A Watershed Year

— Learning in an Authentic, Meaningful, Interdisciplinary Environment


It is no surprise that children learn best by doing. With more than 16 years in a leadership role in experiential education, establishing partnerships, and guiding and supporting hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in authentic learning, time and again I have witnessed this success first hand. There is also no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives. In using this approach students come to realize that what they are doing in school really does have meaning. This meaningful student engagement not only results in deeper learning but can often lead to a lifelong commitment to conservation.

When students see the relevancy in what they are learning — for example, to discover a better way to filter drinking water or to design and engineer a more effective fish ladder — it stands to reason that they simply want to know more in order to be able to do more. And, when they seamlessly integrate across subjects and spend ample time working to find solutions to real problems that will improve lives, fulfill needs, and make our world a better place, learning reaches a much deeper level.

Whether describing this learning process with terminology such as STEM, STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, or EIC, which uses the Environment as an Integrating Context and the process used by my former team, it is the alignment of the content (the “what”) and the process (the “how”) that drives these successful learning models. Integration is critical as it is the bonding of content and process that strengthens the structure of learning for students. Still, in many schools, this process occurs mostly within a given science class. However, research has proven that rather than teach this process in isolation, teachers and schools should model the 21st Century skills we want our students to acquire by collaborating, cooperating, and communicating across disciplines to make learning more meaningful in all subjects.

Just one example of authentic, interdisciplinary learning that was so successful during my years as a charter school CEO was “A Watershed Year,” when each year our students were immersed in a year-long, interdisciplinary study of the Delaware River Watershed. Students were challenged to answer the overarching question: Where does your drinking water come from and where does your wastewater go? They began by investigating the history, geography, geology, science, chemistry and ecology of our local freshwater streams and the surrounding watershed. During their downstream journey, students interacted with experts in local history, drafted a “Water Bill of Rights,” debated ecology vs economy, conducted field studies with the Philadelphia Water Department, mapped out their local watershed, and learned from the Army Corp of Engineers how to effectively engineer a dam.

Students also documented their journey and presented their findings to various audiences. Utilizing technology, they even created an interactive, informational walking tour for visitors hiking along the trails at the local historical society. The students’ Watershed Year ended by exploring the Delaware Estuary and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems where they discovered the ecological diversity of aquatic life in these brackish and saltwater environments. Their final real-life adventure in learning was a three-hour voyage aboard a trawling vessel out of Cape May, New Jersey where they casted nets into the ocean — their ocean — and hauled in their catch, all while working side-by-side with a team of marine ecologists. (Did I mention that this is a 4th grade experience?)

In the end, our state standardized test scores reflected the success of our EIC Model and its interdisciplinary framework. More importantly, the scores represented how immersing students in deep-dive, long-term, interdisciplinary research projects can be a successful approach for all students. Our 4th Grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Science scores averaged between 90% and 96% Advanced/Proficient. Special education students and historically underperforming students thrived in this atmosphere of real-world, interdisciplinary learning. As with the initial EIC research conducted by the State Education and Environment Roundtable (www.seer.org) in schools throughout the country, our own EIC program was proven to close the achievement gap.

Moving from teaching in isolation to learning across disciplines, my vision was clear and that was for us to design and implement the very first, integrated K-8 curriculum framework using the research-based process of EIC (the “how”) and the rich and rigorous content outlined in the Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology (the “what”). My firm belief was (and still is) that a powerful and deep understanding of content coupled with a meaningful and authentic process of student engagement results in deeper learning for children. To quote How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, “Students must have opportunities to learn with understanding. Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area must be replaced with in-depth coverage of a fewer topics that allows key concepts in the discipline to be understood.”

When teachers become proficient in dissecting standards and exposing the content embedded within them, they are better prepared to design comprehensive units of study that engage and empower students. Utilizing the E&E standards for content, the interdisciplinary, student-centered process of the EIC Model, a strong emphasis on 21st Century skills, and backwards mapping, a team of teachers and I set out on a journey to do, what some believed was impossible. After contacting the state, we learned that there was no K-8 curriculum framework like this ever developed in Pennsylvania. Our guide was Dr. Patricia Vathis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Dr. Vathis is an expert in standards, interdisciplinary learning, and Understanding by Design. She supported us, not only with her expertise and resources, but with funding to develop this framework knowing the final product could be shared throughout the state. Her investment in us, and in the initial four-year curriculum development process, allowed our team to become architects of knowledge as we built a solid foundation of teaching and learning that was unlike any other.

