Friday, July 18, 2014

Lessons from the Flood, Again, and The Rivers Institute

tadpole study in a vernal, er, flood pond
Washouts, mudslides, sandbags, road closures, no wake warnings, crop loss, property loss, infrastructure damage and lost revenue...many communities in Minnesota are still reeling from a flood season that is stretching right through the summer.  Just this morning, a Prior Lake resident was on MPR citing increased development and subsequently increased acreage of impermeable surfaces in his community as major contributors to the run off that exacerbates flooding.  Climate change aside, it seems there has never been a more relevant time to discuss watershed issues in our state and beyond.

facilitator/teacher Melanie Grue supporting hands-on inquiry

In June, mid-flood, I had the opportunity to discuss watershed issues at Hamline University's 2014 Rivers Institute on the St. Croix. This three day, hands-on, site-specific course offers educators the chance to experience inquiry-based learning first hand, and to consider how to integrate watershed inquiry, and other studies, into their curriculum. The course is put on by Hamline's Center for Global Environmental Education, within the School of Education, and it is free to those teachers who apply and get a spot. The Rivers Institute turns out to be a great excuse to pursue issues of land-based, project-based, integrated education and curriculum. The focus of the Rivers Institute also happens to point out just how relevant, and necessary hands-on, land-based learning is.  Like it or not, the generations of kids we are educating are going to have to figure out how to swim in environmental circumstances and changes that threaten to overwhelm the globe. Kids have to get outside and understand our environment if they are going to grow up to engineer change and apply the science necessary to keep the world healthy and productive. Fortunately, educational institutions like Hamline, organizations like the Jeffers Foundation and educators like Cara Rieckenberg and Sil and Ed Pembleton are working in our communities to help teachers connect kids with our environment and to support integrated, land-based learning curriculum in our schools.

comparing tadpoles
Most of the attendees at the Rivers Institute were primary and secondary public school educators from our metro, and the majority seemed to be science teachers-- makes sense that these folks would self-select into a program with an environmental education focus. While my point of view as an early education generalist, with an environmental and experiential education focus, was certainly complimentary to the group, I was a bit of an oddball in terms of the population of the assembly. Over the course of my time with all these interested and interesting teachers, a theme emerged:  Dodge Nature Preschool, specifically, and nature centers in general, have some big ideas to contribute to the conversation about the future of public education, and to how we will grow the next crop of ambitious and creative scientists, technicians, engineers, artists and mathematicians.

If the hope for primary and secondary education is to finally fulfill the hands-on, project-based (now commonly called "integrated") curricular approach to learning propounded by John Dewey back in the day, then the teachers at Dodge have a mighty gift to offer our interested and concerned colleagues in the public schools. We can provide a great template for what integrated, hands-on, emergent learning looks like in its most basic form.

the shoes come off to find more frogs
During the Institute, we studied macroinvertebrates as part of our Project Wet training.  In order to actually and not theoretically study them, we had to find them.  I waded into the floodplain of the St. Croix right up to my hips. Right away I was rewarded with a water scorpion.  This aquatic insect can breath out of a snorkel-like bum and it has piercing mouth parts (inquiry can be exciting, with an element of danger!).  We study macros with our Dodge preschoolers all the time, laying on our bellies on our pond boardwalk and scooping up life in margarine tubs. We don't use the term "macroinvertebrate" and we don't necessarily classify all the life we find, or survey the population of the pond, but looking at our example of looking at an actual example, it is easy for a biology teacher to imagine how she could structure curriculum around this activity. And it is easy for a physical science instructor to see how designing vessels to sail the pond to learn about neutral buoyancy would be super doable. And a math teacher might like to think about how runoff impacts the volume of the pond. The history teacher could think about how new the pond is, and the history of ponds (or lack of them) in Minnesota agriculture.  The language arts teacher could ask students to write from the point of view of a pond animal, or the farmer who drained the pond-- but wait, that's getting at science and history too.  Whoa, the phy-ed teacher could teach kids how to canoe.  And the history teacher could piggy back with native american history and birch bark canoe construction and then the science teacher would have to chime in with buoyancy and then there's botany and why you harvest birch bark in spring, and a molecular physics layer over the same conversation, and the math teacher could propose calculations about the canoe itself, or how it displaces stuff.  Boy, one canoe on a pond could keep every teacher in the sixth grade busy for a long time.  Even the music and arts teachers could horn in on the act, with aboriginal art history and craft, the songs of the voyageurs-- wait!  The French teacher...

coping skills, resiliency and "grit," via tadpoles
So we do a lot of cool stuff on our Dodge ponds, but the St. Croix river supplied my first ever water scorpion. See, context matters too; learning can be very specific to place, to your place.  I am convinced that we at Dodge, with our place-based learning experience, can help primary and secondary teachers lobby for integration opportunities in their school systems by providing examples of simple, successful integrated curriculum.

