As an educator for social change, I am passionate about connecting schools and community. My colleagues who work to bring real-world, interdisciplinary experiences to our students know that if we want to see true social change, we need to dissolve school walls through collaborative projects that engage students with the challenges and assets of the wider community.
At Environmental Charter Schools, collaboration with partners is a key pillar of our organization’s five Best Practices. There’s even a rubric for it, co-developed by teachers, on which we assess our own teaching practice. Through the Green Ambassadors Institute – the school’s professional development learning lab – we work with educators across Southern California sharing tools and strategies to implement meaningful environmental service learning and build strong community partnerships.
The average classroom makes community connections on a daily basis. Classroom teachers work with community leaders, non-profits, businesses and government agencies all the time to plan field trips, community-based research projects, outdoor adventures, job shadows, guest presentations, internships and service learning experiences. But that doesn’t mean collaboration is easy; any educator will tell you that it’s hard work. I hear from teachers and organizations at all grade levels and years of experience that sometimes there are missed connections, or we don’t know where to start, or there’s not enough time, or we want to reach more students. Teachers are fatigued with endless paperwork, requirements and testing, and organizations are working within grant-funded mandates to hit certain numbers and metrics; these situations don’t leave much room for a collaborative process.
Educators want to give their students access to direct experiences not readily available to them from inside the classroom – such as a tour of a local waste processing facility, a look at the inner workings of manufacturing, or trail building in the closest national park. But connecting to relevant community partners takes time, energy and contacts not always available to classroom teachers. How can teachers get connected to the valuable experiences that non-profits, businesses and government agencies provide?
Organizations that work with schools are facing ever-increasing demands to produce Common Core and Next Generation Science standards-based curriculum guides for teachers along with their programming. Classroom teachers appreciate the wealth of content knowledge and direct research organizations provide; however, I have yet to meet an educator that picks a curriculum off a website or shelf and teaches it verbatim. How can the classrooms these resources are meant for be an integral part of the planning and grant-writing process, helping to co-create responsive, place-based curriculum?
Businesses and government actively seek new opportunities to engage positively with youth. Agencies and legislators can teach valuable lessons to young people about connecting on-the-ground work and policy. As more companies lead social innovation projects and operate with a triple bottom line business model – people, profits, environment – what role can youth play as collaborators on developing new solutions?
And although students are always in our minds while we create and plan learning experiences, we often don’t get their feedback until the lesson has been taught. Youth want meaningful ways they can take action in their community and influence their educational experiences. What if students were included in the planning process of these collaborations early on?
With all the growing edges of collaboration between school and community, a few things are clear: Non-profits, agencies and businesses provide specialized content knowledge and valuable hands-on experiences. Educators strive to engage their students in creative learning strategies that also meet the standards. Students are curious innovators with new perspectives on approaching problems and developing solutions. Together, we make a pretty darn good team.
So we’re trying an experiment. On April 16, 2016, we are going to hack the curriculum. “Hack” is a term used to represent a creative solution to an issue, or to modify something in an extraordinary way. Rather than dictate how successful community partnerships should go (did you really think we had the answer?), we’re putting everyone in a room together to dream up innovative community-based educational experiences. Students, educators, businesses, non-profits and government agencies will gather to develop lessons and field trips that engage students in issues like Water Quality, Healthy Food, Reducing Waste and The Future of Energy & Climate Change. Everyone will have shared in the joys and tribulations of collaborative planning and walk away with the concepts, content and contacts to implement what they worked on together.
It’s a chance for us to model the collaboration and communication skills we want for our students. It’s a chance to rethink curriculum planning, service learning and field trips. It’s a chance to dismantle the walls between schools and community, making not only our students but also us adults agents of change, creativity and innovation. Come. Take that chance with us.
The curriculum hack is being hosted in partnership with Environmental Charter Schools, Green Ambassadors Institute, Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network, Educators Consortium for Service Learning, Global Youth Service Day & Sequoyah School. Title design by Lindsey Jurca.