On Fertile Ground: WAEE
by Sandy Vander Velden
Just as plants need fertile ground in which to grow, learners grow best in safe and supportive, or fertile, learning environments. I believe that all students can learn and have the ability to learn at high levels. Students, like newly transplanted seedlings, sometimes need to be supported for a while until they establish root systems, that is, the ability to become self-directed learners. This is the role of the teacher to provide necessary support. However, these support structures are kept in place only for as long as they are needed, lest they stunt student growth.
Diversity in culture, language, experiences, economics, and ethnicity bring strength to a learning environment just as diversity of species creates a healthy forest. All students need to learn concepts in multiple contexts. This belief has resulted in my co-founding the Fox River Academy, environmental charter school in the Appleton Area School District. My colleagues and I developed a curriculum in which students are immersed in hands-on, minds-on investigations in nature and the environment. Reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies are all anchored on environmental topics related to the Fox River and its watershed. This allows for deep understanding of content.
No plant grows under artificial light as well as it could in natural conditions. The same holds true for students. I believe in providing authentic learning experiences for my students. The instruction students receive prepares them to be stewards of the environment and the community. An example of this is a rain garden project, in which students learned ways to conserve water and to control run-off. In this project, I designed math lessons in which students applied the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the surface area of a roof, and determine the volume of run off from the roof of the building. Science lessons were developed in which students examined the composition of the soil onto which the run-off falls. Students designed, developed, planted, and will maintain a rain garden on school grounds.
The seventh and eighth grade students in my class quickly learn that they are responsible for their own learning. Like plants, receiving energy from the sun’s rays, will create their own food through photosynthesis, students, through active engagement and inquiry, will create meaning. I also believe that we are all teachers and scholars throughout our lives. My students have frequent opportunities to teach one another what they have learned and know. To be able to teach, students must understand content and processes at very high levels. I guided students in the creation of signs and brochures which will be used for community outreach and storm water education. We will host other school groups and classes with hands-on exploratory lessons, all using our rain garden. This service learning completes the learning cycle where students become the experts, or the teachers.
Just as I believe learning must be relevant and be meaningful for my students, I recognize that educators have the same need to grow as learners. For me, WAEE has been the fertile ground on which new ideas have been sown, developing practices have been cultivated, and the sharing of ideas has resulted in the cross-pollination and creation of high quality lessons. Members of the WAEE are truly the most talented and dedicated professional environmental educators any where. Many wonderful friendships have been formed through my participation as a member and it is time for me to give back to an organization that has given me so much. For this reason, I am privileged to serve as a WAEE board member.
Sandy Vander Velden received her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Master’s Degree in Reading Education from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She serves as Past President of the Wisconsin State Reading Association. Sandy is also actively involved with the Wisconsin Green Schools Network and the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network.
Reading, biking, gardening, and travel are interests that Sandy pursues in her free time. She lives near Medina on a farmette with her three daughters.