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Getting to know the Liney 'Ditch' Park: a lesson plan for Camden

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I’ve so enjoyed working with the fifth grade class in Camden this semester, and yet I’ve found our limited connection to be very frustrating. Due to the various time and logistical constraints, as well as the fact that there are so many of us teaching together and we haven’t been working this class continuously, I have not been able to carry out my dream lesson plans. Therefore I decided to design a lesson plan for a week-long unit in their class. In this imaginary scenario, I am the teacher, and have been for the whole year. They will be coming out of a long couple of units on slavery and the civil rights movement, and my hope is that this week and the unit after it will bridge a connection between the two. (I’ll use a book called Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.) It will likely be around the end of September, or perhaps in the end of April/beginning of May. These are times when it tends to be fairly warm and nice out but the weather is not reliable so we may end up having some interesting conversations about how ‘bad’ weather plays into our concept of nature/environment.

I take great liberties with this curriculum plan, which I account for using an idea that originally came from Albert Einstein and is referenced by C.A. Bowers: “we cannot rely on the same mindset that created a problem to fix it.” (Bowers 43) In saying this, Bowers specifically refers to “the problem…that most of us who have been educated in Western style educational institutions have been socialized to think and communicate in the metaphorical language framed by analogs settled upon by earlier western thinkers who were unaware of environmental limits and who were deeply prejudiced toward cultures that had already developed an ecological form of intelligence that enabled many of them to live within the limits…of their bioregion.” (Bowers 43) Bowers therefore argues that “there needs to be a wider understanding on the part of educators of how language carries forward the misconceptions and values of earlier thinkers who were unaware of environmental limits.” I wish to further this argument to say that not only must we resist using such language which perpetuates the ecological crisis, we must completely shift the mindset with which we approach teaching. If extended beyond language and applied to teaching in general, Bowers’ recommendations can be used as an argument that radical education is a necessary step in inspiring ecological thinking. Therefore, this lesson plan strays very far from traditionally acceptable models of teaching. What we’re doing isn’t working, so we might as well try something else.

The theories grounding this learning come from a variety of readings we’ve done this semester. One of my primary influences is David Sobel’s idea of a ditch, a word taken from an account by Robert Michael Pyle of how his early connection with the environment was based on spending a lot of time in a ditch behind his house. According to Sobel, having some space like Pyle’s ditch can greatly inform and influence a person’s connection to and care for the environment. (Sobel 10)

Another important influence is Katy Mugford’s argument in the book Urban Wildscapes that Young Adult and Children’s Literature has great potential for environmental education. A complete explanation of the connection between Mugford’s theories and the use of Young Adult Literature like the Phantom Tollbooth (which I use in my lesson plan) can be found in this paper I wrote earlier in the semester.

Much of Sobel’s theories of environmental education are explained in reference to fairly affluent students and schools he has worked with, and my goal here is to translate some of those ideas to a much less privileged set of students in an area with little access to what is traditionally considered “nature” or “environment”.

Learning Objectives:

There is only one central learning objective for this unit: forming a lasting connection to the environment. This includes spending time outdoors in a nearby space, While it might not feel like much, this is something that actually takes much longer than a couple weeks, and therefore I feel completely justified in spending a couple weeks focusing solely on such a complex idea. Within this larger goal, learning will take place within a number of different disciplines, primarily reading and writing (with focuses on poetry, literature, and vocabulary).

Lesson Plan:

The focus of this unit is the park near the school and near CfET, which will (hopefully) become their version of Pyle’s ditch - and I found out today that the park is actually called Liney Ditch Park! So cool! We will have class in the park every day, for most of the day, for the entire unit. We’ll go right to the park in first thing in the morning for our opening the day activity and stay there for the day with the exception of lunch and a couple of activities like writing (Also I assume they have some kind of ‘specials’ or ‘elective’ classes like art or PE which we’ll return to school for). In addition to the underlying constant of the park, there will be some activities we do each day, to provide a sense of ritual and strengthen connection with the park. I will first layout the overall structure, then describe the daily activities and finally move on descriptions of some of the specific one-time activities.


