Engaged learning does wonders for students

After 18 years of teaching in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school system, I took a year's leave of absence to rejuvenate my teaching enthusiasm by exploring ways to engage students with meaningful, hands-on learning experiences.

I taught special education at Heights High for most of my career and, regrettably, saw firsthand the problem of student disengagement. I also saw that outdoor, hands-on activities engage and motivate students. When I take a class outdoors for a lesson, learning comes alive and students become more engaged in learning. Outdoors, the learning experience becomes more real and more accessible. I believe the Heights community can be the catalyst to enable our schools to embrace hands-on outdoor learning experiences.    

Let me give you an example of engaged learning: One of the projects I've been working on this year has involved the first-grade classes at Oxford Elementary School. Allen Wilkinson (a school volunteer and general advocate) and I spend two afternoons a week at the school doing hands-on lessons with the first-graders based on raising worms and plants to be transplanted to the community garden adjacent to the school. “It warms my heart every time I am at the school to be welcomed by the students with hugs and excitement. Their eyes and minds are so wide open,” said Allen.

Learning should be measured by the personal engagement and overall development of the student. The first-graders at Oxford love the garden work and are learning through the work. One of them said, “I like the worms, and I can’t wait until we start planting, because it is exciting and I have never planted anything before.” I believe this type of excitement gives families a reason to keep their children in our schools.

Outdoor learning is happening all around Heights schools. Last summer, I was part of a team at Gearity elementary school that led the creation of outdoor classrooms, a greenhouse, an educational cob pizza oven, nature trails, and a rehab of the school’s sprawling gardens. I believe we could increase the use of outdoor spaces at all of our schools [by using them] for more than play; they could become a place for engaged student learning.

Though we are facing unfortunate teacher layoffs, I believe we could plan ways to enable future work to continue throughout the district on a low- to no-cost basis. The school district and I have set the precedent of funding the work at Oxford Elementary School externally: We received a National Park Trust “Kids to Parks Day” grant to help support the Oxford project.

It hurts me to see so many of our children being sent to schools outside of our school district. I believe we need to give parents a reason to keep their children in our schools. I think if the work at Oxford and Gearity could be expanded, parents would see the kind of learning happening that would be a reason to keep their children in the Heights schools.

The Heights Community Congress (HCC) is helping to facilitate the expansion of the work at Oxford. "Supporting the Oxford Community Garden is very gratifying to the HCC. We believe people being involved in tasks together promotes well-being and community spirit. Extending this concept to the classroom is icing on the cake,” said Martha Goble, HCC’s executive director. [FutureHeights awarded a $1,000 mini-grant to Oxford Community Garden to develop a small orchard and the area surrounding the children's garden.]

I'm interested in forming a team of Heights people to advocate for an increase in engaged outdoor learning opportunities in our schools. To get involved, send an e-mail to HCC at info@heightscongress.org.

Steven Warner

Steven Warner is a lifelong resident of Cleveland Heights. He has taught in Heights schools since 1997. He founded and served as adviser of Heights High's environmental club, and coached cross country and track.

Read More on Opinion
Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 5:30 PM, 04.29.2016