Category Archives: environmental studies

THE GUNPOWDER CHRONICLES, Part 4: “Are You Listening?”

turtle 2-1This is the 4th in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!



Kids don’t listen.  That is my big learning for the week.

Maybe I ‘ve always known that kids don’t listen.

But this past Thursday morning, eight 7th graders from our Nature Center program met at the Chula Vista Boat Ramp and proved it.  They could not have picked a more beautiful morning to kayak.  The sun was fully above the San Miguel mountain by 8:00am when we met Harry the Kayak Guy. The marina was perfectly still. Tranquil. There were the typical cast of sea-birds calling, the lappingof the water, a distant horn… but otherwise all was serene.

Harry the Kayak Guy had finished the routine pre-boarding instructions:  how to hold the paddles properly and how to fit their life preserver and how to get back on the kayak if they fall off and which direction is North and which fish they’ll see jumping out of the water and the many different theories for why they jump out of the water…

Then he veered from the script.  

“There are two rivers that flow into the San Diego Bay… the Otay River from the south and the Sweetwater River from the north.  Can you say those rivers?”

To which our eight 7th grade students responded with a unanimous and puzzling silence.  So he prompted them a little.

“Can you say the two rivers… that flow into the San Diego Bay… that I just mentioned…?”

artAnd one student tugged at his tennis shoe while two girls continued their conversation and a third girl looked out toward the San Miguel Mountain with her eyes fixed on absolutely nothing and two boys pretended to swat each other with their paddles and one child appeared to absolutely strain to come up with a respectable answer for Harry the Kayak Guy.

“The…  two rivers…” he started to say…

Then I interrupted.

“Alright, eyes on Harry the Kayak Guy. He just asked you a question…  can anybody even tell me what that question was?”

And having struck out on the two river question, our eight 7th grade students now looked me straight in the eyes and sheepishly admitted with their blank expressions that they not only did not know the name of the rivers that he just told them about but they hadn’t listened to his question either!

I was surprised and I was not surprised at all.  

Our kids don’t listen.

But neither do the adults.

42-17772388After all, wasn’t it just this past month that we all witnessed full-grown Americans yelling at each other and threatening and pointing fingers and waving guns and shouting with spit flying and jugglars bulging? Their anger and incivility prevented all meaningful discourse.  

If our children need models for how not to listen they only have to look at the adults at Town Hall Meetings!  

Fortunately, our students were not likely paying that much attention to the Town Hall Meetings on Health Care.  

So I realized in that moment at the boat ramp what I have known for a very long time but never put into words…

We teach children to READ and encourage them to read because it is a life skill that will determine their success at every level… and besides… it is tested!

We teach children to WRITE and encourage them to write because it is a life skill that will determine their success at every level… and besides… it is tested!

We teach children to solve problems and encourage them to solve problems because PROBLEM SOLVING is a life skill that will determine their success at every level… and besides… it is tested!

And even though LISTENING  is a life skill that will determine our  students’ success at every level and it is one of the 4 main components of the California Standards for Language Arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening!) … I wonder if we don’t teach it because it is not tested!!!

Are YOU listening?

listen to us

So teach students to listen:

• To LISTEN with their face and shoulders– sit up straight and face the speaker…

• To LISTEN with their eyes– look at the person speaking to you…

• To LISTEN with their mouthes closed– you can’t talk and listen at the same time…

• To LISTEN with their minds open– focussed, engaged, attentive, active listening…

• To LISTEN as if to understand– like you just asked for directions to a place you really want to go…

• To LISTEN with both ears.

Listen as if your future depends on it.  Because it does.  

Maybe naming the two rivers that flow into the San Diego Bay will not be necessary to kayak on the water today.  Maybe knowing their watershed trivia won’t determine whether our students can compete in AP classes in high school or get into USC or run a business or participate in such democratic processes as… say…. Town Hall Meetings.

