Corbett Charter School

Here is a description of a WSP on the Columbia River Gorge. The project was undertaken by Corbett Charter School, outside Portland, Oregon ( The description here is from the perspectives of three different teachers, with an introduction by the school principal. Once the idea of a project and the particular topic was agreed, the teachers became really engaged both by the topic and the ways it could invigorate the learning of the students and build community in the school. Their enthusiasm and determination to make the WSP a success meant they spent more hours in preparation than would likely be normal. (This is mentioned to encourage other teachers not to be daunted by how much time they seem to have put into preparing the project!)

Introduction by Bob Dunton.

Case study:
Corbett Charter school and the Columbia River Gorge project:
Bob Dunton

To walk through the doors of Corbett Elementary School is to enter a conspicuously dedicated space. A single, broad corridor stretches the length of the 400-student building, and the mural on its walls represents, to scale, the Columbia River Gorge from The Dalles to Troutdale. The professionally painted landscape is punctuated with student-made plaques representing flora, wildlife, and human activities along the river. Hand-painted salmon, some realistic, some fantastic, are suspended from the ceiling.

The Columbia River Gorge Initiative began in the 2008-09 school year as an attempt to invigorate an elementary program that was searching for an identity. The elementary school was, by all standard measures, effective but not remarkable. All standard measures, as it turns out, make it very difficult for one elementary program to distinguish itself from dozens of others.

Corbett Middle School had been recognized by the National Middle School Association as a School to Watch, exemplary of best practices at the Middle School level. The Corbett Middle School team was flown to Washington, D.C. to be formally recognized for its achievements. It remains Oregon’s only “School to Watch.”

Corbett High School also gained national attention as it was recognized by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s Best High Schools. It climbed in the annual rankings of some 25,000 high schools from 584th, to 256th, to 86th, to 8th, to 5th in what seemed like an ongoing celebration of achievement.

But for the elementary program that rightly saw itself as the bedrock for these remarkable achievements in the upper grades, there was no recognition beyond the recurring thanks and support of the District. And beyond the question of recognition, there was a nagging sense that the elementary school lacked an organizing principle. It lacked a focus for the talents of its staff and students. It lacked fire—we wanted to “invigorate learning and build community” in the school.

So the Columbia River Gorge Initiative was born out of two motives, one immediate and one longer-term. The immediate question was how to put Corbett Grade School on the map and gain for it the respect (and support) that it deserved. The second, larger question, was how better prepare students for the challenges of Corbett Middle and High Schools, which were very demanding programs.

Its perch on the rim of the Columbia River Gorge affords Corbett unique access to a region that is rightly considered a national scenic treasure. The origins of the Gorge in geological cataclysms spanning thousands of years, the primacy of the Columbia River Basin in the cultural, economic and physical geography of the region, and the sheer spectacle of the local landscape made the Gorge worthy of years of intense interdisciplinary study and promised lessons that would readily transfer to future studies.

The teachers determined that the Columbia River Gorge curriculum would be delivered in a three-year cycle: The History of the Gorge, The Plants and Animals of the Gorge, and the Geology of the Gorge. The three-year cycle would allow each student to encounter each area of the curriculum twice: once while studying using the learning tools described in the previous Chapter as for the first years, and then a second time using the middle-school years learning tools.

The remarkable story of the Gorge’s formation, well told, is a drama immediately worthy of the attention of young learners. Telling any story well requires an intimate understanding of its constituent events. Sustaining that story across months and years requires substantial learning. What began as a planning meeting to discuss how one might present the formation of the Gorge became a program for introducing students to the formation of our Solar System to include the formation, composition, structure and dynamics of our rocky planet Earth!

Oregon is a geological marvel, consisting largely of scrapings from the subducted floor of the Pacific Plate augmented by consecutive lava flows, punctuated with volcanic eruptions and sculpted by mammoth ice age floods.