It is just a matter of complicating this basic approach in order to accommodate the needs of K-12 teachers and kids. AND, we at Dodge who take 3-6-year-olds outside every day can also supply basic advice for getting over logistical hurdles and worries about getting outside; in over a decade of outdoor inquiry, we haven't yet lost a kid!

honing observation skills, and impulse control
So the passel of educators at the Rivers Institute spent a good deal of time on the St. Croix River itself. We used Interstate and William O'Brien State Parks as our bases, for exploration and discussion. Each participant was issued a notebook and encouraged to use it as a science student would, keeping detailed notes, charts and observations over the course of the three days as we trained and studied. This rigorous exercise alone, keeping a detailed notebook while outside, proved to be one of the big takeaways of the program. What follows is my list of observations and takeaways from conversations, experiences and break-out sessions with my fellows; I think you'll see the tie-in to how a place like Dodge can be the poster-child for inquiry-based education for any age and how we can help public school teachers support integrated inquiry:

General Observations
-public school teachers want to get kids outside for hands-on experiences
-teachers themselves enjoy hands-on experiences
-teachers know that an inquiry model is far more meaningful than a didactic approach for most learning situations
-public school folks want to give kids opportunities to conduct long-term projects
-public schools, in particular,  tend to have rigid schedules that leave teachers vying, with each other, for time; these schedules tend to compartmentalize inquiry--science, language arts, history, math etc--rather than integrate it.
-teachers worry about taking 30 kids outside by themselves
-teachers worry about taking time out of their curriculum schedule to go outside
-teachers worry about aligning inquiry with curriculum standards
-teachers generally seem to feel powerless to lobby for change in their own schools in order to address systemic hurdles to integrated, project-based education
-teachers realize that land-based education supports social and emotional development and provides very necessary physical regulation

Personal Takeaways
-young children at Dodge practice scientific-style observation daily, they even record their observations,  even pre-verbally, in journals-- the root of science notebooks
-Dodge teachers support inquiry-based learning over didactic transfer of information
-Dodge children become very practiced at learning through hands-on experiences
-Dodge students do not anticipate or expect knowledge to come from a sheet of paper; books are well-loved, but they support and enrich experience
-Dodge students actively follow their personal intellectual interests and advocate for further inquiry; our five-year-olds, for instance, routinely request tools, materials and more experiences to support their interests
-All learning at Dodge is interdisciplinary or integrated; literacy and math, for instance are developed through their necessary application in projects, like mapping our travels around the nature center, building a camera obscura or a sculpture, constructing a fort or creating a shadow puppet show
-Projects require children to develop or draw-upon a wide-variety of skills and teachers must be flexible in order to support the project and the skills; teachers, in turn, must be able to say, "I don't know, but let's find out," and they must be able to locate the experts, materials and experiences necessary to continue inquiry. *If the structure of a school day does not support flexibility and cross-pollination, it could be really frustrating to try to pursue inquiry and STEM or STEAM programming.
-Teachers learn with kids when they pursue projects and follow a model of inquiry.

sharing information
The Rivers Institute asked me to look harder at land-based inquiry and in turn, I thought harder about Dodge Nature Preschool and Dodge Nature Center's role in what I believe is a life-long approach to learning. What we do every day at the Preschool or at the Nature Center should not constitute a one-off or stand-alone interlude in a person's education and development; it's not just a field trip. Our efforts to connect people to our environment and to support the development of flexible, innovative thinkers should be part of an educational system that develops and propels citizens through life-long learning and career goals for the greater good of our communities and the planet.  Dodge can provide the example for how to effectively proceed. It falls to our children to solve the problems, fire the economies and populate the communities of the future. I am convinced that future generations will need land-based, hands-on, integrated learning experiences in order to face the floods, feed the hungry, fight the poverty, harness the energy, write the novels and compose the symphonies of the future. Amen.

macroinvertebrates show up too
Take a closer look at education in your community. How are kids learning? How do you want them to learn? How do they learn best? Are your schools using the environment for learning opportunities and whole child development? Do kids know what is happening outside, in their community? What watershed district do you live in? Do you know where your water comes from? Do you know where it goes? How about your garbage? No, really, do you really know? Do your kids know? Should they know things like that? Whose job is it to teach our kids things like that? Whose job is it to learn things like that? What does your kid want to do when she grows up?

My twins are about to celebrate a birthday.  I asked them to consider a gift for their sibling.  One looked at the other, "What do you want?"  Her sister replied, "World peace."  "Me too, but that's not going to happen." We all laughed. But it isn't so funny, is it? I don't want a totally naive twelve-year-old, but I want my child to feel the power of her own potential.
the future