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Dynamic Landscapes, Dynamic Learning


Jericho ElementaryFor me, integrating technology into the curriculum has been adventurous, exasperating, humbling. At times it’s both an out-of-body experience and a zealous rush. I succeed at it because I’m surrounded by twenty, eager third graders, two fine technology educators, two savvy classroom assistants, and a helpful school librarian. 

Three years ago my colleague Eric Barker and I embarked on a place-based education journey sponsored by UVM, Shelburne Farms, and our Chittenden East School District.  Walter Poleman, Amy Powers, and Amy Demarest created community presentations and then a course for teachers based on the geological, cultural, and environmental history of Jericho.  Eric and I created a standards-based study for third graders to take place at our beautiful, new Mills Riverside Park and in our classroom.  For three years, Eric, Denise Larrabee, and I have traveled to the park 10-12 times a school year to study geology and the cultural history of Jericho with every third grader in our school. 

Early in the study we encourage students to figure out what they’re especially curious about in this outdoor classroom, fondly referred to as MRP.  We are hiking, journaling, mapping, listening to guest speakers, experimenting, noting change and proof of human disturbance on the land.  What are you truly curious about?  You need to be curious enough about it to pursue it as a research project.

It’s a huge responsibility for students to come up with a solid, researchable question with ideas and answers to be spelled out in a tri-fold brochure. Each year a copy of every brochure is given to the public library as a way for townspeople to learn more about our park and to encourage them to visit it.

Helping 20 students pursue their 20 questions and helping  each of them create a jazzy, informative brochure is an equally daunting experience for the teacher.  Breathing, stretching and using technology all play a big role in pursuing the answers.  If you ask students the wide open question, “What are you truly curious about?” then you must be willing to accept the questions they ask with enthusiasm, and work with gusto to help them in the pursuit of ideas and answers, even when you might not have a clue exactly where to encourage them to begin.  This year’s questions include:

  • Why is the air colder than the river water? What’s the relationship there? Elizabeth
  • Are there wild turkeys in Mills Riverside Park?  How can I find out where they might be?
  • How many miles/hour is the river traveling? What are scientific ways to measure this? Willy
  • What is a glacier and how did the glacier change MRP? NIcole
  • That’s a sampling.  I remember to breathe and stretch and invite my students to do the same.

Now let me take you into our classroom as we’re in pursuit.

Jericho ElementaryAvery is typing an email note to Christa Alexander, a river specialist with the VT Natural Resources Council explaining his ideas about what he thinks algae is and asking her his question about it.  We met Christa at the river in MRP where she had set up a river-as-habitat lesson for our students. That day at the park the three classes rotated through Christa’s station, then onto Mike Kessler, a tracker, and then to Keith Thompson, a forester.  Christa’s mom is a librarian in our town, Mike is a parent in our school, and Keith is the son of friends of mine. Back to the classroom.  So, Avery is independently emailing – well, almost independently.  Our class has an email address with a password my students know.  They only send email with my permission.  Elizabeth’s writing her email note out on paper because there’s not a computer free.  I will fast type it in later for her, probably after school.  Scott is reading a Montshire Museum website article our librarian found called “Snow Geology”. 

I sit between Tatum and Luke who are typing from their notes, our conversations, and ideas from their thinking and reflecting.  Luke has hardly anything written on his mock-up brochure, a piece of legal-sized Xerox paper folded into brochure shape where students write and draw in draft form.  Each student has a tri-fold brochure template in their personal Word folder that they access and type into text boxes. Two boxes are labeled “bullets” where they will type facts they’ve learned in a bulleted list. Another text box is called “resources” for citing their references (books, people, web sites, maps) and the last box is called “personal writing”, a space for reflective writing about the importance of MRP to them or to our community as a whole.  Ten students in the computer lab with Joanne Finnegan, our technology educator and Chris Kruse, a classroom assistant are working in these text boxes as well as moving photos of themselves at work in MRP from their own picture files, housed in their own Word folder, onto the blank spaces of their templates, sizing and cropping as they go.  I learn ten students is too many at a time at this stage.  Not all students have written enough on their mock-ups to allow Joanne to help them successfully. 


