The Hands-On Classroom

Send by email
Learning from Experience Day by Day

By Nadine Fiedler, Caller editor

Learning by doing underlies Catlin Gabel’s philosophy and has long been a treasured and valuable practice at the school. Although field trips and off-campus projects are what you might think define experiential education, much of this hands-on learning takes place every day on the Catlin Gabel campus. The following examples show the many ways experiential education flowers in our classrooms.

The environmental science and policy class, with teacher Dan Griffiths, downtown at the Ecotrust building

The Green Intersection of Science and Politics

Upper Schoolers come to grips with the environment

We’re sitting in a meeting room at Portland’s Wild Salmon Center, where Forest Service biologist Gordon Reeves, one of the Northwest’s pioneers of fieldwork in salmon and their habitats, speaks with Catlin Gabel’s environmental science and policy class. The students and teachers have been absorbed by his presentation about the effect of land use policy on wild salmon populations, and they ask several penetrating questions. Reeves then steps back for a second, looks at this group of seniors, and says, “You know, this is really amazing. I was a scientist for 20 years before I came to understand anything about policy, and here you are learning about that in high school.”

The class, led by science teacher Dan Griffiths and history teacher Peter Shulman, is exactly that amazing and groundbreaking. Peter and Dan have developed an interdisciplinary curriculum in which students work hands-on in the laboratory to understand the science of the environment, and then study the political, economic, legal, and ethical implications of environmental policy. The class frequently visits experts in the field or hosts visitors to speak about the environmental issues that define their own lives and work. Peter sits in on all science classes to answer questions about policy, and Dan is there in all policy classes to help provide the scientific context. Through this course the students have achieved a remarkably deep synthesis of this complex area that will most probably be a subject of intense worldwide debate and study for the rest of their lives.

Through the lens of three overarching subjects—food, energy, and water—the class has studied topics that include solar and other alternative forms of energy, the oil market, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, corn and ethanol, ecoterrorism, and environmental toxicology. Among their many activities, they have attended a PhD student’s seminar on captive breeding at the Oregon Zoo, visited an oil depot and mixing station, and spent time with Curt Ellis ’98 to talk about his film King Corn while they were studying the farm bill. They developed a presentation on solar energy for assemblies in Middle and Upper School, and they brainstormed with 5th graders on recycling.

In the science part of the course, the students take part in open-ended investigative research of the type usually done only by advanced science students. Their research has included the chemistry of crude oil and how internal combustion engines work. In the student-run soil lab, they have grown plants to study nitrogen concentration, soil composition, uptake of heavy metals added to water, and more. “They might not find anything significant, but the labs open questions,” says Dan. “Everything’s not cut and dried in environmental science and biology, and cause and effect are difficult to establish.”

The many strengths of this class include flexibility. Both Dan and Peter will give over class time to the other if the conversation demands that. The class is structured but not rigid, so that they are able to delve deeper into what the students find compelling. Through the expansion of abstract concepts into a real world context, the students see how the environment affects people’s lives and livelihoods. This is one class where no one will ever ask, “Why do we need to learn this?”

7th graders sharing what they learned about Confucius

Bringing the Ancients to Life

7th graders immersed in Rome, India, China, and Egypt

Ancient civilizations have been revived at Catlin Gabel thanks to RICE, a project of Paul Monheimer’s 7th grade world cultures class. RICE stands for Rome, India, China, and Egypt, the four ancient cultures that are the subject of concentrated research and a culminating dramatic presentation. This project combines an academic component with experiential activity that makes the students’ studies tangible and understandable.

The 7th graders work in four teams of 16 to research aspects of their civilization that include art and architecture, science, family life, and religion. Each student picks a topic to study, write about, and create posters about for the presentation. As a group they figure out how to write a script that highlights the most important parts of what they have learned, and that will result in an interesting and entertaining stage production. They create stage sets, costumes, makeup, and props—and then perform for the rest of the 7th grade, all of whom must write essays after the presentations about what they have learned.

Leadership and teamwork are a huge part of RICE, and Paul takes care to give the students a healthy dose of autonomy. The four student leaders of each team must keep their classmates on task as they work towards the performance deadline. They must learn to resolve conflicts and figure out solutions to the many problems that arise in such a complex mental and physical undertaking. The more outgoing students learn to share the spotlight with the quieter students and recognize the value of hard workers, listeners, and observers as well as leaders.

