Pillbugs and millipedes beckon teachers
Educators roll up their sleeves and learn how to turn science classes
BEAR MOUNTAIN, N.Y.
Jane Willis hadn't really expected to spend her summer vacation getting close to pillbugs and millipedes. But that's exactly what happened to her as a result of signing up for the Tiorati Workshop for Environmental Learning at Bank Street College's graduate school of education in New York.Skip to next paragraph
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"Previously my reaction to looking under a log or rock was simply: YUCK!" says Ms. Willis. But now, she says, she sees an entire world teeming in such places, and after studying some of the insects that lurk in the dark and damp, "I just developed a real feeling for the millipede."
The Bank Street College of Education prides itself on training teachers in the tradition of "hands-on" learning, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than at its Tiorati workshops. These intensive summer sessions are designed to inspire elementary- and middle-school teachers -particularly those without science backgrounds -to turn their environmental-science classes into hands-on adventures for their students.
"We try to let teachers engage themselves as learners of the natural environment," says Don Cook, director of the Tiorati Workshop program. "Suddenly they realize what it's like to learn when you're really excited about something."
The twenty or so participants who enrolled in the July session of the Tiorati class are all candidates for master's degrees in education at Bank Street. All are either already teaching, or hoping soon to find full-time teaching positions.
Brianna Sayers teaches third grade at a charter school in Jersey City, N.J., and specializes in reading. She jumped into the Tiorati course this summer to "round [herself] out with science." Sayers says science is probably the subject she's least drawn to naturally, but she loves the "inquiry" method used at Bank Street.
In the case of the Tiorati workshop, the inquiry method consists of a very open-ended process. Those attending are divided into four teams with broad categories (spiders; trees; rot and decay; and wilderness survival) and then let loose in nature to ask questions and learn what they can.
The class is based in a cabin-classroom area nestled in Harriman State Park, an hour north of New York City. Participants travel there by bus for each of the six sessions.
Although the teachers are encouraged to supplement their learning by outside reading and some library research, much of their work involves site visits. The trees group, for instance, marked off a 20-square-meter area and studied the 17 trees growing there.
Each group is encouraged to learn as much as it can through direct observation and the creation of simple experiments that could also be used by children in the classroom.
At the end of the six sessions, all four groups meet to present their findings to one another and to discuss how they felt about the process.
"Some come grudgingly to the [inquiry] method," says Professor Cook. "But they have to understand that this course has two focuses. One is what they learn about the environment, but the other is the process of inquiry."