Pot Spring Elementary, where I was the principal until very recently, is a diverse school in the suburbs north of Baltimore. Its students come from 28 countries and speak 32 languages. Their families can be wealthy or living in public housing.
Over my four years at Pot Spring, we were able to unify the school and improve its academic achievement and discipline by looking outside—literally. Throughout the curriculum, the focus was on the environment. And using the environment as a context for learning all subjects led to more engaging, rigorous, and authentic lessons for students, especially our most reluctant learners. Today, the school incorporates the use of the outdoors to teach math, reading, science, art, language arts, and other subjects.
It is not unusual to see students at Pot Spring Elementary applying their measurement skills to the task of determining the area needed for a garden. Students can be seen writing descriptive essays at the school’s outdoor-learning classroom. They apply their writing skills in letters sent to persuade Baltimore County officials to grant permission to plant trees outside their classrooms, providing welcome shade on a sunny day.
During lunchtime, the 5th grade “bay ambassadors” can be found behind the school creating “reef balls” that will be lowered into the Chesapeake Bay to provide an artificial reef for oysters. Some of the youngest students learn to count by 10s as they group recycled bottle caps into packs of 100 for our family environmental night.
And then there are the bluebirds, which became central to our learning activities after some of our teachers attended a conference of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education. Based on what they learned there, the teachers began to inspire students in a quest to discover whether our schoolyard, like many other places in the state, was not attracting as many native Maryland birds as in the past. In the course of their research, the students decided to create a “bluebird trail” to attract more of the native birds. During science class, they studied bluebird habitats, and in social studies they learned more about neighborhoods and communities. Then, as part of language arts, the students wrote announcements about their project that were read to the entire school.
Last spring, at the school’s Earth Day celebration, everyone worked to build bluebird nesting boxes, along with other environmental activities. The boxes were installed around the school grounds this year. Each grade has been assigned a nesting box to monitor, for which they will collect data and then write about their findings.
After four years of this educational greening, the school’s results have been extremely positive.
Perhaps most visibly, Pot Spring Elementary has recorded steady improvements in scores on the Maryland School Assessment for all of its student subgroups. It also has received recognition from both Baltimore County and the state of Maryland for continued and sustained improvement on these tests in grades 3 and 5.
When students understand how a real-life purpose can be served by the application of what they are learning, they tend to put more effort into their work. And what could be more real than the natural world we all share?
At the same time, discipline in the school has improved, as measured by decreases in office referrals and out-of-school suspensions. Students, I am convinced, have much more reason to prefer being in their classrooms to sitting in the principal’s office: Their instruction has become more engaging, rigorous, and fun.
And throughout the school, students are collaborating with classmates, applying teachers’ feedback to their writing, and investigating real-life problems in efforts to make their school and community environment healthier and more beautiful. That is why, in recognition of their work, Pot Spring was named a Maryland Green School this year.
Why has the school’s integration of environmental education been so successful? There are many reasons.
First, all stakeholders were involved in the decisionmaking process. Staff members were encouraged to teach in new ways and then supported in their efforts. Teachers participated in intensive, ongoing professional development to learn how to create integrated lessons, and teams of teachers work together to plan these lessons. In addition, the school’s master schedule has provided daily opportunities for each grade-level teaching team to collaborate. And in Maryland, students and teachers have the great advantage of being able to write grant proposals to the Chesapeake Bay Trust for the funding for environmental projects.
After four years, the Pot Spring program’s impact has been extensive and positive. Integrating the use of environmental science into all subjects has helped students and teachers make meaningful connections to their learning. And this, of course, is a critical goal for engaging children in school. When students understand how a real-life purpose can be served by the application of what they are learning, they tend to put more effort into their work. And what could be more real than the natural world we all share?
I hope that other schools will have the same opportunity—and the same strong support from their school systems—that Pot Spring Elementary has had to use the environment as a teaching tool. But the reality is that this rarely happens. School budgets are stretched thin, limiting the possibility for the teacher professional development or class field trips that are needed to give students the chance for sophisticated outdoor-learning activities.
And educators know all too well about the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, which make it harder for schools to spend time on topics not covered on state assessments. Environmental education, like art, music, and social studies, often pays the price.
One avenue for addressing this problem is legislation now pending in Congress called the No Child Left Inside Act. It would provide new funding for states to train teachers in environmental education and to expand high-quality environmental education programs. The bill also would create incentives for states to develop environmental-literacy plans that would help ensure graduates have a basic understanding of the natural world.
The bill is getting a good reception, with the House of Representatives passing the proposal 293-109 on Sept. 19. A diverse group, which includes many education and environmental organizations, is supporting the legislation. (More information is available at www.NCLICoalition.org.)
What unites this coalition is the belief that environmental education belongs in every school, and that using the environment as a teaching theme is a smart way to engage students and their teachers. That’s been the mantra at Pot Spring Elementary School, and the results are proving it right.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as No Child Left Inside