Saturday, May 9, 2009

ESD at IST - Author: Teresa Tung

Earth Day and the 4 Core Elements
Below is a post written for the 4 Core Elements, a blog written by two teachers at IST, Sam Sherratt and Chad Walsh. Is it possible to have a special event at school that is engaging, empowering, provides and experience, and demonstrates evidence of learning?

"Earth Day's Es."

Extra. Exclude. Irrelevant.

The three Es that nobody wants to hear about when involved in education . Unfortunately, also often the three Es come up when planning school-wide events. (OK, so irrelevant starts with an “I” but it sounds almost like an “e”). Be it UN Day, Earth Day, Winter Concert, or some other event that your school places enough importance upon to mandate that the whole school celebrate it; a special event often becomes a task or a burden that nobody wants to do.

Special events mean extra work for teachers. We must take time and energy away from our busy day-to-day programs in order to plan for a one-time “thing” after which we do not think about it again until it comes up the next year, when again we will groan, “oh crap, we have to do something.”

In nursery-grade 12 schools, methods of including everybody in a school-wide celebration actually end up excluding a majority of the students. By casting our net wide to try and catch the very young and the almost graduating, we broaden our scope to the point where the whole thing is meaningless for everyone. Younger students sit dazed in too-long assemblies unable to comprehend the content while older students laze in the back, disengaged by what they deem to be young content.

Crunched for time and lacking in interest, special events committees often find it easier to simply put together a program that is easy to run rather than interesting to attend. Classes go from activity to activity or try to fit into some committee-determined mode of participation. UN Day becomes dress-up-in-your-national-costume-and-walk-around Day and Earth Day becomes oh-remember-that-Jack-Johnson-song-and-sing-it-together day. It’s irrelevant. Once it’s done we tick it off our list and don’t look back.

Perhaps this is a harsh indictment of a very tough job that many of us must take on, willingly or not. I will admit that in planning last year’s Earth Day celebrations I probably created a monster that was a great example of those three horrid Es. Each grade level had to present something that they were “already doing in class” related to Earth Day in an elementary-wide assembly. I believe the majority of classes did extra work to prepare for this, didn’t really care during the assembly, and found the whole thing rather irrelevant.

This year the Earth Day committee tried a different approach. What could we do to give students and teachers choice? How could we present Earth Day in a way so that students and teachers were empowered to do what they wanted, engaged in what they did, and walked away with a memorable experience?

To begin with, we empowered the students and teachers who were passionate about Earth Day to take a lead. We requested that interested students and teachers lead activities related to their personal passions. We took a risk by trusting our community to care enough to come forth with their interests and take a lead. It took some prodding and poking, but people did come forward.

Two grade 9 students planned to work with Nursery students on planting in their classrooms. A grade 6 student who did proposed a garden as part of his grade 5 PYP Exhibition work finally got the chance to fulfill his previous year’s aspirations by leading the tree planting. Several secondary Roots and Shoots members planned a recycling fashion show and a recycling Battle of the Bands.

Reflecting on two students’ leadership in a “Paint your Eco-Footprint” activity, a teacher described, “When students are given some control, they can gain much personal satisfaction . . . I had little confidence in these three girls when they joined R&S late in the second semester . . . However, despite their reluctance to speak out, they had a good idea and followed through on it.”

Though many of the student-led activities were bumpy in their execution and required a great deal of teacher assistance to plan, it was a rare opportunity for them to take a leadership role and execute something that they could take credit for. Perhaps these opportunities should not be so rare in our schools.

Students were not the only ones who were empowered. Teachers and staff regarded Earth Day, as well, as a chance to share their passions. Two teachers who were avid divers offered a session regarding the alarming decline of shark populations. A math teacher set up a “population guess” activity with his math class in the days leading up to Earth Day.

Perhaps even more exciting than the empowerment of the teaching staff was the empowerment of the “support” staff at school. Several teaching assistants stepped forward to contribute in their own ways. Some led a kindergarten – grade 2 activity and another contributed PowerPoints and movies highlighting China’s environment to be displayed in the build up to Earth Day. Sometimes in teaching we get so caught up in our own world that we forget our greatest allies may be working right next to us. All we have to do is empower them in the same way that we empower our students.

The empowerment of students and staff made it possible for all to be engaged throughout the course of the day. The key to engagement was age-appropriate activities and experiences, a sentiment that was repeated over-and-over in a post-Earth Day survey.

Students in kindergarten – grade 2 were placed in small groups and rotated through three different activities. Students in grades 3 – 10 were given the choice to sign up for their three activities a week prior to Earth Day. This allowed them to choose the activities that most interested them, a key to engaging them from the start. Also key to making this possible was the diversity of the activity choices. Students were able to engage with environmental issues in variety of ways, appealing to their multiple intelligences.

The most exciting were the activities that were linked in to curriculum. A grade 11 teacher volunteered to run a Theory of Knowledge workshop, “Greed and the Planet” and another secondary teacher volunteered to continue the workshop by presenting an alternative viewpoint, “Is Global Warming Bad?” Grade 11 students were able to participate in Earth Day in a way that was truly relevant and meaningful. They were engaged in new learning rather than being used as obligatory “leaders” of younger students or slotted into activities that were too young for their abilities.

By empowering students with the choice of what to do during Earth Day, they became engaged in meaningful experiences. As one student explained, “I loved the reycycled fassion show. it was exciting and we did something insted of lisnting/waching someone/something.” The key word in that sentence is did. The students were able to take action on the day. They actually planted trees. They actually made useful things out of trash. They actually did.

So where is the evidence of all this empowerment, engagement, and all these experiences? A group of students worked with the librarian as the “Voice of Earth Day” to gather the evidence of what happened on Earth Day. They took photos, videos, and interviewed students regarding what they were learning. At the assembly at the end of the day, they presented this video as an instant-recap of the experiences of the day. In addition to the plethora of photos taken by teachers (two were specifically assigned as teacher photographers) this provided meaningful evidence of learning while it was happening. While reflecting on Earth Day, though, it has become evident to me that more evidence of learning needs to be gathered. Perhaps next year we will trial some sort of learning reflection to be gathered at the end of every session. Or perhaps the evidence will (or won't) be found via our students' actions (or inaction).

The week following Earth Day, I sent out a survey via surveymonkey to students and staff. It has become clear that dividing students into age groups was key to Earth Day’s success. It has also become clear that the assembly at the end of the day to recap our experiences ran long and was all-too-rife with technical difficulties. These are powerful reflections that will help guide us to create an even better Earth Day next year.

This year’s Earth Day was far from perfect but throughout its planning, execution, and reflection, the four Es were omnipresent. Next year will build upon this year’s successes and reinvigorate based upon this year’s failures. Just today a parent came up to me and said, “I wanted to do a bike riding activity for Earth Day but I was too shy. Maybe next year?” Perfect. The community is growing.

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