National Park Service Rediscovering Lessons of Scenic Wonders

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The Merced River winds its way through Yosemite Valley, plunging 600 feet at Nevada Fall before slumbering for a moment at Emerald Pool and crashing another 300 feet at Vernal Fall. Making its way past a nature center and campgrounds here, its rushing water nearly drowns out the husky voice of Jeff Cox, who is carefully trying to articulate just what it is that scenes like these have to offer education.

And he runs into a host of intangibles, lessons that are hard to reduce to words, such as the difference between "seeing'' and "seeing,'' and the way that all things are interconnected.

"My ultimate goal when visitors come to the park,'' Mr. Cox explains, "is to get them to feel like this is part of them; that this tree is not just here in Yosemite, but it's part of this state, this country, this world. And it's a living part of this world.''

Mr. Cox, a history and American-government teacher at South Pasadena (Calif.) High School and a park ranger here during the summer, has been bringing his students on field trips to Yosemite for the past 14 years, exposing them, through hands-on, interdisciplinary lessons, to a world beyond their classrooms and home environments.

But park officials here and elsewhere are only beginning to explore the potential that lies beyond park boundaries.

Across the country, national parks are transforming themselves into classrooms, curriculum publishers, and staff-development centers. They are creating park-school-community partnerships, hands-on curriculum materials, and teacher-training programs. The campaign marks an effort to reveal to students the vast scientific, cultural, and historical significance of the nation's parks.

From Pennsylvania's historic battlefield at Gettysburg, to the graceful arches of Utah's Canyonlands, to the majestic glaciers of the Northwest, parks are reaching out to schools and finding ways to balance their mission of preserving parkland for future generations while providing for the enjoyment of visitors today.

Teacher Intern Program

Here at Yosemite, park officials are taking steps in this direction by supporting the development of the Yosemite Teacher Intern Program, a staff-development initiative that brings teachers of all grade levels to the park for several weeks over the summer to collaborate on and field-test lessons that have been created for the program.

Each day, teachers on the program sift through piles of lesson plans written by former teacher-interns and expand them by researching information in the park's library, consulting park interpreters, and testing the lessons with their colleagues.

Some of the lesson plans the teachers start out with appear to be less than remarkable. Following one such plan, Debbie Caringi, a 6th-grade science teacher from San Diego, stews cranberries to make a sauce. Input from the six other teachers on the program, however, quickly transforms the simple exercise into an extensive discussion.

The cranberries, for example--a substitute for the manzanita berries that were traditionally eaten by the Native American population in the area--become a springboard to lessons on endangered plants and on how people throughout history have adapted to changes in their environments or populations. The interns also saw applications to discussion of metric measurement, the harvest festivals of different cultures, and the food rituals of animistic religions.

A fill-in-the-blank worksheet involving waterfalls turns into a project asking students to research the world's highest waterfalls, learn about hydroelectric power, write to foreign embassies requesting information about their waterfalls, and even listen to Handel's "Water Music.''

Another activity challenges children to become rangers in their own communities by being able to identify the plants and animals native to the environment, talking to people about protecting the environment and keeping it clean, and using a map to identify nearby landmarks.

"For the first time in all my years of teaching, I've found a way of tying it all together,'' says Linda Vieira, a 4th-grade teacher at Los Nogales School in Ventura County, Calif., who has taught for 29 years. She is working with program officials to modify next year's Teacher Intern Program into a theme-oriented seminar for 4th-grade teachers.

"Teachers used to get so frustrated with [the state's efforts] to connect things,'' she says. "Well, the environment is the only one that I can say, 'Yes, I will do this.' Because everything relates to the environment.''

Becoming Professionals

Administrators of the program, who plan to publish 40 of the lesson plans in a volume that will be available to teachers nationwide, are making sure the lessons reflect state and national standards.

"The park service is taking the trouble to become professionals,'' says Betsey Clopine, pointing out the well-worn copy of the state's science-curriculum framework that floats around the picnic table where the teachers are working. Ms. Clopine, who became Yosemite's first full-time education specialist this past year, directs the intern program.

"We are taking the time to become familiar with the state requirements and working with them,'' she says.

And while national parks seem to be an obvious resource for such subjects as science and history, teachers in the program say that parks can be used to teach all disciplines.

"I can see taking the things that we're doing right here and fitting them in with those T-squares and scales,'' says Irene Sheppard, an industrial-technology teacher at Desert View High School in Tucson, Ariz. "And it's going to be a good match.''

