George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Hood River Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Hood River, OR

Community Partners: Making Student Learning Relevant

At Hood River Middle School, local experts make student learning come to life.
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Community Partners: Making Student Learning Relevant (Transcript)

Ben: This is very well done.

Student: Thank you.

Ben: The recipe is a good one and you executed it properly.

Brent: If you have someone from the community that walks into a classroom to help kids with a design project, it's something that brings meaning to student work. When you involve kids in the community and the community with the kids, it's providing relevancy to what is being studied in the classroom. Our community itself is rich in resources, and every community is. And so it's reaching out and finding who can help, whether it be an engineer, a local business person. Whether it be a local chef, I mean, these are all professions that we've invited into our schools, to either help teach or to evaluate the student work, or to have our students present for them.

Michael: When you put that plate in front of somebody, the lettuce needs to be cold. The meat needs to be warm and the potatoes need to be warm, right. All that kind of stuff. So judges will be here in not too terribly long. Think it through.

We have our student kitchen. Sixth graders do pretty basic stuff, measurement and mixing and then seventh graders get more complex, and eighth graders run cafes and get their food handlers card. And so we've started this thing called Iron Chef, off the TV show. There are six teams, each of which were given a list of the ingredients that are available to them. They had to develop recipes and put a menu together. And it's all about presentation and how do they greet the people when they walk into their kitchens.

Lauren: We're going to have I think four to six judges. It's not going to be teachers. We are going to set up little plates of food and they're going to see which one they like the best.

Michael: We try to, as often as possible, have a real audience that comes in.

Excellent, all right.

Really validate the kids' hard work and get them excited about the level of detail that they've been able to attain.

Gerardo: So we're going to have a chef from Celilo come, and he's going to be one of our judges. And basically, work harder to show them what we've got.

Michael: So each of you gets six sheets. I've got pens, gentlemen.

Ben: All right, after you. Start your engines.

I am a judge for the Iron Chef Hood River Middle School. My daughter is in this class and they take this very seriously. It's a class assignment. They're going to get a grade. They understand that it's something from school, but it's a competition, and I think that just ups the level of everybody's participation.

Judge: Who's next?

Josephine: Usually in class there's like people who don't care as much, but now that there's people like actually judging, you're trying harder, which is good.

Michael: We got the kids some amazing feedback from some very critical judges. I think they're pretty excited about what they're ready to pull off.

Judge: That's delicious.

Student: Oh, good.

Sarah: As a teacher, I don't have all the answers, and so I regularly access outside professionals. And so Andrea at the Hood River Historical Museum is somebody I connected with very quickly and then I said, "Could you come do a variety of talks?"

Andrea: So today, we are going to talk a little bit about pioneers of Hood River and how they are shaping your lives, your education and your school today.

I'm Andrea Smith and I am at the History Museum of Hood River County as the education and volunteer coordinator. I will do everything from dress up like a pioneer to bring in a few artifacts for the kids to handle. Teach them about either Hood River history, museums, archives. That's the beginning of engaging them, is bringing someone new in to listen to, to present them with new information.

So from here, we're going to go to the museum and learn a little bit more about your history and living in your era. You're going to get to see a school register. The actual register from eighteen ninety-two. We're going to locate those people that are on the register in the photo. I'm hoping that this makes these people really real for you guys.

Henry: It's kind of nice to get a different perspective on things. It makes it a lot easier to learn when people from museums come and give us presentations.

Andrea: And if you look at these statistics, attendance really drops off towards the end. Anyone have any idea why that could be?

Aleyah: I know that it was really hard for some people to get to school because of like the weather conditions, or like they had to take care of-- like they had to work for their family or something like that.

Andrea: Exactly.

Aleyah: I think it's really important for people to learn outside of school, because it gives us a better understanding of what we are like learning in school.

Sarah: A kid who learns how to interact with their community is somebody who feels very comfortable going out in the community throughout life.

Brent: So that's a very important part of what we do, is we engage our kids with the community. We engaged our community with the kids.

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At Hood River Middle School, in Hood River, Oregon, educators work with community partners to make student learning relevant, engaging, and applicable to the real world.

"A learning partner is an expert in the community or somebody who can help us take our learning from the classroom and apply it into the real world," says Laura Haspela, a Hood River seventh-grade science teacher.

Learning partners also bring their passion into the classroom. When Haspela invited a local geologist to her class, he did more than make student learning relevant -- he shared his 25-year passion of being in that field. "That's something I can't bring to them," says Haspela. “That's a real gift.”

Introducing students to learning partners also expands their sense of what they believe is possible for their own future. "If you ask kids, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', they give you very specific careers: police officer, teacher, firefighter, and that's because that's who they can see; that's who they can identify with," says Brent Emmons, Hood River's principal. "When you take them to businesses, and they can ask, 'What do you do? What does that look like?' -- it inspires kids to think outside of the box."