Day One - Getting to Know the Park:
Introduce unit (walk to the park, opening activity, run around in partners and write down as many things you see in the park as possible!)
Open discussions: what do you think about this park?
Your Spot - “find something you like…”
Writing first poem - about Your Spot
Begin Reading the Phantom Tollbooth
[Homework assignment: interview someone in the neighborhood about this park, how they feel about it, whether they like it. If you live nearby it could be a family member or neighbor. If you don’t, it could be a friend who lives nearby. Due by Day 4]

Day Two - What is Nature?:
Opening activity
Go back to Your Spot
Open discussion: what is nature?
Phantom Tollbooth

Day Three - We Are Nature (I am from…):
Opening activity
Your Spot: same and different
Open discussion: we come from/we are nature
“I am from…” poem
Phantom Tollbooth

Day Four - My Environment:
Opening activity
Your Spot: Trash Investigators
Open discussion: The park!
Write poem about trash
Poetry practice activity
Phantom Tollbooth

Day Five - Closing and Continuing:
Opening activity
Your Spot
[Time available if needed to finish reading the Phantom Tollbooth]
Capture the flag (Phantom Tollbooth themed)
Poetry practice activity
Poetry performance

Daily activities:

Opening activity: We will do the same opening activity each day, a game called Follow, Follow that I learned about from a friend who has been a teacher for a long time and has used this game with great success. It’s actually a bit similar to the ice-breakers that Ari lead while we were at CfET, except this game focuses just on sounds. Each person gets to make a sound and then everyone copies it. It might go in a circle or the teacher might do it randomly by calling on students to keep it going. To start, the teacher calls on a more outgoing, less shy student, who will let out a sound that brings everyone’s energy up when they repeat it. The teacher can also model a loud sound, even using words like, “I’M YELLING!” to show students that it’s ok to be really loud and take up a lot of space, something they have not always been allowed to do.

“Your Spot”: On the first day, I will ask the students to walk or run around the park and look at some of the things they first wrote down, to return to whatever caught their eye and choose some space or object that they like for whatever reason. This could be a tree that they like how it looks or a bench they like to sit on or a flower that they like how it smells or even a slab of sidewalk that they feel connected to for some reason. I will stress that everyone is expected to have a different spot (no sharing), which shouldn’t be a problem because there are so many things to see in the park, big and small. No choice is good or bad, better or worse than any other.

They will revisit this spot each day, as a way of forming some deeper connection with a subset of the park. Their Spot will function as a sort of ditch, or perhaps as a part they can feel most connected to out of the ditch of the park. The first day the focus will be on finding the spot and beginning a connection with it. I will ask them to draw the place or the object and write 5 describing words about it. Then we’ll come back together and they will write poems about their spot using the five describing words.

The second day they will revisit their spot briefly before we have a short group discussion about what nature is/means. The third day I will ask them to write three things that they see as being the same about them and their Spot and three things that are different. It might be hard to list things that are the same, but I’ll be going around and maybe giving ideas. The Fourth day when they travel to their Spot they will investigate any way trash interacts with it and/or collect trash they find on the way

Two very important things about their Spots: This exercise is meant to be solitary and grounding, a contrast to the rowdy, exciting activity beforehand. Hopefully it will center the students, but I realize that doing work alone does not work best for everyone, which is why there are other aspects of this curriculum and why I will sometimes check in on them, especially on the ones who I know might benefit from it.

The other thing is that this is one way in which the students will be unsupervised, which is why I don’t want to be checking in on them too much. I really want to give them the freedom to figure things out, to learn in a less structured way and to not feel that something is being expected of them. I want them to get to just have their ditch.

Reading the Phantom Tollbooth: I have chosen a book to do read-aloud with for the week. When I was in second, third, fourth and fifth grade (and probably even into middle school) I had teachers who read to our class, and it was very important to me. My second and third grade teacher did a special activity while reading aloud that I will do during this week. We’ll read in the park (which might be distracting!) and each section I will call on students to get up and perform the roles of the characters. They will act out the motions I describe and sometimes even say the lines I give them. When my teacher did this, it was an incredibly exciting and engaging way of interacting with the text. It also gives students the chance to really play with and feel the adventure in the book.

Vocabulary: Coming out of the book and out of our experiences in the park, I’ll generate some vocabulary words. The Phantom Tollbooth is a particularly good book for this because words and vocabulary are one of the central themes. We’ll do an exercise for learning vocab (TBD).

Poetry writing: Poetry is a central theme of this unit, in part because it feels like a very helpful way for students at this age to write and communicate about their environment and the “natural” world. They will be writing a few short poems throughout the course of the unit, practicing reciting a couple of them, and finally we’ll have a performance for family members, friends, and the school (this was inspired by our story slam and the importance of sharing our stories when thinking about environment and community). The different poems they will write are:
First poem based on their Spot
“I am from…” poem
Poem about trash

They can pick one of these three to edit and practice, and eventually perform - OR if the poems are short they might do two or all three.

