Experiential Education in the Outdoors

This past week, I facilitated my last PD session of the year. It was called Experiential Education in the Outdoors, and I must admit, I use the term facilitated loosely because two teachers in our school division did most of the work. The day was the brainchild of a teacher colleague who does a great deal of learning with his class along the river near his school. He is passionate about the kinds of learning experienced outdoors and I felt this would be a great addition to our PD roster for the year. So, we asked another colleague from the opposite side of the division to co-facilitate with us and we were on our way!

For the day, we headed to Greenwater Provincial Park, which is located in the south eastern part of our school division. We wanted a place that would offer unique opportunities to explore the outdoors with the teachers who had registered. Even though spring was late this year, the leaves had just burst and we had plenty of beautiful environment to enjoy. The weather prediction turned out to be conservative and we ended up with a scorching hot day, filled with plenty of sun.

In the morning, we met in a parking lot on the edge of the park and loaded up the fifteen passenger van and a couple of trucks and headed to a remote-ish location along the lake. One of our co-facilitators had set up the kitchen area early in the morning, so we just had to finish up by finding spots for our lawn chairs. Our two big ideas for the day were: 1) Being outdoors creates a physical and emotional response that readies us for learning because it makes us feel good; and 2) Learning outdoors can be integrated into any subject with any age group. We encouraged the participants to take stock of their feelings throughout the day and to imagine how each activity we explored could be adapted to the age group of students with whom they work.

For the first three hours, we rotated three groups through three different locations, where we engaged in learning experiences that tied to multiple curricula across multiple grade levels. The first activity occurred down by the river, where the participants engaged in a study of the water ecosystem and made plaster casts of animal prints. The second grouping occurred in the forest, where the participants built a shelter. The final group gathered with me and we created watercolour paintings and wooden block artworks based on Australian Aboriginal paintings. We also looked ta several ways to take students outdoors as part of English Language Arts classes.

Our lunch was amazing! One of our facilitators did a fish fry, which included delicious battered fish, homemade french fries, and salads. He had even brought an appetizer. The participants could not stop talking about the food (and I can’t stop thinking about it!) We all sat in a circle and enjoyed the sun and good conversation. It felt really colleagial and everyone was enjoying themselves. We all reflected on ways we could bring this same vibe to other professional development events. I continue to think about this as I plan for next year.

In the afternoon, my two teacher colleagues shared their tips for safety, permissions, and planning an outdoor experience. They gave us insight about hunting times, ways to avoid pesticides, and how to keep students safe. They also shared some of their best contacts in the environmental world – we live in a very outdoor-sy area of the province and there is ample opportunity to engage in the environment in really meaningful ways.

We took a couple of breaks in the information sessions to play a First Nations game and learn how to set beaver traps (a very new experience for me!) We finished the day by looking at curricular outcomes and rubrics and discussing ways the learning experiences for students could happen outdoors. There were many really creative ideas shared and it was a good chance to look at our curricula again and think about it in a new way.

Before we loaded back into the vehicles, we headed down to the river to grab our animal print casts and share some of the things we had seen (mostly leeches and bugs…ugh.) Everyone seemed very energized (and quite sun-drenched as well.) I could not believe how quickly the day flew by! It was definitely one of my favourite PD days this year. A huge hats off to my co-facilitators, whose commitment to this day was amazing.

Here are a few pictures:

A deer track Artworks Building shelters Eating lunch Fries!! Getting our animal prints In the bush More painting Naomi in the water On the bus Our chef Setting traps part 2 Setting traps The fish

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Don’t forget to celebrate what’s great!

These days, Twitter and the media are filled with all kinds of political rhetoric, controvery and general commentary about education in Saskatchewan. This post is not about any of that. Instead, I wish to encourage myself and others to remember that amid all cries of a system gone bad, there are a number of people working each and every day, fuelled by their passion for students, who are supporting amazing growth and excitement for learning by children in this province. Let me share my journey around my school division in the last couple of weeks:

Oct 20131

A principal in one of our schools shared with me her approach to combining assessment and learning, thereby ensuring students achieve the desired outcomes in arts education. Firstly, yay art!! Secondly, the mindful consideration this educator gives to her practice is inspiring.