The Columbia River Gorge breaches the Northern Cascade Mountain Range, creating the only viable transportation route from Western Oregon to the Central and Eastern regions of the state. A drive through the gorge is a remarkable experience in diversity. Distinct climatic zones, wildlife, and flora slip by at a remarkable rate. A drive along the Columbia reveals an historic dam, navigational locks, fish ladders and fixed stations from which Native American people still exercise their traditional rights to harvest salmon. The Columbia, which within the gorge constitutes the boundary between Oregon and Washington states, crosses county lines, city limits, and is under the jurisdiction of the Columbia Gorge Commission, a federally authorized agency with representation from both Oregon and Washington.

Once the topic was chosen, the teachers became increasingly engaged with it, and spent hours pouring over books and websites, visiting local sites, consulting local experts, organizing field experiences for themselves and planning field trips for their students. They consulted with federal, state, and county agencies and with non-profit educational organizations. They read, discussed, and debated not only the specifics of the Gorge but plunged into several academic disciplines.

It is important to note that Corbett Charter School is an “Imaginative Education” program (cf. This orientation profoundly impacts our approach to the study of the Columbia River Gorge. Although the Gorge is literally right outside their windows, Corbett teachers approach it as an exotic marvel and come at it by way of the nebular event that gave birth to our solar system. This is decidedly not an “expanding concentric circle” approach to the curriculum. Proximity doesn’t have to mean commonplace or taken-for-granted.

Proximity is, however, cost effective. Our students have benefited from any number of day trips into the Gorge, where they have sat in longhouses, paddled canoes, traversed Bonneville Dam, toured the fish hatchery, hiked to waterfalls, and inventoried indigenous plants.
What follows are accounts from three teachers, with input from several others, of the implementation of our Whole School Project. The variations in their accounts, in terms of style, approach, and activities, reflect a decentralized process in which teachers had substantial latitude and responsibility for the development of the project. The other caution we should perhaps insert for the reader who may be considering implementing a WSP is that they should not be too daunted by the amount of energetic work these teachers put into preparing the WSP. Two points might be made: First, these are undoubtedly a group of unusually dedicated and talented teachers, willing to spend significant time above and beyond what would be considered normal; and, second, once the commitment to a WSP topic is made, it does provide a stimulus to invigorating learning and building community among teachers as well as students, so some extra commitment from what is routine in schools might reasonably be expected once a WSP is underway.

How do we assess the program? Well, we don’t impose any evaluations beyond those that are mandated by the State. It could also be argued that the final product is a good measure of the success of the SWP.

Corbett Charter School has sometimes referred to itself as a “program-free” school. What we mean by that is that “programs” are piecemeal activities patched on to some central organizational goals, priorities, or activities. We strive to do only those things that are fully compatible with our core educational philosophy. We do multiage, thematically organized, Imaginative Education. We emphasize continuous progress along the path to literacy and to numeracy. Along with the Whole School Project, we also implement “Learning in Depth,” and Imaginative Education as this set of activities are entirely compatible, and can be seen as facets of a single educational priority––the fostering of emotional engagement as we introduce students to the wonders of their world.

Whole School Project Planning Primary Grades by Sheri Dunton

Whole School Project Planning Summary

Primary Grades

by Sheri Dunton

The Solar System and Geology

Corbett Charter School primary classrooms engaged in a broad study of the solar system, the geologic history of the earth and the geology of Oregon during the first year of the WSP. This curriculum was developed by Corbett Charter School primary teachers as a part of an ongoing Whole School Project in a three-year curriculum rotation. The project is focused on developing student expertise regarding the Columbia River Gorge. For the primary grades, instruction is planned and implemented according to the first set of learning tools described in the previous chapter, elaborated in Egan, 1997, 2005, and exemplified further on the IE website ( No prepared curriculum or kits were used. All curriculum was prepared and designed as part of the on-going WSP. The general planning strategy for this first year’s curriculum involved all three K-3 teachers throughout as much of the planning process as possible in order to reflect the best ideas and to build the emotional engagement of the teachers themselves with all parts of the plan.

