Key Considerations for Asking Questions as a
Field-Based Science Instruction
By Amos Pomp
We do not ask [questions] in a vacuum; what we ask, how, and when are all related.
– Bang et al., 2018
How can field-based science instructors be intentional with the questions we ask students?
As a graduate student and field-based environmental science instructor for 4th-6th graders in Washington State, I ask students questions all the time. Asking questions is an integral part of learning and doing science and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices. I believe that the questions I pose as an instructor have the power to either disengage or engage student groups in their learning processes. Thus, considering which questions I ask, and when, is a significant and nuanced part of my teaching practice.
Instructor-posed questions are an important, multifaceted part of effective pedagogy. Instructors should ask their students various types of questions and celebrate various types of answers. Instructors may ask questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge, check their understanding, help them figure out where there are gaps in their ideas, and help uncover ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed (Reiser et al., 2017). Instructors may also ask questions to “help students figure out and refine their own questions” (ibid.).
The way in which instructors ask questions and elicit answers is also important. If I only encourage spoken answers to my questions, I may send an implicit message that I only value verbal and vocal participation in my learning environments. If I only praise the ways in which one student’s artwork connects to my prompt, I’m implying that I prioritize some sensemaking over others’. If I only accept scientific names of plants as correct, I’m indicating what kinds of knowledge I deem acceptable.
Reflecting on this non-exhaustive list of reasons for asking questions, as well as the potential implications of how I solicit answers, has led me to be more intentional with the questions I do ask and how I ask them. I don’t just think about what I am asking my students; I also think about why I am asking it—for what purpose. I think about whom I am asking it to or for and what kind of responses I am expecting from my group. How can I engage them in their own sensemaking and synthesis, creative thinking, and science and engineering processes? To help plan for each new group of students I teach, I’ve developed a framework for how I consider the pedagogical purpose of my questions.
Reflecting on My Own Experience
At the beginning of the school year, my grad cohort and I had many discussions about what teaching and learning look like. From our conversations, we agreed on two key points. The first is that to us, successful field-based science instruction looks like guiding students in their own thinking, observing, and investigating. Rather than responding to students’ questions with an easy answer of my own, one of the routines I adapted early on was asking them, “What do you think?” Even when posed informally, asking students what they think and encouraging a genuine answer is a pedagogical move to redistribute power and agency by encouraging them to gather evidence and explain their own reasoning and learning.
The second point we agreed on is that masterful instructors learn from and alongside their students in processes of collaborative sensemaking. At first, I found this process came naturally. Being new to field-based science education in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy for me to respond to a student’s pointing at something and asking what it was or what was happening without giving them an easy answer. “I’m not sure, have you seen something like it before?” I would say, or “tell me what you notice about it and what it’s doing. Can we come up with three possible answers to your question?” Asking these questions positioned my students as experts on their own experiences and encouraged us to work together to learn about our environment.
As the school year has progressed and I’ve became more knowledgeable about the ecosystem I’m teaching in, I’ve noticed two things happening. In moments where I am doing new activities or teaching lessons in new ways, my questions have remained open-ended and genuine, like the above examples.
In other cases, however, I have found myself struggling to maintain nuanced intentionality in my question asking. Sometimes I notice myself asking students answer-seeking, or “known-answer,” questions—questions to which I already know the answer I’m looking for—because I want the group to reach a specific understanding about a topic based on my own knowledge or some third-party definition (Bransford et al., 2000). Other times, I’ll ask the group a question about an activity we just did and receive mostly blank stares in response. In these instances, I am probably asking the wrong questions and discouraging the divergent thinking, diverse forms of engagement, and collaborative sensemaking and synthesis I’m looking for.
Upon reflection, I decided to create a tool to help me make sure I ask students pedagogical questions with the intention they deserve.
Instructor-Posed Questions: A Framework
When thinking about how to intentionally ask a question to a group of students, here are some key considerations I take into account.
