Re-Imagining Our Identity: How a Sustainability Class Merges School, Community, and Environment
By MARGARET PERROW, with RYAN KING
We are here: Ryan King’s classroom
Three months after welcoming spring Chinook salmon eggs into their classroom, a group of students at Ruch Community K-8 School waded knee-deep into the icy water of the Rogue River, to release the young fry. Eighth grader Tabitha Kohler pushed her long hair back from eyes and smiled as she watched the fry dart away. “Watching the salmon hatch and grow up was really neat,” she says with an evident touch of nostalgia. “We were able to track their development each day.”
This salmon-release project is one way Ruch School science teacher Ryan King connects the classroom to the community and to the rural environment where his middle school students live. In the process, math, science, and literacy standards come alive in meaningful ways. By linking skills and standards to important, local, real-world issues, students are empowered to take charge of their own learning. They understand that more than hoops to mechanically jump through, the skills and knowledge embedded in standards can be part of the process of becoming an active, engaged citizen. Beyond mastering skills and content, Ryan wants his students to gain a sense of their own agency, their ability to make a positive impact on their community and environment. And his Sustainability class has become a sparkplug for that kind of engaged learning.
Reflecting Ryan King’s belief in students’ agency as a key to engaging students in learning skills and content, the words “Make it Happen” are posted at the front of his classroom. On the board, goals are listed. Tasks have been distributed. Around the room, small groups of 8th graders collaborate with excitement and focus. One group outlines a lesson plan on composting, to be delivered to the 1st grade class next week. Another group uses Chromebooks to research state incentives for renewable energy at public schools. Laughter buzzes from another corner as students color a concept map illustrating the matrix of factors influencing the decline of honeybee populations. And over by the aquarium, a group clinks science glassware as they measure dissolved oxygen in the glass tank that hosts Chinook salmon eggs.
“Got it. pH reading is eight point two– we’re just a little basic.”
“Temperature is fifty four degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect!”
As these 8th graders “make it happen,” Ryan lifts boxes of freshly cut Douglas fir kindling with two students—wood recently cut by their classmates—that will be sold as part of a fundraiser project. Ryan pretends his back has gone out, only to realize that it might not be a joke. Twenty boxes to go.
The day continues this way, as the days have for two years now.
A visitor might ask, where is the teacher? What instruction is being provided? Assessment tools? Curriculum learning targets? This self-directed climate of learning cannot be the norm.
Or could it?
Ryan thinks so. “This is my job,” he says. “I team with students to compress global issues down to their local relevance. I guide instruction by intuition rather than institution. The students inform me. I am constantly asking: What do you want to learn about this issue? How can we work together to envision solutions and imagine possibilities? Will we be active participants or passive bystanders in our community, our environment? And I’m constantly amazed at what can happen when I get out of the way and let students take charge of their own learning.”
How Did We Get Here?
Three years earlier, a group of parents and community members sat around a long table in the local public library. The group, named APPLE (Applegate Partners Promoting Local Education), was conferring with principal Julie Barry about plans for developing place-based learning and strengthening community-school connections at Ruch K-8 Community School. The conversation was animated, excited. At stake were the identity, autonomy, and basic survival of the school.
A small rural school of approximately 200 students, Ruch nonetheless serves three quarters of the geographic area of the 12,000-student Medford School District. Like small (and especially small rural) schools elsewhere in the country, Ruch had been targeted for closure by the school board.
The formation of APPLE was the community’s response to the threat of school closure. APPLE was forged out of a shared belief that students should be able to attend school in the place where they live, and a commitment to retaining the school as a ‘hub’ of the small rural community. So in 2011, in the shadow of an enormous budget shortfall facing the school district, APPLE set to work. We drew on the diverse strengths of our members, whose knowledge and expertise included corporate and financial management, marketing, writing, agriculture, and education. Our goal was to ensure that the school would remain a vibrant part of the district, in part by developing a unique identity tightly tied to the community and the natural environment where students live.
From the outset, sustainability shaped APPLE’s vision: the sustainability of the school and of the community, of course, which we understood to be in a symbiotic relationship. But just as importantly, we were coming to understand that environmental sustainability was the key to place-based learning in a rural context. In this valley—where vineyards are replacing orchards, debates persist over forest and wildfire management, GMO laws are evolving, the watershed is changing—sustainability issues related to forestry, farmland, and watersheds are part of our everyday lives. And it’s important that young people learn to participate actively in conversations about these issues.
So it was fortunate that part way into the visioning process, APPLE had a visit from Ryan King, who was then a graduate student in Southern Oregon University’s Environmental Education program. Ryan inspired APPLE with stories from an alternative school where he had recently taught. APPLE, the principal, and the teachers embraced the idea of consolidating the school’s identity around the concepts of ‘community schools’ and ‘place-based learning’ through projects related to the local environment.
After earning a teaching license and MA in Environmental Education, in 2013 Ryan King became the science teacher at Ruch and immediately took leadership for putting the vision into practice. In what follows, Ryan describes how a new Sustainability class at the school is re-energizing him as a teacher, and simultaneously connecting students with their environment, their community, their passions, and their identities.
What’s Going on Here? Ryan’s Story
When I arrived at Ruch School, teachers across grade levels had begun incorporating aspects of place-based learning into their individual classes: worm-farming, volunteering at an animal shelter, constructing a school vegetable garden. There was a buzz in the air; the school’s curriculum had become fertilized with instances of place-based learning in individual classrooms, but the growth of this concept required an actual seed. As the science teacher, I was well positioned to ‘plug into’ that energy and develop a cohesive program that would put place-based learning into practice, making it a central part of the school’s identity.
