investigation programs in the Seattle area. They're happy posts. But what's needed to scale these sorts of programs up and out for lasting, systematic change seems impossible.

Here's what I saw there that I don't see here:
  1. Public policy and public leaders acknowledge the existence of nature, whether in the city or elsewhere, and prioritize it. Washington State has environmental ed standards. The M. Ed. program at University of Washington in Seattle has a partnership with Islandwood. School and county officials press forward with environment-focused budgeting despite political risks. And the public acknowledges and prioritizes these things, too: Brightwater and Homewaters were movements started by teachers and other citizens who saw that incorporating natural resources into education plans was hard work worth the fight. Things weren't perfect with the folks I talked to in the Puget Sound area--not all the schools have the support, capacity, or will to address the environmental ed standards and the Brightwater project was not going swimmingly for a while--but there appears to be a remarkable basis of understanding and support, a critical mass in terms of understanding and prioritizing that doesn't exist here.
  2. District and city leaders trust school leaders and teachers with the time and space needed to manifest and implement new education programs related to those public priorities. There seems to be a relatively clean line from "What do children need?" to "Here is reasonable curriculum, instruction, and assessment." It's likely some of the rosiness of this view is based on my status as a visitor--doubtless there are many frustrations and obstructions. But a noxious gas of stinky, turgid politics does not seem to have descended there at this point.
  3. And then there's money. Money money money money. As I mentioned in the IslandWood post, that amazing place exists because a wildly wealthy person decided she wanted it, and, fortunately for the Puget Sound region, she was as thoughtful and compassionate as she was wealthy, so her vision was executed well and built to last. In this country, and maybe everywhere in the world, nothing happens unless it aligns with the interests of a super rich and/ or powerful person.  Sometimes, we're awfully lucky and those interests are also in the interest of the public, or of children, or of our natural resources. This seems an inescapable reality. This is very deflating. Is the only way to create another Islandwood to find someone with tens of millions of dollars and a remarkably centered conscience?
I would like to think that public policy can solve problems facing the public good but that seems a laughable notion. And we've learned that private policy is not appropriate for a public good like education; so where does that leave us?

We do have some neat content in the Chicago area. Posts on that to come. The question is, how to implement that content, integrate it, and make it part of our educational and political priorities.

    Tuesday, May 28, 2013

    Outdoor Education in Seattle: Homewaters and Jane Addams K-8 School

    UPDATE: Thanks to Brad Street and Christine Benita, I've made some corrections for accuracy and clarity. Where they address accuracy, I made a note; where they address clarity, I just made the update.

    What with all the HEAR Chicago Talk preparations and everything, I'm, well, I'm a little behind. Just a little. Here, finally, are the last couple Great Puget Sound Outdoor Adventures (I have no photos for this post, since I visited a couple Commands Central instead of programs in action):

    I had the chance to meet with Homewaters coordinator Brad Street over coffee in a shabby-genteel underground coffeehouse (I mean literally: underground). Like Brightwater,  Homewaters is affiliated with IslandWood, though in this case the connection is recent--Homewaters was an independent non-profit organization from its inception in 1992 until 2010. Also like Brightwater, it was started by teachers concerned about the health of a local watershed--in this case, Thornton Creek.

    Whereas for the IslandWood School Overnight Program students travel to Bainbridge Island, and for Brightwater they travel to the Woodinville treatment plant, Homewaters programs make use of natural areas right in the school's community, sometimes even on school grounds. The three science-investigation units available, which correspond roughly to fourth- and fifth-grade Seattle School District science curricula, require access to a bit of green space and/or a body of water, and in the near-archipelago that is Seattle, those habitats are generally within walking distance.

    Homewaters staff are invited to district professional development days and planning meetings to ensure they are up-to-date on the science curriculum and resources, and teachers are expected to attend training in preparation for hosting some of the units (NOTE: corrected to reflect the teacher training). These exchanges increase awareness of the program throughout the district, help Homewaters support teachers in implementation, and foster trusting relationships between educators and program staff.

    One of those trusting relationships is with the science specialist at Jane Addams K-8 School, Christine Benita. I was fortunate to be able to catch her one morning and talk to her about Jane Addams and the seriously thoughtful and effective work she's done there.