The elementary staff of Corbett Charter School met in the spring of the year prior to beginning the project in order to review a three-year science and social studies curriculum rotation. The goal of this meeting was to review the rotation in light of the Columbia River Gorge project with an opportunity to make changes and to develop an initial framework for the next school year’s curriculum. The teams came out of the planning day with a commitment to a broad curriculum rotation plan, direction for summer research plans, and an initial supplies and materials list.

The K-3 primary staff chose a curriculum plan that began with a study of the solar system followed by an overview of the geologic history of the earth and of Oregon as a foundation for learning the geology of the Columbia River Gorge. We would take a “Google Earth” approach, zooming in through space and time, introducing concepts that form the foundations of geology.

Since none of the primary teachers had more than the most basic recollection of geology and the geologic history of the Gorge, we began building our content knowledge by reviewing literature and sharing books for a course of summer reading and field trips. Staff members spent from 20 to more than 100 hours over the summer researching general geology and the specific geology that shaped the State of Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge. We took field trips that lasted hours or days using books on Northwest geology or online resources as guides. We also began to think more specifically about framing units on the solar system to begin the school year. Teachers exchanged emails sharing references and met on several occasions for 2-to-3-hour planning sessions over coffee to share information and ideas for shaping the content to draw on the first set of learning tools.

In an effort to ease the burden of gaining the expertise in geology we decided we needed, teachers began making attempts to contact agencies that might offer some resources or support. We spent hours making phone calls, sending emails, and searching for agencies like The Geologic Society of Oregon, Oregon Metro Oxbow Regional Park.

Plants and Animals of the Gorge By Alyssa Reed-Stuewe

Plants and Animals of the Gorge

Alyssa Reed-Stuewe

Nestled atop the extremely windy, Doug fir-lined Corbett Hill on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, Corbett School and Corbett Charter School have access to miles of riparian zone, dripping temperate rain forest, stunning creeks and waterfalls and, of course, the mighty Columbia River. Our elementary school staff teaches a three-year, rotating science curriculum based on the Columbia River Gorge: Year 1: Peoples of the Gorge, Year 2: Plants and Animals of the Gorge and Year 3: Natural History & Resources. In this section I will describe how we studied the Plants and Animals of the Columbia River Gorge.

Two weeks before the school year began, I was offered the position of a Kindergarten, first and second grade teacher. As part of my decision to take the position, I requested to become a third wheel on an already established planning team. I joined forces with DeeDee Hanes, a twenty-five year teaching veteran of the primary grades. I am convinced she can read children’s minds. Her intermediate partner, Desiree Chiu, is a masterful leader to her third, fourth and fifth grade students. Desiree and DeeDee had already done some brainstorming, book ordering and organizing of ideas. They had spent two eight-hour days exploring the possibilities of emotionally engaging topics to represent the plants and animals of the gorge prior me joining the planning team. Due to the nature of my new position, the initial planning stage happened very quickly.

Our team met for about an hour on a planning day the week before school began. My partners had brainstormed a long list of potential plant and animal topics and begun fitting them into a calendar. Part of my process is identifying what I am most interested and using this momentum to gather a great deal of content. In an effort to dive more deeply into a few subjects, rather than surveying a great number, we ended up slimming down a bulleted list including plants and animals related to the layers of the forest: salmon, insects, amphibians, mammals, birds of prey, trees, shrubs, ground cover, fungi, and edible and medicinal plants. We also began to discuss how these diverse topics are connected by food webs, nutrient cycles and cycles of decomposition, conflagration and renewal.

The most important piece of our initial conversation was determining a starting point. I want the curriculum I create to respond to my students’ needs and interests, as well as to the unique and unpredictable classroom culture. Beginning somewhere engaging is thus important. A father of one of Mrs. Chiu’s students was connected with an outdoor school and had access to a salmon-raising program. This opportunity to provide a living, breathing visualization of a totem Gorge animal was too good to pass up. We would begin with the heroic story of the salmon, as we raised real salmon in our own classrooms, watching them hatch and develop into fry.

