Saving the Arizona Rainforest

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Written by Judith Bennett, PhD
It was the end of the lunch hour and Janie's voice rang out from the far end of the hall. "Mrs. Sheets, I have to talk to you -- right now!" Forgetting an important school rule, she was now running as fast as her legs would carry her, toward the teacher who oversaw the weekly meetings of the "In Group", an ad hoc gathering of students who came together after school on Friday afternoons to talk about issues that concerned them. The issues ran the gamut from school concerns, like serving chocolate milk in the cafeteria, to broader community issues, but Sheets has a flair for moving children from mere discussion to concrete action. Janie slid to a stop and announced, "I have to come to In Group today. I have an important problem for us to figure out -- we talked about it in our class this morning. We have to save the Arizona Rainforest!"

Saving a rainforest, whatever its location, is an ambitious undertaking and one not likely to be found on the agenda of the typical 5th-grader today. It is not all that unusual, however, for youngsters at Jason Lee Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, where children take startling initiatives on behalf of their school, their neighborhood, their city, and themselves.

They have in recent years met with members of Portland's City Council, as well as county and state officials, called in the local health department to test their lead levels, and convinced their school board, on nutritional and financial grounds, that it was a good idea to offer chocolate milk as an alternative.

Janie's sense of urgency about the Arizona Rainforest coupled with her confidence that the in-group could and would take effective action, is typical of the "Can Do!" spirit of Portland schoolchildren who have participated in a new approach to an old educational chestnut - the field trip. The overarching concept, "Location Learning," is more than another educational gimmick. It does more than change the name "field trip" to the "FST" - Field Study Trip - it dramatically alters the nature and purpose of the activity and, perhaps more important, it shifts the entire teacher-pupil balance of power, giving children an appropriate share of the responsibility for their own learning. The result is greater ownership of the learning process, higher levels of participation and enthusiasm, and, yes, even higher test scores.

Location Learning is an educational approach pioneered for the last five years by Portland teacher Lucille E. Sheets, who is a 30-year veteran of her city's school system, the past 22 years at Jason Lee. Her approach to helping children learn is one born not out of the theoretical musings of Methods of Education 410, but out of the successes and failures shared with real children in a real classroom. Moreover, it is a concept that has shown itself to be replicable by other teachers, some 125 of whom have completed her course, "Location Learning: The Field Study Trip" in the Continuing Education program at Portland State University.
Sheets' favorite "Location Learning" story is the one about "SOB" -Save Our Butte -- a success story that began with annual Field Study Trips to the top of the butte overlooking the southeastern section of the city of Portland, trips that were originally designed to produce learnings in science, social studies and health.

A beacon light crowned the top of the scenic butte, but the entire site was deteriorating noticeably year by year, and vandalism was increasing. City and County officials initially could not agree as to who had jurisdiction, but in the end it was the County of Multnomah that moved to close the site. The beacon that alerted low-flying planes to the butte's presence, they said was made obsolete by the modern equipment at Portland international Airport. Residents of the densly--populated residential area disagreed; nonetheless, pressed by budget constraints and growing complaints about vandalism and criminal activity, they voted to close the butte that was the site of fond memories for generations of Portland youngsters.

Neighbors, knowing of the school's interest in Rocky Butte, and their use of it as a learning site, approached Jason Lee Elementary School to ask their students to join in an effort to save Rocky Butte. The response of Sheets' 5th graders demonstrates the way in which the FST gives "Location Learning" its dynamic character, involving them in the kind of endeavor that will one day make then more responsible citizens. The matter was taken to the in-group, which had included clean-up days on Rocky Butte among its annual activities. Their problem: How can we save Rocky Butte? Their solution? Tackle it the way they had been taught to do as part of Location Learning: begin with research.

That research uncovered a fascinating history, starting with the butte's genesis as an active volcano. "They gathered materials anywhere they could," Sheets recalls, "beginning with the Oregon Historical Society." The history of the beacon included service as part of a network of beacons erected along the West coast during World War II, designed to guide the increased air traffic safely past the butte. Most of the beacons were torn down at the end of the war the one atop Rocky Butte was one of several that remained. The butte's history, together with the children's affection for their neighborhood landmark, led then to serious strategizing What they needed to do, they agreed, was to get the attention of elected officials.

