States, Stories and Sustainability, a Fourth Grade Project at The College School

Submitted by Mindy Bhuyan and Carol Fitzsimmons
The College School

We have each been teachers for 12 years and most of our experience has been at The College School (TCS), a pre-eighth grade, independent school in St. Louis, Missouri. Sustainability has always been a value at TCS, and yet is has been somewhat intangible.  We were fortunate to attend a week-long seminar at The Cloud Institute with a team from The College School.

The thing that hooked us and inspired us the most was the idea that the kids can be inspired and empowered to take ownership of the world and of the future. We love the term “inventing the future.”

It is too easy to get into the mindset of “this is what I have been born into,” but this present we are living was somebody else’s future. Like it or not, we are all inventing opportunities and influencing the future and young people are a part of that.

It is also exciting to us that the unsustainable and sustainable mental models that we learned about in EfS, and that we explore with our students, spill over into so many other areas. For example, while getting along with a friend, doing homework or taking care of a creek, we are bringing a particular mindset, or mental model with us. It is helpful to be aware of that for adults and for children.

In adapting the States theme to be more focused on EfS, the first thing for us was to consider the compelling reason we were engaged in this theme. We asked ourselves, “Why are we asking our students to study the states?” If the students are truly inventing the future, it is important that they know who they are and where they have come from, as well as what the land and the rest of the country are like. Once we started to ask, “What do we want the future to be like?” we became more keyed into why we were studying the states.

One of the reasons we studied the states in the past was for the culminating event of the States Fair where each child took a state and researched it and then planned and organized a booth for the States Fair. We loved the States Fair yet we believe that our current essential questions are more compelling.

The next thing we did at The Cloud Institute was to consider our essential questions. Our essential questions for the States theme evolved to include, “How is the United States made up of human and natural systems?” “How do multiple perspectives deepen our understanding of the United States?” and “How can we inspire others to better care for our natural and human systems?” We were inspired by the examples of the Inventing the Future scrapbooks at Cloud Institute. Once we included the idea of the Commons, everything changed. Our theme focuses on mutual responsibility and interdependence. We asked teams of students to study a region together instead of each student taking one state. They began to look at commonalities of a region and to work as a team.

This year when we were at the Daniel Boone Home, the students learned a lot about slavery. We had Stephanie Dooley, our African American Diversity Coordinator with us. She said, “I have never heard this story the way these kids are getting to hear it.” We made assumptions that kids knew about slavery but they didn’t. They heard the stories from different perspectives and that is important. There were lots of different kinds of master slave relationships. The students also used old authentic tools to hoe and work in the fields. This too, they will remember because it was a real experience within a context.

We have received a lot of support for the evolution of our theme from The Daniel Boone Home where we go for field trips, from Lindenwood College that oversees the Daniel Boone Home, and from Louise Cadwell, our Curriculum Coordinator and from The Cloud Institute. We also received support from our school community and from the parents. There have been some bumps in the road. For example, Commons is a new term and we learned that the students need time to study and understand it before they can work with the concept and integrate it into their thinking and their work.

Why do we want our students to learn these things? If you go deep with anything with big, essential questions, it is worthwhile. We know that this theme will constantly evolve. There are many people out there who want to help us. We seem to be networking about this all the time. One of us will run into someone at a party who turns out to be a great connection. When we are excited, the people we talk to and seek out get excited.

In the future, we would like our students to go talk to the current third grade about the idea of the Commons because the third grade does a theme on Communities. It would be helpful for the third grade to make the connections to the Commons in communities and to bring that knowledge and schema with them to fourth grade. In the future, we would like our students to make a book for the community about the Commons or to do a project that would contribute to the healthy future that they imagine.

Our hope is that we have planted a seed with our students. We have added to their schema about being responsible, and having choices.We believe that they know that everything they do affects everything else. They have learned about their power to invent the future, and they have focused on and expressed what they learned and what matters to them in an excellent piece of work that we call the States Scrapbook.

What gives us a sense of hope is that we are activating habits of mind that will contribute to a sustainable future.

We know that when we hear what these students want for the future. They do want to be healthy and they do want a future. Essential questions, such as, “How is the United States made up of human and natural systems?” “How do multiple perspectives deepen our understanding of the United States?” and “How can we inspire others to better care for our natural and human systems?” are important for us as well. That’s what makes these questions essential: They work for students and adults at the same time.