Adventures in Getting Outside!

We could have never loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it.

– George Eliot

img_0829I’ve sooooo been looking forward to this post. Outdoor Education is a topic near and dear to my heart, and something I have not been able to do much of in my last five years of curriculum development in Houston. For one amazing week, I got to see my students outside the Maryland classroom and in an impressive program committed to all students experiencing the outdoors through various integrated activities. The fact that I got to enjoy the great outdoors myself, surrounded by the peak of autumn’s color change in the Northeast while watching the best come of our my students, was just a bonus.

Resources in order of this SPECTRUM Acrostic

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.07.13 PMOutdoors! Stream Study, Predator Prey, Hike to Washington Mountain, middle of fall in the middle of the color change, geocaching with materials and GIS, and a confidence course. I’ve been fortunate to gain experience in outdoor education programs in Montana, like with the Montana Natural History Center and the International Wildlife Film Festival, let alone go through my own outdoor education programs through my Master of Science in Science Education. Yet, I’m a little rusty, have never taught outdoor education in Maryland, and fortunately had the prior years of experience to rely on.

img_2443For the stream study and for the whole outdoor education program, students collected data collaboratively. Using their observations to collect quantitative and qualitative data, students used charts to gather clues and identify the quality of the stream they were studying. Because the charts were filled in, whole groups could easily circle the results and then use these as evidence to construct an explanation to support their claim that the quality of the stream was good, fair, or poor. I got to see students running around with nets to catch aquatic organisms, ice cube trays to sort them in (and field guides to identify them), and various easy-to-use tests for nitrogen, phosphates, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen. Very grade appropriate approach for this independent time of students working along a stream bed, discovering more than just the frogs, salamanders, and crayfish they thought they were focused on catching. Rewarding STEM stuff!

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According to the Child & Nature Network, spending time in nature can increase the ability of students to focus while reducing ADHD symptoms.

Unlike many of the one-day programs I’ve taught for outdoor education, it is very encouraging to watch your students’ growth when you’re spending a whole year with your students and then take them to the great outdoors. They are so early in their sixth grade year, some of them still getting accustomed to spending time (three days in this case) away from home. Some, unfortunately too many, have never had experience hiking or making observations of the outdoor environment around them, nor make a s’more around a campfire to boot. Spending that kind of time with students brings out a whole new behavioral management plan, because you can see what makes students tick (and others not tick if they unfortunately do not love the outdoors – management information all the same) and use that to yours/their advantage. I’ll never forget my most challenging student giving me an earnest high-five as he ran to dinner, exhausted and gleeful, after a round of hiking and free time for games. Fresh air is good for everyone. 

img_2618Among the many intangibles that these students, and us teachers, get from this type of program is that experience outside of the classroom is filled with activity, natural history, and commodore. It is necessary to the growth of every campus because it pulls all subjects together – science, math, reading, social studies, and physical education and therefore very tangible learning. This program, and every one like it, must be preserved and promoted. Get out there and support any and all outdoor education programs, especially quality ones offered by Montgomery County Public Schools!

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.12.45 PMCombined with a Trout in the Classroom Professional Development course through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and this week of Outdoor Education, the science teacher in me is quite fulfilled. Specifically using GPS units to locate boxes of watershed research instruments including infrared thermometers and clinometers from the program. Last summer I volunteered as a judge for GLOBE’s first ever regional science fair in Houston and learned about the amazing curriculum and MUC’s (Modified UNESCO Classification systems). This is a wonderful combination of engineering and citizen science where students take data in the same way around the world and contribute their findings through GLOBE teachers and networks. In this case, students used GPS to find different boxes, each with a scientific tool to take measurements and observations to answer a question on the health of the Chesapeake watershed. There were over a dozen stations. Seeing the curriculum in action as I taught a students how to use a clinometer was rewarding in a way well beyond my direct reach as a current classroom teacher, but rather involved in something really important.

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Insistence of etiquette and respect, particularly in the dining hall, is part of the MCPS sixth grade outdoor education program, thanks in part to Mr. Granger. As students entered the dining hall, they were required to enter quietly, find their random seat assignment, remain standing and silent until all students were seated simultaneously. They then proceeded through various conventions during the meal, including weigh their food waste and their non-recyclable waste after the meal. This approach appeals to this program being an environment education program through Montgomery County, not just environmental. While the activities and meals can be aimed around science and interdisciplinary topics, this county wide coed initiative for all students in sixth grade emphasizes all aspects of citizenship, like proper table manners. At first, it was way too much for the students to handle. They would holler at the menu announcement, wander among tables, and toss anything in their hands around carelessly. But after a meal or two, they got it.