Their attention-getting strategies took them back to the top of Rocky Butte to make a movie about its history and its importance as they saw it. The movie then toured the civic circuit, as the children arranged to show it to groups of leaders and officials as part of their presentation on behalf of preserving the butte. They wrote and sang a song, "Saving the Beautiful Butte.' Finally, they wrote a book entitled The Rocky Butte Beacon, printed several hundred copies and sold them to raise consciousness about Rocky Butte and to raise funds to finance their campaign to save the butte. The Portland Library Association was one of the first purchasers of the book; they had nothing on their shelves that told the story of Rocky Butte. "And all of this was after hours," Sheets explained. "They spent hours of their own time going to City Council meetings, testifying before committees." Parents also pitched in, cheering the children on, providing transportation, advice and, of course, plenty of food.

It was a parent, a father who worked for the County's highway department, who helped them with the final phase of their campaign. Located at the base of Rocky Butte was an old stone quarry where County prisoners had labored in years gone by, producing stone used in building County roads. A box of stone was brought out of the quarry and the youngsters worked to break it into small pieces which they glued to cards imprinted with the slogan, "Here is your piece of the rock - will you help us save Rocky Butte?" The cards were then mailed, according to Sheets, to the mayor and other elected officials, bank presidents and CEOs of local corporations, "and anybody else they thought was important." Their persistence paid off and the taste of victory was sweet, as word came from the office of the County Commissioner: "You win! Meet us at the top." The meeting became a media celebration, complete with balloons and banners, as the announcement was made. The County would refurbish the aging beacon, cleaning and painting it, and assuming responsibility for its ongoing maintenance.

The story of saving the beacon on top of Rocky Butte is more than the story of one more landmark saved. It is also a story of children engaged in all the major curriculum areas, developing their own educational goals, assessing their progress and designing appropriate followup activities. It is a story of children assuming responsibility for improving their corner of the world, and its promise for the future is one of informed and involved adults, citizens who are unlikely to watch passively as others make the decisions that affect their lives.

What is "Location Learning," and how does the FST work? "Location Learning" is a comprehensive approach to education for grades K-12, one that teachers who have tried it believe excites students toward superior classroom achievement and fosters leadership and practical self-management. It is all positive, promoting social growth and acceptance, providing career observation experience and developing strong team spirit. and the FST is central to its effectiveness. Students are expected to plan, research, coordinate, conduct and evaluate the FST. The tools they use in the process include research materials, their FST worksheets, copies of the agreed-upon FST behavior contract, FST itinerary information packets, clipboards and recording equipment.

Planning begins with the selection of a strong curriculum-based topic, one drawn from any curriculum area. A student committee is formed and, since at least four trips per year are recommended, all class members have the opportunity for committee involvement. This FST committee has multiple responsibilities, from initial planning to "selling" the Idea to their classmates. First, thorough research must be done as students gather background materials and become "experts" on the site to be visited. Next, a worksheet is designed, utilizing all of the basic skills through a variety of activities. Taking into account the activities related to the site to be visited, a behavior contract is drafted for later presentation to the class. Certain committee members will have the responsibility for contacting and briefing all adult FST guides, some will plan transportation, while others will handle contacts at the trip site, making all necessary arrangements for on-site activities. This latter responsibility must include such important information as opening and closing times, rules and regulations at the trip site, safety considerations, etc. They then divide the class into workable study groups.

With the guidance of the teacher, the committee presents preplanned trip learning requirements and activities to the class, using speakers, films, special book reports, map studies and other relevant stimuli that will enhance the learning potential of the trip. The committee must also present to the class the expected learning activities and itinerary, assign students to small subgroups for travel purposes, define and explain food requirements, explain and oversee the signing of the behavior contract, and complete and explain all travel arrangements. Adult FST guides are assigned to the travel subgroups and each guide is equipped with a trip packet containing all the information they will need for their role on the big day.

Committee responsibility does not end here, however. Committee members perform a leadership role of assistance and guidance on the trip itself, and design and carry out evaluation activities at Its conclusion. Very young children will, of course, require more teacher help for some of the above responsibilities, but are often surprisingly capable and always eager participants. Sheets, who secured funding from the McDonald's Corporation to shepherd her "Location Learning" concept through a pilot phase in the Portland Public Schools, stresses that the approach is "very inexpensive to operate - all you need is the cost of public transportation and the desire to go."