Assessing the state of the group
Before asking my students a pedagogical question, I assess the state of the group. This assessment can happen during planning or in the moment. I think about where the students are or will be physically, as well as what is or will be going on, when I plan to ask the question. Perhaps they would still be riled up after an activity, or they might need a snack. Perhaps a group discussion would not add any value to what’s already happened or could possibly even detract from the experience. Perhaps the group needs to hear the question then move to another location before answering to have time to think and discuss casually on the way. If I want the group to engage in some sort of collaborative sense-making, I do my best to ensure that the group is in a place where most of the students will be able to engage in the process in some way.
Allowing for different forms of student engagement
When I plan to ask a group of students a question, I then think about how I want them to answer. I can ask them to answer in written/drawn form, whole-group share-out, in small groups or a partner, just in their own heads, or some other way. I make this decision based on patterns of what I’ve seen work best for similar groups in similar situations in the past.
Once I’ve decided how I want students to answer my question, I find it’s best to give instructions before asking the question. For example, I might say, “You’re going to answer this question in your journal, and you can write, draw, write a poem or song, or even create a dance or found-material sculpture.” Then I ask the question and repeat the ways that students can answer.
Clarifying the goal or purpose of my question
For this section I’ll use an example wherein my goal is for students to think and learn about the role of photosynthesis in a plant’s life and the role plants play in ecosystems.
With my goal in mind, I could ask, “What does photosynthesis mean?” However, I would likely hear one student’s regurgitating a definition from a textbook, which does not necessarily indicate true learning or understanding. Also, if I ask such didactic questions multiple times to the same group, I often end up calling on the same students repeatedly—missing out on quieter voices—because they are the ones comfortable with sharing in such a way.
I would also refrain from asking, “Who can tell me what photosynthesis means?” This wording implies that it’s time for someone to win favor by being the one who can. It’s a challenge to see who can show off their knowledge, and it doesn’t help a group of students explain how photosynthesis works or why it matters.
Additionally, I don’t want to ask my question if I’m looking for a specific answer. I have to be open to students’ explaining photosynthesis in new ways or talking about other ways that plants get energy and contribute to ecosystems.
Asking a question
Instead of the examples above, I could ask my students, “How do plants get energy?” or “How can we describe a plant’s relationship to the sun?” These explanatory questions engage students in more diverse scientific practices than just naming and defining a chemical reaction (Reiser et al., 2017). If I’m having trouble getting students to move toward photosynthesis, I could ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word photosynthesis?” which I still find to elicit more open-ended responses than the original example.
Something else to consider is that if, for example, I’m teaching a group of students who have never been to a harbor like the one I bring them to for a lesson, any questions I ask the group about what role plants might have in the harbor ecosystem will not carry as much meaning for them if they do not first have a shared, relational experience with plants at the harbor (Reiser et al., 2017). If I can first facilitate a time for them to explore and observe plants at the harbor, then asking them about their own thoughts and questions about plants at the harbor will have much more success. I can also ask questions in ways that allow students to bring in past experiences with other beaches or plants in other ecosystems.
I am also aware while teaching that common lines of questioning in schools are rooted in the discursive patterns of white, middle-class, European Americans. One way that I can expand my question-asking practice is encouraging learners to investigate the “likeness between things” to draw in students who engage in more metaphorical learning by exploring analogies with the question, “What is photosynthesis like?” (Bransford et al., 2000). Robin Wall Kimmerer agrees: “asking questions about relations illuminates answers that true-false questions may not” (Bang et al., 2018).
Finally, I could also ask questions that help students evaluate their own learning or the learning process, like “how did you contribute to the group in the photosynthesis investigation?” or “how did that activity go for you?” rather than ones that assess what they learned (Rogoff et al., 2018). I would ask these latter questions to prioritize my goal of exciting students about science learning over ensuring that they learn any specific “facts” or “knowledge.”
Deciding not to ask a question
Sometimes, I move through my framework and decide I don’t need to ask the group a question. Instead, I’ll tell the group some of my own thoughts on the matter, or I might just transition to something else entirely. An example of the latter is that if I’m more interested in having my students explore something other than how photosynthesis works, rather than asking them what they know about photosynthesis, I could simply say, “Photosynthesis, which, for those who might not remember, is how plants create their own energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.”
