Environmental Education For Kids Internship
When I began this project my vision of the possibilities was far greater than my available time. During the fall semester of 2001, Joelle Rickard’s bilingual third grade had the opportunity to work with a group of Whitman EEK interns led by Ashley Meganck and Catherine Schmidt. They engaged in a wonderful series of classes based around habitat, the 3 R’s, food chains, and water. For this semester, I wanted to build upon those sparks and carry the idea of taking care of the Earth one step farther, and really look at how people can be active in taking care of their habitat, the Earth.
I wanted to look at energy, and what in the heck renewable energy means. I hoped to bring in people from the community who are engaging in taking care of their habitat. People from wind farm folk, to organic gardeners, to people who are working on renewable architecture, to people in sustainable forestry. Most of all, I wanted to make the lessons connect. I wanted there to be some semblance of fluidity from lesson to lesson and from last semester to this. Furthermore, I hoped to build in a sense of accomplishment by having an a role in the Energy Fair and Earth Day, and participating in a poster contest for the energy fair.
On smaller less visionary notes, I wanted to continue to share with these kids excitement and awareness about their environment, their habitat. I wanted to show them that their ability to speak two languages is priceless, and that there are people who will honor it, despite daily discrimination to the contrary.
Finally I wanted to make sure that Joelle and the kids were getting what they wanted out of our presence.
The Purpose Unfolds:
As we got thicker into the semester, and the reality of ever shrinking time with over loaded schedules began to hit home, I had to revisit some of my goals, and rethink my purpose. There simply was not time to host, nor to organize visits to the classroom from community members. Looking at my original goals, they seem to be a set of expectations and an abstract plan more fitting to a full time teacher developing a new curriculum, rather than a full time student who visits the class once a week as a special guest. Building upon previous lessons, having fluidity from class to class, and participating in projects for fairs next fall are long term, big commitment goals, not fully congruous with my position in the class.
So I had to reconcile my big visions with my temporary position.
I tried to focus on encouraging creativity. There was not time to build the
background that would enable them to really immerse themselves in a project
centered around inventing a new kind of sustainable energy. Instead of trying
to bring in a range of different community members who were taking care of the
environment, I decided to arrange for one memorable adventure out into the community.
Something that they were familiar with, but had little interaction with. And
ultimately, I decided that my purpose in that classroom was not to give any
definitive word of knowledge about energy or the environment, but rather to
spark ideas--of energy, community, the environment and our interactions with
it. The notion being that these ideas would act as a starter for a fire of curiosity.
And genuine curiosity is a key element in action, and informed stewardship of
our own habitat.
“You were on a farm!?” asked Juan in astonishment after I mentioned at the beginning of class, how I missed the garden I took care of last spring on a little mountain farm. Juan’s comment and the class’s surprise were like a giant neon sign that read, “You’re doing something right!” On days when everything appears as a variation of absolute chaos, Juan’s words remind me that when all else seems to be flailing, we are there in that room challenging assumptions, and taking the negativity out of words like farming, and Spanish.
Working once a week in Joelle’s class reminds me very much of my time as a teaching intern in rural Ecuador. Being prepared for your lesson is crucial, and profoundly difficult. I realize now that I approached this project as if it was my only activity, as if I was going to be team teaching with Joelle every day for the rest of the year. My reality is teaching one 45minute lesson, once a week, with two other interns.
Finding your own teaching rhythm when you are in control of the design and execution of the lesson is hard enough. Trying to team teach as a threesome, is like a three ring circus. You want to give each intern equal spot light time, but a lesson can easily deteriorate when the kids can’t figure out who to pay attention to. When I feel like we are loosing the kids, my instinctual response is to crank up the dramatic volume, which then becomes like a sort of race of who will run out of energy first, me or the clock.
Our first lesson was somewhat spontaneous due to the tiny challenge of coordinating four people’s schedules. We introduced ourselves in English, and then in Spanish we talked a little bit about where we learned Spanish. We had discussed a few name game options, but had decided that class name games would flounder because as Ashley and Kate had both noted to us in various meetings, they already know each other’s names. Still, due to a lack of proper planning to prevent piss-poor performance, Maia initiated a name game of sorts. She asked each kid to say their name and their favorite animal one at a time. I winced, knowing that this would instantaneously loose their attention. So not wanting to say, “Um, actually lets not do that,” I stepped in and had each kid tell me their name and a favorite animal to perform. A literal one man circus, or interactive petting zoo.
