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BANNER, Winter 2014: Island Influences

Trip Inspires New Perspectives, New Projects
Being a life-long learner is a widely held value at Brookwood. Our students and teachers alike embrace it as a mindset and clearly understand or, in the case of the children, are learning to understand the richness it adds to life. Each year, a number of faculty members take advantage of a variety of learning opportunities and professional development options, and then bring that knowledge back to their Brookwood classrooms.

Last summer, Science Teachers Annie Johnson (Grade 6) and CJ Bell (Grade 7) took part in a week-long Teachers’ Conference at the Island School on the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera. What they learned during those fascinating seven days continues to influence their work with Brookwood students and has inspired new approaches and new projects in their classrooms.

Every August the Island School turns its campus into a learning laboratory for educators from the Bahamas and across the US who teach in grades 6 through 12. The program has participants “probing best practices in experiential education” and challenges educators “to become students engaged in sustainable community living and open-learning.”

Both Brookwood teachers “were energized by the program, the dedicated educators we met, and the amazing marine classroom environment,” says Annie, who in addition to teaching Grade 6 science is also Brookwood’s Science Coordinator.

"Each day was absolutely filled to the brim with activities, and we truly got to experience the Island School way of life," reflects CJ, adding, "During the morning sessions we learned about strategies of place-based, experiential learning from Island School educators and our fellow conference participants. Afternoons were spent in the field exploring local ecosystems and conducting research. It was all about collaboration, experiential lessons, and real-life application of the major concepts of the conference."

During their Experiential Education primer, Annie and CJ participated in geology and geography explorations; went on SCUBA, kayaking, and snorkeling explorations; produced authentic research and scientific presentations; and met in subject-specific work teams. Importantly, Annie, CJ, and the 20-plus other teachers, thought about how they could bring back their new-found knowledge and how they might transform their teaching.

Annie, as Brookwood's Science Coordinator, adds that all the teachers in the science department employ a place-based education perspective when developing their coursework.  “There’s no doubt we use our campus to our full advantage. Whether it’s the Lower Schoolers investigating life in the Cutler Pond, the fourth graders taking stock of the vernal ponds behind the school each spring, or the fifth graders finding just the right spot to situate their bee hives, Brookwood’s outdoor classroom is an incredible source of learning and great joy for all our students. The campus also serves as a classroom for Steep Week courses and Upper School clubs, like Mr. Diamond’s Grade 6 bird watching club. The natural capital outside our classroom doors continues to surprise us with its ecological diversity and wide variety of habitats. It’s a constantly evolving, rich learning environment for our students."

That said, both teachers believe that what they learned at the Island School has tremendous possibilities for application at Brookwood.  Reflects CJ, "The Island School’s emphasis on environmental stewardship and value of 'living well in a place' permeated each session, and we were energized by the positive connection it created among our colleagues and the school. This feeling made me reflect on how we at Brookwood can continue to find ways to create an atmosphere of appreciation and respect for our local ecosystem through direct, positive experiences in the field."

"The seventh grade curriculum has always been life science – learning about important life processes and relationships between the environment and organisms – but this year, these concepts were taught through the lens of marine science," explains CJ, who began this fall with an investigation into the ecology of Coastal New England, specifically the intertidal zone. Students learned about the organisms commonly found along coasts and their adaptations for survival in this habitat. "It was very important to me that our students have first hand experience with this ecosystem, and we took three field trips to local beaches over the course of the fall. We journeyed to West Beach and Black Cove to help us deepen our understanding of the intertidal zone and apply what we learned in the classroom to research in the field. To culminate this unit, students designed and conducted original experiments at West Beach that investigated an aspect, of their choosing, of the intertidal zone."

According to Annie, sixth grade science has three main content focuses: earth science (fall), space science (winter), and life science (spring). Immediately after Spring Break, even before the tree buds have opened, the students venture into the woods for a taste of New England forest ecology.  "We spend almost every day of the spring outside tromping around in boots and using our very best observational and deductive skills. The students first learn how to read the forest and infer its history by observing disturbance patterns amongst its trees. Playing the role of 'forest detectives,' they search for evidence of fire, pasturing, logging, insect blights, beavers, and storms. Remnants of all of these are common in New England forests and all are present in some form in our own forest. Slowly over the years, sixth graders have been working on an interpretive nature trail that will eventually share some of this knowledge with the greater community.  We’ve even had help each fall from the eighth graders who clear the paths and create walkways over wet sections of trail."

Reflecting on their experience in Eleuthera last summer, Annie adds, "The conference gave us both the chance to spend a whole week with like-minded educators and to immerse ourselves in a learning environment. It was tremendously rewarding to be a student again and it renewed my enthusiasm for expanding Brookwod’s use of our local environment and the incredible outdoor classroom that surrounds our school. Experiential, place-based education not only involves teaching and knowing about the place where you live, but also understanding how to sustainably participate and live well in that place.  If our students can engage in the scientific process of inquiry in order to discover sustainable solutions to real world problems, then we will be helping to create truly engaged local and global citizens."