We split up our classes into three teams so that each Kindergarten through second grade child could have an older buddy in third through fifth grade. We took these buddy teams and divided them equally into three teacher-led grade villages. We planned to swap so that our students could interact and learn together in these village groups a few times a week, or as our curriculum dictated.

This particular age range of five years old through twelve, meant that we would need to draw on both the first and the second learning tool kits of Imaginative Education. The first toolkit includes use of binary oppositions, songs, storytelling, games, engaging images and metaphor. The second toolkit makes use of a newly developing literate eye, of heroes in narrative, and graphic organizers to arrange their thoughts. Designing a unit based on mystery also engages young romantics on a quest, where they are empowered to solve a problem.

At the end of our initial meeting, we chose our roles in planning initial celebrations to get our students excited to work together within the content. Each of us spent several hours over the next few weeks gathering materials, designing instruction and coordinating spaces for our kickoff event––a salmon celebration. At this event, students made salmon-themed bookmarks and name-tags, buddies gave each other gifts and ate snacks. Desiree worked with her amazing parent volunteer to get us all fish tanks with thermometers and 250 orange salmon eggs, which soon had little eyes and began hatching into alevin.

A small amount of my time, perhaps two hours broken into chunks, was spent writing a brief narrative entitled Sammy the Salmon, in which the heroic salmon faces the many dangers of swimming upstream, (such as black bears, eagles, fishermen and waterfalls), so he can return to the place of his birth, fight with other salmon, spawn and, very heroically, die. This narrative was intended to be simple enough to be told aloud to the children, with the children participating in the telling through movement and dramatic play. The short time I took to put together a very open narrative became hours of strongly engaging curriculum. The children were able to raise questions, gain confidence with the details of a salmon’s migration, and experience this part of the salmon’s life cycle in terms of a binary opposition: survival or destruction.

DeeDee spent a few hours collecting and organizing written materials to teach about the life cycle of the salmon. The elder buddies would be responsible for reading materials and collecting notes and information to teach the younger buddies. The younger buddies would be responsible for artwork and some note taking. Our villages worked together a few times a week, playing games, doing research, and making banners representing each stage of the life cycle.

Through semi-regular weekly lunch or after school meetings, usually lasting one to two hours, we shared our contributions to the curriculum, reflected on their efficacy and determined our next direction. We selected plants as our next topic. We focused on the forest layers: canopy, understory or shrub layer, and forest floor. Each member of the team took a layer and endeavored to prepare four to six lessons worth of activities for the villages, drawing on the sets of learning tools. The public library and the Internet were important sources for front-loading, research materials, lesson plan ideas, and graphic organizers. For one week, in preparation for sharing my unit, I spent one or two hours each night researching, collecting, developing and organizing materials.

I enjoyed my time as a researcher, because I followed my curiosity. I became fascinated by moss, denizen of the forest floor, as well as the decomposers that inhabited it. I learned about the charming tardigrade, or waterbear, a tiny relative of the terrific velvet worm. Waterbears are fascinatingly diverse microorganisms. They come in many shapes and sizes, with different numbers of legs and antennae. They eat the moss they live in or other microscopic organisms. I also became fascinated by the variety of local fungi and their anatomy, as well as by the curious habits and life cycle of slime mold. After a week of exploring and gathering, I spent four hours on a Saturday organizing, modifying, and designing coloring sheets, comic book prompts, and diagrams to excite the middle set of learning tools in my students. As part of my design, I used a simple, humorous story to engage them in a basic way by using the first set of learning tools. I made a comic book of the life cycle of the fearsome, alien-like slime mold, which the children illustrated and captioned. I integrated into the waterbear imagery extreme facts and an activity where they could imagine themselves to be waterbears, designing their own antennae, number of legs and personalized prey.

