Well, I am nine days into my final comprehensive exam for my graduate degree in Natural Resources. Two of three answers are fully drafted, and today, I am starting on the rough draft of my third and final question. I need to develop an entire day of professional development in environmental education! While I have been developing curriculum for several years, it has been focused on student learning. This is different; it is focused on teaching teachers how to teach environmental education.
As I did my background reading, I found there has been much criticism about professional development. Some of the criticisms the literature cites are that it is too disconnected from actual classroom content and practice, it is too broad or generic, too sporadically offered, and too rushed when it is offered. Yet, professional development is necessary. (I will not get into the new licensing in WI that allow those with a lifetime license to go without it.) As one of my sources, the Center for American Progress, cites, “learning to teach better – does not necessarily come from teaching longer.”
As educators, we need to stay abreast of new methods, newer ways of understanding content, new evaluative methods, and approaches to learning. As the leader of a garden club for elementary students for the past 14 years, I have been both a participant in professional development and observed others as they participate. In fact, obtaining this degree has shown I am committed to the importance of demonstrating life long learning.
In leading a garden club, I depend on experiential learning models. This means I construct my lessons to focus on student inquiry, and include a hands-on component to every lesson focused on one of the major concepts we cover.
Yet, the thought of coming up with a day long-professional development workshop in environmental education has been daunting. But, as I read some literature and thought about what I could cover, I realized that most teachers want to use the outdoors as an extension of their classroom but admit they really do not know how. Yet, we live in an era that investing time in nature and incorporating the environment into classroom work might be more important than it ever has before.
Children are nature deprived. This is a fact. Our focus on standardized testing in siloed subject areas denies them some ability to critically think about real world problems. This includes problems they might face in their life-time regarding the availability of safe food and water, let alone pollution, waste management, and the disappearance of pollinators.
My educational efforts have oft been misunderstood to those who have not experienced the group. Commonly, when people, even other educators, hear “garden club” they think I am teaching students to put a seed in a cup or in the ground. It is not, at all, what it has been about.
What could be better than increasing awareness of the need for educators to increase their use of the local environmental in their daily or weekly classroom content and showing them how to do it? The literature has shown that one of the most common reasons that outdoor classrooms are not used regularly, and might even replaced by an occasional field trip to an off site forest or park, is that teachers feel they do not know “how” to integrate environmental education in their lessons.
I understand. Pre-service teachers are not taught experiential methods or theory. They might know Piaget and Bloom’s Taxonomy, but do they know Place Theory or John Dewey’s thoughts on experiential learning? And, even if one knows theory, it doesn’t automatically transfer to knowing how to engage 30 kids in a school garden so they have a worthwhile learning experience. The literature substantiates this lack of preparation.
So, with the contention that professional development should be applicable and encourage growth on the part of the teacher, my plan is to develop an experiential outdoor learning day for elementary teachers. In this offering, teachers will spend a day as a garden club student, learning experientially and through inquiry, reflecting on the lessons, and eventually creating a lesson to adapted for their own class/school yard.
It might actually turn out to be more than an esoteric exercise of finality for my degree. It seems that I might even be on to something here! We’ll see how it comes together but for now I’m just excited that I have a viable idea that might actually benefit other educators. Stay tuned for post graduation updates on professional development!