By. Tara McNerney, Sustainability Coordinator at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School
It is raining. It looks like it could rain. It is cold. My students did not bring good shoes. There is construction happening across the street. How does one even teach a writing lesson outside in nature?
Schlepping a classroom outside for a nature-based lesson can seem overwhelming for teachers whose days are already so tasked. The logistics of coats, mud, clipboards, and the lack of walls, projectors, and chairs can all seem like a recipe for chaos. But bringing students outside and giving them experiences in the natural world is imperative for any school wishing to educate eco-conscious empathetic students.
Sustainability and Place-Based Education: How Do They Overlap?
Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School is a sustainability focused bilingual school in Washington DC. Our mission is to educate students to be global stewards, which we do through our own uniquely designed Education for Sustainability curriculum. Education for Sustainability and place-based education are two buzz phrases in the education sector that often overlap. The two are defined below.
Place-Based Education Place-based education immerses students in their local “place.” They study academic subjects through local cultures, communities, and natural environments. Students learn how local community infrastructure and ecosystems support their lives and thus develop a deeper understanding of the interdependent nature of our existence.
Education for Sustainability Education for Sustainability, or EfS, is learning content that teaches students the “skills, perspectives, and values that guide and motivate them to seek sustainable livelihoods” (US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development) and to design and implement sustainable solutions to problems.
When it comes to their overlap, I agree with the analysis of Shelburne Farms Sustainable Schools Project:
“Both place-based learning and EfS begin with the goal of understanding one’s own place so that we can better understand the world. Beginning in elementary grades, we need to cultivate student awareness and understanding of our natural and human communities.” (Cirillo and Hoyler 2015, 11-12)
Not only do these two concepts overlap, but place-based learning forms the platform for our students’ sustainability education, especially in early childhood when a child’s natural curiosity and desire for connection will spur exploration of their immediate landscape and will lead to relationship building with the natural world. As said by Professor David Sobel of Antioch University: “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” (Sobel, “Beyond Ecophobia”)
At Mundo Verde, we aim to give students joyful bonding time in nature before we present them with the perils facing it. Before we engage students in a sustainable water conservation project, we first take them to the Anacostia River to develop an appreciation of its beauty. Before we teach our first graders about the implications of food waste, we put a vermiculture bin in the classroom which prompts students to grow curious and enthusiastic about worms. Before we teach kindergarteners about the disruption of local animal habitat, we take playful inquiry-based field trips to local parks to simply be in the animals’ habitat and become experts in the habitat of at least one local animal.
The Schoolyard as an Opportunity for Place-Based Education
Rather than solely relying on external field work to provide our students with place-based learning opportunities that bring them closer to nature, at Mundo Verde we have developed our schoolyard into a tool for implementing place-based education by providing a landscape for conducting meaningful fieldwork. Some of our schoolyard features that support this goal include:
- An outdoor classroom space with a whiteboard, chalkboard, and enough seating for a whole class to sit at one time.
- A vegetable garden. The raised beds are numbered and mapped on a nearby bulletin board, allowing teachers to quickly and easily orient students to certain beds.
- A green landscape planted with native flora and signs explaining their importance to the local ecosystem.
- A “riverway” connected to a manual pump sparks the imagination of students and allows for water experiments.
Introducing Outdoor Learning to Teachers: Lessons Learned
This fall, excited by the recent garden build day and construction of our outdoor classroom space, I announced to teachers that an “outdoor space sign-up sheet” on google docs was now live, and people could sign up to use the space on certain days at certain times for whatever lesson they preferred. I sat back and waited. And to probably no one’s but my own surprise…no one signed up. Lesson learned: providing the infrastructure, and even agreeing on the motivation (“this is important to our children and to our vision as a green school!”) is not enough to get classes outside. As it is with introducing any other teaching technique, teachers deserve the chance to be coached on how to teach outdoors with nature. They deserve the chance to see it modeled, and to observe its effectiveness on student engagement and achievement.