Harmonizing community values with district goals, I adopted the theme of “sustainability” as the lens of study, and designed a Sustainability class for our middle school students. This idea directly aligned with the district’s commitment to designing and delivering excellent teaching practices based upon sound, proven research.
A growing body of academic research supports the use of project-based learning in schools as a way to engage students, cut absenteeism, boost cooperative learning skills, and improve test scores. Tapping into relevant local issues, five domains emerged: forests, food, water, energy, and waste. Within these five areas of learning, students embark on meaningful work in their community, taking a project-based approach.
Figure 1 below shows current and future projects tied to each domain of the Sustainability class:
- Installation of solar panels at school.
- Reducing energy consumption through behavior change.
- School-wide composting system.
- Student-led recycling program.
- Raising salmon eggs in the classroom for release into Rogue River.
- Riparian restoration with local watershed council.
- Campus school garden and greenhouse.
- Campus apiary to study colony collapse disorder.
- Tree planting and land management monitoring with the US Forest Service.
- Preparation of an on-campus tree nursery.
As the vision-keeper and enactor of this model, I have multiple duties and roles. On one hand, I am responsible for scaffolding standards-based activities to maximize student learning in alignment with Common Core standards. The curriculum is multidisciplinary, encompassing language arts, science, math, engineering, physical fitness, and art. The integration of standards becomes seamless, as class topics merge with real-world issues. On the other hand, I am responsible for advancing the vision of this model under the umbrella of place-based education. The Sustainability curriculum is community-based, consisting of a wide range of partnerships that inform and inspire its direction. These partnerships snowball from previous collaborations but most of the time, I tap into the creative energies and “can-do” attitude that already exists in the community.
One long-term project includes pairing salmon egg hatching in the classroom with hands-on riparian restoration work. Students understand the key features of quality salmon habitat and how minute changes in the aquatic food web can have significant impacts on salmon population and life cycle. Armed with this knowledge, students work with the local watershed council and the US Forest Service to pinpoint sensitive natural areas in the Applegate valley that require stewardship such as native tree planting, removing invasive species, monitoring stream quality, and compiling findings into reports for future applications. This program, known as Applegate Stewards, offers field trips every week to various locations with set restoration goals and guidance from natural resource professionals.
A recent 8th grade project harvesting and selling wood kindling provides another example of the model in action. A team of six 8th graders visited a private landowner’s property to selectively harvest two Douglas fir and split the logs into kindling. With two hydraulic log splitters operating at the same time, the students filled forty boxes over the course of three hours while covering topics such as sustainable forestry and best land management practices. While each student worked hard and deserves credit, it was the vision and ‘servant’s heart’ of the entire 8th grade that contributed to the realization of this project. Equal parts entrepreneurship and service, projects like this are exciting because they affect my students’ self-efficacy and sense of identity. As 8th grader Katie Lowe explains, “ when you put a group of students together, it makes everyone positive, happy and excited to learn [new things].”
One of the many blessings of being a K-8 school is the opportunity to put the older students into the role of teaching their elementary counterparts. At the end of every term, middle school students work in small teams to design and deliver an age-appropriate lesson focusing on an issue of sustainability. “This class taught me how to maintain a garden, how to measure dissolved oxygen in a fish tank, where my food comes from, and the appropriate place to put my trash (recycling, compost). I’ve learned how to put together and teach a class of little kids and become a teacher,” explains 8th grader Kara Fisher. Through this activity, the older students must master the material in order to teach an audience of curious and excitable younger children.
The impact of the Sustainability class is evident in the attitude of the students at Ruch. “The Sustainability class has been a real eye-opening experience for me. I’m a hands-on learner so it was a perfect fit. Taking these classes taught me how to respect the earth and how to keep it healthy. I really wish the rest of the schools could have a sustainability class because it is truly amazing!” says 8th grader Gabby Cesaro. Trevor Morthoski agrees: “The sustainability class has been a tremendous addition to Ruch School.”
Where We Are Heading
It’s been nearly two years since the district superintendent and the school board endorsed APPLE's proposal that Ruch implement a place-based, community school model. And it’s no surprise that the school has been energized. Research has shown that students who attend local schools feel more connected to their community and their environment. When community members and organizations are a part of their learning experience, and when learning is based on issues relevant to the immediate environment, students take more responsibility for themselves and their surroundings. When they are known personally and have a strong sense of belonging, students have higher attendance rates, perform better academically, and participate in more extra-curricular activities. Research also shows that they develop a strong sense of citizenship in their community, and stewardship for their local environment. We are seeing all of these things happen at Ruch School.
Ivy Guss-Gonzalez, an eighth grader at Ruch, explains that “learning about sustainability has made [her] care more about the world.” Ivy’s assertion provides a counterpoint to the current story of education, where the prevailing narrative is often driven by what is not working. Teachers find themselves in an environment of quantifiable accountability, new mandates, new assessments, and new standards; in turn, a climate of fatigue, inadequacy, and apathy sometimes threatens the potential of teachers’ imagination.
In contrast, Ruch is experiencing a positive ‘climate change’. Focusing on what might be, Ryan finds that his stamina in education is fueled by his dual responsibility of being a visionary teacher-leader in a school climate that values sustainability and community. His excitement in turn fuels students’ excitement. Place-based learning repositions teacher and students together, to examine the possible: how can we make this world a better place today and tomorrow? As teachers, if we are to showcase the glowing strengths of our students, we must do so with imagination and courage. At Ruch, Ryan continues to envision the possible from the best of the present, using place as the context, projects as the engine, and sustainable communities as the goal.
Educators and community members interested in the key features of the Sustainability class and current projects occurring at Ruch School are invited to visit the school website at www.ruchschool.org.
Ryan King teaches science at Ruch Community K-8 School.
Margaret Perrow is a Ruch community member, and Associate Professor of English and Education at Southern Oregon University.
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