    Jane Addams is an "option" school in the Seattle School District--like magnet schools in other areas, option schools have a specific programmatic or thematic focus and draw from students throughout the district rather than strictly from the surrounding neighborhood. The focus at Jane Addams is environmental science, and the school principal (note: corrected from "district") had the excellent sense and vision to provide a staff member dedicated solely to developing, nurturing, and maintaining this focus. Christine Benita has filled that position since the school's conversion in 2009.

    Ms. Benita's stewardship of the program is well paced--I do not mean fast-paced, which is what education policy usually demands and which rarely makes any positive and lasting impact--but well-paced. This change is being built to last--to produce high-quality curriculum and to retain good people and build on their leadership.

    Jane Addams is in its fourth year as an option school now. The first year, Ms. Benita asked the  teachers to simply carry on with their regular science curriculum as everyone got settled in to the new option-school model, but to think about how the environmental science focus could benefit their units. The second year, the teachers started expanding some units to allow for off-site and in-school science investigation, and, correspondingly, find ways to be more efficient with other units. They also received professional development in science writing. The third year, last year, teachers started integrating social studies and other subject areas into the science lessons to create a more authentic and holistic learning experience. And this past year, the school implemented a cross-grade theme of "spheres:" grades K, 1, and 4 focus on the biosphere, grades 2, 3, and 7 on the litho- and geosphere, grades 5 and 6 focus on the hydrosphere, and grade 8 on the atmosphere (note: corrected from "a mix"). The themes unify the school and accommodate grade-by-grade learning goals in the other core subject areas in addition to science. Jane Addams' next step is to make an organized push to become an eSTEM school (an environmental focus achieved through highlighting connections to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

    The young school is generating a lot of interest from other schools in the region, who are looking to its science programming as a model for their own. Our conversation illuminated three ingredients in its success.

    First,  Ms. Benita's job description gives her the time required to effectively research and secure free, low-cost, or grant-funded curriculum and instruction resources, and then to implement those resources meaningfully. Jane Addams uses curriculum from organizations such as the Audubon society and accesses experiences provided by a variety of organizations, public, non-profit, and private, including NOAA, Boeing, Seattle Parks, and Homewaters/ IslandWood.

    Secondly, Ms. Benita has been able to put the program into place one step at a time and with sufficient time and resources. She is also able to conduct nearly all professional development related to new processes, methods, and materials herself, and what she doesn't deliver is done by another staff member, so the learning and implementing required of staff remains an internal process owned by them.

    And third, she has the complete support of her principal. The principal, Ms. Benita told me, makes it happen budgetwise and philosophically--then she, the science coordinator, can make it happen with  research, program planning, outreach, and grants and partnerships.

    All of my experiences in Seattle--touring IslandWood, observing classes at Brightwater, speaking with Brad Street from Homewaters and Christine Benita from Jane Addams--were so inspiring. I feel like I have been using that word a lot, but I mean it; the visit provoked an excitement in me about the possibilities for incorporating green spaces big and small into formal learning, and helped me envision ways this could happen in Chicago.

    But it also highlighted for me the very daunting barriers to meaningfully integrating nature-based lessons with formal education--or transforming education in any other way, for that matter. And that's for the next blog post, shortly (really!! like within a day!) to follow.

    Monday, May 13, 2013

    This Week is Urban Biodiversity Week!

    Here in the Chicago area, we're surrounded by nature--marshes, prairies, and dunes full of birds, frogs, butterflies, and other fauna. This week is National Urban Biodiversity Week,
    a seven-city collaboration to bring urban dwellers into contact with local flora and fauna. Urban Biodiversity Week will showcase events in the Millennium Reserve: Calumet Core area. It will celebrate urban biodiversity and conservation activities and will provide opportunities for local residents and visitors to participate in outdoor activities in the Calumet region.
    Here's where that quote came from, plus a lot more information. Check out the calendar of events here and choose a guided hike, tour, or volunteer opportunity. There are events for children and adults.

    Today I'm going on a tour of Hegewisch Marsh. It's sunny and fresh out! I'm looking forward to it. Nice, after I spent a cold, wet, gusty San Francisco-style Saturday morning at a Chicago River cleanup.

