By. Lisa O’Malley, Curriculum Specialist at Genesee Community Charter School
Nestled in the hills of Gold, Pennsylvania lies the property of a truck driver who, on most days, can be found in the cab of his semi-trailer transporting goods to distant locations. Remnants of an old foundation from the farm that once occupied his land are hidden among overgrown vegetation that covers the lower half of the property while fragments of an old rail system remain toward the top. During exploration of this hillside, fourth and fifth grade students from the Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) in Rochester, New York discover the source of the curriculum they have studied since kindergarten – the birthplace of the heart and soul that shapes their understanding of time and place, that gives them a reason to care about and feel connected to their community, that helps them understand that they can make a difference. Emerging from the earth, the Genesee River begins its journey north, eventually making its way through Rochester on its path to Lake Ontario.
For students at GCCS, the Genesee River and its watershed serve as the curricular lens to learn about science, geography, and social history. Kindergarten through fifth grade students gain a deep understanding of Rochester through time by engaging in meaningful work with local experts, rigorous fieldwork experiences, and carefully crafted classroom experiences that integrate science, social studies, and ELA. The staff believes that learning about one place through time provides a foundation for children to understand how other places develop through time. Once students enter sixth grade, they are prepared to apply what they have learned by becoming experts on a current problem in Rochester, researching how other cities around the country have addressed similar issues, and becoming active citizens who inspire change in their own community.
The K-5 curriculum is divided into six historical time periods; students study three time periods each year in twelve-week units called “learning expeditions.” Learning expeditions are interdisciplinary and standards-aligned curricular units that focus on a particular aspect of the region’s history and science. Sixth grade is a stand-alone year with expeditions that examine a local “hot topic” through the lens of ancient civilizations, the science of materials, and community activism. All grade levels culminate each expedition with the creation of a final product that emulates the work of professionals in the field of study. Work is presented at an exhibition of student learning where classes share their understanding of skills and concepts through music and dance, written products and interactive sessions, and media projects. Exhibitions provide students with real-world audiences for their work beyond their teachers and parents. Expeditions and final products at GCCS take on a variety of formats that directly and indirectly relate to the river, but all deepen students’ understanding of time and place in the Genesee River Valley.
The spiraling structure of the curricular framework promotes a deep understanding of the local area and the Genesee River watershed as the concepts and ideas become more complex. As students move from Kindergarten to fifth grade they revisit each historical time period three times. The most direct connection to the Genesee River and development of environmental stewardship can be found during the Today and Tomorrow time period. Kindergarten and first graders are formally introduced to the Genesee River by concentrating their studies on local habitats. Investigations bring these children to the river and its surroundings to begin forming observational, note taking, and problem solving skills. As they grapple to figure out how this complex system works, their connection to the river, grounded in time and place, begins to develop. They begin to understand the importance of taking care of the world around them.
When a class revisits this time period in second or third grade, they expand their knowledge and relationship with the environment by examining world biomes. As teachers write curriculum for this expedition, a local link provides the springboard to examine habitats in other parts of the world. For example, a class might focus on frogs found in and around the Genesee River or wildlife living in a local park as an entry point to the content and skills taught during this expedition. Their understanding of the multifaceted interconnectedness of the natural world expands.
Once students reach fourth and fifth grade, they have established a solid rapport with the Genesee River and its watershed and are ready to engage in real-world work as they explore human impact on the natural world. Students tackle current issues and develop solutions to local problems involving water conservation, energy, or other environmental problems.
For example, one year fourth graders took on a national clothing chain that uses an abundant amount of plastic for shipping clothing. In frustration, a GCCS parent who is employed by this chain charged the class with figuring out how much trash this chain contributes to landfills around the country, informing company leaders of the problem, and making recommendations to fix the issue. Students eagerly accepted the challenge and dove right into collecting and analyzing data from one local store to guide their work. Over the next several weeks, the classroom was filled from floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with the plastic from one store that would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage, eventually making its way to a local landfill. Students, appalled by the sight in their classroom, became motivated to make a difference. Not only did they contact the company, they felt an obligation to educate local people about the effects they have on the environment in their watershed. In addition, students persuaded another local business to take the plastic from their classroom to recycle.
During the same time period, the fifth grade class learned about human impact on water quality. Testing the Waters: A Study of Water Quality at Round Pond Creek was an expedition that examined a local waterway to figure out why Ontario Beach Park, a popular swimming spot for locals, is often closed. Situated between the mouth of the Genesee River and Round Pond Creek, the beach water is a breeding ground that causes dangerously high levels of algae. Was Round Pond Creek, located just west of the beach, a cause of the problems?
To figure this out, the expedition was framed around three guiding questions:
- Why does water quality matter?
- How are humans responsible for the health of watersheds?
- What are the responsibilities of a scientist?
Working with local experts, students set off to research and collect data about this stream. A series of visits to the steam allowed students to observe, survey, collect water samples, and physically measure the waterway. These data provided an abundance of instructional opportunities that involved not only hands-on science experiences, but reading and writing lessons that mirror the work of scientists in the field. After information was compiled and analyzed and recommendations were formulated, students wrote a scientific report that was presented and distributed to local water experts, including the Monroe County Storm Drain Coalition.
Classroom teacher, Dan Walpole, shared, “Students were excited to think like scientists, carefully observe the stream, and get in the water to gather samples and collect data. A close study of the stream supplemented with news articles about water impact helped them become stewards of the watershed and care about reducing pollution. It helped them realize that they do, in fact, make a difference in the well-being of the environment.”
Although the content focus might vary from class to class during a given time period, the student outcomes are very similar. By focusing on the Genesee River and its watershed throughout their elementary years, students learn environmental lessons that will stay with them throughout their lives. They solve problems and learn from mistakes as they figure out causes of imbalances in nature. They realize the importance of taking care of the environment. They discover that they can make a difference, and most importantly, that their voice matters.
By learning through a curriculum that is structured around local history and science, students at GCCS develop compassion for their community and its watershed. Our hope is that by cultivating a strong sense of place through the investigation of the physical and social aspects of the area they live in, children will leave GCCS as lifelong stewards of the environment.
About the Author
Lisa O’Malley serves as the Curriculum Specialist at the Genesee Community Charter School, an EL Education school located on the campus of the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York, since 2001. She supports instruction through the coordination of meaningful fieldwork and classroom experiences for children, and through instructional coaching and expedition planning with teachers. Her own schooling experience in a traditional setting motives her to provide a more active approach to learning at GCCS. In addition to leading overnight fieldwork, she poses as fictional characters during simulations that deepen scientific and historical understanding for children. Lisa is native to Rochester and has remained local throughout her life. She is married with four children, all alumni of GCCS.