By. Cyndy Merse, GSNN Content Writer
The Green Schools National Network (GSNN) has been a leading voice in the green schools movement for a number of years. Until recently, GSNN’s primary platform has been the Green Schools National Conference. The Network’s 2015 partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council to co-present the annual conference and the shift in leadership for the event has opened a door for GSNN to assume an even greater role in the green schools movement, assembling a network of professional development providers to create a new community of practice around education for sustainability.
Sustainability Drives Innovation
One of GSNN’s core beliefs is that sustainability drives innovation in education. Traditionally, most schools focus on teaching, learning, and instructional systems as the innovator. In the classrooms of highly effective green, healthy, and sustainable schools, a distinctly different approach to learning is taking place. Here, learning is defined by characteristics such as collaborative leadership, a shared vision of sustainability that influences all decisions, and the adoption of experiential and proficiency based curriculum that integrates developmentally appropriate sustainability and environmental themes at each grade level. These schools believe that the purpose of education is not only to educate students effectively, but to prepare students to be ready and able to create a future that is healthy for humans and the environment. They embody the spirit of education for sustainability.
Education for sustainability, or EfS, is much more than implementing some form of activity- or project-based education. It is about effecting whole school transformation: creating learning environments where students are encouraged to think critically and solve problems; providing opportunities to link what students learn in the classroom to real-world issues; and fostering a culture of respect, accountability, and kindness that can be carried beyond the school’s four walls and shared with the local and global community. Transitioning to this new paradigm does not happen overnight. It requires hard work, passion, and commitment from everyone in a school community.
As the green schools movement advances, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need for high quality professional development that embraces sustainability as the driver of innovation. GSNN recognizes this need and understands that scaling up EfS cannot be done in isolation. It requires collaboration among experts and green schools leaders who are already promoting and implementing whole school transformation. This is the inspiration behind the GSNN Professional Development (PD) Collaborative.
The PD Collaborative is a community of practice for professional development providers in the green schools movement who are focused on whole school transformation. This coming together of like minds around a common vision has many benefits for the movement and for advancing EfS:
- It connects people and groups with shared interests who may or may not have an opportunity to interact with each other.
- It provides a shared context for people in the green schools movement to communicate and share information and resources in a way that builds understanding and insight.
- It enables dialogue between people and groups who have come together to seek new possibilities and opportunities within the movement, as well as solve problems and address challenges.
- It captures and disseminates knowledge by providing a forum for people to identify solutions and collect and evaluate best practices.
- It generates new knowledge to help people and groups in the movement keep up with changing technologies, best practices, and new techniques.
Through the PD Collaborative, GSNN wants to find common ground among people and organizations that are already committed to whole school transformation. Together, collaborative partners will explore best practices and innovative ideas; support and learn from each other; and collect anecdotes, models, and data from schools across the country that are transforming their teaching and learning practices using EfS. This work will enable all partners, not just GSNN, to tell a more compelling story about the transformative nature of EfS, and will lead to richer relationships and deeper collaboration among the partners.
Partners Tell the Story Best
GSNN’s founding PD Collaborative partners set the example for what whole school transformation looks like in practice. Their work is already creating change…imagine what will be possible when they combine forces and work together!
The Biomimicry Institute
The Biomimicry Institute is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization that empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. For students and teachers, the concept of biomimicry offers a profound shift in how humans view and value the natural world and an exciting context for teaching and learning. Stories about nature’s technology –and how humans are mimicking it– can be used to teach core subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, and math while connecting them to exciting, real world applications and developing a sense of awe for the environment. To this end, the Institute provides a wide variety of educational resources serving students and professionals of all ages, and hosts the annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which offers an opportunity for collaborative teams to practice what they have learned.
The Biomimicry Institute is a bit different from some of the other founding PD Collaborative partners in that its (very small) staff does not often work directly with schools. Instead, they focus their efforts on providing resources and PD opportunities to teachers and, when appropriate, connect individual teachers and/or schools with regional members of their extended network of biomimicry educators and enthusiasts. For instance, the teachers at Kearny High School in San Diego elected to use the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge as an anchor for their project-based curriculum in 2015. The Institute connected them with members of its network in San Diego who came to the school to talk to the students while they were working on their projects. A more in-depth look at this collaboration can be found on the Biomimicry Institute’s website.
Community Works Institute
Community Works Institute (CWI), a nonprofit organization and internationally recognized service-learning professional development leader, grew out of a local effort to introduce placed-based education, service-learning, and sustainability in the classroom. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995, CWI’s mission is to support and promote exemplary teaching strategies and practices for K-16 educators and community programs that support students in becoming caring, responsible, and active members of their communities. CWI is leading the way for a shift in how service-learning is presented as part of a school’s curriculum. The organization has created a model for service-learning that focuses on creating learning experiences that enable students to apply skills and content knowledge to real needs in their local community. Curriculum projects and programs that use the CWI model incorporate field tested best practices for service-learning and community collaboration to meet the goal of contributing to a sustainable and just community.
CWI offers a variety of professional development opportunities for K-16 and community-based educators in the United States and internationally, including on-site trainings, retreats, coaching, and consulting. Their signature offering is a series of summer institutes that integrate field-tested service-learning best practices and principles of sustainability to engage K-16 students in academically based service that contributes to sustainable communities. One of the most powerful aspects of CWI’s institutes is the opportunity it affords educators to collaborate, share ideas, and make connections with like-minded people. For many educators, CWI’s work represents a reminder of “why I became an educator.” It creates a space and an opportunity to step back from the ruling paradigm and reframe place-based, service-learning and sustainability as the “larger purpose” that is sought, both in building community and in effecting positive action and learning.
Creative Change Educational Solutions
Founded by Susan Santone in 2002, Creative Change Educational Solutions is a sustainability education consulting firm focused on transforming curriculum by integrating the best of project- and place-based learning, environmental and multicultural education, critical pedagogy, social-emotional learning, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). Creative Change is working with K-12 school districts that want to bring sustainability from the “silos” of science and integrate it across the curriculum. With support from Creative Change, teams of educators re-design units and courses to align with topics that students care about, including community revitalization, social justice, and environmental restoration. The resulting programming increases academic achievement and engagement, with an emphasis on culture, equity, and inclusion.
Just one example of the impact Creative Change has had can be found in Baker, Oregon. Here, a cohort of students investigated a district-owned “brownfield”—a polluted property with barriers to redevelopment. Using a project-based STEM course developed by Creative Change, students modeled the same process that engineers, scientists, and policy makers use when working to revitalize brownfields: they identified the site and its contaminants; studied its reuse potential; and created a redevelopment plan with local stakeholders. Course assessments demonstrate up to 40% increased achievement on Next Generation Science Standards, as well as gains in student motivation for community involvement. For a copy of the full case study, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S. and Suter, V. Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education. Educause. January 1, 2005.
The Biomimicry Institute website (https://biomimicry.org/)
Creative Change Education Solutions website (http://creativechange.net/)
Community Works Institute website (http://communityworksinstitute.org/)
 Bullet points are adapted from Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S. and Suter, V. Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education. Educause. January 1, 2005. Last accessed: March 28, 2016. https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/nli0531.pdf