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.