But being able to LISTEN when someone is speaking most certainly will.  Whether it is LISTENING to acquire facts or trivia or information or curriculum content or important dates or directions or another person’s opposing point of view… the ability to LISTEN is no less important than the ability to read and write!

So we headed out on this warm Thursday morning– Harry the Kayak Guy, Conchita and me, and eight 7th graders determined to work as hard today on their listening skills as their paddling skills. And we started something new.  With all of the distractions of being out on the glorious open space of the San Diego Bay… with the sun and water as warm as a swimming pool… with the fish jumping and the hazy skyline in the distance and the temptation to splash water on your classmates while Harry the Kayak Guy is speaking… we know we have to give our students a chance to practice attentive listening.

So now we have “Kayak Meetings.”  Whenever Harry the Kayak Guy is ready to instruct the students about the geography or ecosystems of the Bay, we ask that they circle up together and hang on to the kayak next to you.  There we sit out on the Bay, in science class, rocking with the waves and working to get better at LISTENING.

kayak meeting


Leave a comment

Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, public education, standardized testing, teaching


turtle 2-1This is the 3rd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!

across the bayOn Tuesday we launched seven of our 8th grade girls into the bay.  The Nature Center is an extraordinary lab for studying the the marshes and reservoirs and natural bayfront ecosystems, but nothing compares to being in the water itself.  Splashing through the mud-decked channels in the shadows of the powerplant.  Battling the currents.  Reading the tide.  Checking the waterproof bird guide against strange-beaked egrets and massive herons.  

So that’s where we went.

Harry owns Chula Vista Kayaks and he is our partner in our effort to get all of our middle school students out on the water at least once every quarter.  Just about anybody can paddle a kayak.  They are stable and low to the tide.  You get wet.  You feel the water.  You smell the exposed shells baking even on cloud-covered mornings like this.

into marinaSo we launched from the boat ramp: Harry, seven students, Conchita (our office manager)  and me.  Into the calm marina, out past the last moored pleasure boats, a hard left around the jetty, and into the open bay.  The day before we had taken seven of the boys so we anticipated a :30 minute paddle across the water to reach the isolated channels on the other side.

Sometimes when you are teaching kids you can anticipate stuff like that.  But then there are those lessons you could never have anticipated.  There are those lessons that end up being far more instructive to the teacher than they could ever be for students.  Like on this morning.  On San Diego Bay.  With seven middle school girls in kayaks.  

The first four students got the hang of paddling instantly and powered across the water with Harry and Conchita. Vanessa had started off with the others, but rapidly ran out of gas and fell off the pace. The last two struggled to paddle at all, and the tide immediately pushed them sideways closer and closer to the rocks of the jetty.  They had no technique.  No basic skills.  

As an intermediate level kayaker, jettyI could model the technique for them.  And so I did.  But they still pushed close to the rocks.  So I tried to explain the technique– but now their kayaks were relentlessly  pressing against the jetty edge.  Then I tried to encourage them… but my voice was muffled by the momentary panic, the surging water, the steady roar, the helpless on-lookers.

But in the end, this is a bay– not some 10-foot crashing surfline along the ocean cliffs– so eventually the girls were able to turn their kayaks into the current and push away.  They were finally free of the jetty and  into the open water.  So we were back on course,  some 800 yards behind the others. I offered to turn back with the girls to the calm marina and just wait for the others to return. But they wanted to go on.  For the next ten minutes I watched them splash and flail and try everything they could to get some traction.  light bulbFinally, the light bulb clicked on. Maybe they were tired of being so far behind.  Maybe they felt a sudden urgency to catch up with the others.  Maybe they didn’t want to get left out there on San Diego Bay all day.  Maybe it was just a developmental thing– they just needed to practice and fail and adjust and fail some more.  But they didn’t quit.  And just when it looked like we might spend the rest of the academic year out there trying to move in one direction or another, two middle school girls somehow turned into kayakers and found the rhythm to power across the water and catch the others just as they entered the channel.