As a K-8 team, we began the curriculum building process by going through each standard statement and unpacking and understanding the content. After completing E&E, we moved on to Science and Technology, and then to Social Studies, which included History, Geography, and Civics and Government. We identified the content that “anchored” each standard statement and how each grade would be responsible for either introducing that content (I), reinforcing it (R), or bring the content to proficiency (P). We started with E&E and progressed through each set of standards until we completed them.

As we were completing each matrix and assigning a color code to each grade, we were also looking for opportunities to connect content across disciplines to create big ideas for comprehensive, interdisciplinary units of study. As we were going through this process, we could see a pattern begin to develop. From this, we decided that K-4 would focus locally, while grades 5–8 would branch out and take a more global perspective. Fourth grade was a testing year for science and our goal was to ensure proficiency by then. In grade 5, we introduced a higher level of learning (global air, global land, global water) to ensure proficiency by 8th grade; the next time our students would be tested in science.

The 5–8 team had a more interesting challenge than K-4 since students were not assigned to the same teacher for each subject. They effectively rose to this challenge by designing units of study that spanned over the course of several months. One unit was titled, “Disease and its Impact on Philadelphia.” In Science class, as students were investigating how vector species transmit diseases, in Language Arts the students were reading the book Fever, by Laurie Halse Anderson. In Social Studies, the students were mapping out historic Philadelphia and reading and writing about a time when the toll of the yellow fever epidemic took so many lives. In Technology, students were creating their own newspaper from this time period and documenting the impact of the disease by writing obituaries and providing updated (historic) information to the community. Finally, in Art, students were designing a 2-D protist from which they would then create a 3-D model. As students were learning across disciplines, teachers were actively collaborating across disciplines. Amazing!

It made perfect sense to us that if you were to develop an integrated and student-centered curriculum from the ground up, and one that would shape the framework for active, authentic, community-based, science teaching and learning, the E&E standards were a perfect foundation on which to build. Along with cross-curricular, real-world, rigorous content, E&E offers students the opportunity to engage in service learning and civic action, creating responsible and caring global citizens as evidenced in the introduction to the E&E standards which reads as follows:

“Environment and Ecology is grounded in the complexity of the world we live in and our impact on its sustainability. The human interactions with the ecosystem and the results of human decisions are the main components of this academic area. Environment and Ecology examines the world with respect to the economic, cultural, political and social structure as well as natural processes and systems. This integration across systems is what sets this academic area apart from all others.

Environment and Ecology places its main emphasis in the real world. It allows students to understand, through a sound academic content base, how their everyday lives evolve around their use of the natural world and the resources it provides. As we move into a more technologically driven society, it is crucial for every student to be aware of his/her dependence on a healthy environment. The 2lst century will demand a more sophisticated citizen capable of making sound decisions that will impact our natural systems forever.”

For us, these standards allowed for the perfect starting point for curriculum development and standards alignment since 70% of E&E standards were aligned with the content in the PA standards in Science, and 50% of E&E standards were aligned with the PA standards in Social Studies. With a solid foundation of content in place, and interdisciplinary connections between these content areas already aligned, infusing the process of literacy was relatively easy by selecting grade-level classroom libraries and novels that directly aligned with the EIC/E&E content. Starting in Kindergarten, content outlined in the E&E standards became the foundation for literacy acquisition and was used to generate enthusiasm in our youngest readers. As they were learning how to read, they were connecting what they were reading to the world around them. This standards-based content created a rich vocabulary for students to build upon as they progressed through the curriculum. For example, the topic of Agriculture was introduced in Kindergarten and then reinforced in the upper grades. Kindergarten libraries were rich in vocabulary on this topic with books such as: From Cow to Ice Cream, The Sheep Book, Harvey the Harvester, The Milk Makers, and many others. Kindergarten learning was enriched by field studies to places such as the Milky Way Farm.

