One of the best things I did this summer was travel to South Bend, Indiana and work with an awesome group of teachers. The 2-week workshop (of which I presented four days) was part of a MSP grant called ED3 (Earth Day-Every Day-Enhanced Design) that aimed to assist teachers in delivering standards-based, place-based curriculum. Fifty teachers of grades 4-8 from 12 schools in the South Bend Community School Corporation took part under the talented leadership team of Terri Hebert, Assistant Professor Elementary Science Education, Indiana University at South Bend (IUSB) and Tracy Slattery, Curriculum Facilitator for Science, Social Studies, Health and PE, South Bend Community School Corporation. The teachers gathered for an action-packed two weeks.
The invitation came from one of my treasured collegial connections that have come from the publication of my book. Terri, Tracy and I had a great time planning the course long-distance! Although my preferred teaching mode is to be with teachers in the field and ground the conversations about curriculum in specific places—it made more sense (time-wise and cost-wise) to concentrate my work with them into the second week.
The teachers spent the first week exploring the stories of their community in a variety of settings. Among the places they visited were St. Patrick’s Park, St. Joseph River and the History Museum in South Bend, the Indiana Dunes at the National Lakeshore at the Paul E. Douglas Environmental Education Center, Gary, Indiana They covered a lot of territory in five days and had a wide array of experiences. They spent time in the river, listened to experts and met a variety of scientists, historians and stewards. They practiced citizen science and different data-gathering techniques. They saw an eagle’s nest, practiced observing birds, and tried catching dragonflies! They tried their hand at nature photography and journaling, as well as interpretive dance and mindfulness!
In order to deepen my connection to their week one explorations—when I was still in Vermont—Terri arranged for some of the teachers to send me their journal responses with reports of each day. From the first journal entry that arrived that Monday evening, I could feel their excitement as they explored new sites and considered how these places might become part of their curriculum plans. I also was aware of how well-scheduled their time was as they reported time spent drawing, discussing, solving problems and discussing issues with the experts at each site. And as their learning deepened—so did their insight about how they might bring some of these same opportunities to their students. They found the days “filled with memorable experiences and an abundance of knowledge and resources… to take home.”
My task for the second week was to help them translate these rich experiences and consider how similar expeditions might happen with their students in the coming year. I began the week sharing some thoughts about place-based education and ways we can successfully craft curriculum plans that embrace the required assessments required in our job and the love and commitment we feel towards the rich stories and learning opportunities found in our communities. This creative thinking is a process I often refer to as unpacking our “wannas” and our “gottas!” I introduced the curriculum templates we would be working with and we dove in to the work.
What an outstanding group of educators!
They were so eager to dig in! This was true initially—and sustained for 4 full days! They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They loved the opportunity to work with colleagues from their school as well as make new connections. The time was rich for dialogue, collaboration and planning. What a beautiful thing to see. And how often do teachers get the time to have these important conversations? Time to laugh together. And share dreams. Teachers are so grateful for these conversations and it fuels good teaching in so many ways!
Our work was enhanced by the use of PROTOCOLS –scripts designed for educators to focus on different aspects of their practice. Thanks to the School Reform Initiative, we had numerous ways to facilitate the dialogue and reflection process for educators. Supported often by Tracy’s graceful facilitation, we were able to use a wide variety of strategies for different purposes. And because they worked mostly in their school groups the use of intentional mixing for other purposes of goal-setting, reflection, text-based dialogue gave some different patterns to our large group. As expressed by one teacher: “I appreciated the different groupings and how the protocols helped us have different conversations.”
The program also supported the creative use of journals and reflective time. Like classroom teachers, we who deliver PD fall into the same traps regarding how to make time for reflection. While we are fully committed to the power of reflection it is often challenging to find the time in a busy schedule. I was buoyed by how creatively and steadfastly they had been using their journals in week one. And how Terri bravely forged out time to think about provocative questions at the end of a long day. I was struck by how this thinking time was valued. This was evident from the sounds in the room (none) when they turned to quiet writing time. And in their daily feedback they continually identified that as a most valuable part of the day. One teacher wrote: “I loved how we were able to have some ‘down time’ to connect with our own thought processes…”
In addition they spoke about the reflections’ lasting value. It wasn’t just a moment that was a “nice” part of the process—they viewed it as something useful to them in their daily practice. Having taken the time to figure out the implications of their work for themselves—to garner what was useful—and get it in a form that was accessible—they planned to use it in the upcoming year. They wrote: “[my journal] is packed full of useful tools and ideas….” And “It will be valuable to look back on for information and inspiration….I will use if for reference and to re-spark me when I feel overwhelmed…”
I was once again reminded of the ways we can honor the teaching profession by giving teachers time to think about their practice and figure things out. It is not usually about learning new things but having the time to consider how best to use the things already in hand. Each individual teacher needs time to examine how different practices relate to his or her own teaching environment. In the summer and during the school year, teachers need time to think….and space to do the work.
The second week was held inside most of the time—in a spacious classroom at IUSB. I do so much teaching out in the field. No walls. No tables. Notes perched on a tree stump or park bench, teachers sitting on the grass, pulling out their notebooks in a canoe… Teaching out in open space is one of the most treasured things in my professional life. I LOVE discussions in the field, on the river bank, on a sidewalk or in a borrowed room of a public building. But I have to say I really appreciated being in the same place for four days—having all the wall space in the world—
and plenty of space to break into small group discussions!
I think it is safe to say that MANY teachers teach and work in small, impractical spaces. I felt that the beauty of this space honored the nature of our professional dialogue. Not the most important ingredient of transformational work but something that is important. And I enjoyed it immensely!
Curriculum design is highly complex, intellectual work. But that does not mean it all needs to be so serious. I appreciated the playful and creative energy of this group. One of the things we did — on an impromptu change in the schedule—was to create some “arts and crafts” space—making do with minimum of supplies and a maximum of creativity and imagination. Asked to represent the spirit of the “sites of engagement lessons…..they had some fun!
The outcome of our time together was sensational! It wasn’t just in what they accomplished but the spirit in which they did it. There were new partnerships that forged new possibilities. There were new connections made across grades…and new alliances between veteran and new—and becoming—teachers.
On my last day we celebrated with a “Gallery of New Learning.” Groups shared their work from the week including a “Birds Eye View” of their unit plan, a Site Map in which they situated the different learning activities in their specific place, an artistic expression of their “Sites of Engagement” Lesson Plan, and a summary of their Culminating Activity in which they shared their plans to assess their students’ new understandings of the Essential Question. Teachers wrote: “I loved having the final piece to show what we learned…” “It was truly amazing the amount of work we got done….” And “I appreciated the usefulness of the outcome…It was authentic!”
My time in South Bend affirmed many things. The power of place. The beauty of collegiality. The value of time. When teachers have authentic rich experiences in the places where they teach, they want to share them with their students. When they have the time to engage with people and places—and critters! …in meaningful ways it adds a new energy to curriculum design. To figure out how to bring these experiences into the academic plan is challenging. It sometimes seems impossible. But it is worth it. Having opportunities in the summer for this deep, reflective thinking makes it possible. It was this conviction that surrounded us in our conversations and in our work…and it is this energy that will sustain teachers as they navigate the barriers and obstacles of “regular” school.
Hats off to the teachers in South Bend. May this year be a spectacular learning journey for you and your students!