Top ten tips for teaching outside for secondary

photo: Student writting in a journalFrom Stanley Mikles, science teacher, Hill City Secondary School in northern Minnesota)

  1. Are my students trained to be in the forest/swamp/field/schoolyard? This process begins on the first day of each semester. We advance outdoors by short steps. It takes some time to build respect and trust.
  2. Every excursion has a well-defined purpose and well-defined expected outcomes. Having said that, the purpose of the excursion does not necessarily have to fit with the topic we are studying. Sometimes surprises open the doors for discovery!
  3. Safety is discussed, not dictated. In 18 years, I have never had a serious injury in my classes.
  4. Do my students have the necessary clothing for the environment and the weather? Over the years, students have abandoned coats, gloves, hats, and boots to a point where I have a room full of the stuff. As winter comes, I remind them to get ready. We can't go if even one kid shows up in a t-shirt and shorts. That's when I pull from my jacket and boot collection.
  5. I must be motivated by the work at hand. If I am having a "bad day," and I let it show, it rubs off. On the other hand, my passion for the topic builds passion in my students.
  6. Establish a rallying point (central meeting place) for each event.
  7. Use a signal to meet at the rally point. I use a cow call that kids can hear for miles.
  8. Field journals are required. No journal entries for the day equals a zero.
  9. Teams are good, sometimes. I have to know my students.
  10. Make accommodations for my less capable students. Arrange for a paraprofessional to escort students with special needs—brief your paraprofessionals on the what, why, where, when, and how's.

From Mark Studer, Bemidji Middle School

  1. Have the kids establish the outdoor "rules" that they will live by for the year the first week and have all agree to them (thumbs up is fine)
  2. If you need to warn more than once about behavior - send them in to sit in the classroom. Don't get mad - tell them you are sorry, but they will have to go in - and continue with your class. Kids respect that and are much more likely to give you their "undivided" attention once someone has been sent in. And I follow up with a short phone call to the parent to chat with them.
  3. Have them bring their science notebooks and always have something to do in the science notebook, whether it is a journaling entry or notes on something you are talking about, a sketch, or other observation.
  4. When I am speaking, I tell them to huddle and make sure they are not any more than "two-deep" around me. Works fairly well.
  5. I take time for "teachable moments" when we run into something outside that is unexpected, like the walking stick (insect) that a student found while we were sitting discussing ecology - we all got a look at him and discussed the term "mimicry."
  6. Teach them how to observe with "soft eyes," looking not just in a specific spot but focusing on everything simultaneously. It helps them to see movement and the bigger picture.
  7. For an initial trip outdoors in the fall, position them along a trail so they can't see each other and have them sit and observe with all their senses their surroundings while they are perfectly still.
  8. I carry a small backpack with me when I go out—I carry an anemometer (wind meter), thermometer, extra pencils, rulers, first aid pack, clipboard, magnifying lens, water bottle, candy, field guides, binoculars, and anything else I think might be useful.
  9. Don't be discouraged if you take your kids out every time things don't go perfectly. Reflect on the event and make a few notes on how to make it better the next time. Then go out again!
  10. Take your students out in the winter as well. Just do it.

Teachers like these exist everywhere. Find one at a local nature center or through your state environmental education organization.

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