/ Using Community Resources to the Fullest
    1. Margaret Holtschlag is an elementary teacher in the Haslett Public Schools. She was Michigan Teacher of the Year 1999-2000 and National Teacher of the Year 2000 Finalist.return to text

    At precisely 9 o'clock on Monday morning, a school bus deposits 25 fourth graders from Haslett at the front door of the Michigan Historical Museum. These children are the first school group to arrive, and they will be the last to leave. They'll be back again on Tuesday, and for the rest of the week. Their teacher has prepared lessons for them in the museum, guiding the children to learn Michigan history by examining real artifacts, talking with museum curators, and exploring the galleries.

    A few miles away, second graders from Mason are arriving at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo. They will stay all week also, studying the animals and visiting the zookeepers. The teachers and children at the museum and the zoo are all part of the BIG Lesson Model of the Wide Open Schools, moving the teaching and learning out into the community.

    Community as Teacher

    I had the best seat in the house when I was a fifth grader—back row, next to the window. I could prop a book in my lap to read, and the teacher wouldn't notice. Mysteries, adventures—anything to take me out of the classroom. It was a blur when I looked straight ahead to the front of the room. I feared that I wouldn't get the right answer or that the teacher would ask me for the missing homework. But when I looked out the window, I saw to the tops of the trees, the rooftops of the buildings, and beyond, the horizon of the cityscape. That's where I was really learning—out there in the city.

    As one of twelve children, I knew the city, beginning with my own neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. My siblings and I knew all the neighbors, and we talked every day with the postman. When the street in front of our house was resurfaced, we watched the workers and the equipment for hours. The empty lot at the end of the street was the "prairie" and we spent long days exploring and inventing games that included everyone. During school holidays, Mom piled the kids in the car for a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. Older and younger children paired up to explore the museum, searching out favorite galleries. The community was our teacher, right there on our block and in the greater city.

    Teaching and Learning in the Community

    As a teacher, that's how I want my students to learn—bringing people of the community into the classroom, and my students out into the community. Children need to be introduced to the community as a learning place in which they can apply the lessons learned in their classroom. The people in the greater community are eager to be invited to join in the teaching and learning process. The benefits are reciprocal: the children learn in real world settings and consider community members as their role models. The community sees the children's intelligence and curiosity, and they speak of a hope for the future when they work with the children.

    With a little creative financing for transportation, my students visit all kinds of places for their learning. They talk with the zookeepers at the zoo, examine old maps in the state archives, and explore tunnels 100 feet below the earth's surface in the gypsum mine. When the children are in these real world settings, they reach depths of learning that I can't do when confined to the four walls of the classroom. Their learning is multigenerational, multicultural, and as expansive as the wide world.

    Invitational Teaching

    Throughout my teaching career, I have acted on the belief that teaching should be invitational and learning should be expansive. Our classroom door is always open, literally and figuratively. Everyone who walks through the door is invited to join the children's lessons, from the parents and administrators to the members of the community. For instance, Mr. Royal Olson, an eighty years old "young" rock hound, was a frequent visitor in the classroom. When he popped his head in the door, the children would scramble to show their newly found rocks to him. He was my teacher as well, taking me into the depths of the gypsum mines in Grand Rapids to explore the tunnels and collect gypsum. This eventually developed into an annual class visit to the mines, complete with hard hats, sack lunches, and flashlights so we could stay 96 feet below the earth's surface for the whole day. Mr. Olson taught the children not only about geology, but about the importance of never tiring of learning. Here's what Crystal, 4th grader, wrote to Mr. Olson: "You didn't just fill my mind...you gave me wonderful things to think about."

    Considering the need to adhere to the state curriculum standards, teachers have no time for "extras" in the classroom, but the visits with Mr. Olson and the trip to the gypsum mine were not extras. Our science curriculum includes studying about the earth's forces. For some children, this can be an abstract concept. Effective teaching and learning includes the connection to the real world, and the dark, quiet tunnels in the gypsum mine are as real as it gets.