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Updated: HEAR Chicago Talk is HAPPENING! Wednesday, June 5

    HEAR Chicago Talk is HAPPENING! Up-to-date format, place, and time follows:

    HEAR Chicago Talk is an exchange of ideas related to education, broadly defined.

    Six Chicagoans make presentations with three simple guidelines: 
    • Start with a question you’ve been chewing on.
    • In six minutes, present an inspiring or innovative way you or someone else is seeking to address that question.
    • End with a question you want your audience to chew on.
    Following each presentation is a one-minute period for audience questions, to feed ideas and perhaps new collaborations--presenters listen without responding. There is time after the presentations to socialize and network.

    The presenters can  be almost anyone--including you.

    Anyone may present whose profession, avocation, or passion involves developing and conveying concepts or processes: teachers, museum educators, designers, community organizers, entrepreneurs, art directors, logistics coordinators, get the idea.

    And the audience?

    The audience are folks interested in an inspiring and fun night out, as well as professional and creative peers of the presenters. The event is meant to inspire ideas and foster collaboration among resourceful folks with personal or professional interest related, in some broad way, to the concept of education.

    Interested in attending?

    Fantastic! Click here to save yourself a spot (or just show up).
    Wednesday, June 5, 7:00pm (doors 6:30)
    Schuba's Upstairs Lounge, 3159 Southport Ave.
    Pay what you want; suggested cover is $5

    Interested in presenting? 

    Aces! Click here to submit your idea.
    5/12/13 Oopsies. Typo are the correct dates:
    Please submit your idea by Monday, May 27. You will be notified if you are presenting by Wednesday, May 29.

    Tuesday, April 30, 2013

    A brief break from outdoor learning to present: HEAR Chicago Talk!

    I am putting together a forum where people can share ideas about reaching folks and teaching folks. Click on the tab labeled HEAR Chicago Talk: Coming In June! to learn more...and possibly to help. I am looking for:
    • A venue: A low-key bar or cafĂ© with a designated performance space would be ideal. The venue should be fairly central (near north or near south side of Chicago), accessible by public transportation, and comfortable and welcoming for people of all backgrounds and ages. Please comment or email me ( for suggestions, contacts, or offers.
    • Presenters! Here's the prompt (modeled after Pecha Kucha): 
       In twenty slides of twenty seconds each, present something you’ve done or seen that has inspired you or others.
    • Audience! Tell all your friends about it! Keep checking the HEAR Chicago tab for more developments!

    Wednesday, April 17, 2013

    Outdoor learning in Seattle: Brightwater Environmental Education and Community Center

    I wrote all about IslandWood, a Seattle area outdoor education center with a four-day school overnight program, in a previous post. While in Seattle I also visited Brightwater, a pretty awesome wastewater treatment plant serving King and Snohomish Counties that offers educational day programs. The facilities are maintained by King County, but the programming and staff are IslandWood affiliates. 

    Brightwater Treatment System opened in 2011 in Woodinville, WA on a site previously used for  smelly industrial purposes. Residents were not necessarily thrilled at the prospect of replacing the soup factory and auto junkyard with a sewage treatment plant, but someone over at King County's wastewater treatment division had a vision. The plant goes beyond simply minimizing negative impact to actually contributing positively to the region's environmental health and community. You can learn all about it on one of their public tours.

    In addition to the plant, the complex contains paths, ponds, native flora and fauna, and an education center with exhibits and labs.

    The treatment plant is in the background; the nearer building is part of the education center

    The education center exists thanks to the cooperation of King County officials, environmental groups, local Native American groups, and a dedicated and tireless group of schoolteachers from the region called Friends of the Hidden River. These incredible teachers raised over a million dollars for the  center! The platinum LEED certified education center, designed by Mithun (who also designed IslandWood), has a smorgasbord of environmental and sustainable features, including renewable energy sources for heat and reclaimed wood for construction.

    Not that it's all been Woodinville wine and Pike Place roses...the project, which ran behind schedule and overbudget, was a source of concern and frustration for residents prior to its opening. It appears, though, that with two years of excellent programming for schools and the public, a clean and attractive facility, and a positive contribution to the ecological health of the region, residents are coming around.

    The day program is for kids grades 3–8 (about 4400 of them this school year). The programs are aligned with area schools' science curriculum; the older kids study human impact on the water cycle  at the treatment facility while the younger study landforms and ecosystems at the learning center and its nearby ponds and trails. The day I was there, I shadowed a group of third-graders.