The second lesson was a great improvement over the first. Hypersensitive to the chaos of minimal planing, I went back to my old field notes from Ecuador and re-formulated a lesson on habitat, looking at the four requisite ingredients of Food, Shelter, Water, and Air. The details of that lesson can be found on pp. 14-18 in my field notes. The idea behind this lesson was great. Yet, there were a number of key note glitches. First, I forgot to account for the x-factor, that which you cannot plan for, great questions that lead you off on tangents. This is where flexibility and spontaneity are essential. However, here again we encounter the challenge of the tri-headed teacher. When trying to communicate a thought, be it a lesson or an idea in conversation, you must always mind the gap, the gap between your internal process and that which people in front of you are comprehending. When you have three teachers the gap becomes quite complex. The lesson of the day tends to be conceived by one member of the group, and as of yet, we have not mastered the art of making sure all three of us are fully up to speed on the details of that which we are trying to communicate. That means that what might originate as a relatively seamless lesson concept can unravel into a broken mishmosh of communication styles. The solution to this, I think, rests mainly in having a group of people who are all committed with relative equality, and have the time to really develop the lessons together. That is mighty difficult with three over committed college students.
Our third try was a cross between the first two. At the Tuesday meeting it was apparent that we had prepped very little, and my over involved mentality was clashing with our reality of nil planning. However, Kate Ritley gave us some brilliant suggestions about a 3 R’s demonstration that was interactive. Still, even with some planning and great materials for a trash game, we missed really connecting the activity to the whole picture of everything coming from the Earth, and everything going back into it. Part of that was poor planning, and part of it was the chaos of three talking heads.
Underlying all of our planning challenges lies the notion of
scaffolding, which Joelle brought up in a meeting we had with her after our
first class. The idea is that for any project or series of lessons, you have
to build it from the bottom up, providing plenty of background information as
material to play with when you want to crank open the creative juices valve.
Again, difficult with three heads, limited time, and low frequency and duration
of classes, but not impossible. Time and practice, right?
So far this report has been a bit doom and gloom. Over all I genuinely enjoy our time with Joelle’s class, and they seem to get a major kick out of our presence. Those facts do not eliminate my highly self-critical nature, which perhaps is only softened by recognizing it.
Still to Come:
Current struggles aside, my original goals are not dead in the water. Kate Ritley has developed a brilliant renewable energy lesson plan and when we return from spring break I hope to put it into action and build from it. As far as resources goes I have a number of amazing web sites on renewable energy, even renewable energy for kids, and a list of local folk who are rumored to have many an idea about building models and projects for the classroom. If I activate these resources I am hoping we can build enough background to really tap into the inventing power of the students with projects such as making your own renewable energy invention for your house, or a farm, or a plane, you name it.
The thoughts of field trips and special guests are likewise far from abandoned. Apparently, there is money for busses, and a cast of potential trips that would be fantastic, from the wind farm to alternative building sights and organic gardens with compost in action.
All of this I hope to tie into some sort of final project with
the Renewable Energy Fair. The poster contest for sure, and potentially our
own little bilingual booth. Earth Day is coming on a bit fast, but perhaps we
will find a way of participating. I’ll be talking to Maggie Kerr about
There is a sensation of fulfillment as I re-read my anticipations of what was “still to come”, and realize that many of the hopes were indeed acted upon. The renewable energy lesson plan from Kate Ritley was a huge success throughout the school district of Walla Walla. I taught the lesson to a bilingual kindergarten in Spanish with Kate, and then again to a third grade class at Davis, in College Place. Both of those lessons felt hugely successful. The chemistry of the classes was astoundingly calm, attentive and engaged. Still, I attribute a large part of the success to the fact that we fit our roles. When we entered those two classes we were special guests, and the lesson was a one shot wonder, easy to build upon with a bit of planing, but fitting its design as a spark.
