A chance to explore and learn in a natural, outdoor setting is uncommon for most fifth-graders at Golfview Elementary School in Carpentersville.
But students and faculty from the NIU College of Education provided just that this spring.
“I can safely say that it was an experience the fifth-graders will never forget,” says Gary Swick, an adjunct instructor of Foundations of Education in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.
“For a lot of these kids, they’ve never been on a trail in a forest preserve, just walking from one place to another in the woods,” he adds. “It was highly sensory and stimulating for them.”
Part of the NIU’s Project SLIDE (Science Literacy in Diverse Education), the day of field activities April 21 at Schweitzer Woods Forest Preserve in West Dundee provided hands-on learning in environmental science and biodiversity.
NIU students first interacted with the Golfview fifth-graders April 7, when they presented five classroom lessons on those topics.
“Gary and I shared some students in their second professional semester – the diversity block, which involves courses about working with diverse learners,” says Dianne Zalesky, an instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “In talking to Portia Downey, we heard about Educate Local, and how we could get our students out into a different community with diverse learners.”
Educate Local provides teacher licensure candidates the opportunity to gain experience and develop their perspective of education through volunteering, observing and participating in various campus, community, and educational settings.
Hispanic children make up nearly 96 percent of Golfview’s enrollment, offering a fertile training ground for students in Zalesky’s “ESL Methods and Materials” course.
Curriculum came from Project Learning Tree, a program of the American Forest Foundation that “uses trees and forests as windows on the world” to grow students’ understanding of the environment and actions they can take to conserve it.
“Their motto is, ‘It’s not teaching them what to think; it’s teaching them how to think.’ It’s critical thinking on environmental issues,” Swick says. “My students are certified Project Learning Tree instructors.”
Swick’s students, enrolled in his “Using the Community as a Resource” course, chose the lessons from Project Learning Tree’s book of “outdoor education recipes.” Five teams of Huskies deployed throughout five Golfview classrooms to present. Some taught two lessons, he says, while others tackled five.
“What really impressed me is how well they operated as a team,” Swick says. “It was almost like an internal combustion engine, where you have different pistons firing but they’re all driving the same thing forward. It was rarely one of them standing-and-delivering with the other four watching.”
Zalesky made sure her students practiced differentiation of their lessons to meet the needs of different learners.
“My students learned as much as the fifth-graders did,” Zalesky says. “The more experience you have working with students and applying theory to practice, the better – and that was invaluable. Delivering lessons is not just giving information. It’s interacting with the students. It’s grouping them. It’s classroom management.”
Language-related lessons including writing about shared experiences, she adds, which led to students on both sides of the teaching-learning spectrum creating a book of memories of their time together.
NIU’s students have gained priceless knowledge, Swick agrees.
First, he says, their toolkits now include the planning and delivery of curriculum. Second, he adds, they learned to adjust on the fly and to make improvements from one class to the next.
Their biggest realization, however, might lie in the confirmation of their abilities.
“It was a really great experience for them to be responsible for something this big – so many lessons, which is out of their comfort zone – and being able to adapt things while they’re doing it,” he says.
“Even though it was highly stressful, they thought it went really well, and they knew that if they could pull that off, they could do almost anything,” he adds. “They did a great job.”