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 (hear.k12@gmail.com) 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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Islandwood: A couple corrections

An IslandWood educator, Maddi Sullivan, offered a few corrections to some inaccuracies in my blog post about IslandWood. I'm writing them here and also updating the original post:

1. The Mill Pond is technically down at the harbor, rather than where the Floating Classroom floats.  Its sectioned off from the rest of the harbor and is how the big logs were transported from ships etc into the mill. During the waning tide the logs would get dumped and they'd enter the mill pond and the gate would be shut to keep them from exiting as the tide rose. The pond with the Floating Classroom was created during the time of the great mills but it was simply a small stream that was dammed for drinking water etc in the dry months. There would have been no way to get the logs from that pond up at higher elevation and a couple miles away, down to the mill via water.

2. We don't have rain boots for kids to borrow, but just about everything else: rain jackets and pants, warm fleece jackets, hats, gloves etc.

3. "in the dining hall, where kids serve themselves buffet style"---the kids actually eat family style, not buffet. So one kid brings platters of food to each table and everyone serves themselves from them.

Thanks, Maddi! I really appreciate the note.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Outdoor learning in Seattle: IslandWood's School Overnight Program

[UPDATE 4/16/13] An Islandwood educator, Maddi Sullivan, offered a few corrections to some inaccuracies in this post. I'll note them as updates below. Thanks, Maddi!

I had the opportunity to go to Seattle a few weeks ago, and while there I grabbed the chance to visit four exciting elementary-school programs that get kids doing science outside. Three of these are sibling non-profits and the fourth is based in a Seattle public K–8 school. This post is dedicated entirely to IslandWood's flagship School Overnight Program for fourth- through sixth-graders. I'll address the other programs in subsequent posts.

IslandWood is a 255-acre outdoor learning center located on Bainbridge Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle. The site is old logging land formerly owned by Port Blakely Tree Farms; the ground near the mill is still springy from mounds of sawdust beneath the dirt, and on the mill pond where men used to float logs for transport, a floating classroom now carries kids collecting water samples.

[UPDATE] The Mill Pond is technically down at the harbor, rather than where the Floating Classroom floats.  Its sectioned off from the rest of the harbor and is how the big logs were transported from ships etc into the mill. During the waning tide the logs would get dumped and they'd enter the mill pond and the gate would be shut to keep them from exiting as the tide rose. The pond with the Floating Classroom was created during the time of the great mills but it was simply a small stream that was dammed for drinking water etc in the dry months. There would have been no way to get the logs from that pond up at higher elevation and a couple miles away, down to the mill via water.

The center is the compassionate, careful, and thoroughly researched implementation of its founder’s vision. Seattle-area resident Debbi Brainerd bought the land with her husband Paul in 1998 for the express purpose of creating a "magical place" where Puget Sound area children could learn about the region's natural and cultural history.

Forest...one of IslandWood's five distinct ecosystems
The mill pond, another ecosystem
The cattail marsh, a third ecosystem and the location of a bird blind.

Today, about 4000 students from over 70 Puget Sound schools, including about 50% of Seattle's public school students, participate in IslandWood's four-day School Overnight Program annually. Rain or shine, fourth- through sixth-graders are outdoors for most of their waking hours, using the plants, water, wind, and sun to do academic work that other kids are using textbooks for.

The center was developed by the design firm Mithun, known for environmentally sustainable architecture, and is gold LEED certified.

Buildings are located and positioned for minimal impact on ecosystems and watersheds. Windows are placed and angled to capture sunlight in the winter and maintain shade in the summer; dirty water is filtered through shale-and-plant cycles with the goal of reuse; rainwater is collected in cisterns and organic waste is composted. Buildings have solar panels, skylights, and sound panels to capitalize on natural energy and physics.

Countertops are made of recycled yogurt containers (you can still see the foil) and bathroom stalls of plastic milk bottles. Panels, floors, beams, and doors are constructed from reclaimed or sustainable wood and building insulation from old newspaper. Artwork and ornamentation are made by local artists from locally sourced and/ or recycled material.

Yogurt-container countertop in a classroom
A Muir quote etched in a Mobius circling an old milled beam

Student-made sidewalk mosaics
Glass-bottle bathroom tiles

Each of these elements is made explicit to kids as they come into contact with them. Everything at IslandWood, in fact, is optimized for teaching moments. And everything is kid friendly. The place was made for kids--not (only) for adults who want kids to pay attention and learn things. Hundreds of chlidren were consulted for the center's creation.

 That is why at each bunk there is both a forest-facing window and a little nightlight.

That is why the benches of the "Friendship Circle," the outdoor amphitheater, subtly demarcate individual seats (children of a certain age need their space, even in friendship circles).

It goes without saying that kids requested a treehouse.

People, there's a treehouse!!

It is constructed by the local Seattle outfit Treehouse Workshop with meticulous attention to the health of the tree.

Every student gets a science journal for sketches and notes--some prompted, some open--about plants, animals, water, air, and earth.  Kids climb a canopy tower to compare tree features, weather, and humidity at the different heights.

They do scientific investigations of water quality and soil type; they study ecosystems, animal tracks and scat, and orienteering. They observe plants and animals from a bird blind in the marsh, a boat on the pond, and a suspension bridge over a ravine, among other places.

Bird blind

Suspension bridge
There's a place to check out boots and coats, so no one needs to worry about staying warm and dry.  [UPDATE] Actually, IslandWood doesn't have rain boots for kids to borrow, but just about everything else: rain jackets and pants, warm fleece jackets, hats, gloves etc.