The one-year pilot project included five 5th-grade classes, with 350 students In the control group, 125 In the experimental group. A specially-designed survey instrument measured growth in five areas selected by the oversight committee as critical factors of successful learning that are transferable to real life situations: communication, planning, ownership, mobility and self-esteem. Additional areas of evaluation for the pilot project are growth In basic skills, attendance patterns, ethnic/cultural awareness knowledge of career opportunities, and skills required for entry level jobs. Results of the survey are coming in and indicate growth scores well above those of other 5th-graders throughout the school district. Pilot classes also showed much higher rates of attendance. Other preliminary findings indicate equally promising results and will be available in coming months.

What do teachers who have participated in the pilot project have to say about the experience? Gene Ramberg, a second-year teacher at Portland's John L. Vestal Elementary School, reported on the benefits to his 5th-graders of FSTs using the city's public transportation. By the end of the year, he said, they reported guiding their families and friends on outings, traveling to libraries and the airport, to the zoo and to malls, to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and even to several neighboring communities. "It gave them a sense of freedom and self-reliance," he reported, contrasting their new-found confidence in their own mobility with the experience of their "pen-pals" in another 5th-grader class in a more affluent community, a class about which he heard a great deal because it is taught by his sister. Most of them live in households where both parents work and "they complained of their isolation and almost total dependence upon adults to transport them to any destination."

Calling the FST concept "innovative, workable, and supportive of the educational program of any classroom, " veteran teacher David J. Blanchard described his experience with his 4th and 5th graders at Wilcox Elementary School. The FST he says, "gives a great deal of ownership to the students, and makes their travel and learning experience more real, more important, and more personal to them." Accessing public transportation gave them a comfort level impossible to achieve in any other way but "they also learned the importance of respecting the rights and comfort of others as we interacted with the public." Even eating at McDonald's became "more than a fast-food experience -- it was an exercise in planning, and in executing the plan for a group of students." Blanchard recommends the FST to "any teacher interested in getting out of the textbook and into the larger learning arena of their community."

Another experienced teacher, Sue Dukehart, describes students who "acquired and became confident in using new life skills like getting around a metropolitan city via bus or light rail, calling adults to plan and confirm dates and times, reading maps and bus schedules." Their classroom, she says, was no longer a box set off by itself, but moving, "a part of the community." Learning became real and alive, the students were excited and motivated as "they took charge of planning, researching, organizing their trip." Dukehart was impressed with the way the approach empowers students and nurtures self-esteem, but most impressive of all, in her view, were the new ways in which she observed them interacting with one another. "As students presented research to the whole class, peers were attentive, supportive and positive to each group member. It was great to see all members pulling together so the group would be successful, regardless of differing abilities and behaviors."

Reflecting on experience with "Location Learning," both her own and that of others of her colleagues, Sheets voices her excitement about its future. It does what she believes in passionately: it takes children out into their world, moving the classroom into the community. It activates their senses, provides knowledge of the "now" and develops what she is fond of calling "Go Power. Awakening students to the world around them, she is convinced, is the first step toward helping them find their own place in that world.

And now that the Arizona Rainforest is no longer in danger, what will the next project be for Sheets' new crop of 5th-graders? The choice will be theirs, of course, given the student-directed nature of "Location Learning," but chances are good that they will follow in the footsteps of earlier classes. For eight successive years now, her 5th-grade classes have chosen to continue working on bringing World's Fair 2005 to their city, marking the centennial of the 1905 World's Fair held there. To that end, they have traveled to two neighboring states, to Vancouver, B. C., and to half a dozen other Oregon cities, meeting with public officials, business leaders, the state's historical society, and now they have been invited to present their proposal to the state legislature. Not only does Sheets' 5th-graders work on World's Fair 2005, but other 5th-graders join in, as do former students who return from their middle school to monitor progress.

Will they achieve their goal? After all, a World's Fair is not chocolate milk, or even Rocky Butte. Who knows? "At the very least," Sheets joked, "we ought to make the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-running class project ever!"

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