April 22nd is Earth Day. I’ll be spending it in my daughter’s elementary school, helping to coordinate an all-day “Science Day” for a building full of eager kindegarteners through third graders.
It wasn’t until I had kids and started looking at their curriculum that I began to wonder how key ideas and concepts could be relayed to some of our youngest learners. Earlier this academic year, I marveled at how my daughter’s third grade teacher was able to make science (astronomy in particular) come alive for the class, while using it as a strong, teachable moment to reinforce the Common Core. Imagine that, being able to teach students science, while also teaching to our expectations around English-language arts, teamwork, critical thinking, and the like.
When it comes to the environment, my kids sorta get it. They understand that recycling is important, and will begrudgingly help as we both place our trash in the requisite bins in our garage and then haul them out to the curb each week. And in past years, as previous Earth Days have rolled around, they’ve been quick to come home with new lectures to preach at us. But it has never really gotten at the issue of how one can take a concept like the environment and Earth Day and really make it an integrated part of a student’s learning path.
Regardless of the subject matter, we know that, to be most effective, classroom lessons have to be tied to student interests. This is particularly true with younger learners. One can’t just get up in front of a class of second graders and begin to lecture them on the environment, the causes of World War I, or cell biology. No, we have to find ways to link content to the student. This means both what is taught and how it is taught.
This may seem common sense, but it is a lesson we continue to struggle with. In too many schools, we see students de-skilled as they are asked to unplug. Despite the technological environment these learners experience each and every day, their classes are expected to be a tech-free zone (except maybe when it comes to testing). So a child’s interest in learning on the tablet can be squelched with the impression that real, formal learning cannot happen without a traditional textbook being used in a traditional classrooms with rows of desks all pointed in the same direction.
The same goes for how the material is taught. The reason why the astronomy lesson my daughter experienced stuck with me was it was a creative approach to learning so many things. Instead of being trying to shoehorn a science lesson into an ELA class or asking students to memorize a bunch of facts and figures about the solar system, students developed marketing campaigns to convince their classmates why a particular planet made the best vacation destination. Science content was learned, ELA standards with practiced, and 21st century learning skills were spotlighted. And none came with the “drill and kill” so many worry about with such content.
Such creative approaches can also bring environmental sciences alive for students, both this Earth Day and for many days and years to come. As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law replacing No Child Left Behind, environmental education is now eligible for federal education funding, a first for the environmental sciences.
This means that school districts can now use federal money to bring their students to local environmental agencies, such as wildlife initiatives that welcome children. So just as my fourth grade son went to Washington’s Crossing this week to enhance his classroom social studies and history instruction, now he and his sister can go to the local wildlife refuge to do the same for their formal science instruction.
And that classroom instruction can be enhanced with environmental education curriculum such as that provided by Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation, which provides a free, behavior-based curriculum to help kids understand what they see in the field and put it to use in their elementary school classrooms. And like the solar system marketing effort my daughter (and I) so enjoyed, Think Earth is aligned to both the Common Core and to Next Gen Science Standards.
While many may think that aligning with Common Core and NGSS means a tightly controlled, proscribed curriculum with on room for creativity or tailoring to specific students, we are seeing more and more that that simply isn’t the case. With offerings like Think Earth, we are given a clear view of how our youngest learners can learn subjects like environmental science in ways that just enhance what they are already learning in their science and math classes.
Teaching “to the Common Core” provides an unending number of paths to the creative educator. They have third graders market vacations to the outer reaches of the solar system and they can have first and second graders understand natural resources and conservation in ways that their own parents may not quite appreciate.
Ultimately, it comes down to giving teachers options in terms of how to help make curriculum come alive for their students. If you were a nine-year old, would you rather hear a detailed history of 46 years of the Earth Day movement, or would you rather go to a “Think Earth, It’s Magic!” assembly? For my two kiddos, that’s about as simple a decision as they will make in their school day.