For Md. Reform Project, the World Becomes a Lab

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This article is the second in an occasional series that tracks "Roots and Wings,'' one of the projects awarded a contract last year by the New American Schools Development Corporation to create "break the mold'' schools.

By Lynn Olson

ST. MARY'S CITY, MD.--On a beautiful afternoon in May, the red-brick walls of Maryland's reconstructed State House of 1676 reverberate once more with the sounds of argument. Delegates and senators jump to their feet to defend their proposals for saving the Chesapeake Bay. Citizens rise up to voice their displeasure.

But despite the intensity of the debate in the historic setting here, none of the representatives to this model general assembly is more than 11 years old. The two-day simulation of a real state legislature marks the culmination of months of work for these children from the St. Mary's County school district.

It is also a milestone in the development of "Roots and Wings,'' an ambitious plan for revamping elementary schools nationwide that was given birth here by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, local teachers and administrators, and officials of the Maryland Department of Education.

Last week, the project won its second contract from the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit group created by businessmen to underwrite a string of innovative schools across the country. (See related story, page 8.)

To prepare for their "legislative session'' last month, the St. Mary's students have since February learned about the ecological, economic, and political life of the Chesapeake Bay region; conducted science experiments to assess the bay's health; role-played the lives of families and workers who earn their living from its waters; took field trips; researched topics that interested them; kept records and journals of their experiences; ran campaigns and elected political officials; and, finally, wound up here with drafts of bills based on what they had learned.

The activities were all part of "BayLab,'' a pilot thematic unit for 4th and 5th graders. It is the precursor to an integrated science and social-studies curriculum, called "WorldLab,'' that is designed to move children beyond basic skills by connecting their schoolwork to real life.

Eventually, its founders hope, the hands-on integration of concepts from science, geography, government, and history will replace existing elementary school curricula in those areas and become an integral part of the school day.

"We're hoping that it will be the kind of learning that will really make an impression on children,'' said Stan Bennett, an expert on simulations who helped develop the social-studies component. "Rather than just learning facts, [we hope] that children will really process the information and it will become personally important and significant to them.''

Other components of Roots and Wings--which is being piloted in four of the district's elementary schools--include a family-development center designed to assist needy children, starting at birth, and their parents; a language-rich preschool and kindergarten, built around thematic units; completely revised reading, writing, and mathematics curricula, focused on cooperative learning and one-on-one tutoring; and a commitment to have all children perform at grade level and in the regular classroom. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

But it is WorldLab that the designers envision giving students "wings'' to soar beyond the basic skills, by challenging them to apply their knowledge through role-playing, simulations, and group investigations.

"The idea of WorldLab as we see it,'' Robert Slavin, the project director and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, explained, "is to try to design instruction that is relevant to kids--or that can be made relevant--by simulating things that exist in the real world.''

'Fun' the Operative Word

Two months before the model general assembly, Juanita Mattox's 5th-grade classroom at Lexington Park Elementary School was overflowing with activity.

In one corner, two girls mapped the nine rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. In another, a group of students tested designs and materials for model boats, which they later raced. The students then charted their results, along with step-by-step instructions for building the ships.

In the back of the room, a boy was identifying preserved fish with the help of a field guide. And in the far corner, three students were playing a game called the "Great Fish Race,'' in which they used calculators and playing cards to track the fate of a school of 100,000 fish through various natural and manmade disasters.

A visitor also encountered a student sifting through newspapers for articles about pollution in the bay, a child working on a computer, a group constructing jumping frogs using origami techniques, and several science experiments in progress.

In one such experiment, students built a model watershed using cardboard and foil, then watched the effect as water washed coffee grounds (to represent sediment) and KoolAid powder (to represent toxins) down a mountain and into the wetlands.

For Roots and Wings students, the operative word is "fun.'' The word, too often absent from the school lexicon, is heard again and again in youngsters' discussions about BayLab.

