By Bianca Nightengale-Lee
“We call the project our outdoor classroom,” said teacher Angela Yeasayer as she explained to me the service learning project launching at Eastern High School (Jefferson County).
Yeasayer, who has taught information technology at Eastern for the past seven years, is collaborating with Brittany Beaufait, a National Honor Society student, to develop a multi-purpose green space on the high school’s dilapidated tennis courts.
Beaufait conceptualized this idea as a part of her National Honors Society Senior Capstone Project, creating a budget for the project and a formal proposal outlining ways to enhance the property at Eastern. Yeasayer, meanwhile, was searching for ways to cultivate authentic learning experiences that promoted collaboration and increased connectivity among students and staff at Eastern. Serendipitously, the two innovators saw the same need within their school and decided to take action.
With the support of the high school’s administration, Yeasayer and Beaufait surveyed Eastern’s large campus and decided that the half-acre lot housing the underutilized tennis courts would be the perfect space to repurpose.
Once the location was established, Yeasayer and Beaufait asked students and staff to envision how this blank space could be redefined to enhance the school environment. They received countless ideas from students, staff and administration. Overall, the school agreed the outdoor space would be developed into a green space that would be used as an outdoor classroom.
To mobilize the entire school around this initiative, Yeasayer advertised a Design Challenge, which asked students and staff to submit design proposals for the green space. Hundreds of intricate designs outlining how to effectively use this new space were submitted.
Yeasayer said once the design is chosen, she would like the school and local community to work collaboratively in building the new space.
“The driving force behind this initiative was interconnectivity,” she said, “a way to rally the school behind a common goal that incorporated all content areas and all grade levels.”
Yeasayer said that since the introduction of the project, teachers from different content areas have been using the design challenge as a part of their curriculum, which has further unified the teaching staff and revitalized students.
This learning opportunity reminds me of the magic that can happen when teachers allow innovation and passion to drive their curriculum. Though the increasing rigor of standards may make authentic teaching and learning a challenge for some, Yeasayer used service learning as a platform to not only address common core standards, but also to extend the learning trajectory of her school.
I believe the complexities of being an educator are complicated by the dual nature of the profession itself. Not only do we want to prepare students with the scholastic abilities to be competent and competitive in the workplace, but we also want to cultivate 21st century global citizens who are equipped with a social consciousness that moves the world forward.
Our legacies as educators should be predicated on developing critical students who take action and promote social justice and change, similar to the service learning happening at Eastern High School. As Barbara Comber, author of “Literacy for a Sustainable World” writes, “Hence teachers working with real-world problems with students – demonstrating how they can investigate urgent questions, become engaged, take action and reflect on what has been accomplished – means that they are being properly educated to be active critical citizens whilst still in school.”
Locating resources that further explore the idea of service-based learning are not hard to find. As a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project, I was introduced to a book called “The Activist Learner” by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Whitney Douglas and Sara W. Fry. Though the text is only 140 pages, it provides a multitude of strategies for sculpting curriculum that is service oriented and transactional.
According to “The Activist Learner,” there are various motivational stories that can be used to “inspire youth to understand the potential they have to make a difference in the world. Even if their initial efforts are small in comparison to global humanitarian and environmental needs, small actions can lead to more actions and to positive outcomes for those who are directly involved.”
This book provides practical and simple methods to foster classroom inquiry, reflection and action. The authors suggest four steps in developing a service-learning project in your school:
1). Identifying goals: Keeping in mind the specific needs of your school, students and staff, develop project goals that reflect the unique qualities of your building.
2). Getting connected: Community-based opportunities are endless. Reach out to local organizations or individuals that can help you attain your project goals
3). Soliciting support: Talk to students, families, colleagues, the principal and community members to garner support for your project goal. Ensure that you allow students to help shape the project by giving them a voice and choice in project development and implementation.
In the oftentimes insular world of the classroom, creating third spaces of exploration and innovation can be challenging. However, amazing things can happen when educators step outside the normal parameters of everyday school life to sculpt learning experiences that increase critical thinking and impact student lives. Helping students see themselves as global citizens expands their social consciousness and helps them understand the role they play in making their city, state, nation and world a better place.
If you are interested in learning more about the Outdoor Classroom Initiative at Eastern High School, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bianca Nightengale-Lee is a doctoral candidate in the department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Louisville. A former teacher and Goal Clarity Coach (GCC) for Jefferson County Public Schools, her research centers on critical literacy practices and teacher professional development. She serves as the research director for the GCC Leadership Academy as well as a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project. You can follow her on twitter @bnightlee1, or e-mail at Bianca.email@example.com.