October 20133 October 20132

A fellow coordinator and I were invited on this field trip one windy October morning. The students were observing the local Canadian Foodgrains Bank Project Field being harvested. They were learning about the interdependence of countries and the impact of Canadian resources on both local and global economies. Local farmers spoke with the students about the project and the canola itself. This real-life example allowed students to make powerful connections and apply their learning to real-life contexts.

October 20134

All over our school division, I see examples of this – students asking their own questions. It could be argued that a question is even more important than an answer. Certainly, honouring student questions is essential for making learning meaningful.

October 20135

I spent an hour with these grade two students as they learned a new concept relating to patterns. It was exciting to share in their experience as each and every student made the learning transfer, using manipulatives. The dedication of the teacher to find just the right combination of guidance and exploration was wonderful to see.

October 20136

Inviting students to reflect on their learning and engage in metacognition is challenging, especially in K-2 classrooms. However, this class made “thinking about thinking” visible, proving that children are smart and their teacher is pretty great, too!

October 20137 October 20138

Student art always makes me smile and these two examples are no exception. Encouraging creativity and innovation is so important to brain development as well as the development and expression of personal identity. Our schools are filled with examples like these. Note that no two artworks are the same – the sign of great creative expression.

October 20139

These grade seven students were preparing for a re-demonstration of learning. Their first assessment had not gone well enough to leave the topic, so their teacher was re-teaching before the second assessment event. The students were taking the science concepts they had been learning and were connecting them in concept maps. It was clear they had learned the material more deeply as a result of the additonal time spent on the topic.

October 201310

On a cold Thanksgiving weekend, I volunteered my time at my husband’s school, installing their new playground. Not only had the school community raised tens of thousands of dollars for this play centre, but over thirty volunteers showed up to help install it over two days. The commitment of this school community brought tears to my eyes. Our communities care about children and this makes the work of schools so rewarding!

October 201311

My colleague and I hosted the grades 1-3 teachers in our division for three data response days last week. We will be having three more days next week for grades 4-6 teachers and then 7-12 teachers will follow after Christmas. Nevermind the time it took these professionals to prepare for a substitute teacher so they could come to these workshop days, but their engagement in the data and in the learning associated with it was a testament to their commitment to children. This photo shows an activation exercise we did at the beginning of the day, when we asked the teachers to reflect on their current instructional practices. We spent our time looking at the data around student reading and refecting on the strategies that offer the highest impact on learning. We then collaborated on what our ELA could look like to maximize learning opportunites.

All in all, much to celebrate and consider. Even when a “system” seems to be in turmoil, there are always people doing great work inside schools.

Altered books give students an altered view of learning

Last week, I had the tremendous privilege of working alongside an amazing teacher inside her grade six arts education class. We had met previously to generate ideas for an art project that would connect to her visual art outcomes and we decided to tackle Altered Books with her students. It was an exciting idea because not only did it invite exploration of the three goal areas in arts education (Creative/ Productive, Critical/ Responsive, Cultural/ Historical) but it also became a cross-curricular plan, integrating English Language Arts as well (Viewing and Representing).

On the first day with the students, we began by looking at a number of art images created from found materials. We asked the Essential Question: How much can I use found material in my art work and still call it my own? Through images of multi-media art works, assemblages and altered books, we explored this question deeply. We even asked whether it is the idea that makes someone creative or the executiion of the idea. We began to come to the conclusion that creativity exists in many forms.

We then began to work on the learning strategy of Generating Ideas by asking How do artists get ideas for their art? We practiced three strategies for generating ideas: Looking at the art of others; Looking at the materials available to us; Talking with others. We handed the students the books they would be altering and they immediately began to flip through them, examining the contents and thinking about opportunities for altering the pages. We invited them to record their ideas for future use. We also re-examined the artwork we had looked at and invited them to jot down ideas the artists had used that they thought they might like to try to make into their own. Lastly, we paired the students up and asked them to share their ideas with each other and continue to record ideas that sprung from the ideas of others. We had already decided this was a legitmate way of being creative, so there were no choruses of “She stole my idea!”, which often happens during paired sharing.

Once we generated a list of ideas, we asked the students to choose one page and one idea they wanted to develop. We talked about the message they would be creating and gave them permission to either decide their message before beginning or have it emerge through their exploration. We knew they would want to experiment and we wanted to encourage them to explore the idea of an altered book in its rawest sense with their first page. We knew we would develop the messages over time and so risk-taking was the most important aspect of this first attempt.