Asking questions in field-based science education is a nuanced practice. The way instructors ask questions reveals to students both explicitly and implicitly what forms of participation they value, whose knowledge they prioritize, and what kinds of learning they deem acceptable. With a bit of intentionality, however, instructor-posed questions are the key to engaging students in collaborative sensemaking and synthesis, divergent thinking, and science and engineering processes of their own.
My mentors, Renée Comesotti and Dr. Priya Pugh
Bang, M., Marin, A., & Medin, D. (2018). If Indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Daedalus, 147(2), 148-159.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.
Reiser, B. J., Brody, L., Novak, M., Tipton, K., & Adams, L. (2017). Asking questions. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 87-108). NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association.
Rogoff, B., Callanan, M., Gutiérrez, K. D., & Erickson, F. (2016). The organization of informal learning. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 356-401.
Five 5th-grade students sit or stand facing a sunny pond surrounded by lush greenery, working on a writing task or exploring quietly. Photographed by Greyson Lee
Background Music and Birdsong: ADHD in the Outdoors
by Greyson Lee
After several hours of watching my dad bounce around his home auto shop, channeling restless energy into relentless productivity, he finally pauses to look up car parts long enough for me to catch a conversation with him.
I know by this point that my brother, diagnosed with ADHD before either of us can remember, was not the only one in the family with it. My dad hadn’t said the words before then, but when I bring up my own recent diagnosis, he seems to connect the dots to his own vague learning disability diagnosis from before the language was as common as it is today.
He reflects on a story I’d heard before: he’d been failing a math class in high school, so he and his mom fought for, and won, permission to snake earbuds through his hoodie. He could listen to music in one ear while the teacher lectured, and with this background stimulation humming below the teacher’s lectures, he suddenly felt like he could focus on and understand the content of the class.
Even today, my dad always has music on when he’s doing anything: I hear it in the morning when he’s getting ready for work, it’s always on in his car, it’s on when he gets home from work until he goes to bed, and he keeps it playing over the speakers at his station during his entire work day as well. For him, the background noise seems to be an essential tool in allowing him to function day-to-day with ADHD.
The one place my dad doesn’t seem to need his music, however, is outdoors.
It seems that any time students with ADHD come up in outdoor education, there’s a common refrain: “they do much better here”, and even, “you wouldn’t know they had ADHD if nobody told you”. Struggles in the classroom melt away in the outdoors. Some even note that their students with ADHD tend to thrive in an outdoor learning environment, often finding it even easier to engage than their peers do.
What is it about the outdoors that allows people with ADHD to focus so much better? And how can educators- formal and informal- lean into this phenomena?
Tired of Paying Attention
Environmental Psychologist Stephen Kaplan has proposed the theory of “directed attention”: the kind of attention we have to pay in certain situations, like listening to a lecture, in order to consciously control our focus. Directed attention is a choice and a skill, and it might look like tuning out distracting noises, or ignoring the impulse to check social media. The implication is that this conscious effort will eventually cause “attention fatigue”, making it more and more difficult to continue controlling one’s focus. (Clay, 2001)
In a 2004 study, survey results indicated that time spent outdoors led to reduced ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Their results suggest that green spaces are rich in fascination, the other side of Kaplan’s “attention fatigue” coin: a more natural and undirected form of attention that allows the mind to rest.
In an article for ADDitude Magazine, Dr. Ellen Littman dives into the complex battle between too much and too little stimulation that is often taking place in ADHD brains. Littman explains that in order for brains to be “alert, receptive, and ready to attend and learn”, they need to be stimulated just the right amount; a balance that most brains tend to be able to figure out on their own. (Littman, 2022)
ADHD brains, on the other hand, lack the “reliable coordination of neurotransmitters” that would otherwise allow them to control their own focus. Too little stimulation leads to a kind of boredom often described as “painful” by people with ADHD, and an intense motivation to find some kind of stimulation- often a spike in dopamine- to compensate. Too much stimulation, on the other hand, results in “over-arousal”: feeling overwhelmed, often suddenly, and reacting with irritability, restlessness, or even aggression until able to get away from the commotion and recuperate. (Littman, 2022)
ADHD brains are left either overreacting or under-reacting to stimuli, rarely anywhere in a more “moderate” area that might allow for some control over one’s ability to focus, be receptive, or to engage in learning.
