Learning from the landscape: Why one Winona Middle School teacher takes his classes outside

Learning from the landscape: Why one Winona Middle School teacher takes his classes outside

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You can find Joseph Cynor’s nameplate on Room 202-1 in the eighth-grade wing of Winona Middle School.

But his classroom isn’t limited to those four walls. Not with the “eye-popping” landscape of southeastern Minnesota just outside the door.

That’s why Cynor takes his earth science students to Pleasant Valley Creek. To Garvin Heights. To the Cherry Grove Blind Valley Scientific and Natural Area near Spring Valley. To the caves in Harmony.

It’s about creating a common learning experience, Cynor said, and leading his students down a path of inquiry based learning.

“If I were to jump right into erosion and deposition and start throwing out terms like stream banks and current and flow, some of these folks might not know what I’m talking about,” Cynor said. “They’ve never been to a stream before. We start by taking them to these places and giving them some common ground.”

Cynor’s classes have been busy early in the school year. A trip to Garvin Heights gave them an overview of the area in which they live — the bluffs, the valleys, the river. A short walk last week to Pleasant Valley Creek gave students an up-close view of a stream. Some of them put on waders and got in the cold water.

“Now we’re getting an up-close view of one of the streams in these valleys, trying to get them to make the connection on how these valleys were formed,” Cynor said. “They’re going to be making the observations they need to put these pieces together. ‘There’s sediment in the water, moving down the stream. Where is it coming from? How long has it been doing it?”

Cynor said that brain research supports learning through experiences.

“You have to have something to connect the new material to,” he said.

His students found that out first-hand at Pleasant Valley Creek in an unlikely way: a golf ball.

One student collected four golf balls. And while to an observer it may seem like that student was messing around, Cynor flashed a big grin.

“It’s cool, because they’re going to ask questions about it,” he said. “Then they’ll get an idea about sediment transport — golf ball transport.”

The students didn’t walk through a golf course to get to the stream. But The Bridges Golf Course is just upstream. And if Pleasant Valley Creek can carry a golf ball that far … what else can it carry? And how long has it been doing it?

“We were trained a few years back by Lee Schmitt,” Cynor said, “that to get kids to get engaged, they need to ask their own questions and pursue the answers to their own questions. That’s true inquiry.”

Later in the week, the students took a longer field trip to Fillmore County.

Cynor took some students to Cherry Grove — a trip he immortalized in a music video he posted to his YouTube page last summer — while other middle school staff — Tommy Sawyer, Carolyn Bruels, Cassidy Wade and Jen Snook — took the students into Mystery Cave. The students will learn about the karst topography of southeastern Minnesota and why it’s susceptible to pollution at the caves. At Cherry Grove, students will learn about springs, sinkholes and disappearing streams.

Cynor didn’t always teach this way. He altered his methods after attending the TIMES Project, a two-week long inquiry and field based professional development opportunity developed by Schmitt.

“It really helped me to experience student-driven inquiry as a student,” Cynor said. “Before, I learned most of my science by sitting in a lecture class. You tend to do what you know.”

Cynor got together with fellow middle school teacher John Weaver to think about areas to take their students. They connected with a local property owner who was delighted to allow the students to use his property to observe the stream.

The costs of the field trips are funded through Foundation for WAPS and Winona Middle School PTA grants. There is no cost to the student.

The goal, Cynor said, is to get them thinking about the bigger picture and not just what’s on the earth sciences syllabus.

“If you understand this stuff, then you know what it takes to take care of it,” Cynor said. “You know that karst is highly susceptible to pollution. If you’re a farmer, you have to be careful about what you’re putting on your field. If you’re a citizen in Winona, are you going to fertilize your lawn? Where do those chemicals go?

“The bigger picture is educating our future citizens.”


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