Category Archives: Social Studies

NPS Junior Ranger – Authentic Learning inside and outside the classroom


National Parks as a classroom

downloadMore often, in my role as a consultant I hear teachers talking about context and I could not agree more.  Recently I was working with a teacher who was using 4 Square writing strategy to help her students write an informational piece of the recent wildfires in Tennessee. She was passionate about the topic but was concerned that her students would not be able to grasp the content because of a lack of context.  I offered to support in the classroom as I have traveled to the area.  It got me thinking about the ways in which we as educators can build a bridge between the classroom and the real world. One such way is our National Parks system (NPS).

The US national park system is extensive, expanding (Stonewall Inn in NYC was just designated part of the NPS) and  can feel very overwhelming.  I myself still struggle sometimes in trying to figure out what is protected under the NPS. I believe that all too often when you hear NPS you think of places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, and rightfully so.  The reality is The National Park System touches every state in the US and many territories. Some with vast national parks and others with National monuments, historic sites, preserves, lakeshores, seashores, rivers, trails, wilderness, parkways, and memorials.  The list is as diverse as it is long, each place providing a unique opportunity to learn and absorb something amazing at the United States.

 

And while simply just finding yourself at an NPS site will open anyone up to a world of learning.  But as a lifelong learner when I find myself in a park, I immediately think how can I make this work for kids.  Fortunately, the NPS has already thought of that with their Junior Ranger Program.

What is Junior Ranger

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At many of the places run by NPS is a program called Junior Ranger. While some may see as kitschy at first (even I was skeptical) a world of learning awaits. As an educator, what better way to tackle a learning opportunity than with a guide book that is interactive, engaging, and fun. Better still, for children who meet the requirements for their age, a badge is presented to them as a token to commemorate the learning experience and visit.
Each junior ranger book is unique to its park or park system. Often times parks along the east coast are historical in nature and the authentic learning experiences engage children in a myriad of activities. For example,

  • At Thomas Edison National Historic Park, students are provided the opportunity to talk with rangers inside Edison’s lab and ask questions.  They are able to see first hand the exact place that Edison invented the battery with the actual equipment he used. hqdefault
  • At Hopewell Furnace, students are encouraged to participate in a scavenger hunt (of sorts) that takes them all through the preserved community.  The exploration affords them the opportunity to gain deep insight into life at that time and what it meant working on an “iron plantation.”
  • At African Burial Grounds students will hear stories about the grounds, as well as complete activities that teach them the importance of symbols and artifacts and how they were used with language.

While parks in the western park of the US tend to be more geographical with the vast amount of land protected.  At these parks, the learning is often more focused on  the history of the Native People, animals, and  geography.  For example,

  • In Death Valley, students are encouraged to learn about animals that are native to the desert and how are engaged in activities on their survival in the vast geographical differences of the landscape.
  • At the Grand Canyon,  junior ranger exploration has more focus on how the canyon was formed.  Learning about the history of the canyon, animals that navigate the steep embankments, and the reasons behind the colors is also embedded in the guide books.download-1
  • At Bryce Canyon exploration is on science, nature, and geography. Students are lead through a myriad of activities on how and why the Hoodoo’s are they way they are. Then they are given a great insight into one of the canyon’s residents – Prairie Dogs!

When a park is not an option

WWhile I believe every teacher wants to get their students out of the classroom to learn, sometimes that is not always an option.  Often times, we as educators, spend hours looking for ways to engage our students but again NPS has found ways to bring the parks to the classrooms through Junior Ranger programs that can be done remotely.  Topics for these programs include;

  • The Underground Railroad – a guidebook has been designed to help students understand the history and significance of the both those who were seeking freedom from slavery and those who were helping “passengers” on their journey to freedom.
  • Archaeology –  with two different books that focus on the science of archaeology and what it has taught us about the past.
  • Paleontology – a fossil lovers dream, this book touches on everything from the smallest to the largest fossils and the science around finding and preserving them.
  • Astronomy – a guidebook which has a myriad of activities around the stars, sky and the dark sky, movement.  The guidebook helps students understand light pollution and the importance of using light responsibly.
  • Speleology (cave exploration) – a detailed dive (no pun intended!) into caves and their importance of protecting them.  The learning activities provide real insight into the what lies inside the darkness and why they are so important to ecosystems.
  • Wilderness exploration – a great way for students with no context of the wilderness to gain some.  With so many kids in cities being able to learn about the wilderness
  • Oceanography – a closer look at the oceans, the ecosystems and why they are so important to protect.
  • Traveling Clara Barton – this opportunity is great for a class to learn about the Civil War, Clara Barton, letter writing and the US postal system with just a few stamps and patience!

Junior Ranger Resources

There are a number of websites that chronicle their experiences with Junior Ranger. Below are a few that I have visited to learn about their junior ranger experiences.

Additionally, many National Parks have their programs online so you can front load before going to a site.

Web Rangers

If all that is still not enough learning to be done, the NPS has gone one step further creating WEB RANGERS!

This interactive site breaks down activities by level and interest. Web rangers is an extension of the Junior RangerImage result for web rangers program, allowing students to reach learning experiences that may not otherwise be accessible for them. Broken down into categories, web rangers is highly interactive and packed with learning.   It does require the students to have a username and password so it can remember their progress towards earning rewards but it is worth the setup.