    Connecting the Curriculum to the Real World

    The key is connecting the curriculum to the real world, leaving the four walls of the classroom, and bringing the children out into the community to learn. This can be done as easily as going to the backyard of the school or the nearby shops. Our health curriculum includes learning about safe food handling and general hygiene of washing hands. We conduct lessons in class, discussing the importance of hygiene when preparing and eating food, and we practice washing our hands. In order to help the children transfer that learning to their real world, I know we should practice these lessons in other settings. Our class visits the local Subway shop often, and watches the employees wash their hands before making every sandwich. I have spoken with the owner about helping me teach the children, and he has welcomed us in for an hour before the shop opens. He talks to the children about starting up a business, and the importance of quality food and clean conditions. Then he invites the children to make their own sandwiches, washing their hands before they begin, of course. The children thoroughly know the lesson of safe food handling after this visit, and the shop owner is now their new friend.

    Parents Join in the Teaching and Learning Process

    In the beginning of each new school year, I invite parents to join in the teaching and learning with their child. The results go beyond my expectations, and parents' talents and lessons go far beyond my expertise. For instance, Mr. Bill Youatt is a local attorney and parent of one of my students. Beginning with an invitation to join the fifth graders in a civics lesson. Mr. Youatt developed weekly lessons about law. He engaged the children in discussions and simulations, and challenged them to think about the laws of our community and their responsibility as productive citizens. The next step was to arrange for students to visit the county courthouse and speak with a judge. This combination of classroom and community learning offered the children the chance to see the real world application of their civics lessons.

    I learned from Mr. Youatt and Mr. Olson too, and I was eager to continue the learning that occurred in the excursions than embedded in the curriculum. Miles away from school, children listen passively to a tour guide while the teacher is relegated to the role of disciplinarian. The tour may or may not be relevant to the curriculum or students' interest. The children are often more concerned with spending money at the gift shop and who sits next to them on the bus than they are with the content of the field trip. Parent volunteers are usually assigned the role of chaperone, and they miss the opportunity to join in the teaching and learning that should occur on the field trip.

    According to John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking in Learning From Museums, "Museums currently lack deep and widely shared understanding of how people learn from them." Students need substantive conversations in order to process new information, yet many museum staff and volunteers maintain a stance of "Visitors walk, I talk" , and allow few or no questions until the tour is over. Falk and Dierking continue, "Museums generally suffer from a parochial and narrow view of their place within the educational infrastructure." They frequently have no information about students' or teacher's prior knowledge of content, and express concern that if the teacher leads the students through the museum without a tour guide, that s/he might give misinformation. Falk and Dierking also emphasize the treasure that our museums possess: "Museums know how to present real objects and authoritative knowledge in enjoyable and compelling ways. Museums employ dedicated, collaborative, and increasingly professional staff."

    I had seen the rich learning with the people and places in our community at the courthouse, the Subway shop, and the gypsum mine, and this motivated me to explore ways to challenge the traditional field trip and transform it into a "study trip" for my students.

    Transforming Field Trips into "Study Trips"

    I began first with the elements that belong in every lesson, as outlined in the Michigan Standards for Authentic Instruction: Higher-Order Thinking Skills, Deep Knowledge, Substantive Conversations, and Connections to the World Outside the Classroom. These elements imply that the children are actively involved with their learning by puzzling out of the classroom. This meant an examination of the benefits of field trips, and my discoveries and experiences changed the way I approached using community resources with my students.

    What's Wrong with Field Trips?

    Traditional field trips are plagued with a large amount of effort and preparation by the teacher and a small amount of significant learning by the student. Field trips are most frequent in May and June, as an end of the school year activity, rather solutions to problems, learning all kinds of information, having the opportunity to talk with peers, and engaging in lessons that are meaningful to them. I also studied Howard Gardner's research about Multiple Intelligences Theory, Susan Kovalik's writing about Integrated Thematic Instruction, the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design, and John Falk and Lynn Dierking's The Museum Experience. Day-long lessons in the wetlands near the school, several visits to museums, and writing projects with the residents of a nearby retirement center were a few of our experiences. Thematic instruction, lots of interactions, and extensive prior knowledge for every trip out of school was the formula for our study trips.

