In the late ‘70’s, my colleagues and I conceived and ran the award-winning Learning About Learning Laboratory School in San Antonio. Although our students had to pass standardized tests at the end of the year, until then we did not have to abide by the customs of cutting the school day into subjects and separate objectives. In addition, we had rich historical and natural resources, including the San Jose Mission, a National Historical Park, originally built in 1720, which we used extensively to “go deep” in our learning. One of the students from the school, Kelly Jarrell, recently told me that her strongest school memories were of going over and over again to the Mission, each time with a new perspective.
Our objectives were several: (1) to use a local resource as “the third teacher,” wherein the ecology of the learning environment solidly supported learning, (2) to connect and understand human roles in the creation of the past, present and future, and (3) to have students realize that fields of study were points of view—were like putting on a different pair of glasses to re-look over the same old world. So, instead of just having one fieldtrip experience and only listening to a docent tell us about the Mission, we went many times. Here are some of our experiences:
- We imagined ourselves as Native Americans and went to explore the land in the park for life-sustaining resources: water, food, shelter. We imagined what it would take to survive with limited tools in this hot and humid climate.
- We imagined ourselves engineers and studied the aqueduct systems and mills built by early Spaniards to harness and use the precious resource of water. We investigated how the spiral stairs to the tower were created without nails. We constructed (and then deconstructed) our own small dam of a trickle of water running through the park.
- We returned with a botanist and “put on his glasses” to understand the anatomy and potential uses of the native plants—for food, medicine, traditions, first aid, building materials, poisons, and so on.
- To think like historians, we created dramas in the various areas of the Mission. We compared and contrasted the Spanish Governor’s quarters, the ornate church, the strategic gun rooms, the simple rooms for the Native American population, and the arched entrances to the cells of the Catholic brothers. We talked to the guides and caretakers of the park. We camped out in the enormous (and empty) granary, made a huge campfire and told stories as if we were people from the past.
- To even better understand the cultures of the past, we got permission to use the wood-burning stoves and made tortillas by hand with “mano” and “mitote” (and ate them with butter!) We tried our hands at weaving and other crafts practiced at the Mission.
- To understand how some writers can be inspired, we returned to San Jose and let ourselves be inspired by the input from our senses—the lines, colors, textures, and so on—and our favorite memories there.
- With the help of teacher Julia Jarrell and photographer Jay Bruner, children wrote and published a book of writings and experiences, called Future/Past, where they pondered how the past had helped to shape their present and how they themselves were shaping the future.
What cultural resources can you share with your kids? A museum? An historical building? A park? A garden? Make the most of these wonderful resources while we still have them!