The return trip was very different.  There were now six girls in the pack with Harry and Conchita, paddling like scupper pros and confidently dangling their feet in the water.  They were enjoying the bay and the birds and the amazing realization that this was actually a school day and they were in their science class!

Six girls.  The seventh was Vanessa, exhausted from using muscle groups she never knew she had. So I tied her kayak to mine and together we paddled in.

sunsetjpegAnd that is the story.  And when I shared it with our teachers yesterday they could clearly see the metaphor:

“Students learn and develop in different ways…”

“We have to hang in their with our struggling students and look for different ways to teach them…”

“We can’t give up on students who might be way behind…”

“Once the light bulb goes off they may accelerate to the head of the pack…”

“We can’t leave a single child crashing against the rocks. Failure really is NOT a option…”

“Sometimes when kids are exhausted from the long, inspired fight against the tide, you just have to lash their boat to yours and tow them until they get their second wind.” 

At El Milagro we are going to help 90% of our students become proficient this year.  We learned from the jetty and the bay and the surging tide, that that is not possible unless we commit to every child, we monitor their growth, we make adjustments, we treat them according to their place in the journey.  We will push and tow them.  We will teach them to steer.  

Sometimes you set out to teach a lesson about egrets and come back to the marina having learned to navigate on the open water.  

better powerplant

Leave a comment

Filed under El Milagro, environmental studies, teaching


turtle 2-1This is the 2nd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!  

DSC_0050It is the first day of school and so our students return.  It is mid-summer… most school districts will not call their students back until after Labor Day.  Not El Milagro, though. We start early. So ready or not, they are are descending– in droves.  Record high enrollment and a long waiting list means business is good.

This year there are some new things, like our Full-Day Kindergarten program.   And there is an automatic back gate in the staff parking lot that allows teachers to drive up and never get out of their cars as the fence opens and closes behind them. But that’s not our best new feature.  This year we are partnering with the Chula Vista Nature Center and moving our middle school science program right into the middle of their facility.

The Nature Center sits on a reserve at the edge of the San Diego Bay, two miles from Mueller Charter School.  There are aquariums and marshes and protected reserves that surround a natural, outdoor classroom.  It will provide  our students with a rare opportunity to learn in a real-life laboratory of interconnected ecosystems… every day.  It is a reminder that we cannot get so preoccupied with standardized testing and teaching the basic skills required to score well– that we forget to create opportunities for authentic learning too.  Opportunities to think, imagine, create, explore, discover, question, use the technology, solve the riddles of the universe and learn to love learning.

box-1The Nature Center is our reminder that we are out of whatever “the box” is and our students could be the beneficiaries.  

Last Friday the whole staff met at the Nature Center for a morning of activities and learning together.  They explored the many exhibits and habitats there.  They created themes around some of the big ideas of life science like adaptation and evolution, scale and structure, systems, the magic of water, color and song, and interconnected relationships in nature.  

And we searched for balance.

Or at least a definition for it.  And we discovered that definition in the very dream of what we think the Nature Center partnership can be for kids.  If we are truly “balanced” we would do all three of these things well:

• FIRST : We would enthusiastically play the testing game and make sure our kids have the basic skills they need to excel in math and reading; that we get the big scores to keep our autonomy and independence– and our charter!  We would also work urgently to achieve all the AYP goals and to assure that that our API is pushing into the stratosphere.

sea turt-1• SECOND: Beyond basic skills, we would work just as hard to provide a more authentic, thinking curriculum that allows children to discover their natural gifts and interests.  A curriculum that features the interesting stuff that engages students every day.  Like the Nature Center and all its wind-framed beauty and ocean air;  its banks of slippery seaweed, its deep fish tanks that stink. Or the tidepools, tucked snugly up against shallow marshes that splash mud and seawater on kid’s school clothes when the tide is up. Or rare creatures on loan from their fragile ecosystems; sometimes strange life-forms that can make  kids smile when they hold them in their hands.

• FINALLY, we would help our students develop as literate, interesting, passionate, connected, people. We help them develop the habits and attitudes of successful learners: Respect. Responsibility. Commitment. Character. And other stuff too.

