Amphitheater High School’s Outdoor Classroom: a study in the Application of Design

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Research Methodology

There are several aspects to this project which should be considered in how my research approach for the Outdoor Learning Classroom. A significant portion of this project is based in developing a set of plans that meet the needs of a specific group, the students and teachers at AHS. My research needs to inform my ability to develop these plans, but also needs to accommodate for how I develop an understanding of these needs. The final key characteristic of my project which relates to my relationship with the participants. I am a former student of AHS, and the teachers and students I will be working with, are people from a community I have identified with for the majority of my life. The methodology which that I choose must accommodate a relatively high level of personal interaction with participants, as well as value on my personal investment in the project while maintaining the integrity of the absence of bias.

My methods account for how I must interact with my participants. In Constructivist grounded theory, interviews are a key component they become the “site for the construction of knowledge and clearly the researcher and informant produce this knowledge together” (Hand, 2003). Constructivist grounded theory, as described by Mills, Bonner, and Francis (Jane Mills, 206), requires an approach three factors:

1. The creation of a sense of reciprocity between participants and the researcher in the coconstruction of meaning and, ultimately, a theory that is grounded in the participants’ and researcher’s experiences.

2. The establishment of relationships with participants that explicate power imbalances and attempts to modify these imbalances.

3. Clarification of the position the author takes in the text, the relevance of biography and how one renders participants stories into theory through writing.”

The nature of the relationship between the teachers and students at AHS already leads itself to multiple levels of reciprocity. AHS and its community members have already provided for me as an institution, by preparing me for collegiate work. Additionally, this project affords me the benefit of developing my design skills and capabilities. AHS receives the benefit of outdoor learning infrastructure, as well as the opportunity to develop strong relationships with students, which may in turn produce useful alumni. The nature of this reciprocity lends itself to controlled imbalances in power relationships between researcher (me) and subject (students and teachers). Justification for the project is readily found in the story of AHS, not only through its demographics, but also through the stories of the students and staff.

Though my personal enthusiasm and investment in the project may be beneficial to the process, it may also create bias, as Blummer puts “the existence of passion for the area of research interest can be problematic in itself because it has the potential to blind the researcher to aspects of the data, or at the very least, to constitute filters through which we view the data” (Mallory, 2001) It is the recommendation of Mills, Bonner, and Francis, that reflection and memory be used to encourage the research to reflect, and maintain objectivity. Accordingly, I will incorporate journaling that takes notes of my process along the way.

Literature Review

The nature of this project requires a variety of be covered. To begin with there should be justification for the investment needed for a school garden and outdoor learning. After there is reason established for the garden methods for the design of the garden must be identified. This requires several scales of detail; a general outline for how to approach the design process from project acceptance, down to implementation; and then information for how to approach specific elements of the design process. Three facets of particular import to the project relate to the analysis of the site, to better inform conceptualization, plant selection that is both appropriate for its water usage and it survivability in the microclimate of the site, and finally the initial talks with the AHS faculty have expressed extreme interest both passive and active water harvesting, acting as factor of sustainability, and as a mitigator of poor conditions on the site.

Making a Case for School Gardens and Outdoor Classrooms

Many people are behind the idea of school gardens and outdoor learning, the value seems inherent. Despite a lot of support gardens are still subject to scrutiny, as is famously the case of the scathing editorial that appeared in the Atlantic in 2010, calling school gardens idealistic, culturally insensitive, and ineffective teaching tools (Flanagan, 2010). Without addressing the combative tone of editorials, critiques like those fail to acknowledge the inclusivity presented by school gardens. One study published in the international journal of science education looked specifically at the benefits of a school garden in low-income schools. Elementary students at a school with more than half of the population receiving free and reduced lunch took part in a study with science based garden interventions. What was found was a modest, but significant increase science knowledge with those that participated in the garden interventions. The benefits were noted to increase with the frequency, and intensity of garden “dosing”; students with that spent more time in the garden, with more developed curriculum experienced more significant improvement in their science comprehension (Nancy M. Wells, 2015). This is of particular significance to the AHS which is classified as a low income school. Additionally, the study focused on science learning, which parallels the activities in planning for AHS, where it is the Science Department which has expressed interest in the outdoor classroom. Furthermore, the inclusivity of gardens in learning is not limited to socio-economic status, but also to students at all levels of educational development. In an article published by Teaching Exceptional Children, Garden based learning as was shown to be an effective intervention at a school with a population which had 19% limited English proficiency, and 23% special needs population. Garden based learning allows for those students to have hands on learning opportunities where “… teacher become coaches by helping students actively explore and manipulate soil, worms, seeds, and plants”. AHS would particularly benefit from programs which are inclusive of these demographics, as the school population is comprised of one in seven students who are learning English as a second language. In addition to these benefits, the article provides a framework for creating an enduring garden; beginning with gathering administrative support, followed by creating interest by teachers at a school, identifying opportunities for funding, gathering support from the community, and finally planning the garden. The article also provides an examples of how garden curriculum might be integrated in types of academic pursuits, showing potential for the building on the “dosing” effect as described in the Nancy Wells reading (James A. Rye, 2012). The order of support gathering which is described by the Rye, may show as a bit of a missed opportunity, where teachers had begun development of curriculum, before contacting administration. This conflict with administration is later described in the results section. Moving forward this should be a key consideration, alongside the support of parents and the community. Gathering this support is proven to be an important factor in creating enduring outdoor learning spaces. In the publication Green Teacher, and article addresses the sustainability of outdoor classrooms; a 2003 study revealed that in the state of Georgia, 41% of more than 1000 school yard habitats projects had been abandoned, with over 80% of the abandoned projects falling into disrepair by their second year. The author prescribes a series of recommendations which lead to the success of the 59% of classrooms which do not fall into disrepair. The three most important factors are continued maintenance support, integration of curriculum, and the inclusion of students in the construction of those spaces. (Kail, 2003) This suggests that some considerations must be made to connect with maintenance crews, as well as the development of a written guide for the care of that space. The entirety of the science department at AHS has already vested considerable effort into the creation of curriculum to integrate into the project. This leaves the task of planning for giving students hands-on opportunities in the development and construction of the space. An additional suggestion for in final plans was the fencing off of a space to allow natural succession to take place, as a low cost, low investment, high learning value opportunity. (Kail, 2003) Justification for school gardens, and outdoor learning are readily available; fortunately addressing concerns raised against their implementation seems equally manageable, and reinforces the benefit and need for using a formalized design process.

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