Seeds of Change: The Natural Classroom

Many of us have heard the metaphor, ‘our education is planting the seeds for the future,’ or something similar or maybe not! Regardless, I believe this needs to be taken more literally. The metaphorical seeds should include literal seeds. Humans and our environment are partners in a mutually eternal relationship; however, the harmony has been disrupted because of industrial neglect amongst other causes. We must teach the balance and sustainable treatment of the planet and mustn’t forget that environmental education is also under the umbrella of peace education. If teachers can keep this in mind, student’s learning will breach the walls of the confining classroom. The world will become their natural classroom, always available for exploration and discovery.

This focus on the natural world was also a critical philosophy of Maria Montessori.

“It is also necessary for his physical development to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly education forces of living nature.”

– Maria Montessori

We should teach to this kind of connection. Outdoor education is often survival or work based, a get your hands dirty kind of approach. The time spent doing these activities outdoors will help rebuild this relationship.

Outdoor education requires children to use all 5 senses and think about the world around them. They will learn to explore, discover, and reflect. Unstructured outdoor education will allow for the student to become independent. Outdoor education gets students physically active and our shown to be more nutrition savvy. Recess is a perfect example and oftentimes very profound interpersonal lessons are taught on the playground, however recess is often taken away earlier on in a child’s education. For the sake of environmental education, the playground should remain natural as opposed to manufactured products.

After a bought of outdoor kinetics, a teacher can switch into classroom mode again without going back into the classroom! Math and English, two subjects that we might think are impossible to be taught outside can be taught outdoors as well. Math can be taught be adding and subtracting pine-cones and sticks and drawing out the equations with chalk for example. English can be taught by prompting students to reflect on their outdoor experience. Also, reading outside and holding lessons outdoors as much as possible is an great way to reap the benefits of the natural world – this was always a exciting option for me as a young learner.

What if it’s raining? In that case the inside of the classroom should have a similar feel.

More plants! Raymond De Young, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, believes in the power of plants to bring peace. “I have one colleague who, whenever she’s going into a very important meeting, places a small potted plant on the center of the table. She says it has a really calming effect on everyone around.” Plants also help with preventing illness. Teachers have the option to incorporate live fauna in the classroom. Maybe have the students water the plants? Start a garden? The symbolism behind the growth of a plant can be related to the growth and progress of the child. It’s no different then having a pet in the classroom.

Open the windows! Let it shine. Not only is sunlight in the classroom healthy but research has shown that those who sit next to windows are happier, more enthusiastic, more calm, and more productive. Those plants you brought in are going to need some UV rays!

Don’t stop there! We love to fill our lives with images of the natural world, from cave paintings, to our computer desktop, to our fairy tales and folk stories. Placing more images of the planets natural wonders inside the classroom will keep students curious and connected with the diversity of the outside world they are in a serious relationship with.

Get moving! Make movement and music a priority within the classroom as well. Music can be easily incorporated into learning and research proves music’s contribution to positive child development. This helps students express themselves emotionally and stimulates creativity and imagination. Music can be included to enhance other subject areas as well. Choreograph a dance? Bring in natural instruments? “This land is your land” is a song with a lot of history and a very peaceful message. These sorts of things you never forget, as a student and a teacher.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yr5fkRmP_Q0

Here are some other ways to breach the walls of the classroom and pedagogically implement natural elements.

http://www.whitehutchinson.com/news/learnenews/2003_05/article101.shtml

http://education.audubon.org/tips-bringing-nature-classroom

What can teachers do today?

Pick some of the previous suggestions and take action! Teachers have control over the structure of their classroom and what is included. Students depend on the teacher to create for them a rich and diverse learning environment. Music, movement, and nature cannot be overlooked. This is proving to be dangerous and unproductive. I remember an exercise from the ‘Peace Education Exploratorium’ I attended a couple weeks back where the instructor pushed us outside into a cold field and had us walk around thinking about the environment. She was simultaneously playing relaxing music and I can honestly say a connection was established, if only for a brief moment. The naturalist inside of me was satisfied.

What an educator can do for tomorrow?

Environmental Psychology is an emerging field, which seeks to study built and natural environments and how they influence human behavior, and is great for the creative educator’s inquiring mind. We need to design future schools and classrooms in a way that embraces the exuberance and freedom of being a child, while rebuilding the bridge between the environment and us. The classrooms of the future allow for the extension of learning outside the walls of the classroom and for the inclusion of the outside world within the classroom.

Who will benefit?

Children and teachers will benefit from embracing a more natural learning environment. Children learn more from the actions of adults rather than their words. A teacher cannot effectively incorporate any of the previous recommendations without fully believing in and understanding music and movement as healthy expressions of emotions and the outdoors as an infinite classroom. A teacher must be an authentic role model and teachers will conversely share in the learning if they are willing. But, our home, our planet, the extension of our bodies, and the canvas for our lives, will appreciate it the most.

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”

– Mahatma Ghandi

They are one in the same.

Let’s hear it for Luke Moore High Environmental Scientists!!

Luke Moore Academy, the premier alternative high school in the District of Columbia (and also where I work)  is joining DCPS in its efforts to go GREEN by starting a recycling program at the school. Students recently gave a presentation at a school wide assembly and community event stating that:

“We have started a recycling program at Luke C. Moore that will minimize the waste generation and will facilitate recycling of materials. This initiative is student-led, and will allow our students to be the leaders of this program. Our desire to become more environmentally friendly and help lead DCPS in the Healthy Schools Act, as well as develop our peers into lifelong recyclers.”

Each classroom has a recycling box (that’s a pic of my box) that the Environmental Team picks up to dump in the container in the parking lot.