The same exact plan was not nearly as strong in the context of our consistent presence in Joelle’s class. It was a bit out of place, and there was not the same novelty to help draw attention. Furthermore, our greatest challenge remained the fact that we taught Joelle’s class in a team of three. I think that is simply too many people trying to share control. It is confusing for the kids, and incredibly difficult for the teachers. When I was in a team of two (with Leah, and then Kate), we were able to smoothly trade roles of assistant, and teacher; we could easily go back and forth between writing and speaking, crowd control, and explanation. While it may seem logical that three people helping would be better than one, the maxim of less is more really applies here.
We didn’t get to have the kids struggle artistically with the notion of using their creative power to invent new forms of energy, but we did get to build habitat dioramas which were a creative extravaganza. Not only did the construction of the models create a format for creativity, but it provided a tangible token of pride, in their abilities and their knowledge. Creating a way in which the kids can say to themselves, ‘Yeah, we made that, and we learned something new, and that’s cool’, is a powerful, and essential tool.
The field trip to the Stateline Wind Project was a terrific success, and a wonderful note to end on. The opportunity to see and touch the actual inspiration behind a lesson is invaluable. There was much information, and sometimes it was difficult to corral everyone’s attention a midst the turbines and the wind, but they asked great questions, and were ecstatic to be up there. Having a wind smith show us how he climbs the ladders was a great treat, and beautifully rounded out the tour. Jumping over the shadows of the blades was also a major hit. If I were to do it again, I would take the trip first thing in the morning when all have more energy, rather than at the end of the day. Before lunch, not only do the kids have more focus, but the Wind Farm folks, and the rest of us “adults” have more ability to focus as well. Coming back to school the next day and listening to Joelle talk about all the other teachers who wanted to join us, and the bus drivers who were all talking about it, well, it was like seeing a bit of the spark catch fire.
· Joelle Rickard, Teacher of 3rd grade bilingual class at Greenpark Elementary. e-mail: Jrickard@wwps.org, work phone: 509-527-3077
· Kate Ritley, Children’s Education coordinator for Northwest Renewable Energy Fair. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
· Anne Walsh, Community Relations Manager for FPL Energy, in charge of tours, wonderfully flexible and helpful. Office: 509-527-9463; Cell: 509-301-0505; E-mail: email@example.com
On Tuesdays after the brief all EEK meeting, Maia, Erin, and I (the three interns in Joelle’s class) meet to hash out the details of what the next day’s lesson is going to be.
We each leave with prep tasks and reconvene the following day at noon to make sure we are all good to go. At one fifteen we arrive at Joelle’s class room and begin our lesson which ends at two PM unless we have a special art project that needs to go until two thirty. Logistics are completely dependent on what class room you end up teaching in, where the school is, how old the kids are thus how long your lesson will be, etc…
The minimum time commitment would be three hours a week, one hour of class time, and two hours of planning and prep time. However, to run a good lesson on this amount of time you must be far more efficient than myself, not a difficult feat, but the maxim of the six P’s really holds here: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
Recommendations for the Future:
- I agree fully with Ashley from her report that with a bit of time and energy, a full semester commitment works far better than four weeks. A gigantic part of making this internship successful is developing a relationship, a connection with the kids, and while there is innate and learned skill in that, time is an absolute requisite.
- Keep it simple. Remember you are a spark, not a definitive explanation. Your job is to plant notions, an curiosities that can grow and be built upon if the kids so desire.
- Be honest with yourself when beginning the internship and thinking about your goals. Genuinely evaluate the compatibility of the other interns you are going to work with. Is there a balance of enthusiasm there? If not, really look at how you can remedy that. Bottom line, mind that gap within your internship crew! Is your internal process coming across clearly to your partners? Easy to say, a significant challenge to put into action.
- Really put your all into this one. Third graders don’t take warmly to partial investment.
- Finally, if in the thick of the beginning, even in the endless
middle, remember that it takes time to find your rhythm, especially if coordinating
multiple minds. Be patient, and above have fun! Emotions are contagious, and
if you think your dog can sense your mood, try a nine year old.