My favourite moment was just before they began, when the hands flew up as students tried to clarify the criteria and parameters for the task. “Can we use paint?” Yes. “Can we leave half the page like it is in the book and alter the other half?” Yes. “Can we cut out parts of the page?” Yes. I stopped them and asked if they noticed a pattern in my reponses to their questions. They confirmed that I had said yes every time. I explained that they could take risks and explore in ways that were meaningful to them. The only limitations were the supplies we had and even that was a challenge the teacher helped them overcome the next day, when she brought in additional materials like yarn and tissue paper. The excitement was incredible. It was like they had been given a very important gift – freedom!

I left with only a small start on their books under their belts. Their teacher is continuing the work with them over the next couple of weeks and I return in the middle of next month to see the results. I can hardly wait to look at their work and discuss it with them!

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Why we keep getting disappointed by student work

I continue to try to make sense of the whole learning strategy piece; what they are exactly, how we help students to develop them, and where they fit in planning and learning cycles. My colleague and I have spent days reading about them, talking about them and, ultimately, developing workshops for teachers so we can explore them as a Division. I feel like they are one of the most important parts of learning over time but they are so enmeshed in all the other pieces of learning (memory, assessment, engagement to name a few) that I am still wrestling with how to look at them under a magnifying glass while gazing at them from a mountaintop. So, once again, blogging is an attempt to articulate swirling thoughts so I can begin to help my teacher colleagues piece this topic together in ways that are meaningful to them in their teaching context.

First of all, the literature is very confusing around this topic. Some sources clearly articulate a difference between learning strategies and instructional strategies and others use the term interchangeably. I sit in the former camp – I think there is a strong difference between the two, although they are very connected in a school setting. I think learning strategies are those strategies that humans apply inside their heads in order to either make sense of their world and all the things they encounter, or create their own responses and express their own ideas. Everyone has strategies that assist them in fully engaging in these activities but how each of us does this is pretty unique. In contrast, instructional strategies are those techniques and tools that teachers (for example) employ to expose students to various ways of learning, so they can better develop and access their learning strategies. For example, the learning strategy of activating prior knowledge can be done using the instructional strategies of Think-Pair-Share, or K-W-L. One helps with the other, but the difference is important when thinking about how best to equip students with ready-to-access learning strategies.

The challenge in schools is that we make a business of creating a steady stream of stimuli and demands for creation and demonstration by students and we don’t always check to make sure that students have all the strategies internalized in order to be successful. We linger in content and ask for opinions and responses from students and are surprised when they do not give us products or ideas that we would deem adequate (and I won’t even get into authentic assessment here).  To get more to the point, students would do better if they knew how. To make matters worse, society has a very all-or-none view of learning in many subject areas. We are good at math or we aren’t; we are artistic or we aren’t; we are athletically gifted or we aren’t.  Sadly, this view impacts engagement and resilience and results in very little strategy use in many situations. This is why I think learning strategies are so important – without them, we cannot learn deeply.

So, what do we do about this? This is where I am situated at the moment. It is clear from my research and experience that explicit instruction of learning strategies is important. The continuum of strategy instruction is also well-documented: I do, you watch; I do, you help; You do, I help; You do, I watch. What isn’t quite so clear is how to balance strategy instruction with content work. I mean, you cannot get to content without applying strategies but I worry that we just motor through content and hope students catch it through reading, discussions and other instructional approaches.

I suspect one of the essential components of enhancing this aspect of learning is to acknowledge that many students do not have the requisite strategies to engage in the content in the ways we are asking them to do so. I also suspect that learning preferences tie into strategy use. I wonder how often we invite students to engage in content, using instructional strategies that do not align with a student’s existing skill set. For example, asking a student to make sense of a video through a written graphic organizer when they have language challenges is not the best way to access learning or meaning-making for that child. When a student is supplied an option that does not invite them to access an established learning strategy, there is immediate challenge. Variety in approaches is essential but even more essential is ensuring the variety we provide is meeting the needs of individual students.

The key in all of this, I suspect, is increasing the amount of metacognitive work we do every day. Asking students what a text says is different than asking a student how they know what a text says. If they dwell on the latter question, teachers can identify strengths and challenges and can supply explicit instruction on strategies that will help students to make sense of the text in question. For example, spending time discussing author’s purpose, looking for clues as to what it might be in a given text and talking about all the ways we can determine author’s purpose is essential. It is important for teachers and students to understand that determining author’s purpose is important to critical engagement in texts. In addition to teaching this learning strategy, we have to explain why this strategy is so important when engaging in texts. Without talking about the reasons for engaging a strategy, we are left hoping students intuitively absorb its importance and apply it in new situations…and we know this does not always happen.