Five 5th-grade students perched on small rocks lean over to watch their classmate pick a shore crab out of the water. Photographed by Greyson Lee
“Chill Lo-Fi Beats”: Regulating Input
A few years ago, a series of YouTube playlists and livestreams by the “Lofi Girl” channel garnered widespread popularity; I remember a few professors using them to fill the silence in the classroom while we worked on some assignment or project.
The appeal is similar to that of white noise machines, water features, and the fan you might leave on in your bedroom at night, even if it’s not too hot: silence can be just as distracting as too much noise. In a casual survey conducted by ADDitude Magazine, one respondent shared that background music helps them maintain focus on a particular thing; “when my environment is quiet,” they said, “my mind wanders to various things and not on what I need to be doing.” (ADDitude Editors, 2022)
Background noise can also be a way of drowning out too much stimulation; another respondent shared that soft, familiar background music “helps [them] focus by removing any background noise (dishwasher, washing machine, people outside or around [them]).” (ADDitude Editors, 2022) Other respondents reported that their need for background noise could vary depending on their task and situation; activities that require high focus might be better paired with silence or very soft music, and “tedious” activities that require less mental focus might be easier with something that distracts the brain.
Of course, everyone’s “ideal” balance of stimulation looks different- but background noise can be a helpful tool in finding it.
A student cradles a rough skinned newt in their hand, and several others reach toward the newt in shared fascination. Photographed by Greyson Lee
It isn’t revolutionary to note the lack of stimulation present in classrooms; in fact, this is openly a design goal. The idea is to lower distractions so students can focus on the only source of stimulation in the room: their teacher.
As a student with ADHD, I had few ways to regulate my balance of stimulation in the classroom. If I needed more stimulation, I could fidget or draw; if I needed less, I could try to go to the bathroom for a break. Oftentimes I just found myself staring glassy-eyed at a wall, my thoughts racing in directions I had no control over, while my teacher droned on pointlessly in the background.
Students are not “cured” of their ADHD when they walk outside, and I still find that certain students need longer transition times, more breaks, more responsive planning, or something to fidget with in order to engage as much as other students can.
But I rarely see those glassy-eyed stares when teaching outdoors, and why would I? There’s so much to look at outdoors, and hardly any walls to zone out onto. Students often fidget, wander, and move their bodies in ways I wouldn’t see in a classroom, but when I finish giving instructions and turn them loose, it’s clear they heard everything they needed to. And I hardly ever see a student need a break from our setting– there are no long bathroom breaks, walking laps elsewhere, or sitting in a hallway to soak in a bit of silence.
There are so many more opportunities for self-regulation outdoors, and the impact on students with ADHD is noticeable. How would their learning experiences be different, and their “academic success” impacted, if their teachers leaned into that?
- ADDitude Editors. (2022, May 20). Background Noise vs. Silence: ADHD Adults on Music & Focus. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/background-noise-sensitivity-adhd-music/
- Clay, R. A. (2001, April). Green is good for you. American Psychological Association, 32(4), 40. https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/greengood
- Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004, September). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Am J Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586. https://doi.org/10.2105%2Fajph.94.9.1580
- Littman, E. (2022, May 18). Brain Stimulation and ADHD / ADD: Cravings and Regulation. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/brain-stimulation-and-adhd-cravings-dependency-and-regulation/
Greyson Lee is an art and outdoor educator finishing his M.Ed at the University of Washington.
A New Tool: Land Acknowledgment Resource Cards (LARC)
by Grace Crowley-Thomas
Throughout Canada, New Zealand, and parts of the United States, educators and leaders are engaging in a practice called “land acknowledgment.” Generally, this is a practice that is meant to recognize and pay respects to the Indigenous people first who inhabited and stewarded the currently occupied land. As we know, Indigenous people have lived, and continue to live, in just about every part of the world. The goal of these cards is to help educators introduce and grow an understanding around land acknowledgments.