Note to the reader: screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-8-26-42-amA week after this experience, the school experienced a lockdown. It was just a drill, but my students were absolutely silent for it, except once they crawled under their desks as they tested their boundary of ample silent and un-interfered time. Once the drill was complete, there wasn’t enough time to complete the lesson, so we had a teachable moment and a sobering conversation of the importance of lockdowns and adherence to their safety policies. They volunteered how noisy the chairs sounded, even though they had barely moved them. I immediately gave them a sheet of paper and asked them to write Mr. Granger a thank you letter for something they had learned at Outdoor Education. While none of them wrote about the importance of learning the sound of silence, it was interesting to see what they did gain from that experience, and it was nice to send thanks to the program coordinators for yet another intangible from the program.

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I mentioned the importance of this type of program is the fact that all subjects are pulled together in one program. The proof of this, the Outdoor Education Journal, is also evidence of best practices in STEM education. The practice of scientists and engineers to keep a scientific journal is a unifying theme in this program, complete with integration of connections to affective attributes like open-mindedness and caring, and other learning profiles specified by the International Baccalaureate community.img_0729-1 I realize journaling isn’t for everyone (I’m terribly obsessed with journaling and have written ironic reflections about it in, you got it, my journals), but how can you know until you try? Journals are private accounts of events that whole groups go through, and with the proper formatting give students ample space to connect their outdoor lives to ordinary learning. This include art, that magical A that makes STEM, STEAM. Here is a student who refused to be involved with the program for anything other than social benefit who was all too quick to start creating sketches in her journal when I asked her to sketch a sycamore leaf.

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It’s hard to measure the results of the adventures and academic impacts students have in outdoor education (and teachers), especially for such an equitable experience as this county’s Outdoor Education program. Regardless, it’s not my job to at the moment. The teacher’s job is to manage the incredible highs and lows that occurs with a massive student body’s group dynamics and individual learning over time. The skill set required to do this include being able to talk to a student, peer teacher, administrator, parent, and community member at any given moment. I think that’s the hardest thing about the role of a teacher, because it’s not just “the trenches,” which would mean just working with students.

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I’ve added a new policy to my approach to starting conversations with students. I’ve always had a 100% policy of never using someone’s unique first or last name as a conversation piece, and now I will never use a student’s clothing to try to strike up conversation. An example. One student was wearing a shirt that said Puerto Rico on it. I’ve been there twice, kayaked at night to see the bioluminescence at Mosquito Bay on Vieques Island. img_2450She was not one of my students, so I asked her if she’d been there before, prepared to tell her all about my trip there as a way to strike up conversation. She immediately if not inappropriately said “NO!” and threw herself on her knees, exasperated that probably the hundredth person in a row had asked her that. Even if she was a bit over dramatic, I realize now she was right to be upset. Us adults, desperate to connect with this digital-native generation we know nothing about yet teach every day, we gotta learn to not perpetuate labels by the labels on students’ exteriors. It was just a shirt. I should have asked what she liked about outdoor education the most so far (and did from that moment forward), not made her suffer through an explanation that the shirt was a loud souvenir, aka burden, from her Grandma when SHE visited. I understand now that our role as teachers is to add to everyone’s experience, not take away. There are very simple ways to do that, and immediately qualifying people based on their appearance is NOT one of them. Poor girl, I’m sorry I did that to you, never again.

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Is it ironic that I should have media for this entry when the whole point of Outdoor Education is to encourage everyone, teachers and students, to take a digital diet? The answer is NO! In fact, media is the only thing that got me through the week. I was constantly pulling up inspirational images, music, instructions, and research to enhance my own experience this week. Getting inspired about filmmaking and documenting adventures outside, and how to get more involved with the Chesapeake Bay environmental education programs. Frankly, I needed the inspiration outside of the classroom just as much as the students, and media is a way I process my next moves in instruction. Like the art of Andy Goldsworthy and its connections in nature and science. Or just about every song by Just a Band, and apps like leafsnap for leaf identification. I felt a little guilty soaking in the media while my students were required to have no screen time, but how else could I share my experiences if not for a little bending 🙂

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