Poetry Practice activity: As a way of practicing reciting their poetry, I will have the students line up in a row all facing me (in a grassy, open area of the park, of course). They will all have their poems written neatly on a piece of paper and, when I tell them to start, they will begin walking forward and reading their poem to themselves, not too loudly. They’ll repeat it and continue walking until they get to a nearby spot. Then I’ll have them turn around and go back to their first line. This time I’ll have them read the poem as if they are sad. Then as if they are angry. Then as if they have never been happier, then as if they are a tree, or as if they are the moon, etc. Some of these might not be obvious or distinguishable, and the children might feel confused or not know how to represent it at first, but this is about letting their minds be totally open and creative while practicing their piece. It will get less and less focused but that’s ok since they will have practiced it a few times first.

One-time activities:

Capture the Flag: I haven’t fully worked out the storyline, but I will set up two teams of capture the flag to represent the final conflict of the Phantom tollbooth. There will be two teams and each student will play a character. It will end up being more like a roll play than like capture the flag, but it will have elements of that game. We will run it twice so each team will get a turn to be the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. At the heart of the conflict is Milo and his companions facing the demons to rescue the princesses. There are some details to be worked out, but this will really give the students a chance to feel the adventure. I want the game to feel really high-stakes and risky, like there is a lot to loose. It is also important that it be grounded in the space of the park itself, with the princesses located in a certain place and different obstacles to overcome within the park. There might also be a component where each student has to do something to protect or take care of their spot.

The performance: This would take place in the park at the end of the day or after school ends on the last day of the unit and would be a chance for students to share their finished product with their families friends and hopefully some of the rest of the school. I’m wondering about the likelihood of parents being able to show up if the workday has not yet ended, something that would need to be addressed. Perhaps this would be later at night (and then, having this outside, the question of lighting would need to be discussed). This, like many other aspects of my lesson plan, reminds me of our 360 in the way that so many things had to be discussed and changed - and therefore we had to be flexible and open to change as a group.


One thing I’ve learned from just the two times we worked with the students in Camden is that nothing is as easy as you might assume it will be. Today I discovered how different it is to facilitate a discussion of 5th graders than it is to facilitate adults in open discussion - VERY different, night and day. The discussions we had today were still very fruitful, and a lot came out of them, but they were slow moving and I had to exercise a lot of patience.

I also had to tell kids to be quiet a lot, and it made me wonder about the balance between making use of the energy the students have naturally that can really help them learn and also keeping them focused. How much does focus do? I would argue that at times insisting rigidly on focus can detract, but at the same time never having focus can also be very problematic. This would be something to consider if I were to move forward with this plan.

Another challenge was picking a book. I found that most of the YA literature I know is written by and about white people, something I find problematic, especially for such a nonwhite group of students. With more time I would want to do more research and find books written by and about people of color (that’s also where Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry fits in).

Speaking of working with students of color, I know that would be another great challenge to deal with, for a few reasons. First of all, being white, I don’t know the experiences of these students. Much of my planning is based on my own experiences with being educated, which are likely different from the fifth graders in Camden. They might not appreciate the reading exercise like I did, and, as Lisa Delpit argues in The Silenced Dialogue, they might respond much better to a more structured, product-based lesson plan (as opposed to the incredibly unstructured and unsupervised process-based plan I’ve created). That said, I think relying on poetry as a product would help.

A final source of tension that I’m feeling is one that I only just realized after writing all this: perhaps the idea of each student having their own Spot goes against what Bowers argues, that we can’t use existing language and mindsets to educate. In some ways it feels like a very capitalist and perhaps western notion to have ones own space. Therefore, if I were to actually carry out this curriculum, it would be important to give serious thought as to how to mitigate this. Perhaps students would trade Spots after a while, so they could get to know another place. Or perhaps we would go on a tour as a class of all the students’ Spots so they could share them with all of us. I think there is great potential and it would be very possible to address this issue.


Delpit, Lisa. "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children." Harvard Educational Review. Aug 1988. 58, 3. Web.
Mugford, Katy. "Chapter 5: Nature, Nurture; Danger, Adventure; Junkyard, Paradise." Urban Wildscapes. By Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan. London: Routledge, 2012. 80-95. Print.
Sobel, David. Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2008. Print.