It is vital that educators recognize this as a starting point and that to pay true respect, action needs to accompany acknowledgement. These “each-one-teach-one” style cards can be used in a variety of ways and this article provides a few suggestions around how an educator might engage with them with learners. These cards are not necessarily intended to be used all together, rather as a resource for the educator to pick and choose what cards are most appropriate for their group. Some of the cards are more appropriate for certain maturity levels than others. While these cards are a resource, it is the responsibility of the educator to learn about the issues of the local tribe and build relationships. Acknowledgement alone is not enough, there must also be action. Without action, we are just being performative and tokenizing of Indigenous peoples and cultures. In what ways are we simultaneously decolonizing our practice? Our minds? Educators should use these cards as a jumping off point to dive further into Indigenous ways of knowing and being and issues that local nations are dealing with.
Possibilities for use:
- Learn more about Indigenous sovereignty
- Learn more about Indigenous treaty rights
- Use images to introduce Vi Hilbert, political cartoons, youth activism, Indigenous art
- Write the name of the original inhabitants of the land you are on
- Open discussion
Opportunities for Use
- Pass them out to students and have each person share something from their card. Prompts may include:
- Why are land acknowledgments important?
- What is something new you learned?
- Can you create your own land acknowledgment?
- If we were to create our own land acknowledgment, what would be important for us to consider?
- Choose specific cards that center the information you want to teach and present them to the group
- Pictures of Vi Hilbert
- Could be used in conjunction with a Suquamish basket lesson
- Discussion of Lushootseed language and dictionary. How does language live and die?
- Political cartoons
- Discuss what the artist is conveying
- Ask learners to make their own political cartoon
- Environmental issues
- Justice Issues
- Youth Issues
- Treaties and sovereignty
- Land acknowledgment examples
- What is a land acknowledgement?
- What are common components?
- What are some differences?
- Why is it important?
- Use the cards as each one teach one cards
- Create your own land acknowledgement with students
- Have students look at the artwork and form a discussion around them
- What patterns do you see?
- What shapes do you see?
- What do you think the artist is trying to tell us?
- Use the artwork and native land maps to have your students investigate and write the name of the ancestral lands you are on. Refer to this daily.
- Write the name of the tribes whose land you are on on the provided artwork
- Why would the artists make this work?
- Youth made this artwork
- ask about artwork that has a purpose
- Ask learners if they have ever made art with a message
- What was that message?
- Did they show anyone?
- How was it received?
- Share stories of youth activists of color
- Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster (words and profiles below are directly from Burton, N. (2019, October 11). Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/10/11/20904791/young-climate-activists-of-color.)
- Jamie Margolin, 17, is a first-generation daughter of a Colombian immigrant and the co-founder of the climate action organization Zero Hour. As a queer, Jewish, Latina climate activist, Margolin is committed to advocating for the most vulnerable communities. When you uplift Latinx voices in the climate movement, she says, you must also fight for Indigenous rights, including the biodiversity that those communities protect.
- Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, 12, became an activist on behalf of her hometown of Flint, Michigan, when she wrote then-President Barack Obama in 2016, asking him to do something about the water crisis. In Flint, mismanagement led to high levels of lead in the water. State officials estimate that almost 9,000 children in Flint under the age of 6 were exposed to high levels of lead. These children, including Copeny, are at risk of developing serious, long-term developmental and health problems as a result. “Flint is not unique,” Copeny tells Vox. “There are dozens of Flints across the country. Cases of environmental racism are on the rise and disproportionately affect communities of people of color and indigenous communities.” Flint is nearly 54 percent Black, with more than 41 percent of its residents living below the poverty level,
- Xiye Bastida, 17, was born and raised in San Pedro Tultepec, a town outside of Mexico City, where heavy rainfall and flooding were the norm. It gave her insight into how Indigenous communities are impacted by rising temperatures and environmental degradation. Bastida, who’s Otomi-Toltec from Mexico and now based in New York, says she brings “Indigenous knowledge and cosmology” to the conversation in the climate movement. “We don’t call water a resource; we call it a sacred element,” she says. “The relationship we have with everything that Earth offers, it’s about reciprocity. That’s the only way we are going to learn how to shift our culture from an extraction culture to a balanced and harmonious culture with the land.” Bastida skips school every Friday to protest at the United Nations as part of the Fridays for Future initiative founded by Thunberg. Bastida says it’s vitally necessary to keep Indigenous people at the forefront of the climate conversation.