Energy is high and nerves twang before the performances, but the 7th graders always pull it off. Although they can sometimes be self-conscious in front of the audience in their togas and saris, it’s always clear that they know what they’re talking about and have become a hardworking team. “RICE is magic,” says Paul. “We continually push the students to do things they didn’t think they could do. It’s overwhelming and daunting at first, but then they start working. They turn a corner and realize they can do it.”

RICE may not last forever, though. One of the reasons Paul started it was for students to practice dramatic skills, but since then the school has initiated a Middle School drama program. He is contemplating different ways to achieve the same goals, and says, “the important thing is to keep the sense of discovery going.”

6th graders mapping the Paddock

The Map is the Treasure

6th graders map the school universe

Maps are about where we are in the world and how we see it, describe it, and ultimately perceive it. For the Catlin Gabel 6th grade, mapping is the means by which, among other lessons, they learn to master measuring tools, draw a scale model, and distill the essence of place into poetry.

Teacher Jeff Paul started using mapping in 2001 as a way to make math tangible and fun. A couple of years later other 6th grade teachers decided to join Jeff and integrate the curriculum through the use of map-making. Maps have come into play in science, where Larry Hurst’s students map the body by constructing skeletons; in Spanish, where Spencer White has his class map the Middle School and label it in Spanish; and in physical education, where the students take part in a treasure hunt. With discovery as one of the key themes for the grade, mapping provides an avenue for initiating and representing the exploring that 6th graders love to do.

Students begin the year in math class by plotting a map of the campus. In groups of two they learn to measure their paces, pace out areas of the campus using fixed points, and transfer the resulting measurements onto paper. If it’s not right, they can see right away where they might have gone wrong, because the actuality is there before their eyes. They see how numbers have purpose and how they can represent and measure life. “Doing this applied work gives them a greater understanding of the mathematics,” says Jeff.

The maps grow and gain complexity though the additions of “event maps,” led by humanities teacher Hannah Whitehead, wherein the 6th graders add to the maps things they’ve seen and heard on walks around campus. Later they can expand upon these events by writing short poems about them, guided by language arts teacher Carter Latendresse. The poems are added to the maps under flip-up tabs (like an Advent calendar). The resulting map is a colorful and personal reflection of the campus, and its creation has built valuable skills in every part of its construction.

A 3rd grader plants flowers in a marsh

Water, Water, Everywhere

3rd graders study the source of life

Walk into the classroom of 3rd grade teachers Susan Lazareck and Richard Snell, and you’re transported to the woods and waterways of Oregon. A paper waterfall ripples on one side of the room, spilling into a paper marsh onto which students are attaching paper grasses and flowers they’ve just made. Cardboard trees frame life-sized eagles flying over a replica of the Bonneville Dam made of boxes. Children are busy everywhere cutting out giant leaves, painting and attaching branches to tree trunks, chatting about what goes where and why.

The children creating these representations of Oregon habitats aren’t just making them up: they’ve spent weeks tracing the source and flow of our water, from nearby creeks to rivers, and eventually to the ocean. They’ve visited the Bull Run and Rock Creek watersheds, observing the plants and trees, and learning about the wildlife. They’ve learned about the water cycle, groundwater, runoff, and sediments from science teacher Scott Bowler, who led the field trips that began their yearlong study of the source of life. They’ve chosen research topics and studied watershed habitats in groups and individually. Their activity reflects the depth of this social studies curriculum and the careful and ingenious ways Richard and Susan have kept these students engaged in this interdisciplinary study of water.

“If you’ve done it with your hands and mind, you’ll never forget it,” says Richard. By the time the students have visited the sites and talked with adults involved in the water system, read the books, learned the science, built the tree bases in woodshop, drawn the pictures, made the animals in art class, written their research papers, and built the habitat, they all—no matter how they learn best—know this material deep down inside. They’ve also honed their skills in collaboration, creative thinking, and problem solving—as in all good experiential learning. They have brought their own strengths to their group projects, buoyed by their commitment to help one another come up with something wonderful.

“In this project work the burden of learning shifts from the teacher’s instructing to the students acquiring their own knowledge,” says Richard. “You have to be willing to give up control and be messy across the board. The room is messy, with paint spilled. Group work is messy in terms of relationships, but life is kind of messy, too.

“The teacher has to be willing to believe that children learn from this process,” he says. “The other side of that is excitement and joy in accomplishment.”