Tag Archives: Teaching

Deep learning in a natural classroom


As a society we want our youth educated. We want them inquisitive, creative, persistent, resilient, and most importantly we want them to problem solve. The collective experience tells us that our youth hold the keys to our future, and investing in them is investing in the future of our territories and our species.
How best to do this remains elusive. A great many people invest time, money, and effort into what they believe works best. What follows is not a scholarly article citing a myriad of studies and authorities lauding one learning regime over another; instead it is one educator’s opinion on a positive alternative to the status quo.
Island High School is a continuation school in Alameda. Students enroll at Island because they are credit deficient and are at risk of not completing high school. The deeper reasons for this are many, varied, and beyond the scope of this piece. However, a common thread is a disconnection between lofty societal ideals, what the students receive, and their readiness to receive it. Island does many things differently inside the classroom and out. The description of what follows would not have been possible without The Alameda Education Foundation, Bay Area Community Resources, and the faculty and administrators who help make what follows possible.
One program is our annual four-day field trip to the Point Reyes National Seashore where students investigate their food sources, the math and science of nature, and develop self-reliance. Students visit local dairies, cheese factories, and spend time cooking their own recipes for the group. They go on day and night hikes through the park, and investigate many of its wonders. Regular lessons that pertain to the activities are peppered throughout. Students start their day around 7am and are busy until about 11pm.
The Point Reyes National seashore is an excellent classroom. Muir woods and the forests of Inverness ridge provide a perfect laboratory on the role of trees and carbon capture. Students estimate tree height, bole volume and weight. They infuse this with data from NOAA to better to understand carbon emissions and carbon capture on a local, global, and geological scale.
Standing on the beach near Coast Camp students can use geometry and trigonometry to investigate earth curvature. Further, looking down the miles of beach toward Limantour, they use area, volume, and exponents to estimate quantity of sand grains on the beach and then compare this to the known quantity of stars during nighttime astronomy lessons. Being in a setting where questions arise organically and then are applied in cross-curricular lessons helps students make connections. They are connecting lessons in one subject to the next while also making connections between what they are learning about, the world around them, and classroom instruction.
Learning about the distance to nearby stars and their size relative to our Sun is reinforced with nighttime hikes and stargazing. Our ancestors looked up for millennia at one of the greatest nighttime shows. Reintroducing this show to our youth who have become far too accustomed to night-time gaming and video viewing inspired some to invent their own constellations and go out for additional night hikes to watch for shooting stars and orbiting satellites.
Many students view equations about logarithms and exponential growth as arcane, and graphs on the white board or video models as too abstract. However, visiting the epicenter of the 1906 earthquake in Bear Valley and seeing the amount of earth that moved, and the geology of those great tectonic shifts, helped students gain an appreciation for the power of a 7.0 earthquake. With these fresh images in hand, students start to better understand the Richter scale as a logarithmic measurement of sinusoidal force waves. On a hike to Divide Meadow students compared earthquake magnitudes to distances walked and get a solid kinesthetic understanding of how much larger a 9.0 is than a 4.0.
Students investigated properties of nasturtiums (The Lotus Effect) and butterflies and experience how technological innovations flowed directly from observing the greatest teacher of all, Mother Nature. Bio-mimicry generates many questions from the students, piques their curiosity, and gets the students primed to observe nature through a new lens.
The lessons are multi-faceted. For example students study the geometry of how the eye works in the morning using a head-sized pinhole camera. In the afternoon sun they use magnifying glasses to understand their focal properties. In the darkness of night they use lasers and colored light to understand the physics of additive and subtractive color and how eyes interpret them.
When cooking, students investigated the thermal dynamics of ice cream churning and the chemistry of jamming. They visited the sources of production for the foods they use. The Nunes and Mendoza diaries, Nicasio Cheese factory, Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, and Marin Sun Farms have all graciously allowed my students to visit and learn from them. Tim and Betty Nunes, Joe Mendoza, David Evans, Ginny Lunny, and Lynette Lafranchi have not only been extremely gracious over the years, but have been instrumental in sharing their expertise and life experiences with my students who are far removed from the production process.
A common sentiment amongst the students was captured in one student’s reflection: “I made my own jam! I learned about what’s in cheese! I learned about milk. I feel like learning about where my food comes from. And coming from an unhealthy family, I went home and told my mom that we need to be more cautious about what we eat.” Certainly, in the days and weeks after the trips students follow up with me and share stories of how learning about cheese, aquaculture, or dairy process fomented permanent changes in their dietary habits.
Part of the group’s family time is eating together. For some students cooking, eating together, and engaging in face to face conversations that don’t involve tweeting texts about Snapchats or Instagrams while sneaking Facebook pokes and youtube views is a new experience. “This is the longest I’ve been without my phone, and you know what, I don’t need it as badly as I thought I did.” quipped one student after last year’s trip. According to another, “Family time allows us to get out of ourselves, and bond on a more real level.” When I told a student going on this year’s trip about family time, he exclaimed: “How are we going to have family time without watching TV?” Separating students from their environment allows them to shed some of their image, and recreate themselves in a more positive manner.
This physical and digital separation leads to connections. Students hold nightly Socratic seminars where all topics are on the table. Students have what one student noted as: “Real-talk time.” Uninterrupted by sirens, ring tones, or televisions, a space is created for a forum of communication about panoply of topics. The students open up to each other, problem solve, and frequently offer counsel. There are conflicts and stress; however they become close. In our closing activity on the last night one young woman said: “We were all hella separated in the beginning, and now we are so close, what happens Monday morning?” (In case you are wondering, many stay close, and remain so today.)
While it is true that many of my students have experienced far too much violence, poverty, indifference, and detachment, I find that taking students out of their comfort zones and giving them unfamiliar challenges in a natural setting is key to the success of their education. Having them hike in the park at night without flashlights, hiking trails blindfolded with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, hiking back from the beach in the rain, opens their mind and willingness to experience. More often than not, the students who resist taking notes, participating in class, or complain relentlessly about why, turn out to be the first students to volunteer for extra cleaning, asking questions during lessons, or show a level of engagement that any teacher would appreciate.
I watched my students stand respectfully, attentively, and mesmerized to John Littleton’s animated recitation of Miwok and Pomo stories at Kule Loklo while the heavens dumped rain and hail on their heads. This motivated one young man to write: “I learned things I never really thought I would be able to learn. I even got to learn about the native tribe that my family is registered as. It made me feel good about myself and my people and made me really want to learn more about everything.”
One student confided to the group last year: “This is the longest period of time in years I gone without smoking, I feel so clear.” To me that is what this trip represents: a moment of clarity – the moment when we realize something important. For me it’s this:
Many concepts taught in schools are the product of centuries of thought and intellectual evolution; people in my profession sometimes forget this. Great ideas that propelled us forward were the products of cross-curricular synthesis by people who thought deeply and at great length. Newton said: “If I see farther, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Spoon-feeding youth algorithms and factoids between bells, without the time, reason, or context to absorb them undermines curiosity and learning. There are important things to learn in the classroom, but we can’t shake our heads in dismay when a student says they are bored, or that there is no point, or even that they don’t get it. We need to offer more authentic learning experiences outside the classroom. We need to bundle their education with meaningful life experiences. Our youth are worth it.
“This has been one of the best learning experiences I’ve had.” Is a comment I frequently see in closing essays. It has been for me as well.

Dan Goldfield,
Math Teacher Island High School, Alameda Ca