- Ilsa Hirsi, 16, The daughter of a Somali-American refugee, Hirsi feels strongly about making room for more Muslim and Black youth to be leaders in the climate movement. “Creating more space for those with marginalized identities in the climate space is necessary for inclusive solutions,” she tells Vox. “Everyone should be able to see themselves in a movement like this, and if you don’t, then that’s reason to make this space more inclusive.” Hirsi also recently told Essence that the climate movement can’t afford to ignore the impact capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism have had on the climate. “The climate crisis is such a massive issue that everything is impacted by it … everything is intertwined in some way,” Hirsi said. She points to Indigenous-led protests against the Minnesota oil pipeline, Line 3, where the struggle against colonialism and the denigration of Native people can’t be separated from the pressing environmental issues.
#HonorNativeLand. U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. (2018). https://usdac.us/nativeland.
Burton, N. (2019, October 11). Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/10/11/20904791/young-climate-activists-of-color
Friedler, D. (2018, February 9). If You’re Not Indigenous, You Live on Stolen Land. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indigenous-land-acknowledgement-explained.
Land Acknowledgement. Duwamish Tribe. (2018). https://www.duwamishtribe.org/land-acknowledgement.
Grace is a current Master of Education candidate at University of Washington’s partnership with IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community Certification Program on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
he thought of talking trees conjures up images of the fantastical. Tolkien’s ents patrol the forest, Baum’s forest of fighting trees throws apples at Dorothy, and Marvel’s Groot guards the galaxy. Or, perhaps, we think of those who speak for the trees that cannot speak for themselves: Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, or the dryads of ancient mythology. But I would argue that all trees have a lot to say, if we are willing to listen.
Like all great storytellers, trees have an impressive hook. Each species, a different author, has different tales to tell. Throughout time, some people have listened to those stories, and translated them to a language we can understand. And trees also give us the stories the trees may not even know they are telling, the way a worn and coffee-stained paperback can tell of a voracious and messy reader. Students, lovers of stories oral, written, and visual, can learn from these giants of the forest.
IslandWood, a residential environmental education school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, markets itself to students as “a school in the woods.” On its surface, this imparts expectations of students while on campus. It is not camp, but a school, with all the implications of learning. But what about the second part? The woods as a term indicate the outdoor status of some classrooms, but also plants the idea very early on of the ubiquity of trees. Wood comes from trees, and woods come from trees. This school is where we learn among the trees. Students should be aware of that upfront.
These trees have a long story to tell our students, and the students are ready to listen. When the glaciers retreated from the Puget Sound area 10,000-12,000 years ago, in moved trees from present-day California. The seeds following the glacier’s retreat met an incredibly moist environment that was perfect for the establishment of gargantuan specimens. Even students with individuals of these giants near their school are unlikely to see them in such abundance, or in such a relatively untamed state, covered in moss and lichen.
Students’ chatter while clambering from buses onto IslandWood property is a good clue in to what familiarity they may have with the woods. Students will disembark the bus and are unable to tear their eyes away from the treetops. Audible oohs and ahhs promise for a week of wonder and exploration. Recently, a student walked through the arrival shelter and turned to a friend to say, “so I guess this is what the woods are.” The trees are our ambassadors to these students, and the story they tell is one of upwards growth.
At IslandWood, we teach of the “Big Five:” western red cedar, red alder, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and Douglas-fir.
The western red cedar is a favorite of many students. On species reference cards, some of the cultural uses are listed: canoe building and basket weaving feature prominently. This already provides a unique connection to place; on their website, the Suquamish tribe introduce themselves as “expert fisherman, canoe builders and basket weavers” (Suquamish Tribe, 2015). This is the identity they first relay to visitors, and one that many students have already been introduced to. To say “this is what the Suquamish used to make canoes and baskets” taps immediately into their understanding of native traditions.
The idea that people tended this land for livelihood before European settlers arrived is abstract for many students. While they may be taught the names of local tribes and heard some of the stories, touching a tree that contributed so heavily to their way of life provides a new experience. I taught a student that the Suquamish use the cedar bark for making clothing, and then heard them explain to a classmate that you can tell the bark is good for weaving because of the way it is stringy and long. The instructor provides one piece of information, and the student is able to gain a deeper understanding from interactions with the tree. The tree is telling the story of its cultural history by making itself so accessible to our young explorers.
