Natural Ties: Livingston Literacy Program

There are a bunch of insects taped to the wall outside Michelle Boyd’s kindergarten classroom. The drawings have distinguishable heads, thoraxes, abdomens and many legs created from tracings of little hands. But the kindergarteners do more than just draw these critters; they can tell you the correct names for the insects’ body parts and the insects’ role in the environment.

Thanks to a grant Boyd received from the Livingston Education Fund, the Livingston, Montana kindergarten classes get to experience 30 weekly natural science lessons from Montana Outdoor Science School (MOSS), funded by the grant and MOSS.

For over ten years, MOSS has been running interactive natural science and environmental education programs for preschool through adult learners using the diverse environments of southwest Montana as the classroom.

Boyd sought the grant because she saw a need for science at the kindergarten level. “Our day is very short and very packed, and science just wasn’t being taught,” she recalls. With only two and a half hours in the regular kindergarten day, Boyd barely has time to teach reading—the main grade level emphasis—let alone science.

The Livingston Literacy Program: Sneaking in Science
Each August Livingston students are screened for possible participation in a special Literacy Program. Students with special academic or social requirements, the need for a safe environment, or a variety of other special needs, are selected to stay for a full day of kindergarten. The extended instruction focuses on reading. Fifteen of twenty children in Boyd’s class qualified for the Literacy Program, which offered her the perfect opportunity to “sneak” environmental science into her classroom.

For one hour a week during the extended kindergarten, MOSS visits the classroom. The “Science Adventures” program is designed to use the natural environment to promote student learning in science and language arts. Through literature, hands-on activities, field investigations and inquiry skills, the Livingston kindergarteners not only get science, but they improve their reading skills as well.

Science and reading both require many of the same skills—thinking, rethinking, refining, construction, reconstruction. In the same way a student rethinks his or her ideas based on something he or she read, the student rethinks the way a habitat works based on observation or an experiment. “The Science Adventures program provides an opportunity for science to be taught in the classroom, but in an interdisciplinary way,” says Krista Wright, Director of Education for MOSS. “It’s really significant for Michelle’s (Boyd) students to have an outsider come into the classroom and do a dynamic program in an hour,” adds Wright.

Interdisciplinary Instruction
The environmental themes of the Science Adventures program easily lend themselves to integrated interdisciplinary instruction. MOSS works with the teachers and librarians at the two participating schools—East Side and Winans Elementary Schools—to choose children’s literature that illustrates the science concepts the students focus on. The books are kept in the classroom during the week and may be read by the teachers during story time, looked at by the students on their own, or otherwise incorporated into the curriculum.

The MOSS instructors, all of whom have teaching credentials, arrive each week with a storyboard to introduce vocabulary and concepts. Next, weather permitting, the students head out into the school yard for a field exploration. One week, the kindergarteners may learn the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees; the next week they may focus on animal camouflage.

If the weather precludes going outside, an alternate science activity takes place in the classroom. Students might observe a tarantula or snake brought by MOSS, or compare the physical features of skulls.

Next, the MOSS instructors read a children’s book to integrate the reading and science. The program finishes up with an art project such as the insect art in the hallway or owl masks. “They love the art activities,” declares Boyd.

Skills for Teachers
A second goal of Science Adventures is “to give teachers skills to take [the program] on themselves,” says Wright. MOSS developed all the lesson plans and is giving them to the teachers to use in following years. The program combines professional development with teaching students in a way that’s very hands-on and real world for the teachers.

“I’m learning new things every day, with the kids,” says Boyd of her classroom visits from MOSS. She plans to continue with the Science Adventures program on her own.

MOSS has developed school programs for all ages and puts on several Outdoor
Science Days for local schools. With this extensive experience integrating science, literature, art, social sciences and natural history into lesson plans that are challenging, dynamic and fun, it’s no wonder MOSS was an ideal partner for the Livingston Literacy Program.

“Kids love science, and there is so much to learn. And it is the one thing that gets put on the backburner,” Boyd says. But not anymore, with a kick start from MOSS and great lesson plans, Livingston kindergarten teachers should be able to keep science in the classroom.

Environmental Education and Training Partnership
January 16, 2006

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