    Open Minds School Program

    My biggest breakthrough came in 1998 when I met Gillian Kydd, an educator from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Gillian is the creator of the Open Minds School Program, in which teachers and students use community sites such as the zoo, museum, science center, and city hall as their classroom for a week. Teachers attend training to learn skills for teaching in community settings and for integrating curriculum in their Open Minds site. In Gillian's work, "Into the World of Reality - Beyond the Classroom", she states: "...[in the Open Minds Program] the students are learning and practicing skills in a setting that is real and purposeful. Whether they are interested in pursuing a related field isn't the point; the point is that they will now see beyond the four walls of their school and see the outcomes of learning in a new light."

    The BIG History Lesson

    I then designed a week-long study trip to the Michigan Historical Museum for my students. Working with museum staff, my students and I went "behind the scenes" to learn about exhibit designs, talk to curators, and take extended tours at the museum. Children worked collaboratively on research, and they had extended periods of time to read, talk, sketch, and reflect about what they were learning. Parents joined the children as active participants, teaching and learning along with me. My goal was to flood the children with all kinds of information and experiences so that they would be immersed in Michigan history. After our week at the museum, the children wrote and published their research and artwork, and they aptly named their week, "The BIG History Lesson."

    Here's what the children said about their week:

    "I learned today that I might have been a slave. Sitting next to genuine leg irons made everything seem real."

    "I really liked the independent study time because I liked learning about artifacts on my own."

    "I really enjoyed going to the Michigan Historical Museum for a whole week! I learned so much, I went back four days later and taught my family."

    Parents also taught and learned with the children. When the archivist at the State Archives showed the children photographs of the 1951 fire of the Cass Building, a student's grandfather mentioned that he had been there that day, and that it was so bitterly cold that when the firefighters sprayed the flames with water, it froze almost instantly. The focus of "teacher" shifted from the archivist to the grandfather as he gave a firsthand account of history.

    On another day, a father of one of the students joined the class for a visit to the Civil War Flag Room. He had found a letter from one of his ancestors who had fought in the Civil War, and he had transcribed it so that the children could read it. When the collections curator saw the letter, she quickly changed her lesson with the children to include displaying the flag of the ancestor. The father and the curator then taught the lesson together, using the letter and the flag to bring history alive to the children.

    Because of the week-long study trip, I saw that the children showed an empowerment of learning and ownership of the museum. They were building a learning community with peers, parents, and museum staff. In their "BIG History Lesson", they were looking at the bigger picture, and all the pieces of effective teaching and learning were part of their experience. I was confident that I was teaching the essentials of writing and social studies, all wrapped up in communication and community participation.

    Gillian Kydd also studied the teachers in the Open Minds Program, and found that they experienced complex learning as well. "...[In the Open Minds Program] the teacher is given the same learning framework as the children; the experiences (the opportunity to teach in a different site) and the assistance of 'experts'...it is professional development in its most powerful form and there is bound to be an impact on all future teaching and learning in that person's classroom."

    Gillian's words rang true for me; after designing The BIG History Lesson, I would never approach a field trip in the traditional way again. These elements became part of the BIG Lesson Model:

    • The Teacher is the Lesson Designer;
    • Lessons are Centered on the Way Kids Learn;
    • Parents are Active Participants;
    • Children have Extended Time to Learn;
    • The Week is a Catalyst for Thematic Study;
    • Community Resources are the Teaching and Learning Tools.

    Expanding the Big Lesson Model

    When I was named Michigan Teacher of the Year 1999-2000 by the Michigan State Board of Education, they also granted me a year away from the classroom. I was thus able to establish the BIG History Lesson model at the museum with eight classes in 1999-2000, 22 classes in 2000-01, and another 26 classes scheduled for 2001-02.

    I also replicated the Big Lesson model at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo with another eight classes. In The BIG Zoo Lesson, teachers and students study the animals, meet with the zookeepers, and learn about the zoo's endeavors to take care of the world's animals.

    In the style of scientist Jane Goodall, students choose an animal to study all week, and they spend an hour a day writing, sketching, and learning about their animal. A third grader from Haslett wrote: "When I observed my animal (the otter), I had this funny feeling like I was with my best friend. I wanted to jump right into its habitat, but I knew I could not. So I just sat there and watched and drew. It was my favorite part of zoo school!"