Ms. Sheppard thought that her subject area and environmentalism would be completely remote and separate. "But to bring the two together and make them mesh, I'm seeing that that's my job,'' she says.

"The future of our kids has to include both components,'' she continues. "If they're engineers and don't understand the environment, then they're really lost.''

The key, says fellow teacher-intern Alan Bertolino, is adapting. A second-year teacher at Imperial High School in Imperial County, Calif., Mr. Bertolino will return to an agricultural, desert ecosystem markedly different from Yosemite. Teachers also have to adjust lessons to their own grade levels.

Parks as Classrooms

Experiences like the one here are being repeated across the country as the National Park Service and its philanthropic arm, the National Park Foundation, build their Parks as Classrooms program.

Officially unveiled one year ago to help schools and parks work together to provide hands-on learning for students, the program aims to provide lessons and experiences of the parks to children from inner cities or poor rural areas.

"We're trying to level the playing field,'' says Ms. Clopine, who notes that with the changing demographics of California and the nation, a growing number of children do not have ready access to national parks.

"You look at an 8-year-old kid and ask him how long he's been [in this country], and he says, 'a week,''' she adds. "What kind of identity does he have with any kind of national heritage?''

Right now, the Parks as Classrooms program is little more than a name and logo that has attached itself to already existing efforts.

The identity, however, says its director, Patty Reilly, is intended to strengthen existing programs by giving them name recognition, and will help foster the sharing of ideas among different national-park programs.

Moreover, the park foundation provides significant funding to programs that are designated Parks as Classrooms. Over the last year, the National Park Foundation awarded $460,000 to such projects--84 percent of its education-outreach grants.

The foundation is also applying a $1 million grant it received from the Pew Charitable Trusts toward Parks as Classrooms projects. Last month, the foundation awarded more than $1.4 million to support nine three-year grants to Parks as Classrooms programs targeting 4th to 7th graders.

Roger G. Kennedy, the director of the National Park Service and the secretary of the foundation board, says they could not afford to fund programs with "spastic, one-year'' grants.

The multiyear aspect of the programs, along with the fact that the parks have reached out to their own communities to raise matching grants to support them, will give the models time to develop partnerships and curricula and to establish and evaluate the programs.

Boston National Historical Park, for example, will receive $170,875 to introduce 14,000 ethnically diverse 4th and 5th graders to four different national historic sites through visits and curriculum materials. A three-week summer institute will also be established at which 474 teachers will learn new strategies for using park resources and classroom tools.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., will develop a natural and cultural educators' guide to train 900 teachers in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia to teach social studies, science, language arts, fine arts, and other disciplines using national-park resources at several historical parks and battlefields of the region.

"What this grant-making effort does,'' says Ms. Reilly, "is take the very best of what we know about education and what we do in the parks and make that accessible to teachers and students.''

Not Without a Message

While they are serious about providing high-quality curriculum materials, park officials are not shy about admitting they also have their own agenda.

"I teach what the purpose of this plant is, what its niche is,'' says Ms. Clopine. "At the same time, you can bet I'm going to talk about the park-service mandate and the responsibility that each one of these kids has in protecting the park system.''

Not all parents, however, appreciate having the park message of "preserve, protect, and provide'' preached to their children. Ms. Clopine remembers a campfire gathering at which she told Dr. Suess' story of the Lorax--a blunt indictment of the timber industry.

"A father approached me and said, 'Don't you ever present the other side of the story?''' says Ms. Clopine. She told him, "No, I have to represent the agency.''

Yet, even groups that often find themselves at odds with the park service over environmental policy applaud the educational efforts.

"We all support education,'' says an administrator from the National Forest Products Association. "It's more a question of how they are doing it, how they are saying it.''

Jerry Belson, the assistant superintendent of Yosemite, understands just how important these lessons might be for the many children unaware of the nation's 367 national park sites.

Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., he was not exposed to the national parks because his parents were not familiar with them.

"I've found, though, that the minorities that come to the park, they're amazed at what they see,'' Mr. Belson says.

"The long term is that they're saying to themselves, there's another life out there,'' he says. "If we can't bring schools to the parks, we have to bring the parks to the schools.''

Vol. 13, Issue 2, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: September 15, 1993, as National Park Service Rediscovering Lessons of Scenic Wonders
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