By bringing local experts into your class, or by working with community partners on projects outside of the classroom, the school exposes students to people of varying professions. "An engineer, forester, local businessperson, local chef -- these are all actual professions that we've invited into our schools to either help teach or to evaluate student work," says Emmons.

How It's Done

Utilize Learning Partners to Fit Your Needs

Hood River Middle School uses learning partners in two ways:

1. Learning partners increase teacher content knowledge.

Hood River teachers bring learning partners into the classroom to co-teach with them. At other times, they'll connect with them one-on-one to deepen their own content knowledge. When Haspela wanted to deepen her understanding of geology before teaching it to her students, she met with a local geologist to ask him questions. She then incorporated that knowledge into her lessons.

2. Learning partners give student work an authentic audience.

"The level of quality of what our students do goes up when they have a real audience," explains Michael Becker, a Hood River teacher and the director of the Food and Conservation Science (FACS) program. Becker brings in community partners -- from local chefs to the mayor -- to judge his seventh-grade students in their Iron Chef competition, which is part of the FACS curriculum, alongside running cafes and getting their food handler's card.

"We're going to have a chef from [local restaurant] Celilo come in, and he's going to be one of our judges. My hopes are really high today. That makes me work harder to show them what we got," says Gerardo, a Hood River seventh-grade student.

"It makes our assessments more authentic," adds Haspela. "Knowing that we have an [expert] who's going to be coming in and watching their presentations, who knows a lot about the topic already, who might be asking them challenging questions, that raises the bar."

Know What You Want in a Learning Partner

When choosing a learning partner, Hood River educators set these criteria:

Choose someone who can connect with your students in a way that you can't.

Consider their profession, passions, personality, and how they will connect with your students. "Not all students are going to connect with me, and I’m not going to connect with all students, but there are always community members with different personalities that my students can connect with," says Sarah Segal, a Hood River seventh-grade English language arts, literacy, and social studies teacher.

Choose someone who reflects your students' image.

Bring in people that reflect the ethnicity and gender of your students. Use learning partners as an opportunity to break down the preconceived ideas of what different professions look like. For example, Haspela tries to bring in women scientists as learning partners.

Find a Learning Partner

Once you have an idea of what you're looking for in a learning partner, you just need to ask -- whether contacting potential partners directly, or seeking recommendations from your colleagues and parents. "Every community is rich in resources,” states Emmons, “and what we found is that most people are happy to help."

To find learning partners, Hood River’s teachers will. . .

Use Google.

If you have a question, Google it, find the nearest community expert, and then call. Segal uses Google regularly to connect with resources for herself and her students.

Ask parents.

Email parents for help. Haspela emails parents a description of what her students are studying and asks if they know anyone local who can come in to speak on that topic.

Ask colleagues.

Connect with teachers from other schools. Scientists have been hard to find for Hood River teachers, but by reaching out to the high school science department, they were connected to a local geologist.

Go to local talks.

Go to local talks or workshops that cover what your students are studying. Network with community members and other educators. When talking to other educators, Haspela finds it helpful to ask them about the learning partners with whom they've worked:

  • What local experts do they work with, and what are their specialties?
  • Are they open to working with other educators?
  • Are they good in the classroom, or are they better outside of the classroom?

Contact local museums.

Get in touch with your local museums. Smaller museums are more likely to come out for free, says Andrea Smith, a Hood River Museum education and volunteer coordinator. "One thing I commonly hear in museum education is that teachers aren't reaching out to us to come into your classrooms,” she explains. “You'll mostly come for field trips, which is great, but we would love to come into your classrooms, too. We want to interact with you. We want to talk to your students. Please contact us. We will tailor something to your classroom."

"I regularly access outside professionals," says Segal, who created a new museum studies class this year for period six. To commemorate Hood River County School District's 150th anniversary, her museum studies class is turning an old ticket office at the front of their auditorium into a museum.

"Andrea at the Hood River Historical Museum is somebody I connected with very quickly,” explains Segal. “We bounced different ideas off each other, and that relationship has grown."

"I will do everything from dressing up like a pioneer, to bringing in a few artifacts for the kids to handle, to teaching them about either Hood River history, museums, or archives," adds Smith.

Call government agencies.

A good first step, recommends Haspela, is to go to government agencies and ask if they have someone who would like to talk to your students.

Contact the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

"If you're looking for outdoor learning, I would contact the Forest Service or the Park Service," recommends Smith. “They're always happy to go into classrooms and usually have an education department.”

The National Park Service protects national parks across every state, which also encompases historic sites, from monuments to battlefields to the White House. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests and 20 grasslands spanning 44 states. "They have individuals whose job description includes educating the public," says Haspela. “They're excited to get involved and come into the classrooms.”

Find learning partners within your school and district.

Outside of local experts, Hood River teachers also bring in students and administrators as learning partners. "We have fairs where we invite other classes to come in and be the outside evaluators for the younger kids. We also have students in elementary school that our kids teach, and we invite high school students to teach our middle school kids," adds Emmons.

