Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the streets and by the river: The Mahoning River Education Project

In order for a community to function well, its citizens must not only have a sense of connection with each other and the place they live. They must also understand their history, good and bad, so that they can build on strengths and address problems in planning for the future. One way to foster that sense of community is to engage people when they’re young. Holly Burnett-Hanley, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, has developed a multi-year, multi-disciplinary, hands-on program for elementary and middle-school students that fosters that kind of citizenship.

The Mahoning River Education Project started 7 years ago, and it’s grown to include thousands of children in Youngstown and other area schools. Combining science, math, language arts, local history, ideas about neighborhood and community, and the arts, the program engages students in learning about the place they live in new and exciting ways. I’ve been a fan of this project since I first heard about it. That’s partially because of Holly’s enthusiasm, but it’s also because value this approach to education. I think it works on many levels – engagement, improved comprehension and motivation, generating awareness of how different school subjects and varied aspects of daily life all fit together.

Beyond the goal of helping students understand and feel connected to their community, the project achieves two other outcomes which are, some might say, a bit subversive. The first is that it helps them move from understanding to action. In our interview, Holly tells a story about a class that developed a research project on small parks in Youngstown and ultimately wrote a proposal to city council. Ideally, the kind of engagement this project generates will lead many students to not only want to get involved in local issues but also have the skills and understanding to do so effectively.

A second somewhat subversive aspect of this project is that it models a very different and effective way of thinking about teaching and learning. The Mahoning River Education Project integrates different subject areas, connects hands-on experiences with the information and concepts in the state education standards (and on the Ohio Achievement Test that we use to measure school success), and links students with the world around them. This kind of teaching works, and I hope that Holly’s example will inspire teachers and district leaders to develop more projects like this.

1 comment:

Youngstown Moxie said...

Sherry, thanks for having Holly on your show. Her tremendous dedication to the river education project serves as an example to all educators and proves once again that children learn best when taught in a holistic manner. I would like to see this type of educational method adopted by the entire school system. The logistics would be difficult to work out, but in the long run, I think our children would truly become the educated citizens our country needs.