Planning Learning Landscapes

By Eve Pranis

The advent of the new millennium found Cynthia Ribish's Elm Grove, WI, sixth graders pondering "What can we do to leave a legacy -- an imprint of ourselves for future classes?"

An initial brainstorm session revealed students' general discontent with the "prison-like" schoolyard and an interest in creating more enticing grounds. "I seized the opportunity to get students collaborating to set goals and figure out how to meet them," says Cynthia. First she challenged the class to develop a guiding question to focus their efforts. They settled on "How can we make our grounds more attractive and useful for the school and community?" The next step was to set some planning goals, then have small groups decide how to address each one.

Helping Students Plan: The W.H.A.T. of Reaching Goals

To help structure the process, Cynthia created a planning sheet organized by the acronym W.H.A.T. (What, Help, Action, Time). The related questions -- What are you trying to work on? From whom do you need help? What is the first step? When do you expect to start and achieve the goal? -- guided students' thinking.

A group of students first toured the property, digital camera in hand, and identified which features they liked and which they wanted to change or improve. Recognizing the importance of getting input from other kids who would use and care about the space, students created a survey that explained their efforts and featured yes/no and open-ended questions, for instance Would you like to have a quiet outdoor area to read and write? What other types of areas would you like to see? Would you like to participate in building an outdoor classroom project or adopting an area?

To address their third goal of deciding on projects to tackle, students designed a wish list that included an outdoor classroom area, butterfly garden, observational walk, memorial flower planting, and so on. They divided it into short-term and long-term goals, then prioritized based on their time and budget constraints and feedback from the community. This phase also involved research via Internet sites, gardening books, and visits to community gardens. "Students honed their communication skills further when they contacted the city and the district Building and Grounds Office to find out if there were restrictions on any of the proposed features," explains Cynthia. Finally, the groups brainstormed potential sources of support -- botanists, the grounds supervisor, Master Gardeners, landscape architects -- and created an action plan and timeline to guide their work. Student recorders kept written logs of planning meetings detailing project activities, discussions, student responsibilities, and materials needed.

Finding Funds and Support

"The students discovered that bringing their plans to life would proceed only as funding and support allowed," says Cynthia. With an eye toward persuading others to support their efforts, they created a PowerPoint presentation to describe their plans in images and text. Donations and discounts from local businesses, the city, and community volunteers (free mulch, compost, plant materials, and labor), along with $1,500 from the Student Senate, helped their plans begin to bear fruit. By keeping the district public relations person informed of their progress, they ensured that a broad audience would hear about the project

Assessing Outcomes

And what of Cynthia's goals? No question, she says, that her pupils' confidence soared along with their ability to work together in a community, and to recognize and respect their peers' range of skills and talents. "The students also gained so much in their ability to set goals and determine how to reach them," explains Cynthia. But they didn't stop there. Using a graphic organizer, the kids have to routinely provide evidence that they are achieving their goals, and if they are not, to identify what they need to do differently. Of course, some of the evidence is purely anecdotal. "This is so cool; I have learned so much. You know how you read in a book and then you do something. Now I know what they mean by hands-on learning," said one student.

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