Friday, October 6, 2017

Outdoor Learning and Common Core Curriculum

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength. 
--Rachel Carlson, The Sense of Wonder

Every morning (weather permitting) I take my students on a short run around the lower loop trail.  We are outside for maybe five minutes. . . just enough time to get our blood flowing and prepare for the day.  It's also just enough time for students to catch up with each other and with me.  I hear about their latest soccer games, a favorite book or the reason homework isn't quite done.  Sometimes we are graced by a large flock of geese that like to graze on the soccer fields nearby and then take flight over our heads.  Sometimes the moon is an amazing crescent and we watch it wax or wane over the next few days.  Sometimes we find strange fungus growing out of the ground after a rain that seems to have appeared overnight out of nowhere.  Sometimes we see a monarch and wonder if it was one we released a few days earlier.  Those moments outside in the morning often offer something to amaze us and our days are brighter for it.

Earlier this year, my students helped plant our butterfly garden.  They learned about parts of the plant and what plants need to survive.  They learned a bit about producers and their place in ecosystems.  We have had hot and dry weather since our plantings so during recess, volunteers have been helping me care for the plants.  We carry gallon jugs of water out to them and check on their progress.  As we walk, again, we have time to talk and catch up on what is going on in their lives.  When we get to the garden, they examine the plants that they planted and others that they did not plant.  I hear them call to each other, "Make sure we get them all, don't leave anyone out!"  We empty our jugs and students run to catch the last few minutes of recess.  Maybe the words, "don't leave anyone out" are still ringing in their ears (I hope so).

In past posts, I have examined a variety of ways to teach in our outdoor learning center.  The most obvious connections are in math and science, but we also go outside to inspire our poetry writing.  These lessons connect with our Common Core Curriculum.  If I am teaching perimeter and area, we will go out and measure our raised beds.  The bonus is, we will also measure the height of the plants and estimate the total number of plants in the garden.  Maybe students will even learn the name of a plant or two.  These are extra teaching points that I can slide in (also most likely in the Common Core Standards).  It's not hard to connect our curriculum to the outdoors.

There is a lot of debate over Common Core Curriculum.  For those of you who are not in education, Common Core Curriculum has the goal of making educational standards that are nationwide.  They are the lists of things that we should be teaching at each grade level.  The concept is that students are roughly getting the same knowledge or information at each level no matter where they live in the country.  That's not a bad concept.  In our culture, families are pretty mobile and it would be great to know that you could move anywhere in the United States and the educational expectations are about the same.  I don't have a problem with this concept and the ongoing development of a Common Core Curriculum.  It isn't the evil (in my mind) some make it out to be in our new centralized and politicized educational system.  We have always had standards and benchmarks, now they are a bit more specific and we are encouraged to make note of them in our lesson plans (something tedious but not too hard with computerized lesson plans).  It's not the Common Core Standards that weigh us down. . . it's how we have decided we use them that have made them a burden.  The standards are a tool and a guide; they are not how we teach and they aren't even what we teach.  We teach children.  We teach children.  I say this twice because it bears repeating.  The Common Core is a framework for professional teachers to use as a guide in their classroom.  It's nothing more than that.

It is when we use standardized tests to measure achievements of the Common Core Curriculum and then we set point goals for students that we have taken a step down a rabbit hole that leads us off course.  And that is when the tools of Common Core become a burden that seems to take over our classrooms and our lives.  We now require our students to take online, high stakes tests throughout the year.  In the fall, the tests (in math and reading) determine where a student is academically and an algorithm will project where that student should be by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, measuring and projecting growth for children is a bit difficult and the algorithms are flawed.  I have lots of examples of this, but I will share just one.  A couple of years ago, I had a really good math student.  His fall scores were high and his expectations (via the computerized algorithm) were high.  At the end of the school year, this student scored in the 99th percentile in math (in the country)!  Amazing.  You can't score higher than 99 percent, however, he was somehow one point away from his goal.  I received an email from his mom later that night.  She said that he had cried himself to sleep because he hadn't made his math goal.  I called her and reassured her that her son was amazing and could not have scored better.  When the student came to class the next day, I explained to him that he was well within the margin of error (something that isn't taken into consideration by our administration, although is proper statistical analysis) and he could not have done better.  His score caused unnecessary grief and his score was actually amazingly good.  There are similar issues with students who have low test scores, as their projected growth requires more than the average point gain.  This is because the algorithm expects teachers to "close the gap" with our low students.  Students who may have taken five years to make perhaps three years growth are expected to make more than a year's growth to help "close the gap" (this projection is often naive and without logical basis).  In addition to unrealistic goals, there are emotional issues, test taking fears, and wasted educational time (we spend hours and hours every year testing).  However, when we see the bar graphs as full-color, glossy, and well formatted printouts, they look so good that we are often lulled into thinking they must be right.  They are all wrong.    To return to Carson again, they are "the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength."       

The other morning when we were out on our daily run, we noticed a loud flock of geese in the yard.  They were landing in groups of six and eight and they were squawking and carrying on as if there was some sort of family disagreement going on.  Later that morning, while I was in the midst of teaching reading (I can't recall the lesson) that flock of geese starting walking toward our classroom windows.  We stopped and watched. . . "What are they eating? . . . How can you tell the females from the males?"  We watched carefully (my lesson not nearly exciting enough to compete) and we decided they were eating the grass, not really digging up insects.  I got on my phone and asked Siri how to tell the difference between male and female Canada geese.  Apparently, the males are slightly larger but the color patterns are the same.  Moments later, the flock took flight and we resumed our lessons.  I don't remember the language arts lesson, but I remember what I learned about geese.  I'm guessing it was about the same for my students.  Moments like that are joyful and full of wonder and excitement.  That is what I want to encourage and that is what I needed to teach in those few moments.  Isn't that what we want for our children. . .?

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. . .

My hope for the future of education, is that we turn away from high stakes testing so we can fully focus on the amazing children that enter our classroom.  Let's remember that curriculum is just a list of things to teach and that we are here to inspire our students and help them to hold onto the wonder that is childhood.  And perhaps it's the little moments that make the day joyful . . a flock of geese, a walk to the garden or a view of the moon and those little moments are what can inspire us to learn and grow.  Happy teaching and learning!