"It's better than social-studies books,'' Karen Carpenter, a 5th grader at Lexington Park, said, "because the books are really boring and a drag. This way, you get to do things and go places and really prove it.''

'Families' and 'Occupations'

Indeed, the students at Lexington Park Elementary are eager to talk about their work and, in particular, about their "families'' and "occupations.''

At the beginning of the unit, each student was assigned an imaginary family and a job--as a waterman, a county planner, or a developer, for example--with a monthly salary. The students then conducted research about their occupations. And several times a week, they drew "life event'' and "business activity'' cards that mirrored the kinds of financial ups-and-downs that befall real families and businesses. They also kept running tabs of their family budgets.

"I'm 30 years old, and I have a 3-year-old child, and I'm single,'' said Rob Bray, leafing through the "family album'' that he put together with pictures from magazines. "I have a guest room,'' he announced, "and this is my son Zachary. He's eating at my restaurant.''

"And that,'' he said, pointing to a picture, "is my ex-wife.''

Then, he trumpeted, "I think I'm the second-richest kid in the class.''

"It's a lot funner,'' the 5th grader said of the program, "a lot more interesting. We get to do more hands-on experiments.''

Journals and Brainstorming

The shelves along one wall in this 5th-grade classroom at Lexington Park are lined with specimens of Chesapeake Bay life, many of which the youngsters preserved themselves with the help of students from St. Mary's College of Maryland nearby. The walls are crowded with information and pictures about the bay.

And in an experiment to see how fast algae would grow, students set jars filled with varying amounts of fertilizer, ground water, pond water, and tap water under the windows.

They also wrote letters to various organizations, asking for information about the bay and about endangered species, which they then shared with the class.

At least 20 minutes each morning, the students write in journals. One day, they prepared questions to ask a visitor from the local nuclear-power plant, who came to discuss its effects on the bay. Another day, they brainstormed ideas for environmental bills based on their experiences.

Visitors find a classroom that is busy, crowded, noisy, and incredibly active.

"As a teacher, you often see children heading in one direction and wanting more information, and you have to go on to the next unit,'' Ms. Mattox said.

"Here,'' she added, "they have the freedom to explore. They can learn in their own way, based on their own interests. ... It really gives them a little bit more authority for their own education.''

Diverse Groups

At Green Holly Elementary School, a few miles away, students on a recent day were wrapping up their group investigations. Each team of four students was assigned one of six subtopics, such as "soggy settings: wetlands, marshes, swamps, and bogs,'' or "home is a habitat: plants and animals on the bay.'' Based on suggestions from the teacher and team discussions, the children chose questions they wanted to investigate and a way to present their findings to the class.

The teams followed cooperative-learning methods developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins and by Shlomo and Yael Sharan, two Israeli experts in group investigations.

Each team included children of mixed abilities, races, and sexes. Within the teams, students determined how much to work together or alone and what type of research they wish to pursue, such as reading, interviewing, or viewing videotapes.

One group of students was busy producing a play called "No One Is Useless To Help the Wetlands.'' Another was drawing a large diagram listing the various animals living in the forests, shallow waters, and deep waters of the bay. Still other students crafted dioramas of ecologically sound campgrounds, maps of where they would place recreational sites along the Chesapeake, and posters of various seafaring vessels and their functions.

Echoing the comments of her peers at Lexington Park, Angela Legg, a Green Holly 5th grader, summed up the BayLab approach: "It's a lot of fun. You get to act like you're in real-life situations. You get to choose what you want to do.''

"It's fun even to do the research,'' she said.

Teachers See Glitches

But the pilot project has not been without its glitches. Some science experiments bombed, according to the teachers.

And Ms. Mattox, the Lexington Park Elementary School teacher, spent three days on a 90-minute lesson about government when she discovered that her 5th graders were unaware that governments print money and fund libraries.

