This weekend I had the privilege of hearing Michael Becker speak at Portland State University. He is a middle school math and science teacher, who has pioneered a truly innovative outdoor classroom.
As an aspiring educator, I was so inspired by his program! I was homeschooled as a child and have recently learned about and developed an interest in the philosophy of unschooling. While these educational models can be great for individual families, I don't think they are feasible for the majority of households in the United States. With this in mind, I have been mulling over how some of the aspects of these educational models could be incorporated into a more traditional school setting. Like giving children some control over what and how they learn. Or allowing them to learn at their own pace. There is nothing that irks me more than a teacher standing at the front of a room, forcing everyone to learn and regurgitate the same thing! When I was homeschooled, my mother did choose our curriculum, but I still had so much more free time to pursue my own interests. I also got to learn at exactly my own pace. I didn't have to wait for 25 other kids to finish the writing assignment before I could do something else. If I didn't understand a concept, I could go back over it, instead of being rushed on with the rest of the class.
It seems to me that so much time in the modern classroom is spent doing crowd control. With the current high numbers of student/class, teachers feel that they have to keep a tight rein on their students or chaos could break out at any moment. This results in strict rules, everyone being forced to do the same activity, and squelching creativity.
But I digress. Let me get back to Michael Becker. His classroom embodies so many of the ideals I would want for my own classroom when I'm a teacher! Although many schools now have gardens and garden programs, what I think is unique about his program is how much control and influence the students have. They learn about science and math in practical, hands on ways. The students design and implement their own projects. They do all the research, build models, write grants, etc. His outdoor classroom has a few different parts. One is getting the kids out into nature, where they doing fun activities like snowshoeing. They also partner with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey to collect data. His students study streams and collect data. They are also working on a glacier recession study. This provides them the opportunity not only to get outdoors, but to dig deep into a habitat, learn how it works, and then interact with professionals in the field. So cool!
The other aspect of his program is their gardens at the school. Michael teaches kids about the permaculture model, and to think about systems and how everything is connected. They started out by building a native plants arboretum in a shaded location behind one of the buildings. It was a blank canvas when they planted 150 native trees and other plants. Now four years later, the area is teeming with life! They have spotted 50 different bird species, over 300 different bugs, and there are 20-30 plant species growing that they did not plant!
Then they built an edible garden, and partnered with a local farmer's market to sell their produce. The next plan in the works is a huge green house. They have installed a solar panel that will power the greenhouse. The kids actually got to help wire it in, and learned all about that process, as well as energy generation and conservation. They have had to be creative in coming up with ways to run their entire greenhouse on the energy put out by that solar panel. They will put in tilapia tanks to act as a heat sink to absorb heat in the summer, and radiate it out in the winter. They can use the nitrogen rich water as fertilizer, and one kid even came up with a plan to make algae bricks and burn them as fuel.
Literally, this was all the children's idea, and they have designed every step of the process, even learning calculus where necessary! Sixth graders! I was so impressed. When you give kids the freedom to dream and explore, they can do incredible things. Obviously, these kids have excelled far beyond state standards, and it's because they enjoy what they are doing and they are doing real work. For instance in Math, they are given real problem solving activities, tasks and projects to learn, instead of the abstractions most kids struggle with. Not only does it show them why all this stuff is necessary and useful, it's a lot easier to understand a concept when you're actually doing it, rather than just thinking about it.
Any thoughts? Have you had experiences like this either learning at home, or in a school?