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A significant curricular component that distinguishes The Watershed School from other schools is our emphasis on combining stimulating classroom science lessons with outdoor explorations and studies with direct connection to our community. This is a trend that is regaining national attention.
Environmental education is facing a national crisis. Many schools are scaling back or eliminating environmental programs. Fewer and fewer students are able to take part in related classroom instruction and field investigations, however effective or popular. State and local administrators and teachers point to two factors behind this recent and disturbing shift: the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and a lack of funding for these critical programs. Even so, with the new interest in ecological issues, and the resulting financial support for ecological education, schools like ours are poised to be on the cutting edge of change.
The Watershed School realizes that children move along a basic, though uneven, developmental pattern as they work their way though elementary and middle school. Just as we notice identifiable stages of growth in educational development, we notice patterns in the way children relate to and make sense of the natural world.
The current approach to teaching ecological sciences in schools can be emotionally draining to the students. The Watershed School focuses primarily on the wonders, enjoyment, and fascinating science of the natural environment as an action-based response to the negative messages inherent in curriculum that focuses heavily on topics of environmental destruction. While we certainly acknowledge the importance and gravity of the environmental problems we face today, The Watershed School is taking a strong stand to counteract the current trend towards the “negative and far away” by teaching developmentally appropriate natural science education grounded in students immediate experiences.
Developers of The Watershed School feel very strongly that inasmuch as solutions to problems such as oil spills, global warming, and groundwater contamination are critical to the future of the ecosystems of which our children are a part, these issues are not developmentally appropriate for study by young children. The Watershed School concentrates first on educating children about things close at hand—the schoolyard habitat, the boreal forest and its inhabitants, the role of permafrost in the arctic ecosystem. By acquiring a strong understanding of, appreciation for, and connection to natural systems of the Tanana Valley, our children will develop an expanding foundation of knowledge about the environment as well as evolving more meaningful understandings of the challenges that it faces.
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The Watershed School is structured with straight grade classrooms. Our educators are very aware of developmental similarities and differences of same age children. Children are all individuals and at the Watershed School will be treated as such. Growing up is a complicated process, and our teachers will match curriculum and classroom structures with developmentally appropriate pedagogy.
Over the past century, consensus has developed among scholars that there are some fairly consistent patterns of child development. Chip Wood, in his book Children in the Classroom, (p. 12-13, 2007) noted that though children progress along a basic developmental continuum, there are some variations that help guide our understanding of this process:
- Children’s physical maturation, language acquisition, social and emotional behavior, cognition, and ways of approaching their environment follow reasonably predictable patterns.
- Children generally go through predictable stages in the same order, but they will not all go through them at the same rate. Although children’s developmental patterns do seem broadly similar the world over, important details in their development are deeply influenced by culture, personality, environment, and place. All children are different as all their families. These differences along with particularities of local cultures and local landscapes have marked affects on children’s development.
- The various developmental components do not proceed at the same rate in each child. A child who develops slowly compared to peers in cognitive areas may advance behind his/her peers in music or physical abilities. Another child might cognitively be a year a head of peers in reading, but may lag behind in the ability to make sense of social situations. The struggling math student might excel at empathy towards the wild creatures of our boreal forest.
- Growth is uneven. Like the tides of our seas, children seem to surge in growth and then ebb. This dance goes on in adults as well. We know that some days, some weeks, some months, things come easily for us while at other periods we seem to be treading water. Understanding this principal in children is as important as understanding our own life rhythms. Children are not computers. They do not process data the same from one month to the next.
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In Teaching Children to Care (2002), published by NEFC, the authors list two basic goals of school-wide management plans:
- Children need to develop self-control
- Children need to develop a sense of community
The Watershed School believes that in order for children to follow school rules and adhere to community expectations they must understand the rules. In working with children, we so often leave out the practice component of teaching self-management. At The Watershed School, behavioral expectations and techniques of self-management are practiced again and again under the guidance of trained adults.
There are different ways we can teach correct school-wide behavior. The Watershed School will focus of the following key components:
- Teachers must model rules for children. This procedure will be used to show the students what is expected of them and how to be successful in different situations.
- Children must be given opportunities to role play correct behavior. Appropriate behaviors will be reinforced repeatedly in safe and predictable situations.
The Watershed School acknowledges that these goals cannot be accomplished without trained, highly qualified educators able to meet professional expectations that are as high as those they set for the students. The Watershed School will train staff on consistent language patterns to enable them to work on self-management with children. These expectations will be met by all teachers, support staff, and volunteers.
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As we have illustrated, place-based education is a powerful educational philosophy that brings student interests into play in the educational setting to enhance student learning, improve achievement, and contribute to community vitality. Inspired in part by the work of Gregory Smith, of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who is a national leader in the field of place-based education The Watershed School has created a school with a locally relevant curriculum focused on these central elements of place-based education:
- Cultural studies
- Watershed studies
- The public process
- Local economy
The Watershed School’s curriculum grounds itself in learning activities that develop a sense of place through the study of local knowledge and the investigation of our community. The Watershed School has designed its curriculum in a progression of continually widening circles leading children to a deeper understanding and appreciation of world cultures and issues.
