Using the Community to Improve Test Scores and Learning
by Alan Haskvitz
National Teachers Hall of Fame
The St. Lawrence River was close to the school and so I walked the students in my special needs class to its banks. Most of the students had seen it everyday of their lives, but had never seen it. I took them close to the shoreline and had them look at the small fish and close their eyes to listen to rush of the water. I threw a piece of driftwood into the water. A student with a watch stood 100 meters downstream and called out the length of time it took to travel that distance. I threw another piece this time further out and they did the same. When we returned I showed them how to measure the speed of the river and noted that this is what sailors did in olden times to check their speed. The students found the water moved away from the shore. I asked them to draw the feeling the sound of the river gave them. After the spring thaw, the students returned to the river and instead of the fish there was trash and they didn’t like it.
In these two field trips a lifetime of environmental learning took place. Upset at what they had seen they turned to the community, created posters to display in stories, took photos, and wrote letters. The people responded and the primary goal of all learning was felt by all as the students were empowered to use what they had learned to make changes in society.
So too, my life as a teacher with a hidden agenda began. Today, nearly 40 years later I am now teaching social studies at a middle school and my agenda is still being followed, but no longer hidden thanks to the many teachers and organizations who have found that the community and the students need not be mutually exclusive.
My students have been involved in countless other activities to educate and improve the conservation of resources. Many times my students have been ahead of their times. In 1988 my students wrote a letter to the United Nations asking for a Day of Atmosphere Awareness. The return letter from Arthur Zegelbone promised that the United Nations was aware of the “greenhouse effect” and that there was going to be a World Environment Day on June 5th in Brussels. As we know, little was done since that time, but the students saw the problem and took action. A few years later they wrote and passed legislation that required all state funded building in California to use xeriscape landscaping to conserve water. The bill had overwhelming support. But that wasn’t enough.
After the first encounter with the United Nations they put together an entry that Target selected as one of the best environmental programs in the nation and they traveled to New York to contact members about their concerns. Target and the local water district paid for the trip and expenses.
The students noted the large amount of wasted paper at the school and came up with a method of self-sorting the trash. Not satisfied, they started a conservation club that recycles most everything at the school from printing cartridges to eye glasses. They hold community outreach events to educate adults and students from other schools as well. They started a Monarch butterfly garden to provide a safe home for these migrating butterflies as well as a Feed the Homeless garden that was fertilized using compost from a bin they had won at a country sponsored environmental conference. The recycle bins came from the city.
Nothing the struggle of the grey wolf, they raised funds to sponsor a young pup at Wolf Mountain Sanctuary. Noting that toilets were one of the main uses of water in a household they worked with the local water district to provide water displacement kits for city residents with the goal of saving six million gallons of water a year. To help residents understand the beauty of using landscaping that didn’t require a lot of water they designed and maintain a demonstration garden that shows these plants to residents.
Of course, some of their ideas met dead-ends because those in charge didn’t understand the value of their ideas. Supported by many water districts in the Western United States, they promoted the idea to taking a large trailer containing environment friendly plants to display at malls and major events. In that way, the garden would come to the people. The idea lost the competition, but the students learned a lesson about the difficulty of getting others to see the need to conserve.
Noting that need they decided to see how such changes were made. They decided to find out what was required for citizens to vote and were shocked to discover that they couldn’t understand the voting poll rules. They got a copy of the rules, rewrote them. and asked the Country Registrar of Voters to look at them. The Registrar accepted them and the changes were implemented making it easier for people to vote. They did the same with the state voter registration forms. Millions of California voters were impacted by their efforts.
They worked with the local police department to do safety belt checks and earn the community honors from the National Highway Safety Association. The police also taught the students how to fingerprint and they did this for all incoming students.
Working with local leaders they created a website that enabled communities to compare themselves to other communities in several key areas such as library books, business license fees, medical care facilities, and park space among others. It was judged to be of such value that the students were sent to Italy to represent the United States in international competition.
The students worked with the city landscape staff and came up with a plan which was presented at a City Council meeting. The plan was designed to save the city several million dollars in just a few years.
Making current events more meaningful, the students devolved and printed a newsletter that contained the highlights of every day’s events and faxed it to the local maternity wards where the nurses duplicated it and gave it the mothers of those children born on that day.
There is much more, but the most vital thing I have learned is that having students apply their learning to real world concerns make the lesson more meaningful for them and thus improves society. Perhaps most telling is that despite doing all these projects my student’s test scores have gone up dramatically. My first year at the school the state average for social studies was in the 22nd percentile. Getting the students involved in the next three years helped drive the score to the 94th percentile. Today, 25 years later, the state has a new test but the results are the same. Teaching at a school with seven subcategories; four minorities, ESL, low income, and special education, my students have consistently been at the top of the state test results even compared with gifted magnet schools. Indeed, of my 170 students, nearly 99 percent finished at the top of the State’s yearly standardized test. In other words, the community can provide the motivation to help improve test scores.
The point is that teaching students about the environment by using the community is not mutually exclusive from teaching them subject matter. Just as my special education students did 40 years ago, using the environment as a foundation for a learning lesson encourages them to see the importance of what they are studying and self-motivates them. The results are a win-win-win for the students, society, and test scores.
Editor’s Note: Al’s students also helped Joy Hakim write one of her The Story of Us books. And the student’s Powerpoints on the Westward Movement were accepted by the California Oregon Trail Association to be shared with others as well as the DMV. They also worked to put the Parklands Initiate on the California ballot, created a website on The History of Government that a professor at Harvard had high praise for and created a website that helps others with the State social studies standards. They also created story tapes for the Junior Blind. Finally, there interest in cars resulted in their findings on driving more efficiently being posted on the DMV site and they published their own textbooks. He was selected one of the 100 most influential educators in the world and earned the coveted Cherry International Teaching Award, the only classroom teacher so honored. His students have earned trips to Sea World, Disneyland, CNN, Busch Gardens, Washington DC, New York, the United Nations, and Rome where they represented the USA in technology competition.