Course: Great Lakes Erie Educators
Department: Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Institution: Wilson & Perry, Orchard, William Rainey Harper, Campus International High School
Instructor: John McGovern
Number & Level of Students Enrolled: PK-12
Digital Tools/Technologies Used:
Author Bio: John McGovern holds an active professional teaching license as a grade 1-8 generalist. He has taught for 10 years in both urban and suburban districts. He currently is focused on working with teachers and their students in CMSD to create more schoolyard habitats with a goal of creating outdoor classrooms that enhance classroom learning. John strongly believes that outdoor learning is especially needed in urban schools as a humane antidote to an over-reliance on screen-based learning and that the simple act of being in the outdoors can dramatically improve SEL outcomes. In his spare time, John enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, riding bicycles, swimming in Great Lake Erie, cooking, and trying to brew English bitter ales.
First things first, why create a schoolyard habitat? As someone trained in Environmental Education (EE) via the Environmental Education Collaborative of Ohio (EECO), you come to understand that environmental education is largely the domain of well-to-do white folk who had the leisure time in the middle 1800s to observe and journal about their natural surroundings. Think Emerson, Thoreau, and later Leopold. The authors and writings referenced above created the context and the foundations for Environmental Education.
So now one might ask another question…..what does the foundation of Environmental Education have to do with Schoolyard Habitats?
In the weeds
In my case, everything. A bit of a backstory…..my wife and I have a small family in Cleveland proper. We made a choice to send both our kids to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) as a means of putting our resources, truly our most valuable assets, into the school system, actually and metaphorically. We place a high value on the diversity of the student body and have been impressed with the high quality of the educators and administrators as well. As a certified grade 1-8 educator myself, one of the first things I noticed about the school day was the relative lack of time spent outdoors. Most days, the only outdoor time is recess. Still, recess is often taken indoors, especially in the winter months for a variety of weather-related ‘logic’.
This observation led me down a long and winding path trying to figure out how urban students could be more engaged in the natural world. My path took me to the Appalachian Green Teachers Conference (AGTC) at Burr Oak State Park near Athens, OH where I found and engaged with a tribe of like-minded, but not all alike folks, while enjoying a positively enchanting experience of learning through doing and talking, all while immersed in nature. Whilst driving back home, I began thinking “why there wasn’t a similar event in Cleveland?”
Swimming in a Great Lake
“Why not?” Our region is blessed with innumerable institutions in the environmental space and we are located on one of five Great Lakes on the planet! After building an asset map and conducting numerous interviews with EE leaders, the first thing I landed on was the water, our Great Lake connects us all! Specifically, how to ‘inspire educators to connect with the majestic ecology of the Great Lake Erie bioregion’. That phrase became the marketing tagline for the inaugural GLEEE, the Great Lake Erie Educators Exchange which I staged as a two-and-a-half-day immersive outdoor conference featuring local thought leaders in ecology and nature as workshop leaders and presenters. GLEEE was staged in partnership on location at the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center. My focus was on attracting urban educators to come to be immersed in the wonders of the natural world while communing around the fire and breaking bread with educators and experts alike. The experiment worked and attracted 25 urban educators, 13 suburban/rural teachers, and another 10 or so intellectually curious; all together with 25 presenters. We had a grand time learning from each other and our great Mother Earth and I do hope to stage GLEEE again in the near future. But what I realized as I met with teachers post-conference in their classrooms is that few of them had an area on their school campus to engage with nature, yet they desired this connection. Thus, the flower that would become the Schoolyard habitat was pollinated!
Birth of a Habitat
Like most great ideas, the habitat wasn’t born in isolation or ideation as much as it was borrowed and then modified for an urban audience and context. I begin by digging deeper into ODNR’s Land Lab after connecting with some ODNR folks at AGTC which later drew me to the National Wildlife Foundation’s aptly named Schoolyard Habitat. And somehow further down this long and winding path, I doubled back to, BEETLES (Better Environment Education, Teaching, Learning, and Expertise Sharing) which was similarly focused on connecting urban youth with learning in nature, albeit in the Bay Area, and learned of the work of one of their colleagues, who was similarly focused on schoolyards. The founders of this organization the National Green Schoolyards Project (NGSP), also based in the Bay Area, had been working in this niche field for nearly twenty years and was now in a position to compile best practices for creating outdoor classrooms as a response to COVID-19 in order that schools could stay open during the pandemic. Ahhh…….Outdoor learning was now viewed, at least in some circles, as the panacea to COVID-19 and volunteer-run networks were created across the country under the guidance of a steering committee created NGSP. All this to say there were lots of sources of inspiration for the Schoolyard Habitat idea though the main thrust for me was finding a way to create some space on an urban school campus, which is mostly lawn and pavement, for outdoor learning. Creating this space would have the potential to benefit all teachers and all students. By taking what I thought was a small step, I would be able to help teachers attending GLEEE have a space to experiment with ideas gleaned from the conference.
A Meander – Ripples in a Pond
In 2020, I set out to build habitats at four CMSD schools and one rural school; William Rainey Harper, Orchard, Campus International High School, Wilson & Perry of which four were elementary. At the time of this writing, two years later, three habitats are thriving, one has been relocated, and one is showing its true self.
Let me be clear, I am solely speaking about the health of the plant ecosystem in my use of the word ‘thriving’.
I take the lead on the maintenance of each of the habitats, with the exception of Perry School, in Spring and Fall. Perry’s habitat has facilitated the transformation of Design Learning teacher Cindy Banjoff as after spending the year with the habitat, she has transitioned her teaching practice to utilizing the habitat and the outdoors as a means of facilitating Design Learning through inquiry, year-round.
In terms of culture change at the school, adoption has been varied. It’s worth remembering that habitats don’t require humans to be successful. Once established, which happens around the third year, the habitat can thrive as a place that facilitates small insects in their quest for food, shelter, and reproduction. Most established habitats can make do with an annual maintenance session.
Habitats are not gardens
I believe this type of project demands a unique qualifier for success. Adoption by the local school is not required as a measure of success but rather a Schoolyard Habitat should invite interaction by the surrounding community. Once the chosen plants have rooted themselves and outcompeted the invaders, the habitat is more or less self-sustaining and only requires one maintenance session per year.
In planting the habitat, it should be stated that because the loss of habitat for insects is such a massive problem on a global scale, there are myriad organizations working in this space. I chose the National Pollinator Partnership to guide our plant selection, as they produce a planting guide for each eco-region in the USA. I was intrigued by the idea that the planting itself could be an act of community to make an attempt to source the native plants from local home gardeners which led to the Schoolyard Pollinator Habitat IOBY Campaign. This provided funds and community connections allowing me to source the majority of natives from local gardeners and use the money raised to purchase high-quality soil from Kurtz Brothers.
All of the habitats were planted atop the existing lawn by making use of cardboard boxes, which schools generate constantly. This planting method facilitates carbon capture by returning the stored carbon to the earth while concurrently killing the grass below. Once the cardboard is in place, wetting it with a hose will help it conform to the land and the last step is to add 3-4’ of high-quality soil. I’ve successfully used this easy method, a form of lasagna mulching for both spring and fall planting. Like most gardening projects, ‘many hands make light work”.
In terms of creating curricular connections for students, there are myriad to be made. I prefer to begin by using the Activity Model for Scientific Inquiry as an entry point to Inquiry to foster some of the lost skills like awareness and observation. The appendix for this case study contains links to the innumerable number of activities that connect your curriculum to the garden.