Field Action Report from CT River Academy: Deepening & Communicating Our Work

  Michele Saulis           June 9, 2017 - 4:00pm

Michele Saulis, Magnet School Theme Coach from Connecticut River Academy, shares an update on her school's Teaching Our Cities efforts. Pictured above: Teachers from CT River Academy and other Teaching Our Cities schools share feedback on units of study -- helping incorporate the school's commitment to sustainability and social justice into these units. 

The Challenge

When it comes to Teaching Our Cities, the CT River Academy has a two-part challenge. 

The first is to transition our magnet school theme from environmental studies to sustainability with pathways in environmental studies and advanced manufacturing. On January 30, 2017 the staff had a short activity that helped them process a description of sustainability that was created by a group of teachers who researched the topic over a period of four months. The following week the staff hosted Teaching Our Cities educators and scholars from the five schools in the Teaching Our Cities Community of Practice and on that day we did a curriculum peer review with ten CTRA curriculum units and some from other schools that addressed variety of content areas. The peer review protocol was focused on the potential for sustainability concepts to be embedded in the current unit.  The following week each department reflected on the results of this peer review process and documented some future changes that could be made during our annual curriculum institute in June.  Last week these reflections were again communicated to the present and future teachers of the courses where these peer reviewed units are taught.  The curriculum institute is in the planning stages now and the sustainability changes will be part of that agenda.

The second challenge is to promote the action work our staff and scholars do in connection with our theme.  For several years we have been committed to cleaning the CT River which is in the backyard of our campus.  We do this twice each year as well as on a smaller scale throughout the year.  We had a significant river clean up event on April 28, 2017.  The promotion for the event was a movie of pictures and music that is posted on our website and on a monitor in our lobby.  In addition, the science and art departments are working on a display for the front hall display case that will feature biodiversity which is a topic that needs more attention in our curriculum and daily lives. 

Successes & Roadblocks

Communication is key for promoting our theme.  We are very busy creating and implementing, yet we let the promotion of our work take a lower priority.  The river clean up movie is a good start, but more needs to be done.  An exciting development this semester is a 9th grade personal interest project that is focused on different aspects of sustainability.  These were presented for the first time in a project fair and classes visited the fair throughout the day.  There were many creative ideas that could be developed into bigger projects in the future.  For example, a bike loaning program to ride around our campus, a composting system, and a fundraiser to benefit the conservation of giant sequoias. 

A roadblock is the level of engagement in sustainability programming by students.  It is difficult to recruit students to work on projects or take advantage of opportunities that contributes to a just and sustainable world (our theme).  The relatively small group of engaged students are over committed with other responsibilities and the students who would consider getting involved, do not because of various personal roadblocks (a common one is transportation).  Much energy and time is dedicated to recruiting and sustaining the engagement of students in our sustainability programs.  We hope that if more sustainability related tasks and activities are embedded in our curriculum, then the level of engagement and taking action on these related concepts will improve.  Engagement by staff is varied; it depends on their interests and their time at our school to learn our culture

What We Learn From Working With Other Schools

Working with other schools in the Teaching Our Cities Community of Practice has been helpful in several ways.  Having the school-based TOC team dedicate time towards the community of practice meetings helps them experience and invest in an intensive focus on our new sustainability theme.  As with any high school, we have many competing demands that lead us to not dedicate a proportional amount of professional development time for purposely focusing on the theme.  Therefore, our group of diverse educators who are focused on our theme will hopefully create a resource for the rest of the staff as they work on making changes to the content they teach and their teaching practices.

Another advantage for working with other schools is the modeling of curriculum resources that will engage students in learning at high standards.  Increasing the level of rigor in our written and implemented curriculum has been a goal for the past two years.  Many of the best practices examples that we have witnessed are demonstrating how to improve what we already have in place.  Our philosophy of place-based education and the importance of using our outdoor resources have also been validated; This is motivating us to increase the frequency of our outdoor learning experiences.  

What's Next

We plan to work on communicating our theme in a more public way.  The front hallway display case will have student work that illustrates our sustainability theme.  We are working on some signage that will help us give a consistent message on our theme and related values. 

Our annual curriculum institute will be in a few weeks and we plan to have a part of it include support in integrating more concepts about sustainability.  We are also designing a senior year science course called Advanced Sustainability Research and Action.  he foundation framework for the curriculum will be three modules from “Facing the Future”, a University of Washington program and we are using lessons from the Arizona State University sustainability in education program.  Our work on this course has required us to do more research on sustainability in education.  Many of these resources have been shared with staff who support other content areas where we have found some relevant connections to current units. 

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