    We began the day in one of the classrooms, a spacious lab with a U-shaped desk arrangement, tables for lab work, and sinks, microscopes, and cabinets full of instruments. Our teacher for the day, Bonnie, talked with the group about food webs (a more accurate term than "food chains"), biodiversity, and the scientific method.

    The kids' task was to count the types of water bugs in two different ponds to determine which pond has greater biodiversity. Bonnie distibuted observation journals and kid-sized clipboards, and the group headed outside to observe weather conditions, flora and fauna, and natural and man-made features in each pond that could affect water bugs' survival.

    They collected water bugs in nets and placed them in containers filled with pond water.

    Stream-fed Otter Pond is naturally occurring, but has some man-made features, such as a culvert
    Storm Pond is man-made, fed through pipes by rainwater funneled from buildings
    Back at the lab, they used various tools to identify and log different types of bugs. Some bugs were the size of pinpoints and others were as large as my fingernail.

    Our group found that Storm pond had more types of water bugs, but the adjacent classroom found more diversity in Otter Pond. I was expecting Bonnie to allow that one or the other was correct and to lead us in a reasoning out where the incorrect group might have gone wrong--but, instead, she explained that neither she nor the rest of the staff know the answer, that this is an ongoing science investigation and that the students' data will be logged as part of it. The kids' work has a purpose!

    Forgive my excitement. It's so rare that schoolkids are asked to contribute to answering an as-yet unanswered question. And here they are also experiencing important scientific practices such as withholding conclusions while sufficient data is collected and staying open to unexpected results.

    (The investigation isn't perfect: There are many variables that are not controlled, such as collection locations along the shore and students' netting technique; and, while the students are indeed  contributing to answering a scientific question, it is not clear to me how much value, outside of educational, this particular question has. But I was still happily struck that students' results are logged and discussed as input toward unanswered question.)

    After the kids had left for the day, the Brightwater staff--four classroom educators, the lead educator, Derek, and the program manager, Kate--gathered for their daily afternoon check-in. They compared  the day's findings with each other, and then those findings with previous days; they swapped bug-container placement techniques and marveled over bug sizes. These adults were as engaged with the experience as the kids were.

    Then the group turned to the teaching and learning. They traded tips about activities and pacing, shared challenges and solutions, and helped each other build or reinforce subject-matter knowledge. Kate asked about some journal pages that had just been added to help kids clear a stumbling block the staff had identified at earlier check-ins. The new pages got a unanimous thumbs-up--they provided just the scaffolding needed. If they hadn't, the staff would have tweaked and tested them until they were effective.

    If you've ever been a part of any human organization at all, be it a marriage or a corporate office, you know that having regular, brief, informal check-ins to shore up strengths, identify trouble spots, and remain properly oriented is vital--and rare, and difficult to do consistently, and tricky to steer down the middle between kvetch session and social event. But the check-in I saw was an inspired check-in. It seemed to me that this unassuming and mostly hidden component of the Brightwater day was key to the success of the center. I could tick off ten helpful things that each staff member learned, either as a group or for his or her individual practice, in those twenty minutes. And each day the tips, lessons, and tweaking and testing are repeated. Imagine if the expectations and budgets for schools and teachers allowed for twenty minutes at the end of each day for staff to connect and check-in, trade tips and tweaks, identify strengths and challenges. Imagine if student teachers had this level of support.

    At Brightwater, there is no pre- or post-visit classroom component. That is, it is hoped that teachers and principals have the time, will, and know-how to effectively integrate the Brightwater experience into academic units. Bonnie, who was a middle-school classroom teacher before coming to IslandWood and Brightwater as part the University of Washington's graduate program, credits her    experience through the grad program with changing how she thinks about the classroom. Experiential learning seems so integral--and doable--now, whereas it wasn't so much on the radar before. Imagine if all teacher education programs fostered the kind of change in thinking that Bonnie experienced. Outdoor and experiential learning would be natural and expected, a a part of formal education...and, as teachers moved into decision-making and leadership positions, increasingly feasible structurally and financially.

    In the next blog we'll look at one K–8 school in Seattle that is making inroads toward this ideal, mostly because of its amazing curriculum director.