The Nature Center is more than a metaphor–  it is an authentic learning lab, a model for what schools must do to provide all children with a context for growing up as complete human beings.  So that is the balance that we seek school-wide: 1) the basic skills required to demonstrate mastery on standardized tests, 2) the rich thinking curriculum to engage our students with their world, and 3) an emphasis on nurturing the character traits of successful citizens and learners. 

If we achieve that, it will be a great year!


Leave a comment

Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, gifted children, innovation and change, standardized testing, teaching


crossroadsThis is the anniversary of my first blog.  I have now been blogging for a full year.  59 posts, 147 comments and countless hours and caloric expenditures of creative energy later… here I am.  Somewhere.

But this week I had an epiphany.  

On Thursday  I contributed a comment to Scott McLeod’s blog called Dangeously Irrevelevant, and somehow I think it got deleted.   He is a professor in Iowa and a frequent critic of public education and his own children’s schools. Blogs are good for asking challenging questions and he usually asks some tough ones.  But I took exception to this:

Does anyone think that we were doing a fine job of meeting the needs of underserved populations before ‘the tests?’ Have we all forgotten that school has been boring for generations?

It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s our unwillingness and/or inability to do something different, something better.

It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s us.

So whose schools are we talking about?  His kids go to school in Iowa for God’s sake– hardly the crucible for school reform.  Yet this is the kind of statement I see made all the time, especially from university professors who have little room to question the quality of instruction at the K-12 level. So I said, in effect, “I disagree.  We are doing something different at Mueller Charter School and it certainly isn’t boring.” And I cited our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center as an example.

Maybe citing Mueller Charter School is considered self-promotion on somebody else’s blog.

Maybe my objection was deleted because I used my own school, as I often do, as an example of a public school that works.

Maybe the critics of the K-12 system don’t like to acknowledge “isolated examples” of schools that work– even though charter schools exist to serve as innovative and sometimes “isolated examples” of courageous change. The way I see it, one example from El Milagro is as valid as criticizing the entire K-12 system on the basis of a single school in an Iowa cornfield.  

So whatever. Dangerously Irrelevant has to live up to its name.  My blog merely needs to live up to El Milagro— the miracle.

All I know is that I am investing too much time commenting and debating in this medium; I’m expending too much creative energy on trying to be a participant and build an audience for my blog.  

I have a school to run.  I have students and staff who need my creative energy to be devoted to them. I have several book projects winding their way to completion.  And we have two extraordinarily promising projects on the drawing board that could profoundly transform our school (and any other school that pays attention to our work.)  

So this is as good a reason as any to steer my blog (and my blogging) in a different direction.  I’m just going to document the transformation from Mueller Charter School into El Milagro and leave the debating to the critics on the sideline.

As for the two projects… stay tuned.


Filed under California charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, public education, teaching, Uncategorized


*Apr 28 - 00:05*

…Education, Iraq, swine flu, press conferences, basketball, being American, economic recovery, green energy, housing, kids, race relations, jurisprudence, Pakistan, college costs, the White House website, Republican demise, GM, Oval Office photos, American voters, health care, health care for kids, Guantanamo, choice, Hispanic caucus, charter schools, Twitter, Michelle, the cabinet, Ted Kennedy, NY Times, NY Yankees, Bo, Peace Corps;

JFK, Teach for America, Hugo Chavez, Washington DC, the Obama kids, on-line media, high speed rail, Isreal, stock market, Arlen Specter, waterboarding,  MSNBC, US troops coming home, Fair Pay Act, a new NCLB, affordable student loans, Air Force 1, families, world travel, stem cell research, change, civil rights, the US Constitution,  gun control, global warming, New Orleans, honest communication, US reputation abroad, GNP, the VP;

Jazz, Rachel Maddow, early childhood education, NASA, environmental protection, fuel economy, Earth Day, veterans, immigration, S-CHIP,  Americans with Disabilities,  G-20 Summit, jobs,  home ownership,  fairness, nutrition, 21st Century skills, work-family balance, performance, Social Security, foreign policy, Nuclear waste disposal, Islam; 

Darfur, fossil fuels, US tax code, executive orders, National Academy of Sciences, clean energy, urban America, fitness, organic gardens, homeland security, the arts, poverty, dynamic speeches;

Two terms.