Segal brings Hood River's principal and vice principal into her classroom as learning partners. "A lot of students think of them as this scary entity,” she says, “but they both have passions that extend beyond being an administrator, and that allows them to connect with my students on a different level."

Strategies for Working With a Learning Partner

In addition to bringing learning partners into your classroom for co-teaching, evaluating projects, and taking your students outside of the classroom for projects, there are other ways for teachers to work with them.

Call a learning partner during class.

When your students ask a question that you can't answer, a local expert is just a phone call away -- even during class. Segal tells her students, "Look up their phone number, and make a phone call." She has her students write out their questions beforehand and talks to them about how to introduce themselves. "It's modeling being engaged in this world,” she states. “If you don't know the answers, how are you going to find them?”

Last year, when one of her students had questions about the hierarchy within a wolf pack, Segal had her call the Yellowstone Wolf Refuge. "She called them, they answered all of her questions, emailed her additional information, and sent her a package with an extensive amount of information,” she recalls. “It's about asking the right people the right questions."

Related: See how one educator tweeted NASA to answer a student question about space.

Work with your learning partner's schedule.

You'll come across learning partners who work with a lot of schools and may be experiencing burnout. Being sensitive to this and working with them on their timetable can benefit everyone. Instead of trying to fit them into your class schedule, Haspela recommends emailing them or meeting with them outside of class when they're available.

To incorporate learning partners into your classroom:

  • Put pictures of them on your walls.
  • Bring video interviews with your learning partner into the classroom.
  • Have your students come up with questions to ask them, meet with your learning partner one-on-one, and have them answer your students' questions on video.

"Ideally, my students are the ones interacting with these community members as much as possible, but that can't always happen," admits Haspela. “These other ways of working with them have still been meaningful and appreciated.”

Clearly Communicate Your Classroom Expectations

Know that you're the expert when it comes to your students.

When you bring in local experts, remember that you are the classroom expert, advises Haspela. You're the one with the expertise on how to deliver information to your students, on how they learn, on how to keep them on task, and on how to engage them.

"From a teacher, I need them as backup in the classroom," says Smith, speaking as a Hood River learning partner. "They know how their students are going to respond to different types of learning. They know when they're paying attention. I'm not in their classroom every day, and I don't know what that looks like with their particular kids."

When you invite a learning partner into your classroom, suggests Haspela, "remember to hold the structure of the classroom." Give them an important role, but don't give up the lesson to them.

Ask your learning partner for a concise presentation.

"I've had experiences with learning partners that aren't the best fit," reflects Haspela. "Often times, our learning partners are used to audiences where they talk for longer periods of time than our students are used to. My students are used to snippets of lectures, and then they're ready to move onto something active."

Communicate this to your learning partners. Give them a short, set time frame to present. Most learning partners are relieved to find out that you don't expect them to give a lecture, says Haspela.

Ask for resources that you don't already have.

"Give them ideas on how they can share resources that you don't necessarily have," adds Haspela. "Have them bring in visuals of their resources, or visuals of their actual tools that they use in the field. It has been helpful when they give more of a visual tour rather than a talking tour."

Invite your learning partner during a workshop period.

Have your learning partner come in while your students are working on a project. "Your students can have small, group interactions with the expert, as opposed to having them stand in front of the room and share all of their knowledge," says Haspela.

Communicate your content needs clearly.

"Solid communication is needed for a good relationship between a teacher and an outside learning partner," says Smith. "You have to know each other’s expectations. I can’t give them a presentation unless I know what they expect out of it. We need to be on the same page with curriculum and what we hope students get out of it."

"Learning from somebody who's not our teacher is interesting," reflects Aliyah, a Hood River Middle School student in Segal's museum studies class. "Miss Segal is really excited. Museum studies is a brand new class. She's excited about learning along with us, not as a teacher, but as a student."

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Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

This is so amazing. I am going to need time to digest everything you wrote, but I am going to make sure this is shared with educators and parents I know. Thanks for making us aware of how excellent programs like this can be.

Kate Friedman's picture
Kate Friedman
Educational Consultant, Coach, and Speaker

This article is awesome as it's all about making learning relevant! As a seasoned teacher, however, this is a ton of work that seems crazy daunting. Recently I came across Nepris,, an educational organization that allows teachers to search for experts in the field of study they are currently teaching, and then video-chat with those experts in the classroom, all for FREE. This is a much shorter transaction for already super busy teachers, to get experts communicating with students. I agree that in-person talks and demonstrations are super valuable, but it's not practical that teachers will be able to logistically project-manage this work. Many schools have found Nepris to be an easy way to frequently have guest speakers, and, when possible, find local experts with flexible schedules to actually visit your school.

Amanda Ragan's picture

I have loved every video that highlights your school. One thing I like most is how thorough your directions are. I am starting my full internship in the fall and will certainly be using these videos as a resource!

Brent Emmons's picture
Brent Emmons
Hood River Middle School Principal

Hi Amanda, I don't understand your question on directions. Can you please provide more information? Thank you.

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