Work, caring for family members, cooking, hiking in the woods, programming, volunteering, writing, drawing, dreaming, building, and inventing all fill up the lives of students who tap into learning ecosystems outside of the conventional school context. Few would refer to them as “school,” but most will remember their summer experiences as impactful, challenging, and memorable. While no student experience is the same, all summer experiences are some form of out-of-school learning; students wiring their brains to acquire the skills and dispositions that schools dream of integrating well into classrooms.
While summer is a time for teachers to reflect, renew, and regenerate in preparation for the next school year, it can also be a time to think and dream big about tapping into local learning ecosystems in communities. Learning ecosystems include all opportunities for learning within and surrounding a community, including the traditional school. Beyond field trips, utilizing a true learning ecosystem means full integration of curriculum into local communities – a place-based approach – to increase student engagement, agency, and learning.
At Teton Science Schools, a 50 year-old non-profit organization with a mission of connecting people and places through education, students of all ages from around the country are learning outside of the classroom on one of our four campuses in northwestern Wyoming and eastern Idaho. This learning goes well beyond sitting in a classroom, and is an example of the thousands of experiences students are having outside of school during the summer.
In order to develop an expanded learning ecosystem to support your classroom during the school year, consider the following self-enriching suggestions for summer research.
- Entrepreneurialism: Talk to local business owners. What are they worried about? Where do they need help? Who works remotely? Is anyone a knowledge worker? Technology worker? Who could partner with you to sponsor entrepreneurship programs?
- Science: Explore your local places. Determine your watershed and walk it. Find the open spaces that represent different habitat types. What is in trouble? What is thriving? Who is caretaking these places? How can you integrate these areas into student learning?
- Culture, craft, and arts: Who is making and creating in your community? Can you partner with a maker to help students understand the design learning principles – critical skills for the 21st century?
- Non-profit partnerships: What social services exist to support challenges in your community? Can your class help beyond community service? Can they help tackle real challenges?
- Community need: What do people in your community talk about? What shows up in the papers? What is not being addressed?
- Adult mentors: Which adults in the community are looking for purposeful work mentoring young people?
- Civic engagement: How does the local government work? Who has been elected?
- History: Who came before? And then who came before them? What evidence remains? What stories are told?
By the end of your summer exploration, you will be more locally connected than before and perhaps, should the stars align, you will find partners and partnerships within your learning ecosystem. This ecosystem, typically split between community and school, will be on its way to becoming whole. During your dreaming and rejuvenation, imagine your school as one which seeks to be integral to the real work of democratic communities – and communities which see schools as not only where their children learn but as vital and creative contributors to community function.
While seemingly impossible over the last decade of education policy, reaffirmation and reemergence of project-based learning, learner focused approaches, competency-based assessment, and place-based education lie in the center of school transformation everywhere. Enjoy learning about your place this summer and plan on joining the growing number of teachers who believe in learning ecosystems that connect in and out of school opportunities.