Essex Heritage’s Park for Every Classroom

This program allows educators to make their curriculum more engaging through academic projects that utilize the resources of the region and serve a real-world need. 



Photo courtesy of Essex Heritage

Most teachers will spend their careers just serving their class, but thanks to a program called Park for Every Classroom, a collaboration between Essex Heritage and the National Park Service, they can now serve their community, too. The professional development program, based on the model of place-based service learning (PBSL), offers K-12 educators of various disciplines the opportunity to make their curriculum more engaging by providing cross-disciplinary opportunities and teaching from experts within Essex County at organizations such as the Cape Ann Museum, Groundwork Lawrence, and Salem Maritime, and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Sites. 

Educators will not only earn Professional Development Points (PDPs), helping them maintain their certification by meeting continuing education requirements, but will also develop strategies to incorporate service learning into their own teaching practices. Based on the training they receive through Park for Every Classroom, now in its sixth year, educators will go on to work with their students and local partners to create academic projects that utilize national parks and other public lands in Essex County in order to reach curricular goals and serve the local community. Educators who attend the weeklong Park for Every Classroom workshop and then “plan, implement, and document a PBSL project” will also receive three graduate credits from Salem State University.

“Teachers have certain topics that they have to teach. [This program] helps them find more engaging ways of reaching those goals by exposing them to a variety of ways to approach place-based service learning. They then take that back and apply it to their community and their own set of circumstances,” says director of education programs at Essex Heritage Beth Beringer, who, along with Maryann Zujewski, education specialist at Salem Maritime National Historic Site and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site (the two national parks in Essex County), started planning the program together in 2011, as part of a larger regional effort of working with parks to work with teachers—receiving training in thinking about ways to offer professional development training for teachers in parks, museums, etc. By the summer of 2012, the first cohort of teachers arrived for the program, which immersed educators in an approach and created “a synergy so that teachers aren’t isolated in the classroom,” Beringer says. “It’s a really rich experience for the community, teachers, and students,” she adds.

“Our program helps educators understand how place-based service learning can provide the engaging context for the learning goals that they have for their students. The response from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive; they feel this program revitalized their traditional classroom teaching while allowing them to communicate complex concepts to their students,” says Annie Harris, Essex Heritage CEO.

This year, 497 students were served by the 2016-2017 program, and the 2017-2018 program is already booked solid, with 25 educators having been selected. And although the number of applicants varies from year to year, this year, Park for Every Classroom received over 50 applicants. The National Park Service is still involved but has taken a step back, with Essex Heritage taking over the bulk of interacting with the teachers, including the selection process, says Beringer, who works with project coordinator Meredith George; she assists in the planning and implementation of the program. 

“Courses like Park for Every Classroom help build a professional learning community that is essential to the role of a teacher to embed authentic experiences to address this curriculum,” says Carolyn Townsend, a teacher of multiage grade ½ at Carlton Innovation School in Salem.

Once educators complete the summer workshop, they must come up with a proposal for their project, which is typically rooted in the curriculum. 

The program has thus far proven to be quite successful. Kids are given a voice and are encouraged to do their best, and they can see that there is value in doing work that is not just for themselves or their teachers but for the community, as well. And kids, who were otherwise struggling in a classroom setting are often seen opening up. But the program is not without its challenges.

“A prescribed curriculum doesn’t always allow the time to do these types of projects,” Beringer says. As a result, some projects only last for a few months, some last all year, and still other teachers will keep returning to a project, in between other curriculum obligations. Townsend is one of the lucky ones, she says, and is supported by both her principal, Bethann Jellison, and her colleagues.

“The Carlton model is built on continuous improvement employing teaching practices that include inquiry- and project-based methods and authentic student learning and problem-solving. The Park for Every Classroom ties nicely into the Carlton model.”

The 2016-2017 Park for Every Classroom program saw projects from schools in Haverhill, Gloucester, Lynn, Marblehead, Peabody, and Salem, with some students, teachers, and community partners showcasing their work at the Salem Visitor Center this past June in a celebratory event. For example, Townsend and her students “put the green back in the Carlton greenhouse” by working with gardeners in the community, planting different seeds and learning how different parts of a plant help it survive.

“There were so many connections to the curriculum in science and math where students learned about plants and in math they organized charts and graphs to record lengths and track the census of each pot that was planted. Over the course of the planting season, we had both successes and failure,” says Townsend. The students demonstrated leadership qualities when making decisions about what to do with the plants, and also when voting to call themselves The Rainbow Sunshine Kids, whose mission is to spread sunshine and happiness.

Sixth-grade students from O’Maley Middle School in Gloucester, along with teachers Jessica Haskell, Marybeth Quinn, and Pat Hand, collaborated with the Cape Ann Museum and a local cartographer to create maps of their diverse Gloucester neighborhoods. A collection of the students’ maps, called “Gloucester Through Our Eyes,” which aligned with the curricular focus on geography, is on display at the Cape Ann Museum.

“It has not always been easy to provide students with meaningful experiences that will make a difference to them. The ‘Gloucester Through Our Eyes’ project has done just that. Students have been able to take pride in their neighborhoods, and have also seen an example of how we all belong,” says O’Maley Middle School teacher Pat Hand.

First-grade students, along with teacher Emily Englehardt, at Lynn’s Connery School took what they learned from Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar in a science and literacy class to create their own murals and help beautify their environment, with the help of local artist Yetti Frenkel. And fourth graders at the Village School in Marblehead, along with teachers Caitlin Welsh and Alexandra Hobson, led an effort to get the school garden back in use. Last fall, they completed a needs assessment of the space and reached out to multiple community partners to fulfill their vision, “It Takes a Village to Tend a Garden.” They conducted soil analysis, and honed graphing, measuring, and writing skills as they tied their garden project work to curricular goals.

“The Park for Every Classroom program has changed my teaching in so many ways,” says Village School teacher Alexandra Hobson. It has given my students a chance to get out of the classroom and use real-world problem-solving and skill-building. It has taken me out of my comfort zone and pushed me to think about the curriculum in a new way that doesn’t fit the mold of any science kit,” 

 

For a full description of all the 2016-2017 Park for Every Classroom projects, visit essexheritage.org/park-for-every-classroom