Immersive Storytelling: A Reminder to Read to Your Students Outside
By Hannah Levy
Sitting amongst towering cedars as the sun treated us to the last bits of golden hour, our final field study day was coming to a close. We had a hard week, for many of my students, this was their first encounter with nature and first time away from home. The group had been struggling to work cohesively and accessing their focused attention had proved incredibly difficult. I wanted so dearly for my students to experience a moment of wonder. To capture a sense of magic and connection to our surroundings, if only fleeting. I had planned to read them a book in a nearby treehouse, but looking around realized I had no better classroom at that moment than the forest floor on which we sat.
“This is the ancient forest. This is the three-hundred-year-old tree, that grows in the ancient forest…” I read softly. Immediately, one of the students looking back and forth from the picture in the book to the tree before them blurts out, “Is that the 300-year-old-tree?” As we make our way through the story, we continue making connections. One student sees the gnarled roots jutting out before them, and asks “Are these roots?” Another recognizes the red cap of the Pileated Woodpecker that graces the page, “That’s the woodpecker I saw!” A Barred Owl winds its way into the story, just like the one we saw together on our first day in the field. A resounding “whoaaa” and “there’s our owl” makes its rounds. And finally, the most captivated question of all as we end the story,“…is this the ancient forest?”
As an emerging educator, moments like these still feel like unprecedented breakthroughs. I said goodbye to my students that day and reflected on the simple and poignant impact of our storytelling session. All this time, I had been pouring over how to craft lesson plans that inspired authentic connection and here, right under my nose, was one of the simplest and most powerful tools of all: immersive storytelling. In just a few short minutes of read aloud time we had accessed our collective curiosity, practiced information recall, and made connections about an ecological system. In outdoor education, where students are often thrust into an entirely new context, the familiar structure of classroom storytelling time had proved incredibly effective.
Today, a Google search for “immersive storytelling” will return results about the latest VR headset or educational video game. While these resources provide essential access for many students, it is critical we not forget the power of a nearby park, backyard, front porch, or garden bed. In my own lesson planning, I consider immersive stories to be books that reflect the setting, observations, and lived experiences of my students. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being absorbed by a book, as if the world around you has melted away and only you and its characters exist in that moment. This is the intention of incorporating immersive stories into outdoor education, to rouse a sensitive connection to our place, our learning, and our peers.
Here are eight easy strategies to craft an immersive storytelling experience with your own students in an outdoor setting (many of these tips can easily be adapted for classroom learning):
- Story selection
Select your stories based on real-life encounters, using primacy of experience to your advantage. Earlier in the week, I had planned to read students a story written from the perspective of a tree. However, after seeing the owl, I decided to select a book that I knew would offer connections to our week. Consider keeping a list of “immersive friendly” stories that reflect the settings in which you teach and the experiences your students may have at your outdoor education program.
- Preview the book
Preview the book on your own ahead of time by reading aloud to yourself. This will help you deliver the story more confidently later on and better enable you to use your voice to cue student attention if you know which plot elements are coming. Previewing also ensures the plotline does not contain any content that might be triggering to students with known trauma.
- Scaffold student observations
Build up the magic by weaving time for students to notice their surroundings throughout the day, share their wonders, and make claims. Prompt students with questions that you know are later answered in the story. When I plan to read students The Ancient Forest I subtly introduce observations of tree snags with holes from the Pileated Woodpecker, visit with a taxidermy Barred Owl (if we don’t encounter one in real life), and invite students to search for macroinvertebrates in the soil. All of these elements later appear in the story and by scaffolding our week with interactions with real elements from the story I intentionally build a more immersive experience for all students.
- Location, location, location
Scope out your location. Meet the needs of your group by scouting a few locations ahead of time. Is the space accessible to all students? Do you need to make any accommodations to ensure everyone is able to engage? If feasible, always allow for free explore time at your location as a strategy to both incite curiosity and ease any fears or unfamiliarities your students may have with the space.
- Meeting student needs
Think about context, how have you built up the moment? Are students aware that they will be having quiet listening time? Have they had time to advocate or and meet any needs they might have? If snack, water, or bathroom breaks are even remotely on the horizon consider taking them before you begin in order to mitigate distractions and discomfort. Immersive storying telling is highly dependent on everyone being included and feeling engaged. Design your session to meet any needed accommodations for english language learners or students with accessibility needs.
- Use grounding techniques as you begin
Grounding activities prompt reorientation to a present moment, often using sensory awareness strategies to cope with overwhelming feelings, anxiety, or, in the case with many outdoor education students, nervousness in a new place with different educators. Awareness of our sensory experiences are also an avenue for deeper connections with our surrounding environment. There are a few easy grounding prompts as you can use as you prepare to read: practicing mindful breath, feeling the temperature and breeze on our face, running dirt through our fingers, or listening and counting the number of sounds. Allow ample time for students to downcycle and re-regulate their focus. Adapt your grounding prompts to fit the sensory abilities of your students.
- Pacing is your friend
While the number of seconds that pass may be just the same, novel experiences seemingly expand our perception of time. Use this to your advantage with students. If possible, pick a book they have not yet encountered. Go slow, do not rush as you read. Set a pace that allows for students to engage in their observational skills as they listen. Model a sensory moment for them, for example, with my students we looked up into the trees, put our ears to the ground to listen for bugs, and felt the roots that surrounded our feet.
- Welcome questions and collaboration
Welcome questions from your students. Part of the immersive storytelling experience is to allow students to make. Field questions as you read without delving too deep into tangents. Use the characters and plotline of the story as opportunity for students to make science and real-life connections. If your group is comfortable reading aloud, consider using a pass and read style of read aloud to engage students further.
Booth Church, Ellen. “Teaching Techniques: Reading Aloud Artfully!” Scholastic Teachers, Scholastic, 2018, www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/teaching-techniques-reading-aloud-artfully/.
“Grounding Techniques.” Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Center, PEIRSAC, 2018, www.peirsac.org/peirsacui/er/educational_resources10.pdf.
Lindamood, Wesley. “Take Our Playbook: NPR’s Guide to Building Immersive Storytelling Projects.” NPR Training, National Public Radio, 25 June 2018, training.npr.org/digital/take-our-playbook-nprs-guide-to-building-immersive-storytelling-projects/.
Paul, Pamela, and Maria Russo. “How to Raise a Reader.” The New York Times Books, The NY Times, www.nytimes.com/guides/books/how-to-raise-a-reader.
Reed-Jones, Carol. The Tree in the Ancient Forest. DAWN Publications, 1995.
What Is Sensory Awareness. Sensory Awareness Foundation, 2018, sensoryawareness.org/about/.
Hannah Levy is a graduate student at the University of Washington, completing her Certificate in Education for Environment and Community at Islandwood.