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Park Based Learning - 11 Ways To Leverage Parks In Your Classroom

When developing lessons, we all know to make sure to be clear about the "what" and the "why," but how often do we try to connect our students to the "where"? Teachers who can match learning goals with a place find that learning automatically becomes more authentic. Even if the place is too far off to visit, being able to point to a location and say, "you use this here" can be the difference between a student staying engaged and disconnecting. Finding curricular connections in a national, state, or county park or historic site can create opportunities for visitation or provide the teacher with free educational resources

Including a park in your PBL project is a win-win for both the teacher and the staff who manage the park in multiple ways, but that being said, don't expect to just cold call a park and have the staff jump up and down with eagerness to join in on your project. Many parks have few educational staffers or have to split their staff between multiple sites due to funding. Much like building a classroom culture that supports PBL, you'll need to do so with parks and historical sites as well since some may have little experience with such partnerships.

Here are 11 ideas you can offer to parks regarding ways they can support your next PBL project.

Lower Commitment Options – Excellent for introducing yourself, your students, and PBL to your local park's staff.

1) Outside Experts by Email

An excellent place to begin is to ask for help with questions. Most park staff (including all of those who work on federal land) have an email address that you can use to send them your students' questions. Asking a ranger if they'd be willing to be an "expert at a distance" is something the majority would be willing to do and is well within the educational mission of our parks and public lands. Maybe they'd be willing to spend twenty or so minutes answering student questions sent via email? Start by calling the visitor center and inquire about who is the education program coordinator.

2) Assessor or Panelist

Rangers and park interpreters have a wealth of knowledge that they can use to help assess and evaluate student work. This doesn't just include content, but also success skills like communication and creativity in which all rangers receive extensive training. You can have them offer criticism and suggestions to students on how to improve the project they are building. If students are designing something for the park itself, such as interpretive panels or visitor center installations, this kind of feedback is very authentic to the process.

3) Create an Authentic Park Resource

The idea that the work students do matters outside the classroom or mimics real-life work by professionals is key to strong PBL's. Have students investigate what challenges does the park face? Is there a service or a resource they lack that another park has and does not have the time to create? Need ideas? What park wouldn't like a self-guided audio tour that can be downloaded by visitors? ELA? How about writing up a brochure for printing or download that explores some aspect of the park through narrative writing? World language teacher? Maybe your students can translate park materials or offer a more diverse perspective on events or natural processes by relating them to the ecosystem of the country of your languages' of origin?

4) Displaying Projects in Visitor Center

Once a project has been completed, students need to be given an audience outside of the classroom where they can present their findings or explain their process and product. Being able to present it to the public at the park that relates to the content is much better and an easy ask if you agree to drop off and help display the projects. Try to find a way to make your display interactive so that students will have some way of knowing that their work was enjoyed or observed by the public, perhaps a reaction book or a post-it wall with a discussion question that can be brought back and used for reflection. An example of a great project display is this one from Kennesaw Mountain NBP outside Atlanta, Georgia, where the community was challenged to capture in images what parks meant to them and share them in a public display.

5) Kid-terpretation

Interpretation is the process by which national park staff inform and connect the public to park resources. This instructional style emphasizes skills like communication, creativity, and empathy while de-emphasizing judgment and opinion sharing. Given this, students could design an interpretive walk for a specific audience (younger visitors, those interested in a particular subject, etc.) or to help people learn about an event, person, or place. Interpretive talks by students can be shared via YouTube with park staff, potentially creating opportunities for kids to lead the talk in the park itself.

6) Classroom Traveling Trunks

Younger learners love tangible things to interact with and touch while they learn. Having your own collections in the classroom is excellent, so long as you have the time, money, and space to store them, so many teachers turn to "Parks in a Pack" or "Traveling Trunk" programs offered by many state and national park units. For a small fee (or sometimes for free), parks will send you a crate filled with all sorts of items that can be used to augment learning experience in the classroom. Parks like Glacier NP have differently themed trunks you can reserve depending on what you're studying, but don't just limit yourself to looking at state and federal parks. Many private or non-profit museums also offer trunks, like The International Wolf Center. Check with your local museum. If they don't have a program, see if they'd be interested in working with you to start one? It might make a great PBL project!

7) Distance Learning

There is no substitute for getting students into a park so they can learn through experiential techniques and lessons, but sometimes the barriers are just too much to overcome. Communication technologies such as Facetime and Skype have made teleconferencing, even outside, relatively easy. Parks that don't offer a set program may be willing to informally call in as part of an entry event or to answer questions from students. If you're looking for a specific park or a particular subject, check out our Distance Learning Directory, which lists most of the programs offered by National Parks.

More Involved Options

8) Parks as Classroom Visits

If you can't bring the kid to the park, bring the park to the kid. Classrooms lucky enough to be within reasonable driving distance can schedule visits from interpreters and rangers. Many park units have education programs that are portable and can serve as entry events, or as a substitute for teacher-led direct instruction. Some, like Blue Ridge Parkway, have an extensive menu of topics like history, science, and even music. These visits are also great opportunities to connect face to face with someone who might be willing to play a more significant role in your project.

9) Informational Table

Students can be great resources for visitors to a park, especially if they have been studying it thought maps, media, and research on park features. Asking if students could set up a table and assist visitor center volunteers is a small ask, especially if you provide the kids, chaperones, and some information that they can hand out. This is an excellent way for students to develop communication skills as well!

10) Site Visits

Ultimately, there are few things better for learning then visiting a park or historic site. Getting students to connect their learning to a real place where they can explore scientific processes, historic ruins, or reflect on the locations mentioned in literature leads to much deeper learning. Most parks are willing to schedule visits for school groups, and many have partner organizations, such as the Tremont Institute in the Great Smoky Mountains, that help facilitate educational programs. Working with these groups is better than just showing up with a worksheet and set them loose where they "see everything, learn nothing."

11) Teacher Ranger Teacher Program

Knowing someone on the "inside" can open up all sorts of great opportunities for student engagement. If you don't happen to have a ranger in the family, there is a great program offered by the Nat' l Park Service and the Univ. of Colorado called Teacher-Ranger-Teacher. The focus of the program is to link park units to teachers by providing teachers with opportunities to develop lessons by taking on the role of a ranger. Teachers who apply will be placed in one of the participating parks for the summer and can receive graduate credit, have living expenses covered, and even receive a stipend for their efforts!


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