Lesson Learned: Start with fewer classes but make them count. We recalibrated and decided that in the spring we would concentrate on integrating one or two grade levels’ curriculum outside. With fewer teachers and classrooms I could provide them with more meaningful support in terms of professional development, lesson planning, coaching, and co-teaching outdoor lessons.
Lesson Learned: It must provide important and meaningful fieldwork. As an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school students learn core content through “expeditions,” or an approximately 10-week unit of inter-disciplinary study that focuses on inquiry and service to the community which, in Mundo Verde’s case, forms the structure for implementing our sustainability curriculum. Fieldwork is a core component of students’ learning in their expedition. This emphasis on fieldwork and service-learning makes EL Education an excellent platform for bringing to life authentic place-based learning. After discussing with the grade-level coaches, we decided that the second and third grade teams would take the deep-dive into place-based learning and integrate outdoor learning more deeply into their expeditions. Second grade’s rocks and minerals expedition and third grade’s expedition on water conservation were both obvious topics to be taught outdoors and leveraged the resources we already have on-site in our outdoor spaces.
A Critical Partnership
A critical piece to the success of this initiative is Mundo Verde’s partnership with REAL School Gardens, a nonprofit dedicated to building school gardens and training teachers how to use them to teach core curriculum.
In January 2017, the second and third grade teams did separate four-hour trainings with REAL School Gardens. Here was the training agenda:
9:00 – Discuss: Why integrate the outdoors into your curriculum?
9:30 – Outdoor class behavior management techniques
9:45 – Teaching ELA outdoors
10:15 – Teaching math outdoors
10:45 – Teaching science outdoors
11:15 – Break/Lunch
11:45 – Curriculum planning with the Team Coach: Discuss what the teachers found inspiring during the training and how they envision bringing their expedition outdoors and connecting it to the schoolyard. Generating ideas on what outdoor classroom or garden structures and plants do not currently exist but would be helpful for supporting this learning.
1:00 – End training
A Closer Look: Third Grade’s Water Expedition in the Schoolyard
One way that third graders will integrate place-based learning into their expedition on water is through their study on stormwater’s impact in the school garden. Students will first conduct fieldwork at the Anacostia River in our local watershed. This experience will begin to develop our students’ relationship with the landscape and their connection to nature, which we must cultivate in students before we try to spark their motivation for service.
Next, students learn that our school sits on top of Tiber Creek which was buried during the city’s development but still flows under us. Because of this, we are in a location very prone to flooding in stormy weather, which then leads to the overwhelming of our water treatment system and pollution of our rivers. After learning these facts about their local community, our third graders conduct a few experiments around their schoolyard to better understand the impact of a landscape on stormwater management. Students observe that while the water is absorbed into the soil in planted areas and through the pores of our permeable pavers, the murky water “runs-off” and collects debris when poured on compacted soil and cement.
Finally, students are engaged in a service project to help mitigate stormwater runoff in their schoolyard and to protect the Anacostia River. Students interview a local stormwater management expert from the District Department of the Environment to learn how to design a rain garden. Then in one collective work day in the spring, third graders will roll up their sleeves and plant the rain garden – bringing to life the sustainable landscape they helped to design. Later in the semester they will create bilingual signs that will teach the community about the rain garden’s significance, thus giving the whole school community and local neighborhood a chance to learn about and connect with their place.
Cirillo, Jennifer and Emily Hoyler. The Guide to Education for Sustainability. Rep. Vermont: Shelburne Farm’s Sustainable Schools Project, 2015. Print.
Sobel, D. (1998). “Beyond Ecophobia.” Yes! Magazine. 02/11/1998. http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/education-for-life/803
U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development National Education for Sustainability K-12 Student Learning Standards. Version 3, September 3009.
About the Author
Tara McNerney is the Sustainability Coordinator and a Cooking and Gardening teacher at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School. She received her Masters in Strategic Leadership Toward Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden in 2011. She has served in her role at Mundo Verde for five years.