    Another child said: "I always thought the zoo was boring ... my mom and I would just walk around and she would say, 'there's a rhino, there's a monkey'. Now I know what you're supposed to do—you're supposed to really look at the animals!"

    At both BIG Lesson sites, participating teachers receive three days of training in preparation for their week. They also get continuous support during the year, and are active members of a listserv in which they write, share lesson plans, and offer encouragement of each other. In this past year, several of the teachers designed "keypal" projects between classes, and almost all teachers arranged for a day to observe a fellow teacher during their "Big Lesson" week. The school year ends with two culminating events: an evening of sharing and reflection among the teachers, and an evening at the museum for students to celebrate their learning. This ongoing, sustained professional development and ending celebrations are key for continued success of the program.

    The teachers' words best tell the success of the model:

    "What an amazing experience for everyone: the students, parents, school faculty, and me! Parents were so impressed on our first day that they took extra vacation days that week so they could come back and be with us some more. I have been teaching for 29 years and I don't think I have ever had a more successful and exhilarating experience working with children. "—Jill Tribell, 3rd grade teacher

    "Our most profound 'A-ha' was in the Civil War gallery when Shaban, a Kurdish boy, turned to his best friend, Benny, who is Nigerian, and said, "You mean Benny and I couldn't have been friends?" I'll never forget the look of shock on their faces—that kind of learning didn't happen in the classroom."—Shirley Hazlett, 4th grade teacher

    "It has been a process getting acquainted with learning in a new environment, but by midweek the kids felt very much at home and truly appreciaed the zoo and the animals. I asked them what they enjoyed the most during the week, and the unanimous answer was 'the animal observation time'."—Pam Seales, 3rd grade teacher

    "I used the galleries pretty much as a three dimensional textbook ... there's nothing quite like that first feeling when you realize your students are learning, wondering, and working in this very unique environment. "—Angela Sides, 5th grade teacher

    The model is expanding again for the 2001-02 school year, renaming it the Wide Open Schools Program. Revisions for the model include more community sites and a greater emphasis on art as a tool for learning, specifically visual notetaking and analysis.

    The Possibilities in Your Community

    In order for children to make the transfer of the classroom lessons to real world applications, we need to be open to all the possibilities our community offers. We don't need a big city in which to teach, because the resources are all around us: parents, businesses, museums, zoos, nature centers, parks, etc. We are as rich in our community resources as in our imaginations, and we have the opportunity to partner with the community to create more meaningful, relevant lessons. Inviting the community to join in the teaching and learning process secures the future of the community: these students will soon be the stewards of the environment and the caretakers of community resources.

    Tips for Teachers

    • Change the language of "field trip" to "study trip," thus emphasizing the treasure of learning that will occur at the community site.
    • Talk to the community resource staff from the place that you will visit with your students. Developing a personal rapport will give the staff the background they need to meet your students' needs and begin the partnership between your school and the site.
    • Teach your students "study trip etiquette": appropriate volume of voices, shaking hands for a proper greeting, eye contact, asking good questions.
    • Before each lesson, introduce children by name to the community member. It takes only a few minutes, but it changes the atmosphere from anonymous visitors to real people.
    • Practice notetaking and sketching as tools for learning before the study trip. The more prepared students are beforehand, the more information they will remember.
    • Schedule the study trip in the beginning or middle of a unit of study so that children will have a real world context for the lessons in the classroom.
    • Write letters of appreciation to the community member or site after the study trip.


    Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (1992). The Museum Experience. Whalesback Books, Washington, D.C.

    Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (2000). Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning. Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

    Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, New York, NY.

    Kovalik,S.J. (1993). Integrated Thematic Instruction: The Model. Susan Kovalik and Associates, Oak Creek, AZ.

    Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

    Kydd, G. (1996). Into the World of Realia—Beyond the Classroom. Masters dissertation, Education Department, University of Calgary.

    Michigan Department of Education. (1996). Michigan Curriculum Framework. Content Standards and Benchmarks, Section IV, Teaching and Learning.