One of the biggest problems is the paucity of materials about current events written at a level for children. "It's hard for them to find information,'' said Jeri Baumann, an energetic teacher from Green Holly Elementary. "There's not a real lot written about the bay for this level.''

In addition, researchers working on Roots and Wings discovered, students need more direct instruction about how to conduct research, from how to read a table of contents to the use of a card catalogue.

And while teachers have tried to extend their BayLab activities into math, language arts, and reading classes--by having the students write tall tales about the Chesapeake or create mathematical word problems based on it--such integration does not happen easily.

"Science and social studies do not always integrate naturally,'' one teacher complained. "It's like trying to mix oil and water.''

After years of working alone, some students have had a hard time adapting to cooperative learning. And some teachers fret that the children are getting tired of their teams, which meet daily for 90 minutes.

Moreover, reaction to BayLab varies markedly by teacher. Although some say they are doing more hands-on activities than ever, others--who have spent years honing hands-on science curricula--maintain they are doing less.

"We have had no science the whole last quarter of the year,'' said one teacher, who thinks that BayLab is too slanted toward the social studies. "All the hands-on science I've done for years is down the tubes.''

'Hard To Evaluate'

Another question researchers are grappling with is how to evaluate what children are learning. As one teacher said: "It's all fun kinds of stuff. But the actual nitty-gritty type of learning--I hope they're learning as much as I think they are.''

"It's hard to evaluate,'' agreed Sue Gough, a teacher at Ridge Elementary School. "Teachers are not sure they've done what they need to do--that they've covered all the areas.''

During this first year of the project, the researchers let each teacher determine how to evaluate student progress. And, because the BayLab unit was only a pilot, they did not worry excessively about how it meshed with the scope-and-sequence curriculum required by the district.

But in the future, all involved in the project agree, such accountability is important and will probably include everything from student portfolios to daily checks on children's progress.

Ms. Mattox, for instance, gives each child a grade every day, even when students are working in groups.

"It's partly to let them know this is not just fun and games,'' she explained. "You have to have some kind of accountability with this much freedom. There's still a lot of control, even though there doesn't appear to be.''

Older Students as Mentors

Indeed, for many of the teachers, this year has been a grueling one, involving hours of hard work, as they have struggled to adapt the materials developed by the Johns Hopkins team.

A group of seven teachers from the four participating schools meets weekly with the researchers to provide them with feedback. Some will also spend the summer helping prepare materials for next year, when the number of WorldLab units will be expanded and field-tested for younger students.

In addition, the researchers want to take advantage of an unexpected boon that they discovered this year: the use of middle school, high school, and college students as mentors and role models for the younger children.

For example, the model general assembly held in St. Mary's City was based on one that has been held for older students in the district for years; during the session last month, older students from the existing program served as chairmen for the legislative committees and walked the younger children through the experience.

And once additional thematic units are developed, it should be easier to mesh the curriculum with the rest of the youngsters' instruction and with the state's learning outcomes.

"We're building more structure into the program for next year,'' Ceil Daniels, the developer of BayLab's science component, said. "We want to integrate the language-arts curriculum more closely with what we're doing.''

"With more structure,'' she added, "teachers will be able to cover more, move through more efficiently.''

"It needs to be more teacher-friendly,'' Elfreda Mathis, the principal of Lexington Park Elementary School, agreed. "It's too much for one human being.''

Yet, the scripted nature of the materials--which include detailed lesson plans and teaching techniques--could make some veteran teachers uncomfortable.

Adding to their stress, many BayLab teachers pilot tested other components of Roots and Wings, for full implementation this fall, at the same time that they worked on the science and social-studies curriculum.

But if life has been complicated for the teachers, that, too, is a lesson they want their students to absorb.

"Children need to understand that we live in a complex world full of various systems--biological, social, political,'' Mr. Bennett, the expert on simulations, said, "and that these all interact with one another and they're interdependent.''

"Children don't learn best when everything is totally isolated.''

Vol. 12, Issue 37

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