ARCHIVED—Life, laundry and learning
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F. H. Collins Secondary School
Robert Sharp teaches one of the five school-within-a-school programs currently operating in Whitehorse. He will admit that what he does is unusual. He teaches six or seven subjects to the same group of students for a semester that includes 35 or more days of field studies and two days a week at college laboratories. During field studies, another person accompanies him.
As unorthodox as that may sound, Mr. Sharp is quick to point out that the whole program is based on three principles that all effective teachers share:
- engage the kids' attention by making subject matter meaningful, adventurous or, ideally, both
- broaden the basis of teaching methods to accommodate students who learn best in different ways, such as by doing or by working in groups
- integrate topics so that students can understand what they study in a larger context.
Mr. Sharp is an advocate for the kind of program he and his colleagues run — he is quick to point out that he is only one of a group of teachers doing this. Below, he explains how they organize and finance the program.
At its base, these field studies are structured learning programs — they have to be to work — but they feature a structure different from what is typical of most courses.
We are a group of six individuals teaching different school-within-a-school programs. Each program is organized around a central theme such as sciences, arts or social/cultural studies. We wanted to provide students with experiences that would enrich their learning experiences. In the Experiential Science 11 program we included an extensive field studies program, examining marine life in an intertidal environment on the coast, for example, because it is an effective way to teach kids. The problem with field studies of this sort in conventional settings is that you have to take kids out of the school for a whole day, and when a biology teacher does that he or she risks angering the English, social studies and mathematics teachers who lose a teaching period.
Our solution to this is to combine a group of subjects together and have the same teacher teach all of them to the same group for a semester. To make this possible we have to pick a group of subjects that lend themselves to field studies, that present opportunities for integration and that fit the strengths of the teacher leading the group.
To continue with the marine studies example, our Grade 11 biology course comprises a survey of living organisms, genetics and population ecology. About a third of this content focusses on the marine environment. This part of the program is ideal for field studies and by doing some travelling — the coast is some distance from Whitehorse — we can cover it effectively. We conduct intertidal studies, take part in a SCUBA program, and go sailing and sea kayaking. Students approach these studies by examining problems associated with the intertidal environment. They learn conventional field methods, prepare scientific illustrations, develop an understanding of ocean dynamics, record results, duplicate the research undertaken by others and debate field methods.
A biology semester with a heavy emphasis on field studies in marine, aquatic and forestry environments integrates well with an art program because students can sketch every organism they study. The same is true of a geography program in which students can draw certain land features, and so forth. On the other hand, a chemistry program does not fit so well with an art program because there is less opportunity for students to study the subject matter from an artistic point of view. Although it's possible to draw molecular structures you do not get the benefit of having the real object from which to work. In biology and geography, one of the important lessons that art teaches is that things never look the way they are pictured in textbooks.
Another subject that integrates well into field studies in science and art is our applied skills curriculum. We teach kids how to do a wide variety of things that are of direct use and benefit in resource management and conservation, such as water-quality sampling and forestry management. An added benefit for the students is that these skills are in demand for summer jobs in this area. That brings me to another area of integration, the Career and Personal Planning program (CAPP).
CAPP is intended to give kids a chance to explore different career opportunities, to learn about the work environment, to discover the opportunities presented at college and university and to master the skills they need to manage their lives when they leave home. In our program, the students visit universities and colleges, meet about 40 different scientists, some of whom work in university labs, and carry out tasks typical of some professions. All the while, they have to do their laundry, cook meals and learn to get along with their colleagues. That alone effectively covers a large part of the CAPP program.
The other consideration in choosing courses is the strength of the teacher. For example, I know I cannot do justice to French or music, so those subjects are not included in the semesters I teach.
All the combinations we use are the result of considerable experimentation. My colleagues and I are always trying new ideas — keeping the ones that work — and sharing successes and failures. Much of what I describe above has been figured out over a number of years.
In each case, however, we cover these subjects in a different way from how they are usually handled. If you compare our teaching to the first 140 pages of a textbook, for example, we seem to be jumping all over the place. That does not mean that we reject structure; rather, we simply replace the textbook structure with another way of organizing class material that we feel is more effective. We substitute the book's order with a course organized around a thematic activity that kids understand quite well.
One of the tools we use to keep our activities organized is a field journal. Students receive one of these for every subject area. They are not textbooks, but are more than notebooks. The journal for chemistry, for example, has a laminated copy of the periodic table, a section for notes, a place for labs and exercises all in one bound book. For art, we include a pocket for watercolours, a series of exercises and blank sheets for sketches. The marine studies booklet has about 20 exercises that kids do in the course of the program.
I tell the students that these journals will help them organize the things they have to do. They are also a mechanism for launching memories after the work is done.
To recap, we take a central theme, such as marine studies, and we build other programs such as arts and applied skills around it. The next step is to see what kinds of field studies there are that we might do. For example, I might contact scientists working with oysters and ask how they study larval survival in oysters.
It is also a good idea to pay attention to what is happening in the newspapers when planning field studies. In the Yukon, for example, there have been a number of articles related to forestry issues. So, we get in touch with the people researching forestry concerns, such as seedling growth and forest composition, to see how we can work our applied skills curriculum into what they are doing.
I believe that this approach can be used at schools right across the country; however, there are some limitations. To begin with, this approach is best in Grade 9 and up when there is some specialization in subject areas and the sciences have been pulled out into specific courses such as physics, chemistry and biology, for example.
It also works far better at a school that uses the semester or quarter system. In the linear or term system it is hard to break a group out of other studies for an extended period. Also, you cannot cover every subject adequately all at once using our approach. I might, for example, teach biology, chemistry, applied skills, fine arts and CAPP in one semester, leaving the students to take English, social studies, math and French in the other.
I realize this approach will be a hard sell for some schools and many teachers will wonder if there is a way to apply the program in a limited way. I think that is possible with one proviso: you cannot do this in a single class. You have to integrate a number of subjects for a specific time period for our approach to be effective.
The other obvious concern is cost, but here I have a big surprise. This approach is actually cheaper than running a traditional teaching program.
For example, traditional programs do not provide food and lodging to students like ours does, so it is reasonable to share these costs with the kids and their parents. Each student has to provide and prepare a set number of meals for the entire group. (This is also a great opportunity to teach life skills in the CAPP curriculum.) All accommodation is either at the school or campgrounds so the cost is virtually nil.
Similarly, students are generally expected to pick up the costs of their extracurricular activities. In our program there are a number of external certification activities, such as coastal cruising, sea kayaking and SCUBA courses. The students pick up the costs for these too — about $350 each per semester.
We transport the students in school vans, the cost for which, at our school anyway, is covered by the normal operating budget.
That leaves us with some extraordinary costs, such as for the long ferry ride down the coast. We pay for these by taking on contracts related to the curriculum. For example, there is a demand for seed cones for various forestry programs here in the Yukon. Each student gets a quota of bags of cones to collect. This teaches students valuable applied skills as well as a lesson about the discipline required to get a job done and the payoff that comes with it. After doing these sorts of contracts for a number of years, we have reached the point that people come to us with offers.
Another major expense is a second teacher who assists the group leader. We finance this position by pooling the prep money for the courses being taught. (By the way, we try to work in teams of one male and one female teacher because we spend so much time in isolated situations with the students.)
One of the best arguments for the program is the effectiveness of each dollar spent. I suggest that school administrators count the number of students who finish a program rather than the number who register when calculating costs per student. Our attrition rate is virtually zero. I think we have had one student drop out in four years. When you know students are going to stick with the program, you have used your resources wisely.