Jericho ElementaryI acknowledge that, we send only 5 students the next time.  Joanne and I discuss the dynamics of this project after school.  It’s clear it’s not a linear project.  Some students are noodlers and want it all done and figured out in draft form on the mock-up before they launch into typing, and others tinker with the parts, want just a little typing on, then choose their photos, and the photos might inspire a personal piece.  For example, Luke sat at his desk in the classroom, blank mock-up brochure in front of him, good email and web site articles digested, but he’s not writing. I knew he had been thinking deeply about the possibility of a hockey rink at MRP and was pondering reasons the first attempt wasn’t successful.

Livy Strong, a guest speaker who’s a community mover and shaker and now head of the Board of Directors, had emailed him a detailed account of a hockey rink attempt two winters ago.  I realized if I invited him to type, his ideas would flow.  That’s exactly what happened.  He has good keyboarding skills and he typed and composed in the same strokes, his writing voice ringing clear.  He finished his text boxes in one sitting.  Tatum’s research on the first white settler, Hannah Brown was slower going, so we had a conference about her reading and the notes I made about her during my own Hannah Brown research in preparation for appearing as Hannah Brown herself at the covered bridge at MRP last fall.  Hannah and her family were the first white people to settle there in the mid 1700s.  Following the conference, Tatum was ready to type.  Back in the computer lab, Joanne was busy scanning in a portion of the Vermont Official State Map that showed the route of the Browns River once it left the park.  The map is on Dominic’s brochure and he highlighted the water’s journey as well as writing about it.  Dominic had adult support tracing its route to the Atlantic Ocean and writing the progression of the water bodies in order.

Working shoulder to shoulder like this, technology skills are passed along student to student, teacher to student, and student to teacher.   We’re all running around on the icons getting what we need and want: 

“How do I move this picture?” 

“Just click on the middle and the size won’t change.”

“Thanks.”  I remember I can make it bigger if I drag it from the corner.”

“Please increase it to 75% so I can see the work better.”

“OK.  How? I don’t see the percent list.”

“Click on that down triangle and you get more of the toolbars.”

“Or you can go to View, Toolbars, and Formatting.”

“How’d you get that blue box around your bullet list?”

“How do I get back to a regular list of bullets without the black frame?  Help!”

“You have to go to Line Color and Fill Color on the bottom tool bar and choose No Line and No Fill.”



“What happened?”

“I don’t want that overlapping text box overlapping my photo.”

“Do you know about this curved arrow? It’s the undo button.”

“Yeah, but it only works one time.”

 “No, you can undo back through several steps. Watch.”  People are gasping at the sight of it. 

“Now forward.”  What relief.


Jericho ElementaryAt these moments there is no hierarchy among us.  Whoever knows, helps, whoever needs help asks and listens.  Some people hear it once and they’ve got it forever, some of us need two or three reminders.  I am surprised and delighted at how many new icon skills I’m acquiring aboard this fast-paced, deadline’s coming work force.

So what are other students doing when I’m locked in conference with one, two, or three of them?  For three weeks students have been given an Academic Grid sheet of nine large squares.  Some are must-do assignments, some of those with deadlines, some are blank for choices.  Lately we’ve been working right through snack time and student’s each choose their own 15 minutes to eat snack.  Me, I eat a huge breakfast and just keep on working. Sometimes we use the lab as we work; sometimes we just have the three computers in our room to use.  Sometimes, there are parent helpers, who have varying ranges of technology skills and sometimes there’s not.  Joanne is in our building two days a week.   Her counterpart, Jeff Wallis is in our building one other day a week, and that’s a help, too.  Both of them fly all over the keyboard and through the files, mixing and matching, sorting and sizing, and they’re great one-to-one or in small groups with students, too.