Leave a comment

Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, health care, President Obama, public education


marshGunpowder Point is bathed in ocean breeze and bird poop.  It is now a protected marshland in what seems to be the last square foot of undeveloped land in Chula Vista.  Bordered by freeway noise to the east, and insulated by acres of natural foliage, the Nature Center leans into that stealthy wind.

turtle_lagoon_frontAnd all of this matters.  The Nature Center is less than two miles from El Milagro and is perhaps a missing piece to the persistent dream we have had of utilizing the natural resources of San Diego Bay as a daily classroom.  It is one thing to go on a field trip … it is another thing to attend school in the slough, to walk among the endangered Clapper Rails, and observe the hypnotic swimming patterns of sand sharks. Every day. As a part of the curriculum. 

forclusre1The Chula Vista Nature Center is facing tough times in the struggling economy.  Chula Vista itself was once listed among the fastest growing cities in America.  Today, whole rows of streets and neighborhoods prop “For Sale” signs on foreclosed lawns, where the dreams of families were packed so hastily  and moved, months ago, to higher ground.  The city is in trouble.  And they fund the Nature Center.  So we want to help.  

After years of diligent budget management under  the watchful eye of  Mr. Wizard, Mueller Charter School is well positioned to weather the otherwise unforgiving fury of a distressed state budget.  So we want to lease a classroom space from the Nature Center.  We want to move our middle school science classroom there and weave them into the daily rotation.  Instead of going to science in room 902, their classroom would now be located on Gunpowder Point.  We can provide the City of Chula Vista a badly needed new funding stream to save the Nature Center; they can provide us a chance to model learning in the real world– the charter vision come to full fruition.  

This is an area rich in history.  It was once home to the Kumeyaay Indians and Spanish settlers.  It still bears the ruins of the old Hercules building where kelp was harvested for gunpowder and potash in World War I.  It was a lemon grove and movie set.  It was the scene of horrific fire that destroyed it all.  And beneath the protected marsh and slough, you just know, generations of human settlement have collected layer upon layer of artifacts.

baldeagleheadImagine children rotating through varied learning opportunities over the course of a school day: contributing to data collection and exhibit management, developing individual research projects that make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge accumulated here, serving as museum docents and guides at the sting ray petting area, performing community service to help maintain the sprawling acres, advocating for green energy.  Imagine children not just simulating the work of science, but being scientists. Contributing.  Developing not just an appreciation for the fragile interdependence of  living ecosystems, but a profound reverence for their own place in the world.  Here there are owls and sharks, reptile and eel aquariums, there are marshland aviaries, and shoreline birds.  There are rare sea turtles.  There is an adult bald eagle.  

Every day, every student would pursue answers to one urgent question that scientists all over the planet are researching.  Something like this:   “How do human developments along our natural waterfronts contribute to and compromise the fragile ecosystems that exist there?”  Our 7th and 8th graders would explore, investigate, experiment, and publish their findings through wikis and blogs in collaboration with children from around the world.  

This is real science.  Authentic learning.  John Knox says you have to teach and learn science with all five senses– and for all you’re worth.  You have to be outside.  In the middle of it.  You have to get your feet muddy and splash aquarium waste water on your shoes.  Appreciate the stench of the owl barn. The sting of the cactus needle.  The rotting kelp.

We are poised for an extraordinary partnership and, for our students, the learning experience of a lifetime.  Here on Gunpowder Point, where early Chula Vistans fought the world war from the banks of San Diego Bay, there is an opportunity to give meaning to the daily joy of learning.  Here in the marsh and the wetlands– new fire.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, teaching