Here at Luke C. Moore, we are also concerned about our use of energy, so we  use Compact Florescent Bulbs, or CFL Bulbs, which are significantly more environmentally friendly than regular light bulbs. Our CFL bulbs last TEN times as long as regular bulbs, up to 8000 hours each – compared to 750 hours of those regular bulbs. The team has determined that our school had 350 CFL bulbs that are used on a daily basis. They  then compared those numbers to schools with a similar amount of bulbs, who use regular light bulbs. Our numbers confirm that Luke Moore is saving the District $5,000 a month by using CFL bulbs. On the emissions side, Luke Moore is outputting 4000 pounds less of Carbon Dioxide per year than schools our size.

In the classroom and in the field, the team has done a lot to make sure that our school is helping out our community! Please join us in helping to make DC an environmentally friendly city by, recycling and changing your light bulbs to new CFL Bulbs! And we hope this inspires you to start a program at your school too. Peace

DCPS Goes Green: Peace through Sustainability

District of Columbia Public Schools is participating in the Be Water Wise DC project as part of its initiative to go GREEN.

“Be Water Wise DC was established by the nonprofit National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and includes lesson plans and activities such as measuring water flow rates and determining total water use in school buildings and grounds. The program is made possible through the support of companies such as lead sponsor HSBC Bank, as well as local agencies and nonprofit organizations committed to protecting the region’s natural resources.

Managing stormwater is a challenge for D.C. and the region. When it rains, water flows across streets, sidewalks and parking lots. Along the way, the rainwater picks up oil, trash and other contaminants, carrying them to streams and rivers including the Anacostia and Potomac and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.”

Check out this link for a detailed explanation of the project by Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_vVDhQfajvI

The video gives a very good summary and it’s impressive that they have so many schools participating and that it involves students of different ages.  I really like that students get  very hands-on with this project with the types of activities that they do in their schools and the local communities to help with water conservation in DC, and the concluding activity where they get to present their solutions to DC officials is definitely something students would look forward to.  This projects supports community building as it involves students and officials collaborating to create solutions for a problem that affects the DC area and also is a skill building activity because students are using critical thinking for problem solving, interpersonal skills by working together, and it’s an extension of the classroom space into the community.

For more information about Be Water Wise, please visit the National Environmental Education Foundation.

MindUP- A Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum

POSTED ON BEHALF OF MAGGIE MEENEHAN

In these days of celebrity excesses and their often and very public demonstrations of questionable/objectionable behaviors;  it is refreshing to see that one celebrity is throwing her weight towards children’s success in school.

Goldie Hawn has started a foundation that focuses on the social and emotional learning of children.  She wanted to “bring children back to a sense of well-being”, and was distraught over the high dropout rates, violence in schools, the culture of bullying and was looking for a way to improve kid’s focus, energy and to help teachers to build classroom community.   Her program called MindUP has conducted research into “mindfulness” in the classroom, provides mentors for participating schools and has developed a book and curriculum to give teachers the tools to use in their classrooms.  These lessons fit into any schedule and require minimal prep time; they are geared towards grades 3 through 5.

I was most struck by the children and their reactions to MindUP.  As you can see in the video, the students really felt the benefits of mindfulness.  It helped them to calm down, to focus and to evaluate situations more clearly. They even taught the practices to their siblings and parents. Now that is true learning!

In learning “mindfulness” the children were learning about HOW they think.  They took “brain breaks” to breath and to relax, to quiet down their emotions and focus (3 or 4 times a day for two to five minutes).   In quieting down, the prefrontal cortex lights up and this is where executive functioning (creating, innovating, retaining information, and making connections) takes place.   Truly, this type of focusing is important for learning.

MindUP is currently being used in schools in the US, in Canada, Britain and Venezuela.  The research has shown so far that bullying and aggression has gone down on the playgrounds of participating schools.

There are four tenets of the MindUP program.  The first is “Let’s Get Focused” which helps the children learn about brain functionality.  The second is “Pay Attention to Our Senses” which prepares and teaches the students about mindful listening and exploring the senses.  The third is “It’s All About Attitude” helping the students choose optimism and lastly the fourth is “Taking Action Mindfully” which includes lessons on acting with gratitude.  (Recently, there have been several articles in the Washington Post on Happiness or the Pursuit of Happiness, which strongly link happiness with gratefulness).  This all sounds a bit preachy but I found it to be quite down to earth and doable.  The lessons can easily segue into language arts, science, social studies and math curriculums.

My favorite example was of a teacher who placed a huge water bottle full of water in front of her students and had them practice their “mindfulness” while she added drops of food coloring to the water.  She gradually worked this lesson into a lesson of the color chart and what happens to and how colors mix.  She let the children explain how watching the color disperses made them feel, or what it looked like to them.  It gave the students wonderful images to call upon during their daily mindfulness sessions.

The MindUP program addresses at least two pillars of peace.  Certainly, this methodology is develops Community Building by directing attention to the classroom as a place of safety and support and by going beyond the classroom to teach children concrete means of dealing with emotions and feelings.  Also, this program acts to Nurture our Emotional Intelligences by recognizing that everyone needs to take breaks during the day, to breath, to reflect, and to listen to his or her hearts.

Note:  The book MindUP Curriculum is for sale for $18.74 through Scholastic Books.  The website www.thehawnfoundation.org/mindup  outlines the process for becoming a MindUP school.

The Bi-Polar Ape

This is a great film put together by the Department of Expansion.  In it scholars talk about human’s evolutionary connection with both the chimp and the bonobo, two primates that have come to embody the violent and peaceful tendencies of humans.  The film could incorporate the study of peace into science classes that are teaching about evolution.

I would also recommend pairing this film with readings such as Sigmund Freud’s, Why War, and Margaret Mead’s, War Is Only an Invention – Not a Biological Necessity.