Family Classroom School Neighborhood Community Tanana Valley Alaska United States North America World
Community-based projects enrich the students’ educational experience by building partnerships between children’s homes, school, and the Fairbanks community. The local community becomes a living textbook, vibrant and relevant, with endless opportunities.
Place-based education is confronting many of the factors that have contributed to the weakening of communities. It becomes a strategy to address the disconnection of young people from the rich diversity of community members and from the children’s own local history. Rather than socially destructive practices and high drop-out rates, positive outcomes grow from this re-weaving of the community and school.
Ultimately, The Watershed School assists students in the development of a sense of mutual responsibility. Community is solidified when values are sustained by its members.
The Watershed School realizes a strong school community will develop when students take responsibility for themselves and each other. The more the children learn to feel part of a school community the more they become part of the larger adult community. In the long-run, we will foster successful members of the adult community. This is what makes for a strong culture. This sense of belonging is critical.
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As Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, so aptly points out in his writings and public testimony, our children are being raised in a world of great disconnect from the natural systems that both sustain and enrich us as human beings. Biologist and nature writer, Rachel Carson, coined the phrase “sense of wonder” to describe the enchantment and curiosity for learning that must be instilled in children at a young age.
The Watershed School bases much of its science content and interdisciplinary thematic units on the natural sciences including biology, geology, anatomy, physics, astronomy, and chemistry. Using the natural sciences as a framework for multidisciplinary studies is solid educational pedagogy.
The Watershed School chose its name in part due to the pragmatic implications of the natural science and interdisciplinary thematic units designed based upon the ecological systems within our Tanana Valley Watershed. The word “watershed” lends itself to the metaphor of an interconnected community of people as well. Using our watershed as a backdrop, The Watershed School utilizes solid educational strategies that will lead to high levels of student learning in a highly motivating atmosphere.
We feel strongly about place-based topics being cognitively and emotionally appropriate for the age of the child. As mentioned earlier, The Watershed School models its philosophy on the notion that children are capable of understanding immediate experiences when they are young and then gradually expand their awareness to larger and more distant topics of study as they mature. As early as kindergarten, our students will be encouraged to take part in problem solving activities. In kindergarten it may take form as solving the challenge of “cleanup time,” or perhaps they may determine the best way to organize a class set of leaf samples. By third grade children will address school-wide challenges such as recycling, conserving energy, and other positive issues. By fifth grade, students might be solving schoolyard habitat restoration challenges along Deadman Slough and come up with an environmentally sound erosion control plan. Sixth graders could address needs of the local food bank. Our middle school students might choose to explore opportunities to address an invasive plant species issue in the University of Alaska Arboretum. Although Watershed School’s 7th and 8th curriculum has students studying state, national, and international topics by this age, the focus of engaged hand-on projects appropriate for “community problem solving and decision making” will still primarily be local.
Engaging children in meaningful problem-solving curriculum involves the use of some thoughtful structures. It is a well thought out curricular technique that leads to meaningful student outcomes. Throughout the curriculum, The Watershed School will present opportunities for students to address real-life problems and issues of classroom, school, and community.
Problem-based learning is a combination of high quality curriculum content that is meshed with a process of analysis and inquiry. The curriculum consists of carefully selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of knowledge of content, problem solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills. The process is designed to build skills used in a general approach to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career.
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Here The Watershed School engages students in the policy-making processes of their communities and governmental institutions. In the field of place-based education students explore the process by which groups of people make decisions. Political science will become an integral part of out 5-8th grade social science curriculum. The study of political behavior will be examined and the acquisition and application of power will be explored through actual local scenarios and played out in classroom role-playing simulations. Although focus will often be applied to the operation of government, with first emphasis on local government, in reality, at The Watershed School the democratic political process will be observed in all of the children’s group interactions, including classroom structure, community organizations, informal social groups, corporate and educational institutions. When studying the governmental actions of our local institutions, students in the intermediate through middle school grades will explore the political realities, with focus on case studies, simulations, and current events. Critical analysis will consist of investigation into the methods and tactics used to develop and apply public policy in our community. In the middle school years this will expand to focus more specifically on the students’ actual future roles as both policy-makers and constituents.
The Watershed School helps combat loss of young people from our community due to the perceived lack of viable economic opportunities. We will address the perception that youth must leave our valley to find fulfilling lifestyles and meaningful adult employment. This is not an easy task. It requires unique approaches to education crossing traditional boundaries of community. The avenues between school and community must be open to empower community resources. At The Watershed School, educators regularly reach out to solicit support from community members to further curriculum goals. By doing this, students become aware of the great professional diversity we have in the Tanana Valley. In addition, students must become aware that they are a valuable resource to the community. By creating useful products of their education, students will “give back” to the community and understand that they are valued members of this community. This will help create a two-lane between school and the community rather than perpetuating one-way street out-of-town it often is for our young people today.
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