Inquiry, Immersion, and Interdisciplinarity on Beaver Island

This past summer, sixteen educators from Michigan districts as diverse as Utica, in Macomb County, and St. Louis, a rural district in Gratiot County, participated in a week-long, intensive workshop at Central Michigan University’s Biological Station on Beaver Island, taking advantage of the island’s unique biodiversity to explore language arts, science, and the arts.  As science and literacy teachers work to integrate the Next Generation Science Standards through interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning, this kind of institute offers them a unique opportunity to explore, collaborate, and plan for the coming school year. 

“The Beaver Island Institute is an incredibly immersive professional development experience that provides educators with creative strategies for blending literacy and science,” said Karyn McConachie, an 8th & 9th grade teacher from Eppler Junior High of Utica Community Schools. “The week provided us with much-needed time to collaborate with colleagues, so we can plan for classroom implementation of these strategies.”

Since 2016, a team of university and K-12 faculty have welcomed ELA and science teachers to this unique experience. In four years, a total of nearly 50 teachers have attended the Beaver Island Institute from districts across the state of Michigan. Throughout the week, they participate in field activities to promote discussion and collaboration as well as inquiry-based workshops to identify key standards from the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core Literacy Standards, and the ISTE technology standards.  Originally funded by a grant to CMU from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, this year’s institute was supported through generous gifts from Thomas R. and Iris B. Harrison Foundation, the National Education Association Foundation, and the Macomb Intermediate School District. At a value of approximately $1000 per participant, all sixteen teachers were able to attend the institute at no cost. 

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“What this institute does for us as learners, and what you the facilitators do for us as we consider new ways to teach science,” said Todd Starry, a middle school science teacher from St. Louis Schools, “well, it cannot be replicated by any publisher in a standard curriculum.”

Teachers at the institute study ecosystems, educational technology, and strategies for integrating reading, writing, and critical thinking into the classroom. This year, participants were also able to experience a number of art-related activities, including Japanese-style Gyotaku printmaking, as well as land art, utilizing natural materials.  Faculty on the institute’s leadership team include:

  • Troy Hicks, a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University where he directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and was awarded, in 2018, the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award.
  • Wiline Pangle, a professor of biology at Central Michigan University who explores the intersections of science and the performing arts, and whose work has been featured on Michigan Public Radio and Forbes Magazine
  • Jeremy Winsor, a science teacher at Fulton Schools, and Michigan Department of Education’s Region 4 Teacher of the Year and Michigan Farm Bureau Agricultural Educator of the Year; 
  • Jeremy Hyler, a language arts and science teacher at Fulton Schools, and a Community Ambassador for the National Council of Teachers of English and a board member for the Michigan Association of Middle School Educators; 
  • Merideth Garcia, an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse who researches the social dynamics of classrooms and disciplinary literacies; 

Participants in past institutes have described it as one of the most powerful experiences in their professional lives. For instance, in an anonymous response to a program evaluation survey, one participant noted:

“The institute was a wonderful experience at a unique location.  You provided relevant activities and usable information that could be taken back to the classroom and immediately implemented.”

With plans for next year’s workshop underway, the Beaver Island Institute leadership team is already planning for 2020 and seeking opportunities to partner with foundations, local and intermediate school districts, businesses, and individual donors willing to support K-12 teachers in their pursuit of educational excellence. 

Watch the video below to learn more about this interdisciplinary opportunity!

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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