“Ad astra per aspera”

Lisa Bietau
Northview Elementary School
Griffith Drive
Manhattan, Kansas 66502

In the spirit of this Kansas motto (“To The Stars Through Difficulties”) I have proceeded through a year of drastic change and challenge. Assigned a new role of “Assisting Teacher” at a different building whose mascot is a “Northstar” seemed to bring this motto to light. The Northview Northstar children model adaptation as they readily welcomed 40% new staff members to their school including a first-year principal, librarian, secretary and janitor. The resulting planned and unplanned changes created some chaos and resistance in a school whose returning Northstar veteran staff chose to stay in this familiar place while hopeful to avoid the stresses of district change. (This was only half my job! Working with KSU student teachers and preservice programs for the KSU College of Education was the other half...but that is another story!)

My passions for the prairie and developing “sense of place” was dominated by my natural instincts to survive. Perhaps it was my need to develop a “sense of place” and purpose in this new environment called Northview School.

I had agreed to be a leader of teachers and students including the lunchroom staff in a school where I was relearning everything over again including 500 student names, new faculty, technology and even a newfangled copier. My survival plan included conquering many of my weak areas as I rallied to control my tendency to be long on commitments and short on time. I was anxious to apply ideas and curriculum learned at the NEH Summer Institute, but was unsure how this would happen. Remarkably, many of my responsibilities opened new opportunities. Being in charge of the school lunch program did offer me some the chance to explore garbage with the children grades 1-6. (We actually teamed with KSU Food Studies Department and researched waste per student on school lunch compared to sack lunch etc.) Amazingly I was asked to sub in a class that was reading a biography of Rachel Carson that day. In fact, I was thrilled to note that throughout the year I was able to apply many resources and insights gained through the institute in small yet steady doses.

I was able to contribute some insights gained from the institute at a district-level study group that focused on the Konza Prairie. Pat Lamb and I synthesized the “People, Prairie and the Plain Institute” experience by bringing the books that we felt would be of interest to the group and gave testimony to the richness of our experience last summer by highlighting the intensive training we received. (We did mention the comprehensive reading list, writing challenges and the variety of topics explored.) We elaborated on the topics we investigated that were seen as relevant to the Konza Site. We read to them selections from Prairie Chronicles and A Sand County Almanac and discussed how these resources might be incorporated into prairie study K-12. The historical perspective has always had a place in our study group’s inquiry. Our discussion that night allowed for an expansion of future topics and visibly excited the group to read further on many new topics suggested.

Any unusual jobs that were beyond the scope of traditional teaching or administrative job descriptions were given to me to manage this year including that of planning the annual “Earth Day Celebration.” I welcomed this opportunity to orchestrate some action in the area of environmental topics outlined in district curriculum and was hoping this would be an opportunity for me to include the historical perspective. After targeting some areas of our curriculum at each grade level and recruiting some interest, the project’s momentum was interrupted by a phone call from the city office saying that our school had been chosen to hold the Arbor Day Celebration as part of the “Tree City USA Program.” It was suggested this be incorporated into our Earth Day Celebration which would include a proclamation from the Mayor of Manhattan and the history of Arbor Day. Seldom do I have difficulty with integration; however, the limited time resources and a lack of tradition in my school for linking studies between grade levels forced me to “KISS” the other ideas good-bye this year (KISS=Keep It Simple and Significant!). This allowed the tree be the focus of our celebration this year and dedicated next year’s celebration to the theme of “Prairie Pride: Developing A Sense of Place.” The “Tree Focus” did provide an opportunity for me to expose the staff to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac by sharing excerpts relating to trees.

The Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, with the encouragement of the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University, has developed a community support group called “Friends of the Konza” who gathered financial support to expand the community outreach. Serving on the Educational Committee I participated in the forming of a new position to guide and enhance the experiences of our students as they explore the prairie at this location. My perspective has been greatly broadened from the summer institute as has my ability to contribute to the resources and expectations of the Konza Educational Program. This helped us to design a new position of environmental educator on the Konza Staff.

Second semester I realized that it would be productive for me to put my energy into formulating a plan of “action research” in several classrooms next year related to developing a “sense of place” in young prairie people. As a promoter of teachers conducting investigations into their own practice and sharing findings within the profession, I plan to model this process by conducting an investigation next year with fourth graders who traditionally are exposed to environmental awareness. History and Environmental studies are typically taught in isolation. Next year we will attempt to integrate these topics and explore the environment through a historical perspective. (We hope to investigate beyond the recycling bin!)

Next year’s plans include surveying the students in the fourth grade to determine their environmental and historical literacy. This will be followed by ongoing opportunities to explore their environment and stories of the past. A semester-long exploration of the land and culture of this area will be planned with two classroom teachers. Culmination will be in April with the “Prairie Pride” celebration. On this day students’ writing and performances will be shared with the entire school. A follow-up survey and student performance on learning targets will be compiled and analyzed. This will be summarized and sent for publication in a journal of “Action Research” titled “Teaching and Change” (Corwin Press) in May. The impact of the project will include enhancing the environmental literacy of the children as well as modeling for the staff how environmental history can be applied to the present curriculum. This should enhance our study of the human interaction with the environment in the past and present while promoting responsible care in the future.

Although few people at the institute will be surprised that I am a year behind in applying my “Action Plan,” the delay will allow me another summer to absorb and synthesize the wonderful ideas and resources presented at our last institute. Thanks to everyone who made this opportunity possible.

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