The Living Classroom program will begin on Oct. 5 with a pair of lessons at Theuerkauf Elementary School, where children will sow seeds, examine what grows and complete lessons related to the plants they are tending in their schoolyard gardens.
Vicki Moore, Living Classroom's founder, said the lessons taught by her all-volunteer staff are mostly science related, but some tie in to the histories of indigenous peoples and others involve number-crunching skills, such as taking measurements and planning for the future.
"Learning doesn't have to only occur inside the walls of the classroom," Moore said.
She was inspired to create the outdoor education program after serving as a chaperone on a youth field trip to Los Trancos Open Space Preserve. Moore and the group of children had just boarded the bus back home when she noticed something. Upon taking their seats, the majority of the kids immediately stuck their noses into some kind of electronic device, she said, "instead of looking out the window at this glorious view coming down Page Mill Road."
Moore is no Luddite. She supports technology in the classroom. Still, she was dismayed when she saw the children were so quick to tune out nature. "I thought to myself, 'We need to have everyday experiences with nature in the schoolyard.'" Living Classroom gives teachers an opportunity to take their students on a "field trip" without ever leaving campus.
The program got its start during the 2008-09 school year in the Los Altos School District, where it has been steadily growing ever since, Moore said. This is the first year the program will be active in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
"We wanted to provide an opportunity to enhance our science curriculum through real world applications," said district Superintendent Craig Goldman. "We think it's a great opportunity to partner with a community organization that's had a track record of success in a nearby district."
The program is voluntary and offered to the district for free, Moore said. Not all third-grade classes within the district are signed up for Living Classroom, and not all teachers who are signed up will participate in all the lessons offered.
Moore is able to offer the program at no charge thanks to mostly private donations. The Morgan Family Foundation, the Kaiser Foundation and the Health Trust of Santa Clara County have contributed money to Living Classroom, and local businesses have donated upwards of $10,000 in supplies, including lumber, soil and plants.
By offering the Living Classroom lessons, Goldman said his district has lengthened the chain of outdoor science experiences for students as they move up through elementary school and into middle school. The district is also expanding a field trip program — Science by Nature, which had previously only been available to fourth- and fifth-graders — to the sixth grade.
Living in the tech-centric culture of Silicon Valley, it is important not to forget the lessons nature can teach, Goldman said.
"We're trying to bring balance to our learning environment," he said. "There is some information that has to be delivered," such as abstract mathematical concepts.
"Some learning you can only obtain through experience," he said. "We can teach the California standards all we want, but there's something about standing at the base of a 2,000-year-old coastal redwood tree that you can't get by sitting in a classroom or searching the Internet."