Smart Change and Possibility: Educating for the Teachable Moments

By DON TAYLOR

Don Taylor is a Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Main Street Middle School (MSMS)in Montpelier, Vermont. Don is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer EAST Institute on Service-Learning and Sustainability, which he attended with a team member from his school.
 

 Introduction
 
On a Friday, CWI’s Summer EAST Institute came to a close. Hoping to take advantage of the warm weather, and Lake Champlain, I raced home, hooked up the boat, and within ninety minutes of being in class I was on the water.

It was a beautiful night and as the wind died down, the fishing picked up. After a last cast and with the sun setting, I wound down and headed for the boat ramp. Trailer backed in, boat on, and just as I was getting ready to head home, a gentleman and his son walked up to me and asked about the fishing.

I quickly starting giving him a run down and before you know it, we were gabbing about fishing, hunting, sugaring, and life in Vermont. Turns out that the guy’s family has lived in Vermont for more years than anybody can count. Not only that, but he comes from a long line of farmers and maple sugar producers who make almost 2800 gallons of syrup a year. I loved our conversation and after more than 45 minutes, I turned to his 16 year old son and asked, “How do you like school?”

The answer: “I don’t. I’d rather be out in the woods with my dad and my grandfather.”

It was a crystalline moment that brought to bear all of the work we had just finished with the Institute. Here was a young kid who probably has more knowledge of the woods and the relationship between man and the environment than most young people. And yet he could not find, or explore, or connect his education to that life-knowledge.

A better example of the disconnect between the lives that we are living and the current state of education could not have been scripted. The entire drive home found me pre-occupied with the possibilities of service-learning, sustainability, and developing a curriculum through which young people can apply their education to local issues, employment, the environment and those matters relevant to their lives.

Theoretical Changes
 
The biggest change occurring through the week of the Institute was my attitude and understanding of what’s possible through service-learning and the lens of sustainability. Having completed units on energy and waste-stream management, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that we cannot afford to omit such issues from our curriculum. If these issues, along with the impact of climate change, are that important, why aren’t we having our students studying them, collaborating, and working on solutions everyday and across the curriculum?

It no longer makes sense to me to be teaching curriculum that is not immediately relevant to our student’s lives. Moreover, I feel strongly that any and all literacy and social studies standards can be addressed through a service-based curriculum that uses sustainability and its principles to help students problem-solve real world issues. To do otherwise seems to be ignoring the immediate reality of the complex problems our society and culture are currently facing.
 
 People That Had an Impact
 
Marc Chabot the physics teacher, and Steve Colangeli had a powerful impact on my understanding of service-learning and sustainability in schools. First, both were very reflective, intelligent, and possessors of a wonderful sense of humor. I can imagine that students relish having the opportunity to learn from these master teachers. Second, both had a low-key approach that belied their motivation and drive to be successful in the development of relevant learning experiences. Their approach to problem solving was conveyed honestly and clearly and I had great appreciation for the challenges both faced in their service-learning environments. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both Marc and Steve seem to have a deep understanding of what it takes to motivate students of all skill levels. They were remarkable presenters and I envy the students who are engaged in both of their programs.

Two other individuals who had a positive influence on my Institute experience were Marijke Hecht and Vernita Vallez. (from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and Chicago’s Intercultural Magnett School respectively) I didn’t really get to know Marijke until the last day of the Institute but she was very smart, thoughtful, and open. I really appreciated her take on the issues brought up by the course and the challenges she faced within her organization and the public school environment of Pittsburgh.

Vernita was in my small study group and she was an outstanding team member. She was calm, thoughtful, prepared and consistently positive. More than that, based on her anecdotes from Chicago, I can imagine that she is calm under fire, looks to the long-term solution rather than the quick fix, and is a very well-respected principal. Watching her work with other teammates was a lesson in collaboration and personnel management.

learn more about CWI’s Summer Institute

Moving Forward
 
In the course of doing research for this project and project proposal, I came across some unbelievable websites and programs that “are where we want to go”. Across the country, service-learning initiatives and curriculum based on sustainability are addressing complex and important issues. California and Oregon are but two examples of states that have moved quickly into the forefront of utilizing service-learning to create relevant educational experiences for students.

I believe Main Street Middle School has the potential to create something of this nature and these examples were motivating. CWI’s Summer EAST provided a broad foundation and new perspective for my educational goals. Although it did not occur at once, the sum total of the course has given me a new outlook on 21st century education and what we need to do to keep schools relevant and contributing members of our complex communities.

Don with colleague Sylvia Fagin at Summer EAST

Perhaps more importantly, the issues, discussions, and new learning from the Institute have the potential to make our schools relevant community resources that help communities solve complex problems. In doing so, schools may also become recipients and chroniclers of local history and the unique characteristics that create a sense of place within the community.

Concluding Thoughts
 
My conversation on the boat ramp at Mallett’s Bay was a remarkable reminder of how many students and children view education as irrelevant, inapplicable, or just plain boring. Service-learning and sustainability have the potential to address this predicament and provide students with the connections and understanding that will allow them to develop a greater understanding about their lives, their communities, and their future.

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