Outdoor Education

My family and I went camping this summer as we have for several years now.  Seeing their joy from being in nature is a big reason we go. The kids explore trees they don’t normally see, rediscover insects in unusual places, and ride their bikes along dirty, winding paths that aren’t available to us at home. For many people, feelings of peace, connection, and fulfillment come from being in natural environments.  Even in our own cities, local parks offer trails, ravines, and other natural elements provide us those feelings that can’t be experienced inside the walls of our homes and our classrooms.

The current pandemic has forced school teams to rethink how educational opportunities can be offered to students; specifically outside the classroom. Many educators are exploring aspects of outdoor education and outdoor place-based learning.

There’s very little argument amongst parents or educators that getting people outside for fresh air and movement is good for physical and mental health; particularly for our friends who only have these opportunities through school. As educators, there is so much focus on in-school learning opportunities for academics, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole world (literally) of opportunity beyond those walls. Outdoor-based lessons and activities vary from primary to high-school, subject matter, and levels of student accessibility. The versatility of outdoor education means that it can be differentiated to meet each and any student at their entry point to learning.

Each class will have its own unique context (Ex. class composition, access to support staff, neighbourhood environment, barriers to learning, etc). I encourage all educators to take this on as you can. Start small. Pick one subject. One lesson. As the expert on your class’ context,  you can make informed decisions about when to start and how to start.

Embracing this, and other learning opportunities, is never easy. There will be a learning curve; some steeper than others. The benefits for our students can be worth it in the end; particularly for our students who may struggle with traditional, in-class instructional models.

I am getting more familiar with outdoor education and, like makerspaces and other ideas I’ve shared here, I’m hoping to introduce more parents and educators to them in hopes of sparking change in mindsets and practices.

My one and only student teacher (shout out to Keirsten) created a FANTASTIC two visit trip to Renfrew Ravine. Here’s a small glimpse of some of the activities:

  • Observe mosaics and A/B partner share
  • Sensation wake-up – Focus and being aware of senses
  • Eco-Art with leaves and rocks
    • Student work was captured electronically for follow-up activities
  • Meditation Walk – Students will focus on listening to what is around them and make visual representations of what they hear (in their outdoor education book)
  • Sound Mapping

Whether you’re starting small or going all-in, outdoor education is another great way to offer differentiated learning opportunities across many subjects that will engage students. Keep scrolling for some links to ideas and resources to get you started.

Good luck and be safe.

Links:

PBS – 5 Ways to Get Your Class to Explore the Outdoors (April 15, 2019)

BC SD27 (Cariboo – Chilcotin) – Outdoor Education Resources

Plant a Seed and See What Grows – Outdoor Educational Learning Resources

Forest School Canada – Forest and Nature School in Canada: A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning (June 2014)

Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network – Education Resources

Primary – Forest School Math Activities

The Outdoor Playbook

EdCan Network: Dr. Gillian Judson –  A Walking Curriculum (June 2, 2020)

MindShift (KQED) – Ben James: A Growing Demand for Wilderness Education May Widen Learning Inequality (September 16, 2020)

Edutopia – Laura Lee: With Safety in Mind, Schools Take Classes Outdoors (September 18, 2020)

Nature Natalie – How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School (Webinar)

Mind/Shift – Kara Newhouse – 5 Tips for Embracing Outdoor Learning in Any Setting (October 7, 2020)

Mind/Shift – Kara Newhouse – How Outdoor Learning Can Bring Curiosity and Connection to Education in Tough Times (October 6, 2020)

Sidewalk Math / Math Walks

Many of you have experienced this. You start reading about one thing and it leads you down a rabbit hole and you end up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

So my rabbit hole ending up here: Math Walks

KQED Mindshift had a story on sidewalk math.  The gist is parents and educators were using chalk to write math problems on sidewalks in their neighbourhoods and schools. Immediately the teacher in me saw the potential for student engagement from having math presented in this new format and location. I experimented with math journals last year as a classroom teacher and this is something that ties in the intended purposes of the journal; to foster brainstorming, revising their thinking if they get stuck or make a mistake, and collaborating with peers to share strategies and problem solve. All of this could be recorded in a journal. Consider having students write their ideas and answers next to the question and take pictures of it with a device. Now you have some formative assessment as well as digital evidence for online portfolios to share with parents. There is so much potential; especially for students who may struggle with math or written output or engagement inside a  classroom. When we change the parameters of how we deliver instruction and support, we create another opportunity for success.

Click on the links and give them a bit of your time. Of course, there is other rich content within them to lead you down your own rabbit hole. Good luck and see you on the other side.

Mindfulness and Minecraft

Just saw this. Haven’t listened to it yet but will hopefully update the post with reactions and reflections.