Essentially, as educators, an entire learning experience is already created for us at a location which exists, in part to educate.

All we have to do is find our park!

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Teaching tragedy


PTSD

As an educator I have learned over the years that I am my best with students when I am not part of the story.  A skill which I know is not easy to come by or keep up as all to often my colleagues will look at me and almost seem confused how I do not  cry or break down when something tragic has happened.  This is not to say that I don’t dread a breaking news update because I do, especially when that update either directly impacts my school community or when it is on a global scale like the situation unfolding in the Ukraine and Gaza.

For those of you who my think , how can she call it a “situation” I say it  purposefully because my personal feelings on the event remain my own and I rarely if ever impart my own feelings on my students so I tend to avoid words like tragedy, horror,  horrific, terrible, awful, criminal, etc.  When you students from 8 – 10 different cultures sitting in a classroom, my political and socio views are simply that and to me the classroom is a place to form ones own views based on ones own moral and ethical belief system.

Facilitating such discussions can be difficult and I often find myself agonizing over exactly how to do it, how much information needs to be shared with students,  how much should be shared with students, and at times if should be discussed at all.  However, over time I have learned that ignoring local and global events only leads to ignorance and stifles change instead of fostering it.  Therefore, I urge my staff to teach these events responsibly and with as little bias as possible, letting the students form their own opinions by encouraging them to say what they think and talk about what they have heard.

Conversations like these are never easy.  Emotions can run deep.  You never know a student’s past.  I vividly recall someone casually making mention of the events in 2012 Aurora Shooting thinking the event was to far removed to have an affect on anyone she was speaking to.  Little did she realize my family was directly affected with a relative surviving the mass shooting.  It’s one of the many reasons I always encourage staff to proceed but proceed with caution as conversations tend to take their own direction.  Case in point – I recently had a staff member call me  to debrief after she allowed her math class to go often tangent completely to discuss cultural differences between her students.  The tension in the room grew difficult as some of her students have some very strong anti-American beliefs which she herself was quite surprised by (and certainly not the direction she was planning), but she supported each of her students, including the outspoken ones, in speaking up and provided a safe environment to do so.   The conversation allowed her students to see each other in a different light and to appreciate  each other differently.  Even if it meant agreeing to disagree.

The reality is global events like, the downing of flight MH17, the conflict is Gaza, weather related disasters like tornadoes, typhoons, and earthquakes, as well as more local ones personal to ones hometowns are probably not being overlooked by every child in your classroom.  They will have questions, concerns, and feelings.  They will seek answers when many times there are none and while many students may have parents or family to give them the opportunity to explore these thoughts and feelings, school provides a  platform for those who have not had the opportunity to do so and another platform for those who have to continue to develop their own opinions.

This infographic from The Helpful Counselor  puts a lot of the data surrounding global situations into perspective;

CHILD TRAUMA GUIDANCE INFOGRAPHIC -English Version

To support this kind of teaching, below are some links to resources that provides strategies and ideas.

The video below also touches on some ideas for teaching tragedy;

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I have found that I have learned more about dealing with difficult situations from students then from anyone else I have discussed it with.  Often times their opinions are raw, unbiased, and filled with deep thought and honesty.  As an educator who promotes social justice and seeks to bring about  change providing a safe platform for students to explore the world around them, especially the difficult moments is a teachable moment indeed.

Special Populations


As an educator I find that more students are coming with to me with unique situations filled with roadblocks that challenge their learning. Whether it be a learning disability, sexual identity, language roadblock, or socio-economic disparity,  It seems like when I was growing up there were two kinds of students – general education students and special education students – and these two populations of students rarely mixed.  Nowadays, students with all kinds of classifications come together in a classroom and sit before a teacher, some vested in learning, others completely disinterested and others desperate  to learn but can’t for one reason or another.

The more I talk to other educators, the more I find that they have to consider so many factors when planning a lesson, not just the standards that their given districts are expecting their students to master by the end of the school year.

FInd resources to support the diverse needs of these special populations has become a focus of mine this summer as I begin to plan PD for the upcoming school year.  In the past, I have simply picked a topic to focus on, like engagement or assessment.  And while that has served me fairly well, I have come to realize that it has not met the needs of all the students that walk into my school each day.  Therefore, I have decided to dedicate a new page to following special populations which will include links to the resources I have found.  Hopefully others out there will be able to use these resources to support their own individual learners within their classrooms and schools as more and more of these students continue to need our attention and support.

Transgender Youth
English Language Learners
Students with Disabilities
At-risk Youth
Addressing the varying needs of boys vs. girls

 

So please feel free to click on a picture above, it will take you to one of the pages under my new tab on special populations and will have more links, websites, videos,  and strategies to support students that are classified in these special populations.  As I come across more resources I will continue to update these pages, so check back often.

I do believe every child is unique.  Every child wants to learn.  It’s just a matter of figuring out how to help them overcome their roadblocks so they can.  Sometimes we need to learn from them, we need to have our own teachable moment so we can give them successful teachable ones each and every day!

On an aside: As make sure you check with your local district or state for their most current policies regarding protected classes.  In New York Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) went into effect December 31, 2013. DASA training is now mandated for all educators.  Many districts now publish their policies under DASA or laws similar for their protected classes.  For example, NYC policy for transgender youth can be found here.