TEAMING WITH NATURE
This rural district emphasizes an environmental approach to all aspects of curricula
A few summers back Kane Area (Pa.) Middle School Principal Jeff Kepler and five teachers from his seventh-grade team spent a week looking at rocks, bugs, trees, birds and dirt. They took the temperature and measured the pH of soil; they cored trees to determine age; they kept nature journals and brushed up on their map reading skills.
Sound like they were trapped in a Boy Scout nightmare? Actually, they volunteered for the five-day intensive training program at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, N.Y. (see sidebar). When the week was over, the seventh-grade team from Kane had the confidence to unite their curriculum around the investigation of a square kilometer around the school. The endeavor is known as the "Selborne Project." The three-week integrated unit, now five years old, inspires enthusiasm in students, parents and teachers each time it is repeated.
When Kepler's team first underwent the intense training in observing nature, they also sat down with their yearly lesson plans. They each looked for ways to align their curriculum with others and find ways to teach the lessons with place-based themes. A major requirement was that only existing curriculum being included in the project.
"It allowed us to teach our curriculum using the whole town," Kepler says. "Being in a rural area, we believe students need to understand how unique the area is and the great things there are to learn about the area."
A NEW APPRECIATION
The Selborne Project in the Kane Area Middle School is a three-week adventure that begins each fall when 100 or so seventh graders walk the perimeter of the square kilometer. Their 344-student school is roughly in the middle of this box that also includes a swath where a tornado swept through in 1985, several cemeteries and some manufacturing facilities. Along the route, six different stations are set up, each staffed by a local expert on some part of the terrain. In the past, foresters, artists, retired teachers, a lumberyard owner, a representative of the Seneca Nation of Native Americans, and a newspaper editor have volunteered to talk to students during the walk.
The classroom portion of the project brings together all academic disciplines-English, math, geography, science and reading-as well as physical education, art and industrial technology. Some of the lesson plans taught include plant and animal classification, measurement methods, mapping skills, descriptive writing and research skills. Lessons are taught through the lens of the local environment. The program creators at the institute designed the project specifically for middle school, hoping to maximize the utility of team teachers' common planning periods and to strengthen the social, cooperation and investigation skills of middle school students.
For several years the seventh graders at Kane have also taken on community projects. Among them have been the creation of a nature trail behind the school; the mapping of a local park with the help of the industrial arts teacher and computer aided design software; and the creation of a wildlife garden in front of the school.
Halfway through the project, another 10 speakers are invited to make presentations about local history. On the last day of the unit, students re-walk the perimeter of square kilometer meeting with five more speakers and hopefully realizing a new way of looking at the local landscape.
"They journal throughout this, and it's interesting to see their personal reflections, what they see, on the last day," Kepler says.
The project's success and the benefits to students are difficult to quantify, both for the school district and administrators at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. At Kane, Kepler points out that his students have given back to their community with the development of nature trails and that test scores on teacher-made tests have risen. He also notes that since the Selborne Project was launched in his district five years ago, many older students have returned to participate. The National Junior Honor Society has even taken over the maintenance of the nature trail.
ATTITUDE AND ADOLESCENCE
But perhaps most important, and least measurable, is the way students feel about their town when the project ends.
"It gives them an appreciation for their home community" that may not have been there before, Kepler says.
Through training of more than 50 middle school teams over the years, administrators at the institute have heard many anecdotal stories about the success of the Selborne Project, which has been officially renamed "Teaming with Nature."
"It mostly has to do with attitudes about learning and the social aspects of adolescence," says Mark Baldwin, Education Director of the Roger Troy Peterson Institute. "Those seventh-grade students really succeed in working outdoors, in open-ended kinds of situations."
Teachers report that students make strides in learning how to work together and with educators.
"There's more of a collegial kind of relationship that the teacher is out there looking at some of the same things," Baldwin says. "The student realizes that the teacher doesn't have all the answers to all the questions. I think that's something they like about it, too."
Teachers are keen on the project. Kepler says the reason the Selborne Project has been such a success in his district is because his team embraced the voluntary undertaking with great enthusiasm. The teachers have even gone back for refresher training twice since their original introduction.
And while Kepler credits his staff, Baldwin affirms that the strong support of a building principal is crucial in replicating Kane's success with the Selborne Project.
"This project really requires a principal to be willing to make the decisions that need to be made," he adds.
But perhaps the best advertisement for how excited some teachers get about the project and its impact on their students comes from a eighth-grade social studies teacher in Jamestown who put off his retirement for two years, saying he wanted to stay involved with his district's Selborne Project, Baldwin says.
"That really says a lot about the power of this kind of learning," he says.
Rebecca Sausner, email@example.com, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.