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Teach Like A Ranger Part II - The Educational Legacy of Our National Parks

This past month I was able to present on Park Based Learning at the MACUL conference. Over 150 educators attended my session where I shared about the project and the free educational resources provided by the NPS. After the presentation, one teacher said, “This is great, but since when did National Parks become classrooms?” to which I replied, “since when have they not been classrooms?”

Historian Dr. Robin Winks called our park system, “the single greatest university in the world” but unlike a brick and mortar college, you do not have to attend them in person to reap the benefits. Central to the Teach Like A Ranger project is the idea that national parks are an educational asset classroom teachers should utilize regardless of their location or context. Like the teacher at the conference, a majority of classroom teachers are unaware that parks provide educational resources like lesson plans, multimedia content, distance learning opportunities, and access to experts free of charge. And even less are aware of the long history that parks have as educational partners and learning venues that began formally over a century ago but extends back even before recorded time began.

We know that the original occupants of our national parks, the indigenous people who first called them home, had long established methods of educating themselves by using their surroundings. As a society we are just starting to understand and appreciate the non-traditional fount of knowledge developed by these people, a system that will serve as the basis for future posts.

The first time a formal educational program was documented in a national park was around 1886. At that time the National Park system consisted of Yellowstone and was less than a decade old, but already attracting curious visitors with a desire to learn. The first park-based teachers were the US Army infantryman stationed there to protect the park who began giving informal talks to the public as a way to pass the time.

Of particular importance to the formalizing of the NPS’s educational mission was the appointment of the first director, Stephen Mather. One of his first official acts was to establish a National Parks education committee whose objectives were to further the view of national parks as classrooms. An ad-hoc group of national parks superintendents took this a step further a few years later when then adopted a resolution which stated, “the mission of the national parks is not to provide cheap amusement, but healthful recreation and to supplement the work of schools by opening the doors of nature as a laboratory and awakening an interest in natural science.” From then on the education of the public went hand in hand with the recreational interests of the public in our nation’s parks.

The 1935 Historic Sites Act expanded the educational mission of the park from that of only science-based content and into history by “making available to the public facts and information pertaining to American historical and archaeological sites, buildings, and properties of national significance.” Ensuring that future generations understood the importance of places like Gettysburg, Valley Forge, or Little Rock Central High School began in earnest. Also significant was a 1940 ranger conference held at the Grand Canyon which recommended working with schools and teachers by starting outreach programs. Ranger visits into classrooms or distance learning programs trace their roots to this moment.

In the postwar period the pedagogical approach of the park was also developed and formalized. The method of instruction used by educators in the parks is called interpretation, and the most important text to those interested in this pursuit is Interpreting Our Heritage, which was published in 1957. Author and naturalist Freeman Tilden said that the theme of interpretation is “inspiration and provocation rather than simply the transfer of knowledge.” He also went on to say the purpose is to “stimulate a desire to widen one's horizons and interests and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that live behind statements of fact.” As teachers, we want to create in our students desire to know, help them to think critically, and make sure they understand the context where what they are learning matters and makes a real impact.

In 1991 the NPS celebrated its 75th anniversary by convening a symposium in Vail, Colorado where they published the Vail Agenda. In this document, it was stated that parks needed to “reflect on the legitimate role the agency has as a national public education system” and recommended the development of “ a complete K-12 curriculum for schools and teachers to integrate the parks into the classroom.” Today, if you visit a national parks website you may find references to the Parks as Classrooms program, arguably the most important educational initiative connecting national parks to classroom teachers.

Parks as Classrooms had many aims. It called for improving public education by assisting teachers with innovative educational methods. It also encouraged educational programs built through local partnerships between parks and schools. It emphasized the importance of co-creating with teachers to make sure the programs are relevant and sustained, something that helped eventually lead to the Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program. Individual parks also began to collaborate with local or state school systems to ensure that programs were aligned with adopted curriculum. All of this took a great deal of funding, which led to the establishment of the National Park Foundation, the congressional chartered nonprofit partner of the NPS. This organization provides millions in grants to create and support educational programming.

The 1990’s also also saw the creation of the national park services first web presence, and the eventual creation of the education portal which houses thousands of lesson plans and free resources for teachers.

By 2000 the service was ready to enter a new phase of its educational mission, outlined during the Discovery 2000 conference. In a report titled Renewing our Educational Mission, a slew of recommendations and reforms were initiated with the aim of diversifying park educational programs so that, “all Americans regardless of ethnic, socioeconomic, or disability could be connected to national parks.” This led to more inclusive, audience centered programming that lifted up missing or forgotten voices.

More than 100 years after Mather first articulated the educational mission all parks have, the work continues.


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