Another truth of this process is that some days it carries the middle name: STRESS.  Even though I have help from students and adults both, as the teacher I feel as though I’m juggling 20 balls at once, and if any of them drop to the ground, I know they will bounce back up to me, but I don’t have enough hands to catch them, and sometimes my rhythm is off.  One day last week we were ready to go, it was a helper-rich morning, and we all logged on to find the network was down. That lasted for an hour. Breathe and stretch, regroup and get those telephone interviews done.  Emma talked to my neighbor Evergreen Erb about owls in the park. “What’s your experience with seeing owls at MRP?” I hear her ask as I move on to another student. Later, I called John Crock, an archeologist from UVM, who’s surveyed some of MRP, looking for early Abenaki artifacts or clues, and immediately handed the phone to Dan who breathed and took the receiver for his first telephone interview with a person he’d never met.  As he hung up, he was grinning with a “thumbs-up” in response to my own questioning thumb. I noticed his paper was blank.  He hadn’t been able to talk and take notes, too, so I became his scribe as he replayed the conversation from memory. 

Later I called John Crock back to get a few more details and added those to Dan’s sheet of notes. During my very first year of teaching I learned that as a teacher you can ask people for all kinds of help, even people you don’t know.  The worst they can say is, “No, I can’t help you.”  My experience is that almost every time, people say, “Sure, I could help with that.”  We’re all glad to be needed and most people like to share their knowledge when someone’s really listening. This year I’ve encouraged students to email people who have been guest speakers or we know from some community connection, and we’ve been calling people we haven’t met.  It’s been working very well.  Here’s an email exchange between Christa and Avery.   (Read the exchange.)  I was so moved by Christa’s respectful acknowledgement of Avery’s original notion about algae and then her clear, detailed writing that explained the anatomy and life style.  This wonderful flurry of email work with our class came less than a week before her first child was born.

Jericho ElementaryZach’s question is “How can a family have fun at MRP in every season?”  Zach and his family spend lots of recreational time at the park, and they’ve emailed their digital photos to us.  Those photos helped Zach recall the fun they’ve had through the year and get those activities listed.  Zach has Down’s syndrome, and with the able assistance of Alta Dolan he has created a splendid, informative brochure.  He’ll be involved in sharing his work just like his classmates, and they’ll be there to encourage, support, and celebrate his accomplishments. This project works for all students, as long as students are given the opportunity to follow their own questions and interests and the project doesn’t become a linear pursuit to a brochure.

I’ve acknowledged the project was stressful at times, but it keeps getting broader and richer.  Three years ago the brochures had not photos on them.  Now I see how important the photos are to my students.  They get to see themselves at work, see themselves as social creatures, and they can see the joy written on their faces.  The photos that detail the natural world help them recall sensory experiences: the feel of the moss on their cheeks, the crunch of snow under snowshoe, the smell of the mud.  All of this informs their writing. 

Every day we ask students to take intellectual risks, to think out of the box, to express themselves clearly and fully.  As teachers we need to be risk-takers too, thinking not only out of the box, but out of our classroom.  We have to be willing to learn alongside our students, allow them to witness us learning, asking questions, breathing and stretching.  Many years ago my brother watched me gingerly ski down a mountain.  “Sharyl, you’ll never get any better if you never fall down.”  I took his words to heart and now I fly on my cross-country skis.  So, bend your knees a little, lean forward, build your strength, trust yourself and your students.  Breathe and go for the gold. 

Let your teaching fly.


  • Balance technology-integrated projects with technology-free projects
  • Think big and smart and out-of-the-classroom
  • Be clear about boundaries, guidelines, limitations -i.e. no clip art
  • Create a template
  • Understand you will learn and explore alongside your students
  • Mix technology projects with original drawings, live student- performed music, poetry recitation, creative movement
  • Remember that every student is resourceful and will bring insight to the project
  • Breathe and stretch, including your eye muscles
  • Return original work to students
  • Make color copies to give to libraries and for future use as resources
  • Take students on the road to share their work: conferences, libraries, galleries, school board meetings, other germane board meetings
  • Invite parents in to help create and to celebrate what’s accomplished

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