Our divide and conquer planning method was successful in that the students seemed to engage with the content. We each had an intense, but short planning time, then a relaxed couple of weeks, during which, we received ideas and activities from one another. However, we felt that we were still covering too great a breadth with less time to dwell, study, and marinate. We would have preferred to, as Desiree put it, do less, better. We agreed we wanted to go more in depth with the study, rather than flitting from one subject to a categorically related subject, such as waterbears and slime mold. We decided to choose a few species of animals to focus on for the spring, and also to invite a student teacher and some charter school colleagues to join our think-tank. Desiree chose birds of prey and worked with her amazing student teacher, Melinda Rousse. DeeDee teamed up with Sheri Dunton to design a unit on predator and prey relationships between mammals. I worked with Rachel Dolkas and the concept of metamorphosis to draw parallels between six species of butterflies and six amphibians. These last few units were intended to be a few weeks, rather than days, long. They are where our imaginative work really began to flow into engaging, content-rich lessons that led our students to experience, question and think critically about the content.
Desiree and Melinda devoted many hours over the course of spring break and the weekend to build their Birds of Prey unit. They drew heavily on creating strong images, metaphor, limits and extremes, and jokes. They distributed organized materials to each participating class. These included beautiful silhouettes of the chosen species of local raptors, slideshows, picture sorts and objects representing raptor species’ defining characteristics (kill with their feet, sharp eyes, etc.), fact pages about different local raptors. Over a few weeks of discussing and exploring pictorial, film, and written materials, buddies created raptor trading cards and participated in a Guinness Book of World Records style raptor award ceremony.

DeeDee and Sheri spent a very intensive three-day weekend and a week’s worth of evenings planning a spectacular mammals unit on the idea of tracking wild animals. The unit began with a visit by a professional tracker and a look at the learning tools, including observation skills, which a tracker brings from his world to the world of the wild. They created rotating predator-prey kits for each participating classroom. Teachers would lay out the scats and tracks of an animal encounter and students would use resources to hypothesize about the scene. Finally, teachers would reveal the story of the predator-prey encounter.  These extremely rich kits included borrowed tracking casts and mammal pelts and skulls from the Lower Columbia River Estuary Project, the Oregon Zoo and the Multnomah Education Service District outdoor school program, printed and laminated life-sized tracks and scats of predator-prey pairs, and of course video clips, informational books, tracking guides, and poems and stories about the mammals involved.

Rachel Dolkas and I collaborated at a few hour-long meetings, and also invested several hours of independent prep and research in building a metamorphosis unit. We drew from the emotional engagement that a metamorphosis––the drastic, complete change from one organism to another entirely––is a nearly miraculous event and we used the binary opposites of freedom vs. constraint and stability vs. change.  A voracious caterpillar eats and grows monstrously, then freezes into a seemingly still pupa, within which his entire body is breaking down and reforming into a new creature. Finally, a delicate winged butterfly emerges, dries his wings and flies away to begin the cycle anew. Tadpoles are aquatic, gilled creatures, much like fish in that they must live underwater. Growing legs and lungs, they are able to escape the constraint of their nursery ponds and freely hunt insects on land! I distributed mealworms and appropriate habitats to participating teachers, so children could handle, predict, and observe them as they pupated and hatched into darkling beetles. We collected images and made fact sheets for the twelve species of insects and amphibian we would study. We put together a journal for organizing information on the life cycles of these animals, and collected related fairy tales and video clips of metamorphosing insects and amphibians.
The process towards creating high-quality imaginative curriculum from scratch is both time-intensive and extremely engaging for the teacher, and results in high engagement for the learners. Upon reflection, the team decided that creating workbooks to documenting learning is less important to the earlier stage of education than for our older students.  Younger students engaged enthusiastically in content delivered through repeated, shared storytelling, questioning, playing games, and acting out. The older students responded very positively to tasks involving research gathering through reading, writing and note-taking. Many of these students were very ready to take responsibility for the quality of their work, given clear guidelines, and, consequently, much of our initial preparation could be reduced by presenting clearly differentiated expectations for participation, whether written or oral.

The Geology of the Columbia River Gorge Intermediate Grades By Lindy Sims