I suspect the reason we do not do more explicit strategy instruction in schools is partly because we feel “crunched for time” and partly because, as adults, we are strong strategy users and are not even aware of how often we apply strategies. Because of our own lack of awareness about how we make sense of our world and our responses to it, we feel challenged to assist students with developing these skills. I also suspect that many teachers feel that strategy instruction rests with ELA teachers (it is in their curricular document after all). However, I am convinced that all teachers must engage in strategy instruction if they want their students to experience success in their classes. It is for all these reasons that I accept the privilege of working with others to make sense of how this will actually be lived out in classroom spaces. I don’t have it all figured out, but I have a start. Now I am ready to invite others into my learning space (besides my fabulous early learning colleague who lives there with me!)

The gems that flow out of a reading assesment data day

Last week, my Early Learning colleague and I hosted RAD (Reading Assessment District) Data Days for our grades four and five teachers. The days went by too quickly it seemed. I often feel like we just get to the good stuff and we are done. Nevertheless, every teacher had a chance to look at the data from their own schools and classrooms and we, collectively, were able to discuss and share strategies for addressing some of the areas needing attention and celebrating the areas of strength. Over the course of the two days, some really good gems emerged from the group around strategy instruction in ELA and I am going to jot some of these ideas down because they are too good not to share. In no particular order:

  1. We concluded that there are two layers (if you will) to ELA instruction: The “Learning from Language” or “Context” layer and the “Learning about Language” or “Strategy” layer. Both layers are inextricably linked and both are essential components of a strong ELA program. We discussed at length the amount of air time each gets in our classrooms and how we can enhance our instruction so it moves beyond reading to talk about the content of the story and moves into metacognition or thinking about how we approach reading to increase comprehension.
  2. We concluded that we might need to adjust our expectations for students because they will reach exactly as high as we ask them to reach.
  3. We concluded that grades four and five are unique because there is a pervasive assumption that students “should be able to read well” by this point, and clearly this is not the case for all children. We have to let go of the idea that teaching students how to read more effectively is not our job in these grades. We also have to let go of the idea that if a student struggles to read effectively in these grades, it does not mean this will always be the case. Every student can grow; we just have to shift our approaches to meet their needs.
  4. We concluded that often the language around reading is very “all or nothing;” either students can read or they can’t. We discussed the continuum of reading and decided that it is in our best interests to explore this continuum so ALL students can grow.
  5. We concluded that a student’s experiences can strongly impact their ability to make predictions, make connections, make inferences and form opinions. We spent a good deal of time discussing this impact and brainstorming ways to tap into experiences our students have had AND build new experiences for them to incorporate into their “experience scaffolding.”
  6. We concluded that we may need to slow down in our classrooms and teach students to linger on texts for a while. We discussed the implications of the “need for speed” that many students seem to equate with intelligence. We decided that we want to show students that the longer we spend with a text, the more we see and learn. We thought this might transfer to their own expressions and our desire to have them revisit texts they are creating.
  7. We concluded that students need to read a lot and write a lot. We talked about the balance between reading for enjoyment and reading to learn how to be more effective comprehenders and responders. We acknowledged the need for balance. We also acknowledged that we are not spending enough time on the latter.
  8. We concluded that ELA is, in fact, part of every single thing students do in school. We clarified the importance of all teachers working together to improve student’s ability to be expressive and receptive communicators. We also determined multiple ways we can “do ELA instruction” in other subject areas. We see the importance of cross-curricular work.

The day with each group was filled with looking at assessment results and thinking about effective instruction. Mostly though, the day was filled with discussions about learning – how it happens, what it looks like and what happens as a result. Anytime we spend the day talking about learning, it is a good day.

Where do the strands fit in an ELA program?