There's a garden and a beehive; kids learn to make a snack from fresh-picked food from the garden.

Classrooms are multi-level, because children love going into their own corners, and because the architects wanted to break up the literal and metaphorical flatness of the classroom. The multi-level design also aids in the functioning of barrel-and-tube models of watersheds, as gravity is an important component.

Education at IslandWood is predicated on gentle experienced insights into the interconnectedness of resources and actions. This is as effective a social principle as a scientific and ecological one: in the dining hall, where kids serve themselves buffet style, there's a leftover-food weigh-in station.
[UPDATE] The kids actually eat family style, not buffet. So one kid brings platters of food to each table and everyone serves themselves from them.

At the end of the meal, students weigh what's left on their plates and compete by table for the least amount of food wasted; numbers are significantly lower by the end of the week. (I would love to see this used for math-lesson teaching moments as well as a resource- and waste-awareness ones.)

IslandWood curriculum is mostly science, but integrates other important areas of learning as well--specifically those areas that teachers report get lost in the standards and accountability churn. Artists-in-residence provide curriculum in the arts, while mill structures and a cemetery are fodder for social studies.

These subjects are combined in the lessons of instructors from the area's Native American communities, who work with students on songs, crafts, and other traditions.

 (All photos taken by H. Lukic or me, but this video is from IslandWood's YouTube channel.)

IslandWood encompasses so many elements of my dream school. Just getting out into green spaces is important for physical and emotional health, but that's only the beginning. Students on the School Overnight Program get to experience nature to an extent and in a manner that will likely engender stewardship of natural resources. There is sustained interaction--four days at the center, with two thirds of the day spent outdoors. And--so important and fulfilling in my mind--kids also learn important academic skills and concepts through experience and exploration, guided by mentors and coaches. Children who aren't focused or interested in classrooms often respond strongly and positively to experiential learning, especially outdoors.

The chimney in this lodge conveys the region's geologic history
Art, science, and learning are everywhere

In my dream world, IslandWood is a year-round school.

A slightly (...slightly) less wildly unrealistic dream is of a school system that allows for full, authentic integration of IslandWood-like programs. Imagine a school set-up that facilitates as part of its regular everyday curriculum repeated visits to a wilderness area, for example throughout different seasons, or at various times of day. Imagine lessons in math, writing, literature, and P.E. that take place outdoors or respond to outdoor experiences. Imagine curriculum standards, societal expectations, and budgets allowing for thorough in-class followups to wilderness experiences (IslandWood staff are available to visit classrooms after their IslandWood stays, but it is left to individual teachers to make time in their overpacked schedules for this visit--or to connect the residency to class studies in any other way).

Not everywhere has the natural beauty that the Puget Sound area has, but there is nature everywhere, even in cities. Cultivating health, activity, and environmental awareness and stewardship, as well as opportunities for experiential learning, is important--and possible--everywhere. For example, in my beloved Chicago.

The Chicago River at Wilson Bridge

Beautiful Lake Michigan

North Pond in Lincoln Park
IslandWood was born of the significant wealth of a caring and visionary private citizen and is sustained through grants, donations, and conference and event rentals. The very existence of this amazing place, and the dream of propagating such a model, begs deflating questions about money and public and political will. I'll address those questions in the final post in this Seattle series.

Monday, April 1, 2013

CLOCC and Chicago.coop

So many excellent and galvanizing meetings, presentations, and experiences 2013 has brought me! No Child Left Inside, Poetry Out Loud, Pecha Kucha. And now presenting: The quarterly meeting of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC).

This consortium brings together Chicago clinicians, educators, non-profit leaders in social, educational, and environmental fields, urban planners, and city representatives to develop and implement measures for improving Chicago children's health. Their approach is as varied as their participants: subgroups consider the issue in relation to early childhood needs, food access, physical activity, schools, policy, research, and public education. You can find their blueprint for the next decade here and many other resources here.

I attended because of my interest in integrating nature-based and other outdoors activity into the school day as part of formal education, as I've discussed before in earlier posts. (I am even more excited about this now, having just returned from an amazing and informative trip to Seattle last week! More on that--with pictures!--later.)

At the meeting, we heard anthropologist Howard Rosing, PhD speak about his research on cultural considerations related to food access, and a panel, composed of Kelly Lowry, PhD and Alicia Gonzalez of Lurie Children's Hospital/ Chicago Run, Rush University Medical Center's Brad Appelhans, PhD, and research consultant T. Nigel Gannon, PhD, discuss opportunities and challenges in community-based research design. As you can gather from all those name suffixes, the consortium values its relationships with university researchers and medical doctors--but what I find impressive and refreshing is that it appears equally committed to on-the-ground  implementation. When there is a gap between research and application the public loses faith in the value of the research and the researchers lose perspective on practical realities. And, on the other hand, when program developers do not regard authentic grounding in research to be important, programs can become idiosyncratic, narrow, or inconsistent.

Before the meeting adjourned, the interest groups reported on their work earlier that day (mostly, they reviewed the new blueprint, which had been published since the prior meeting) and announced their next meeting dates. I plan on attending the Health Promotion and Public Education meeting next week, and the Physical Activity and the Built Environment one at the end of the month.

The week prior to this meeting, I went to an exciting kick-off meeting for a new food cooperative being put together in Chicago, headed by the tireless and supersmart Greg Berlowitz. The prospect of a community gathering place based on healthy produce and locally produced goods is a welcome one in Chicago (sadly, my beloved town is pokey when it comes to environmental and food awareness, one of the reasons I am interested in building education around these issues)--and I see many possibilities for integrating educational programming.