Creating New Learning Spaces in Schools

By CASEY O’MEARA

In fourteen years of teaching I have seen greater numbers of students disengage with their education. The difficulties students experience through existing curricula are often not the result of the curricula, but occur within its context. Innovative pedagogies combined with community involvement create the greatest chance to reach apathetic students. Education much like agriculture requires time to find the right set of circumstances: proper care, treatment, and investing the effort to nurture. The planning and preparation involved in agriculture and education are necessary in and outside of school. To create, foster, and facilitate in ever-changing environments requires knowledge of the best educational traditions and 21st-century skills. Engaged education required creating new learning spaces and a wide-range of community centered activities. New learning spaces exist on the principles of experiential pedagogy that values students’ personal interests and interactions within a diverse community.

My journey as an educator has always included students who do not possess or adhere to the values and practices found in the mainstream. As a result, I work to find learning spaces for students which does not exist in the current structures of schools. To redefine the “master narrative” requires that learning be extended into communities and beyond existing practices. Community engaged pedagogy contrasts to the traditional models of teaching and learning prevalent today. The formation of pedagogy reflecting communities requires the dominant beliefs of education be reconsidered. Experiential learning through service in communities provides opportunity to reconsider the master narrative.As a need arose for food to support community suppers, students studied food to understand sources of nutrition, surveyed attendees’ food preferences, identified ways to address food security systemically in Addison County, and grew food through sustainable practices on land those attending the suppers could maintain.

Five years ago I began to think what it would be like to engage the agricultural communities of Addison County in learning. A life in agriculture is constant learning; science, history, government, math are all present. A variety of experiences define a life in agriculture and in education. Where I am from, my place in education and resident of Addison County, required weaving together the places of students into their high school experiences as opportunities for learning. Communities living together with relationships necessary as neighbors, not just in proximity but with rapport and appreciation, makes justice social and provides a sense of place and a standard measure of justice (Stanley, 2012). Communities’ cultural wealths recognized through the policies, practices and procedures of a school provide social justice pedagogy towards equity in places outside and inside of schools.

During the first quarter of the school year, 21 students in the MUHS Agricultural Theory course collaborated with community partners to provide services to address a community partners’ need, on-site and through the classroom. The work explored something new, not a replication of something currently already underway. Students’ efforts were facilitated through Elmer Farm, Addison County Solid Waste, and Canopy Timber. Students researched and worked to develop a worm composting system, raise mercury collection awareness, educate the public about illegal trash burning and dumping, propose a viable food security system for Addison County, redesign a garbage truck for organic waste collection, and establish and test a cost (financial and physical) analysis for firewood processing. Students spent time during the beginning of the course working to understand the needs of their community partners and to establish feasible solutions. This experience ended eight weeks later with groups constructing possible models as solutions to the identified need, and a “test” for their creation as they sought feedback for their idea from their community partner.

Experiential learning and community engagement provide students with applied learning opportunities in schools. Engaged learning in communities necessitates that as students are drawn into the real-world they are using skills in it. There is no transfer needed from the classroom. The mastery of skills and abilities are present in the work of the community as the focus for learning. This does not require artificial reproduction in a classroom. [c2] Students may also be better prepared to engage in life after high school having had an experience in an environment of interest to them. The objective for this project was for service to be designed around a need in the community, as well as draw on the skills of students. A mutually beneficial project and reciprocal relationship between the students and the community partners were the most important aspects of this type of experiential learning. Meaningful changes in personal perspectives can occur through Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb, 1984). Experiential Learning Theory allows for transformational learning to discover which factors contribute most to a change in individual perspective.

There is something extraordinary and slightly mysterious about agriculture and education, the transformation, the growth, the experience. Orchestrating these experiences in communities and their “classrooms” is learning. The demonstration of learning, in classrooms and communities, requires understanding learning standards against which all students are held through a variety of environments. As I recognize place, professionally and personally I see Addison County, Vermont; where I am from. As humans, we are products of our experiences; we are the mountain vistas, lakes, stands of maple and green pastures. Agriculture and education provide humbling experiences that given the best of intentions still might prove insufficient. There are events outside of one’s control that agriculture and education cannot account for but still, demand a move to the next season, year, or class.

Experiences within one’s community can provide learning that shifts thinking, and conjures feelings unknown to the learner. One’s impact, in providing life and basic necessities, for another living being is one of the most rewarding experiences of agriculture. Schools are important, and the lessons our kids learn in communities are founded in the reality of life’s successes and failures. Experiential Learning Theory facilitated through community projects provides curricular and instructional techniques supporting engaged learning. Systematic efforts to establish pedagogy, focused on the larger needs of the learner, not just “tutoring”, with the goal of self-sufficiency in time for transitions to secondary school, higher education, or the workplace must be the primary focus for student learning.

As an educator preparing for the next school year, as farmers prepare for their next season, I am left to consider engaged learning in my place.

Is education willing to commit to engaged learning? What does engaged learning have to do with being a member of a community? Does education have a role in preparing students for participation in local, national and global communities?

Engaged learning may be hard for some practitioners to adjust to at first, and for some the pedagogy may prove insurmountable. However, connecting aspects of experiential course designs to identified transformational learning outcomes may provide the possibility to build and facilitate civic engaged learning through communities and their schools.

Thanks to Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell and Jacob Lepkoff at Elmer Farm, Don Maglienti at Addison County Solid Waste, and John Anderson and Alan Rawls at Canopy Timber for partnering with MUHS’s Agricultural Theory class. Thanks as well to Jake Burnham STEM Academy- Design; Engineering & Architecture instructor at Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center for his expertise in SketchUp and 3D printing.

References

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Stanley, T. A. (2012). Building in Place. In Butin, D. W., & Seider, S. (Eds.) The Engaged Campus: Certificates, Minors, and Majors as the New Community Engagement (pp. 153–168). New York, NY: Palgrave.

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