Written by Erin Canter, Manager of Science Literacy and Research. Originally published in ANCA’s DIRECTIONS Journal, Winter 20-21.
“It feels rewarding to see firsthand the excitement and wonder my students are experiencing, exploring the natural spaces around the schoolyard. I get to be part of that! — Elementary School Teacher
Educators are learners too, and empowering teachers to feel comfortable taking kids out in their schoolyards is a goal for us at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, right alongside student-centered learning — even when the teachers don’t have all the answers to curious questions of “what’s this?” or “how did this happen?”
We know that students with access to the outdoors are healthier, more focused, and just have more fun while learning. While the evidence for enhanced student well-being is well documented, a missing piece is often supported for motivated teachers to get outside, be curious right along with their kids, and see their schoolyards as areas for curiosity-driven exploration. Here in East Tennessee, we knew of so many motivated teachers working alone to teach outside the classroom, often reinventing the wheel or fighting against misconceptions from colleagues or school administration. We knew them, but they didn’t know each other! Thus the idea to create a network was hatched: the Community for Schoolyard Teaching & Learning.
Admittedly, in “normal” years it’s tough to spare staff and resources to create and maintain such a network when our days are packed with hundreds of residential learners on campus. When COVID hit we were given the opportunity to step back, assess the needs of our teachers, and get to work.
We foresaw an inherent value in the community itself, the interconnectedness of not just local teachers but partners and experts that share a common goal of getting kids outside. With the growing support for time spent outdoors to improve physical and mental health, we made a logical partnership with a public health educator from the Knox County Health Department. This relationship shows a united force which speaks to outdoor experiential education as essential for meeting health and academic goals — not just one more thing in addition to other goals.
In summer of 2020, we conducted an online Interest and Needs survey to make sure we took direction from our teacher community from the start in the design and goals of our network. We wanted to know if and how teachers would use such a network. The “if” was a resounding “YES!”. For the “how,” the top responses were to:
- Connect with other teachers to learn how to meet standards in the schoolyard.
- Brainstorm to create new lesson ideas.
- Learn from others about what works: no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to outdoor learning! Based on the needs expressed by our community and partners, we decided on three basic pillars for our network:
- Networking: the sharing of best practices, success stories, and lessons learned with like-minded folks. • Belonging: Much has been shared recently about the need to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) for our young students into all aspects of experiential outdoor education (see: grow-outside.org). Teachers are just as in need of support and a sense of community! We pay special attention to the SEL needs of our teachers, as well as model techniques of mindfulness activities and metacognition debriefs that they can then facilitate with their students.
- Professional Development: Tremont provides professional development in terms of grade level content, facilitation skills, and bringing in experts to provide training in specific skills and fields.
Adapting to COVID
In-person experiential education is unbeatable, but the virtual platform has its benefits. No drive time to in-person gatherings means more accessible meetings for busy teachers juggling work and family. Hosting our discussions via Zoom also allows us to expand our reach and invite folks from out of state to share their experiences, which adds to the feeling that this movement is large and growing, and teachers are not alone in their outdoor efforts.
While we always wanted to include SEL for our teachers, the impacts of a global pandemic, heightened political tension, and continued violence against our Black community members made us pivot to make mental health and interpersonal connection a top priority. We also decided to spend the academic year (2020-2021) with monthly agendas pre-determined by Tremont staff so teachers could join without any additional prep time.
We have a core group of forward-thinking, motivated educators that have seen transformation in their students with their own eyes. However, we continue to face a few hurdles in recruitment that we think are based on the fallacies that
- This is just another meeting, another Zoom, another thing to add to the plate rather than the tools needed to accomplish all the tasks teachers face.
- Outdoor education is for science. Those in our core group or who have been to Tremont can see their schoolyard as theaters or social studies or Language Arts classrooms, but we have had trouble recruiting folks who are not yet familiar with the value of being outside for ALL subject areas.
Feedback from teachers
For some teachers, the monthly meetings are the needed push to take their kids outside to try some of the discussion techniques and explorations with their students, such as sound mapping or I notice, I wonder, It reminds me of. No outdoor exploration is too small, and one elementary school teacher took her kids out to find an interesting object and noted she “didn’t even have to ask [students] to be quiet. They were completely engaged.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a time of isolation and uncertainty, the most positive feedback is not in the content but in the community itself. The sentiment that was echoed by many can be summed up by the feedback given by one of our local elementary school teachers regarding our monthly calls:
“Tremont has created a safe space for educators to connect with one another, cultivate creativity, and exchange ideas while at the same time allowing a place to find stress relief during this difficult year. The positive interactions that I have had with nature and those people that love nature have helped me to calm my thoughts, relieve stress, and stay connected. My mental and emotional states have improved, and I look forward to spending time with people that are excited about the world around them.”
Importantly, teachers noted the SEL benefits from going outside for their students as well. They notice their “sleepy and often depressed students open up and become a kid again every time [they] take that outdoor break.” The students themselves are often aware of this: one high school teacher noted that he took his students out many times during COVID, and the feedback from them noted the “mental health relief value of it.”
Vision for the future
As the dust settles from this time of wild uncertainty, we hope to shift from Tremont designing the monthly agendas to an Open Space-like flow where our participants are empowered to suggest topics and facilitate discussions based on relevant needs. In the long term, we hope these gatherings take place locally and in-person so that teachers can show off their schoolyards and lead others in lessons and discussions in situ.
COVID prevented thousands of students and hundreds of teachers from visiting Tremont over the past year, which highlighted the need for more accessible outdoor excursions. But COVID is not the reason for this movement. While time at a RELC can radically change students’ relationships with both peers and teachers and provides incredible opportunities to connect with nature, COVID is not the only barrier to entry for kids having immersive experiences outdoors. As before the pandemic, financial, cultural, and historical barriers will play a role in who has access to our programs for the foreseeable future.
Schoolyards are not only the largest, least expensive hands-on laboratories that most schools have, they are also vibrant with biodiversity, with minimal “built” classroom structures needed to support curiosity-based exploration in a way that is significantly more accessible to most students. With our local community teachers and partners, we are working together to shift outdoor experiential education from a one time trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, to an integral and daily practice that connects us to nature, each other, and to a greater sense of place in our community.
Tremont received funding from Arconic and the National Park Foundation to support staff and resources for the network launch,
GENERAL OUTLINE OF A SCHOOLYARD TEACHING & LEARNING MEETING
From a teacher survey, we found that monthly, 90 minute calls from 4:30-6:00pm ET would accommodate the majority of schedules. In each of our meetings we facilitate:
• “Mindfulness Moments” — a chance to reset from the day, slow down, check-in
• Opportunities to connect on a personal level through smaller breakout sessions
• Reflection for metacognition — a chance to think and share about what it feels like to learn and share
• Versatile teaching techniques for teachers to experience first as learners that they can then share with students. These experiences always provide a chance to get away from the computer screen to explore, either outside or through a window.
• A space to bring up questions, concerns, and seek advice from others