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Keeping it Real: When the Community Becomes the Classroom

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One thing we've learned from working with teenagers at Environmental Charter High School (ECHS) is that they have a strong desire to understand why they should learn something. "Is this going to be on the test?" "Is this going to be graded?" Or on a deeper level, "Does this have any impact on me (or something I care about) at all?" Addressing that question has been at the crux of our educational model.

We realized that we had to get our students to care -- to care about themselves, their future, their family, their community, their environment and the environment that their kids and grandkids will inherit. Then, we had to show them how what we were teaching them in school had to do with these things that they cared about. We have found that the two tasks actually form a virtuous circle -- the more they learn, the more they care and the more they care, the more they want to learn. Usually, textbooks, worksheets, even well-produced videos, won't do the trick. Even our super dedicated teachers (featured in our last blog) sometimes need some help. That's where our community partners come in.

In education, the term "community partners" often conjures images of parent groups or local businesses who assist with fundraising drives. While these are certainly key partners for schools, including ECHS, our partners draw from an even broader community, specifically those who enable our students to take part in real-world work involving the same concepts and skills that they are studying in school.

For example, our students helped scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to gather and categorize plastic samples from the beach, as part of a study on the health of the marine environment off the coast of southern California. They worked with scientists in the lab to analyze the plastic samples and to conduct dissections of dead seabirds to analyze the impact of the plastics on the health of the birds. Students then worked with the Surfrider Foundation to create presentations on the research and to promote practical solutions to reduce the use of plastics. They have conducted presentations to their peers and to businesses including Google, Raytheon and Paramount Studios. Students received real-world instruction in marine biology, research methodology and anatomy, while also being exposed to future careers about which they may not have otherwise known. But more than that, students saw themselves as valuable members of the community whose skills and knowledge served the common good. A regular, classroom-based project or lab activity could not have yielded these outcomes.

On another project, Economics students participated in an apprenticeship program called In True Fashion, created and sponsored by JAMAH, a designer handbag company, and The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. In this semester-long program, students work on teams with professional mentors, to create a product; in this case, the product is a handbag. Students receive a hands-on education in all aspects of running a small business -- design, sales, marketing, manufacturing, teamwork and communications. When they have completed the process from idea to finished product, the handbags are presented online for public voting. Whichever handbag receives the most votes will become part of the JAMAH line and a portion of the profits from its sales will go back to support the program and the school. Students are willing to work hard because it is real: the work product is real, the audience is real and the skills are real. Public speaking and self-presentation are important aspects of the program. Nancy Gale, designer/owner of JAMAH, takes particular delight in seeing students who begin the program refusing to speak in front of a group blossom into self-confident, articulate, public speakers who represent their team, the school and their community with dignity and poise.

Forging good relationships with partners and developing high quality projects that are aligned to course standards takes time and effort. But the work invested to create these experiences will yield valuable outcomes, for the students and the community. Preparing our students for the complicated challenges they will inherit is not a job that schools can do alone. It truly does "take a village." Let's create schools that embrace the authentic learning opportunities that our villages can offer.