Teacher Win – Pokemon Cards for Visual Schedules

One of my children found this on their travels on the information super highway (for those of you who remember that name).

Unbeknownst to me, a student created a Pokemon card about himself and our class. I remember introducing my class to the Pokemon card generator online but never seeing this card. It was such a nice find.

This reminded me of one of the big successes I was part of this year. On a referral I was part, the school team and I were working on a visual system for a student. Off hand, I suggested creating a Pokemon-card visual system.  Simply put, the visual system would be used as a shape-of-the-day agenda co-decided between the student and the educators. To make the materials more subtle and engaging (student was intermediate and didn’t want his peers to see him using a visual), I mentioned using a Pokemon card generator.

The card would represent subjects (Ex. Social Studies, P.E.), items (Ex. binder, writing materials), and preferred activities / choices (Ex. iPad, sensory room). The cards would be put in card sleeves; the kind used for hockey cards. The pages would be kept in a binder; this would make it blend in with the school materials. As a school team, the educators decided how to set the pages to make it functional as a schedule.

I sent the link and didn’t think much more of it. A few weeks later I followed up about the student’s progress and, to my surprise, the teacher sent this:

I was speechless from amazement. The feedback from the educators was that the student was enthusiastic to use it. It was inevitable that his peers saw the binder of Pokemon cards and a lot of interest resulted about it once word got around. Eventually, he felt comfortable sharing it and it ended up being something that served as a shared interest between the student and his peers for positive interactions and friendship building opportunities.

It was so encouraging to be part of that process; seeing an idea I mentioned come to life and getting to work with educators who are so talented and motivated to support this student.

The link for the card generator I suggested is here: https://www.pokecard.net/

It’s free! Can’t go wrong with that.

Note: It also does “Magic: The Gathering” cards and “Yu-Gi-Oh” cards. Links are at the bottom of Pokecard website.

The cards can be personalized in many ways but not completely. Once you generate the card:

  1. Right-click on the card image and choose “Open Image in New Tab” from the menu.
  2. In the tab, right-click on the image and choose “Save image as.” Choose a name and directory for the image and save.

There are other generators online if this one doesn’t fit your needs. There are also other themed-card generators too (though some require payment).

This system is very time-heavy to set-up but I believe you’ll get the return from student engagement. I’m looking forward to trying this with other educators in the upcoming school year.

Making Space for Makerspaces

Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

If you’re a parent or educator, it probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard the word “makerspace.” You may picture robotics and computers. Some may picture pencils and sketches. Lego comes up often. Still, others may envision outdoor spaces with branches, rocks, and other natural elements. All of these are right and it speaks to the flexibility of makerspaces.

A makerspace has been described as, “… (A) collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.” (Link)

Another description is, “(A) room that contains tools and components, allowing people to enter with an idea and leave with a project.” (Link)

Yet another describes it as, “(N)ot solely a science lab, woodshop, computer lab or art room, but it may contain elements found in all of these familiar spaces. Therefore, it must be designed to accommodate a wide range of activities, tools and materials. Diversity and cross-pollination of activities are critical to the design, making and exploration process, and they are what set makerspaces and STEAM labs apart from single-use spaces.” (Link)

It’s clear that there is no single, consensus definition of what a makerspace is and I’d argue it doesn’t need one. In fact, that’s what makes them so valuable in providing learning opportunities (both in schools and out).

Makerspaces are creative spaces. They are invitations to possibility. They allow students to be creative, to design, and ultimately, to express themselves. They allow for expression of ideas and feelings.

Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

Typically, a makerspace is a designated space in a school (usually in a library or tech room) where students create a product. The set-up looks different from school-to-school, teacher-to-teacher, and year-to-year. Makerspaces are mentioned often in conjuction with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), STEAM (Same acronym with A for Arts), and STREAM (Same acronym with R for Reading). Yet, the design studio and product creation aspects are essential to any makerspace model.

My interest comes from my work in special education; particularly strategies and programs that are adaptable for student learning.  As educators, we should look beyond subjects and content to instruction models and learning opportunities. We need to look past the lack of funding, materials, and spaces; easier said than done but it’s not impossible. It’s more of a mind shift to focus on the potential and the possible.

I suggest we start looking at our students’ strengths. That we start looking at the materials  we have and the spaces we have; in the school building, outside of it, and in student homes. That we look at the potential gain instead of the perceived potential loss.

Makerspaces do not have to be limited to computers and tech-related topics.  Here is a brief list of instruction models, topics, and locations where makerspaces have been used in:

  • Outdoor education
  • Montessori
  • Visual Arts
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • Tiered interventions for supporting inclusion and behaviour practices
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Science
  • Social Studies

I am NOT an expert with makerspaces. With this blog, I’m hoping to explore strategies and models that can support ALL students to be successful. We can find new ways to engage students and provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their learning beyond pencil and paper.  I’m hoping to provide some detailed examples and suggestions on the blog in the future. There are many rich opportunities for using makerspaces to support learning.

