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Larkspur Elementary changes its environment

LARKSPUR – How does the lack of rain impact our community and the world around us? How do local ranchers deal with this? These are the kinds of questions students and teachers at Larkspur Elementary will soon be asking.
Larkspur Elementary has been traditionally been known as the kind of smaller school that makes strong connections between families and staff.  Students from Larkspur have a reputation for excelling academically, and now, they will also have the opportunity to take their learning to another level by making it more hands-on, collaborative and engaging. 
Principal Michael Norris and his staff have been working with State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) organization based in California in developing an integrated environment curriculum (EIC).  The environmental units will be customized by Larkspur Elementary teachers. 
“This model does not change what our students will be learning,” said Norris. “We still have to meet the Colorado state standards – we still have to do state assessments.” 
Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen calls Principal Norris a pioneer for undertaking this three-year project.  Larkspur Elementary is close to the recently opened DCSD Outdoor Education Center, so it made sense to partner with them so that the learning students do in the classroom can be combined with authentic experiences at the Center.  
“It is really an amazing idea,” says Fagen.  “Students get to explore, hypothesize and do unique and interesting scientific inquiry.  The teachers innovatively make sure that the other learning is tied into this, so it is actually a model of World Class Education here in Douglas County.  It is a model of the kind of learning experiences that students need to be successful—the most successful in the world.” 
The environmental program has a component that connects closely to an initiative gaining momentum in the United States called place-based education.  The idea behind place-based education is that schools tap into their local community and use resources that are within a short radius of their school. 
“We will be working to develop connections with people in the Larkspur area, in the Douglas County area, and the southern part of the county to support what we are doing with students,” said Norris.  
For example, a group of second or third grade students might take a field trip to a local ranch.  Incorporated in that field trip would be a discussion about partnering with the ranch and thinking about what students can do as a group to support that operation.  Student service learning comes into play as part of this model as well. 
Norris provided some examples of how the environment could be integrated into a class unit or lesson.  Colorado state standards call for the fourth grade social study curriculum to include learning about Colorado history.  One of things that Larkspur Elementary could do in partnership with the Outdoor Education Center is to have students go there and explore the historically significant buildings.  It might be possible to actually do an architectural dig around some of those buildings.  Students potentially could find artifacts from the last 100 years that would give them a connection with the people who lived and worked there.  Another example might be in learning about the water cycle.  Since there are no live water or streams on school property, students would go to the Outdoor Education Center to learn about runoffs that come through the tributary to Plum Creek in the spring and do some water studies and water sampling. 
“We can talk about an idea or discuss it in a classroom, but how meaningful is that compared to going to a live water area and learning about it hands on?  Our students might come home with muddy feet, but they are going to have a deeper understanding of the water cycle and how it impacts us locally,” said Norris. 
This program is being developed over a three-year period.  The first six to nine week unit should be in place during the 2013-2014 school year. 
“It will take time for us to modify our practices and to really change the way that we think about teaching and learning here at our school,” emphasized Norris.  “It is not a wholesale change—it is not like everything that we do is going to be different, but there are going to be some significant changes, so obviously that will take some time.” 
Once the first unit is deployed, teachers will reflect on it and perhaps discover other resources that they could include when they get back to this unit next year. 
“The next year we plan on teaching two units and then three the following year,” said Norris. 
Teachers will be involved in small scale professional development geared toward refining the concept of outdoor learning compared to in the classroom.  They will be talking about the inquiry model of learning, where teachers have an idea of where a lesson or unit is going to go, but let the students drive the questioning.  The teacher’s role really goes from being the resource of information to now being a guide who steers the students in finding the answers to the questions that they have, whether that is individually, in small groups or the full class. 
Norris is counting on the support of the Larkspur community to make this program successful.  Parents are encouraged to attend one of two informational meetings, which have been scheduled to coincide with spring conferences.  The presentations will be held on February 26 and 28, with starting times of 5:00 PM or 7:00 PM. 
The next step is getting feedback and suggestions from parents.  Norris recently hosted a principal’s forum with Larkspur parents.  One parent talked about a system of local trails that would give students the opportunity to see a wide variety of ecosystems or topography within a relatively short distance.  Finally, Norris and his staff will be looking for parents who can volunteer and want to work with students as they are engaged in more outside learning. 
“In order to do the outside learning projects well, whether that is here on our campus, at the Outdoor Education Center or at another place nearby, we will need volunteers,” said Norris. 
The majority of projects will be structured around groups of 4-8 students in order to maximize the learning experience. 
“We don’t have the staffing at our school for every class to be divided into small groups, so we will be relying on parents and volunteers,” added Norris. 
Volunteers will undergo some training since the idea of outdoor learning is different from learning in a classroom. 
“Larkspur Elementary is very fortunate to have community who gives back through volunteering, and we will be asking our parents and volunteers to be involved in helping us move this forward,” continued Norris.
To learn more about this unique program, contact Principal Norris at michael.norris[at]dcsdk12[dot]org, or attend one of the upcoming information meetings on February 26 and February 28. 
February 13, 2013 | By Anonymous | Category: Communications

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