Using nature to nurture

The classroom is outdoors at The Alaska Forest School, reports Erin Kirkland in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Lia Keller asked preschoolers if they could “find the tunnel from last time” and they led the way to a downed cottonwood, where they could play “foxes and bears” in a pit under the root ball.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake. Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

“I am passionate about getting children outside,” said Keller, who founded the school. “Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places.

She also believes “children need more unstructured time” to learn from their play.

Keller offers parents three sessions a week.

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take "appropriate risks." Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take “appropriate risks.” Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

The forest school idea started in Europe, but has spread around the world. It seems like a perfect fit for Alaska, says Beka Land, whose daughters are five and three. “The natural consequences of exploring the outdoors and talking through choices is so valuable,” Land said. “As a family, we like the idea of an outdoors-centered program that lets kids pick their own path.”

After 30 minutes of “hollering, discovering and exploring,” the preschoolers were full of questions, writes Kirkland.

Why does snow look like crystals under the frame of a magnifying glass? What happens when you try to climb a tree much taller than your mom and way higher than any recess monitor would ever allow? How can five small kids figure out how to tie up a blue tarp without adult assistance?

Keller answered many questions with: “What do you think we should do?”

I saw the link on OneTree Alaska, a Facebook site set up by Jan Dawe, a University of Alaska botanist who was my best friend in elementary school. We were co-editors-in-chief of The Wednesday Report, which we published twice a month for four years.

Tribal folklore gets its own video game

Never Alone, a new video game by E-Line Media, is based on Native Alaskans’ tribal folklore. Developers worked with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Reviews are strong, reports NPR.

Where not to be reincarnated

If you’re planning to be reincarnated as a poor black child, make sure not to be born in Michigan, advises Matthew Ladner, who’s graphed state scores in fourth-grade reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  If you value literacy, avoid Iowa, Maine and Washington D.C. too.

Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Florida are relative good choices.  Low-income, black fourth-graders in Massachusetts read 2.5 grade levels ahead of similar students in Michigan, Ladner writes.

Massachusetts also is first in reading for low-income fourth-grade students of all races.  In D.C. and Alaska, the average low-income fourth-grader reads nearly as poorly as a first grader in Massachusetts.

A fourth-grader with first-grade reading skills is doomed.

Kansas City updates grade levels

Some school districts are returning to an old idea, AP reports. They’re grouping students by performance rather than age. The boldest experiment will start in Kansas City, Missouri schools this fall when 17,000 students will switch to the new system.

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Kansas City’s traditional public schools have seen enrollment fall by half as students move to suburbs or enroll in charter or private schools; 40 percent of schools are closing.  The district spent $2 billion in state desegregation case funds without raising test scores. Kansas City is desperate. Superintendent John Covington will start the new system in elementary schools.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

In a Marzano Research Laboratory study of 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado and Florida, “researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.”

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation.

Now, he said if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent.

Teachers love the new approach, Johnson says.