Minecraft

Minecraft debuted in May 2009 and quickly became one of the biggest online games of recent memory.  As a sandbox game, “(Y)ou’re given free rein in a world where there is little or no plot to drive gameplay; the gameplay emerges from the tools and the world you’re in… the entire world is generated from scratch, and all you start with are your own two hands.” (TechCrunch, 2011) Microsoft released Education Edition in November 2016.

I had this on my radar as a tool to implement in my classroom learning opportunities. Many elementary students still play Minecraft and come with a strong knowledge base on crafting in this creative outlet. For me, I wanted to set up many of my students for success using their strengths and interests. I found it was so much easier to teach when my learning opportunities came from  strengths-based model.

I recognize the challenges many teachers would have in exploring and implementing this for classroom learning opportunities. If you’re interested in dipping your toe in, visit code.org (link below) to explore their online Minecraft coding games (no installation required). These games do not replicate the actual experience of playing Minecraft but it gives any adult whose unfamiliar with it a small glimpse into the game.

Would it be easy for an educator to make this happen without prior experience in game-based learning? No… but that doesn’t mean educators shouldn’t consider how the benefits to students would often outweigh the challenges (Ex. implementation).

Consider this: I’m pretty sure you could find students in your classroom who could help create lessons (Yes – help you create lessons. I said it!) and co-facilitate by modelling what to do and providing one-to-one support to peers. I’m confident that same of the students who would engage, and benefit the most from those opportunities to create lessons with you and co-facilitate, are the same ones labelled as disengaged or academically low or “struggle.” Consider that the goal of using Minecraft is to build soft skills like leadership and communication skills rather than coding.

Minecraft could be used for Social Studies (Ex. creating a neighbourhood to discuss what is needed in one to meet basic needs and wants [micro-focus] to a large scale ancient civilization where students create it based on a limited amount of tools / resources available to them [macro-focus]. For Science, students can build roller coasters to explore physics (True story – my kid did it last week).

There are some steps (and cost) to license the program for school-wide use but, as a teacher with an Office 365 account, I was able to download it and try it out. Otherwise, there’s this online “classic” version of Minecraft here. No installation required.

Microsoft has recently made more free education content available on the Education platform. For further information, please scroll down and click on the links below.

Common Sense Education describes its education value as such:

Minecraft: Education Edition builds on the creative potential of the original game to help enhance the learning process in virtually any subject area. From math (area and perimeter) to science (human anatomy) to history (the Roman Colosseum) and ELA (storytelling), the game empowers students to discover, create, experiment, and make mistakes through trial and error. The mix of the open-world game with added teacher controls opens up the door to a greater level of engagement when demonstrating higher order thinking; students are able to demonstrate what they know and can collaborate in a familiar, open setting, where they feel comfortable taking risks.

If those of you who may be interested, there are Youtube videos of people recreating parts of Vancouver in Minecraft. I’ve also seen a reasonably-priced book at Dollarama which shows different world-famous buildings and locations recreated in the game. You can also find several detailed books for coding with Minecraft on Amazon and through Scholastic.

Links:

Minecraft: Education Edition – Download the program.

Youtube: Minecraft Education Edition Channel – Helpful videos

2019 Recap of Minecraft Education Edition – the amazing work done through the game from around the world.

2019 Classroom Experience Updates

code.org: Minecraft – No downloading required. Not part of Education Edition but it does offering very beginning coding games for students. Great place to start and experiment with coding.

code.org: Star Wars – Yes. Same idea as Minecraft but Star Wars themed.

Make Code: Minecraft – making code for Minecraft Education Edition.

Common Sense Education – Minecraft Education Edition Review – I really enjoy and trust the work done by Common Sense Media (and Education).

Washington Post – Minecraft offers free education content for students stuck home due to coronavirus (Gene Park) (March 24, 2020).

 

Favourite Books: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

As a new parent, I rediscovered “Alexander…” when I was looking for books to read to my first-born child. I was quick to discover that many of the books my children enjoyed were great for classroom learning.

When I was a primary teacher, I embraced it as one of my go-to books for short novel studies.  My students enjoyed it as much as my children did. I find it’s a book that young children can connect to because they can related to Alexander’s experiences and feelings.

Classroom topics and activities include:

Judith Viorst’s “Alexander” series are great for kids and teachers. Other books in the series address saving & spending money, challenges of moving, and making good choices. I can’t recommend them enough.

Judith Viorst based the book on her actual son Alexander. If you want to know what happened to him, click here: Rachel Donadio –  Alexander, Mom, and the Very Messy Stay (New York Time) (October 25, 2007).