One of my preoccupations for the last few years has been ELA. It was one of my majors in university and I have taught it for years. However, I can say with authority that I never really thought much about it except to plan activities, to read my favourite books to students, and to encourage them to write. In other words, I did many things right but I had no idea why they might be right and, even more importantly, why they weren’t enough. I did not consider how or why I might move beyond “giving kids stuff to do” and into learning through language, learning to use language and most especially, learning about language. When the curriculum was renewed yet again a few years ago, and I found myself in the role of professional developer, my preoccupation began. I have traveled far and wide in my exploration of language learning but today I want to think aloud about the “strandification” of ELA (okay, I may have invented a word).

I remember last time the ELA curriculum was renewed, there was a big emphasis on the forgotten strands: representing, viewing, listening and speaking. It is not that it didn’t exist in past curricula, but certainly for me, this was the first time I really considered the importance of something in addition to reading and writing. So, like a good teacher, I diligently restructured my “activities” to include all six strands and I re-jigged my grade book to enable me to collect data on the six aspects of ELA. Back in those days, we still just reported one mark for ELA, but I made sure that the mark was derived from activities that represented all six areas of communication. I ran into trouble pretty quickly though, when my grade book was organized by strand. For example, I would have the students read a story filled with images and when I was entering an assessment, I was unsure of whether to fit it into reading or whether it was more viewing. Should I break it in half and spread it out between the two strands? Should I record the same mark twice? Or, because there was more text, should I just pick reading? The same thing would happen when students were creating something like a Paper Bag Book Project (those were the days of fun activities, remember). Was it writing, because they definitely had to write something? Or was it representing because they had drawn images? And how should I even “mark” the objects they had placed in the bag to represent aspects of the story? Never mind that I had asked them to present their bags to the class, which was clearly speaking…well, the dilemma was clear. Composing and creating, comprehending and responding do not fit neatly into categories.

With this newest curriculum renewal and the switch to outcomes and indicators, the strands are still represented by their own outcomes, but two goal areas are Compose and Create; Comprehend and Respond. I see now that this was no accident and it got me thinking about those strands again. As our Division was designing our own grade book and reporting tool, we began to really question this whole thing. Which categories would we collect data on? How would we report? I remembered back to those years of awkward assessing and I was intent on doing things in a way that honoured language learning. Our team began to really dig into the essence of communication and this is when the fun began! We began to talk about the connection between strands. We looked at the developmental continuum of language attainment. We identified the importance of viewing and listening as precursors to reading. We looked at how representing thinking is a pre-writing strategy. We began to consider the importance of strength-based language learning. We asked how important it was that children use their strength in speaking, for example, to become better writers. We began to see how communication is interconnected and multi-modal. Identifying these connections began to make it impossible to think about ELA learning in terms of strands. Certainly, all strands are vital to overall language learning, but to separate them in order to assess and report something by strand began to seem forced and unauthentic.

So, we began to ask what all strands had in common. What do people do when they are speaking that is similar to when they are writing? What is essential about reading and listening and viewing? How do people become better at communicating in both the expressive and receptive areas? How do when know when they are getting better? Fortunately, these answers could be found in the renewed curriculum documents. After digging into the curriculum, other literature and engaging in learning experiences in classrooms, we realized that it wasn’t about which strand students were working with but about how the strands worked together to enhance communication. In essence, it was about seven key things: When Composing and Creating, it was about the strength and clarity of the Message they were communicating, how they Organized their thoughts, and the Language Choices (visual, auditory and written) they were making. When Comprehending and Responding, what mattered most were their understanding of the Ideas and Information in the text, their understanding of the Text Structures and Features and their ability to Respond to the text in meaningful and engaging ways. Lastly, it was about their ability to Assess and Reflect on their use of the learning strategies that allow them to become better communicators.

This was a revelation and, in the end, was the springboard for our decision regarding assessing and reporting in ELA. Instead of worrying about which strand each learning experience fit into, we could encourage students to embrace all things available to them (visual cues, sounds, graphic organizers) to become better expressive and receptive communicators. In our rubrics, we could focus on improving in the seven key areas, regardless of strand. We could use one strand as a “before” learning strategy for our work in another strand. We could invite students to make the connections that are so essential to language learning and so embedded in the world around them. “Strandification” forces us to separate communication into pieces that are unnatural in language learning. Yes, we should work within all six strands all the time. Yes, there are unique aspects to each strand. But no, we should not separate them in order to report on each separately. Our report card has a spot for Compose and Create and another for Comprehend and Respond. Our rubrics focus on the seven key elements. Now that we have that sorted out, we can focus on the business of improving learning!