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,
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
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
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
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
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
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!"