Forging Partnerships Outside the Classroom

Sometimes teaching can cause tunnel vision. Teachers often look inside their school district, building, or classroom for resources to help their students learn, neglecting the partnerships outside the immediate school community that can provide invaluable resources.

One such partnership was forged between a school district, a local park district, and a university.

In the Beginning

The partnership began at the university, where the middle childhood teacher education program applied to the Cleveland Foundation for grant money available to foster relationships between organizations within the community.

The next step was to find a partner in the community. The university teacher education program personnel approached the local park district because it had an Educational Learning Center (ELC) with classrooms and hosted school groups for field trips. The partnership made sense.

The park district had recently unearthed a set of artifacts from an old chair factory located along Jordan Creek and wanted to incorporate it into a learning experience for students visiting the park. Having established this initial partnership, the program and park district asked a local school district to participate in this project as well.

The curriculum director and all of the fourth grade teachers and students in the district agreed to be partners on this project. The park district then invited these teachers and students to a day-long visit to the ELC as part of their curriculum.

Goals and Project Overview

Each organization involved had the same overarching mission: to help students learn. However, each organization also brought its own goals to the table.

The school district is a large, suburban, high-poverty, highly diverse district, and its students don’t often have the opportunity to experience other environments. The primary goal of the school district, then, was to provide its students with a learning experience outside the classroom.

The goals of the park district were to expose students to the resources available in the parks and educate them about the history of the community.

The university teaching program’s goals were to give its students the opportunity to work with a different student population and learn to incorporate learning experiences outside the classroom into lesson plans.

Once each organization was on board with the project and the goals were established, the multifaceted, year-long project began.

First, the university students who would be planning and teaching the lessons took their science methods courses at the park’s ELC, where they could immerse themselves in the park setting and access the resources provided by park staff.

Using these resources, the university students developed an interdisciplinary unit based on the artifacts discovered at the site of the chair factory. The theme of this unit was how “place” shapes society, and it highlighted how the creek and local environment affected settlements, factories, and transportation using artifacts to draw conclusions. The unit included three sets of lessons for the fourth grade students to complete before, during, and after they visited the park.

In the spring, all the fourth grade teachers from the school district received a copy of the lesson plans created by the university students and park staff along with a kit that included all the necessary materials for the unit. Teachers were asked to use the lessons and materials to prepare their students with foundational knowledge before they arrived at the ELC.

After the teachers had adequate time to use the kits, all of the fourth grade students (approximately 300 students) took a field trip to the park where park staff and university students led class for the day. After the visits, the fourth grade teachers completed the post-visit lessons with their students and took a survey about their experience with the project.

Types of Lessons

The unit as a whole covered multiple content areas and topics, but all material related back to the artifacts found at the chair factory. For example, students created their own water wheel models to discover how a water wheel produces energy. The university students and park staff then expanded on this experience to explore the difference between kinetic and potential energy.

Another lesson involved students reading actual letters written by a young girl who lived near the factory when it was in operation. This lesson gave clues to her daily life and social perspective. Students made ink using crushed berries which they loaded into fountain pens to write their own letters.

To explore the evolution of transportation, university students and park staff had the fourth-graders solve “movement scenarios.” For example, students had to create solutions to a scenario in which a tall tree falls over railroad tracks and blocks the train. After all the scenarios had solutions, students weighed the pros and cons of different modes of transportation and compared them to each other.

The final lesson involved using a bed sheet to represent an area of land. Students threw pom-poms into the air to simulate rain drops, observed where they landed on the sheet, and discussed where the water would drain and the role watersheds play in the environment.

Benefits of the Project

When the project was complete, university faculty collected the evaluations from the fourth grade teachers and surveyed the university students to evaluate the benefits of the project.

Overall, feedback on the project was positive and all partners reported that their initial goals were met. The fourth grade teachers said that the experience in the park and the accompanying lessons were a great opportunity for their students to make connections between the community and what they were studying in the classroom. They appreciated that the pre- and post-field trip lesson plans were accompanied by all necessary materials.

Feedback from the park district was also positive: the activities that were created based on the artifacts are now part of their permanent catalog of field trip options for other school districts. However, their greatest accomplishment was exposing students to the resources that the park has to offer.

The university students involved in the project also reported benefits, including the opportunity to work alongside park staff in an out-of-class environment while learning how to create opportunities for students to build upon in the traditional classroom. This dispelled their previously held beliefs that subjects such as science and social studies are best taught in a classroom that is teacher-led and based on a textbook.

The university students also reported that working with this diverse student population helped them better understand how students’ backgrounds can affect their learning.

Just the Beginning

An overarching result of this project was the relationships formed. Before this project, interactions among the participating groups were either nonexistent or limited in scope. During the experience of working together, each organization learned first hand about the resources the other had to offer and how to use these resources to meet their own individual goals.

A framework has been created to establish future partnerships with other organizations. As this network of community members continues to grow, so will the positive outcomes on student learning!