The Progress of Education Reform reaffirms this early science literacy approach. “Science interactions support vocabulary development by exposing children to new words in meaningful context. Exposure to rich vocabulary words predicts vocabulary development, which predicts reading achievement.” And, the importance of early science literacy acquisition is summed up nicely in this report, “Education leaders should turn a critical eye on the science teaching and learning expected for early education in their school, district or state, then determine whether there is any evidence that children and their teachers are receiving the instructional opportunities they need and deserve.”

Once our team completed a matrix for each of the standards, time was allocated for teachers to meet and plan with their grade level partners and across grade levels and disciplines. Everyone worked from the matrices they, themselves, created. Schedules were designed to allow for team-teaching so teachers could see and hear how each overarching topic was being presented through the lens of another discipline. Professional development was meaningful, focused, and ongoing. Each summer our teachers would attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s Institute for Environment and Ecology. This Institute was a week long, residential learning experience that took place both indoors and outdoors.

Enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers, through deep-rooted learning experiences, inspired our teachers to become even better architects of knowledge. While standards dictated “what” would be taught, the process of learning was designed and reinforced by our teachers. They used content — standards-based content — and best practices in teaching and learning to drive instruction. These experiences not only resulted in academic achievement but ensured outcomes of global citizenship through student empowerment and environmental civic action. By creating this framework and implementing the EIC process, the research-based process proven to close the achievement gap was accomplished. Our K-8, EIC framework was the solid academic foundation on which we grew our program from 150 students to over 700.

Education is a second career for me that started at age 40 when I first stepped into a college classroom as a student. My interest in environmental science, and my wanting to learn all that I could, placed me on a path to an extremely rewarding second career. While on this journey of learning I not only rediscovered my own connection with the natural world, but it was clear that who was teaching me, and how I was learning, was as equally responsible for my success as a student as was my own effort. My environmental science teachers were committed — heart and head — to their subject matter. This commitment was something I carried with me to my career and my leadership role in education.

In his book, Accelerate, John Kotter writes how the “heart and head” need to be inseparable if great leaders want to succeed in reaching, what might otherwise be thought of as, insurmountable goals. “Most people won’t want to help if you appeal only to logic…you must also appeal to how people feel. As have all the great leaders throughout history, you must speak to the genuine and fundamental human desire to contribute to some bigger cause, to take a community or an organization into a better future. If you can provide a vehicle that can give greater meaning and purpose to their efforts, amazing things are possible.” Indeed they are.

Throughout the years, our interdisciplinary curriculum evolved, and was continuously revised by our teachers. Success was contagious! Our teachers and students came to see how the study of the environment and of our basic needs as humans — the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat — was a common bond we all shared. More importantly, all of our students were energized with this kind of interdisciplinary, authentic approach to learning and came to realize how doing meaningful work to protect and conserve our basic needs was not only engaging to them, but also relevant to us all.

This article is dedicated to Dr. Patricia Vathis, retired Environment and Ecology Coordinator for the PA Department of Education, and the incredible teachers and staff (you know who you are) who made the impossible possible.

About the Author

Jean Wallace is the retired CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K-8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning and its academic achievement.

Education is a second career for Jean.  Jean’s first career was in law enforcement, where she proudly served the City of Philadelphia as one of the first 100 women to be appointed as a Police Officer. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast difference between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.

Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. (www.earthforce.org). As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in student-directed, service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues.

Although retired from full-time education, Jean believes that learning is a life-long journey and not a destination. As such, she is pursuing her Doctoral in Educational Leadership with the goal to support innovative teacher education programs that create the next generation of great teachers.


learn morecwi summer instituteswhat is service-learning?

We Can Support Your Efforts at the Local School Level
CWI supports local educators, from schools and communities across the U.S. to international schools and organizations. Our work with K-16 schools and organizations includes extended site based PD, workshops and retreats — from Boston to Oregon, and from Europe to Asia. email us

MORE from the Journal Essays l Articles l Reflections l Reviews l Literacy Corner l Events

click image to subscribe at no cost.

© copyright 1995–2018,
Community Works Institute (CWI). All rights reserved.
CWI is a non-profit educational organization

CONTENT USE POLICY We support and participate in cross publication partnerships. But we do ask that you contact us for permission and properly identify the source. No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained here remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement.

About cwiblog

Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
This entry was posted in Environmental Education, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply