Providing local students with a tangible outdoor learning experience, the Living Classroom program aims to support a new generation of students who are excited about the environment.
The Living Classroom serves 9,000 students locally in the Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman and Palo Alto Unified school districts. Docents teach 1,500 lessons per year, using 44 outdoor school gardens.
Although the lessons are always garden-based, they are interdisciplinary to ensure that the incorporated science, math and language arts concepts are meaningful, engaging and effective.
This year the Living Classroom staff has been working to realign its lessons to enhance the new Next Generation Science Standards.
“Aligning to the standards is critical so that the classroom teacher can feel confident that we are teaching the curriculum the way it’s meant to be taught,” said Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore.
The program complements the new science standards, which seek to “engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.” Moore said she is working to ensure that every lesson hits those disciplinary requirements.
Moore stressed the strong environmental component of the new science standards.
“Students understand that they are a part of the environment and not separate from it, so it really supports efforts to make the learning relevant,” she said.
The Living Classroom uses native habitat and edible gardens to teach scientific concepts such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, seasonal changes, structure and function, and the interdependence of living things.
“Through the lessons, we are trying to impose an initial question and, if possible, witness something occurring and then explain how this happens,” Moore said.
Technology breeds citizen scientists
New to the program is the introduction of tablets as a tool to connect with scientists worldwide.
Through apps such as iNaturalist, students document and identify species of plants and animals and provide data on their garden ecosystems to the science community.
“This shows that even without a college science degree, students can play a role and provide information that is incredibly useful to the scientific community,” Moore said.
It also engages the students in a real-world science effort that will have a lasting impact on their understanding and appreciation of the importance of science, she added.
Although Living Classroom board members were initially reluctant to add the technology component, Moore said she supported it because it is how scientists collect their data.
“We are teaching these kids that these devices are to gain information and connect with an actual scientist,” said Noelani Pearl Hunt, executive director of Living Classrom. “This way students see the technology as a learning enhancement tool.”
Lessons that last a lifetime
All of the lessons, weather permitting, occur outdoors to provide students an instant connection with their natural setting.
Being outdoors and getting your hands dirty is an important element of the Living Classroom.
“It makes the learning relevant, and if it is relevant and fun for them, it will stick with them,” Moore said. “This isn’t something they just have to memorize for a test.”
The Living Classroom’s promotional materials quote local student testimonials.
“I like this program because a kid can go outside and get dirty,” a second-grade student said. “Most of all, kids can do the real stuff. This is much more active than putting your face in a book.”
Overall, the program aims to boost environmental literacy and encourage students to become concerned citizens willing to promote the sustainability of the planet.
“When it comes to the learning, we are always trying to meet all the standards, but … (there has to be) that touchpoint for them to understand,” Hunt said. “These are the ways they remember and carry this information throughout their lives.”
For more information, visit living-classroom.org.
Continuing environmental learning at home
Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore shared the following tips for continuing environmental literacy at home.
• Plant a native garden in your own backyard, front yard or both to bring back native wildlife. The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers rebates for those willing to remove turf.
• Take a hike. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District conducts family-oriented hikes every week. Visit the bay and bring binoculars to watch the birds and start to identify them. The San Francisco Bay is part of the Pacific Flyway route for migratory birds.
• Plant native milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) to attract monarch butterflies.
• Plant an edible garden in your front or backyard.
• Take part in local restoration projects through Save the Bay or Grassroots Ecology.
• Become a citizen scientist and help document the species diversity in your neighborhood using apps such as iNaturalist, eBird or Merlin.
• Visit childrenandnature.org for more ideas.