A trend that students visiting IslandWood are quick to notice is that many of the red cedars are turning brown and losing leaves. This does not match well with what they have been taught about the definition of evergreen, and they struggle to reconcile reality and the trees. An investigation into why some red cedars are dying and others aren’t will lead students to the reality of climate change. The trees, so long-lived, cannot adapt the same way that other species can. When confronted with this reality, student groups come up with creative solutions, many offering to water the trees with their own drinking water. The trees, for those who listen, are sending out a plea and tell the story of human excess.
The red cedar also introduces students to the concept of sustainability and giving. Just as a dining hall might teach students to not waste food, the trees can show that wasting other resources is avoidable too. The roots, outer bark, inner bark, needles, and branches of trees all serve varied purposes, ensuring that none is discarded. The characteristic swooping lower branches of the tree, which resemble arms outstretched, relate to tradition. One Coast Salish tradition tells of the appearance of cedar tree at the spot when an incredibly selfless man died. IslandWood’s Great Hall has a cedar statue of Upper Skagit woman Vi Hilbert. The arms of the statue are similarly outstretched in welcome to those who enter the space for learning. The tree that gives its whole self to the people who need it sits with its branches outstretched as a welcome for more users.
When students learn the red cedar and later point it out on the trail, the swooping branches are most often cited as their point of identification. When asked what those branches remind them of, the first answer might be “the letter J,” but given some time, students arms will go out in an open gesture to mimic the tree. “It’s the tree of life,” they say, feeling connected to the history of that species.
The Douglas-fir tree, a mainstay of this ecosystem, is another favorite of students. While learning about the tree, students inevitably discover a cone on the ground, and pick it up, many questions having sprung forth in their minds. As trees that can grow over 300 feet tall with few lower branches, the opportunity to have a proxy for what goes on above our heads is incredible. The cones are unique to this tree, and tell a great story.
The cones have a two-tone property, as the seeds protrude beyond the scales of the cone. Tradition would tell that those lighter colored pieces are from a great fire that ravaged the land millennia ago. As the fire raged, animals fled, and the mouse ran to seek shelter. Unfortunately for the mouse, every tree it asked for help was worried for its own survival, unable to help the forest friend. When the mouse came upon the Douglas-fir, it opened up its cones and instructed entry; its lower branches would be above the heat of the fire, and its thick bark would protect it from the heat. The mouse and tree survived the fire, and the cones show a vestige of that encounter, as there appear to be little legs and a tail sticking out from every cone.
After hearing this story, students become experts on Douglas-fir identification. If their eyes are cast downwards, looking for signs of life on the trail, they see the cones and are reminded of the story they learned. If they are up, facing ahead and all around, they will see the thick bark that protected the tree. The stories reflect the nature again, and tree identification by means other than leaf recognition starts to be a possibility for students.
IslandWood property, once seized from the Suquamish, was the site of a major logging operation. Students see many trees and marvel at their size and age, but a hike to the harbor tells a different story of these trees. The trees that they have become familiar with are members of species that may live over one thousand years, but this space in particular is a reflection of its past. Blakely Harbor is the former site of what was “the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world” (Bainbridge Historical Museum, n.d.).
The site at the harbor is unmistakably the vestiges of a former factory of some sort. Some students come in aware of the logging history of the area, and they are reminded of that history by the remnant logs that stick upright out of the harbor, former supports for the mill infrastructure. Some students surmise that the wood, decaying, waterlogged, and now home to aquatic plants, are a forest that has been cut down. When presented with the uniformity of the timber, especially as compared to the forests at main campus, they are eventually reminded of some man-made structures, and then the history of the logging operation can be explored.
To many of these students, IslandWood is the pinnacle of wild. Yet this adventure shows the proclivity of some humans to extract natural resources past their sustainable harvest. The trees that remind the students to be sustainable and giving are the same species that were extracted, sent into the mill and out to be shipped to other parts of the country and the world for human consumption. The Douglas-firs that protected the mice from the fire were cut down and extracted, providing little habitat for any animals.
The average age of street trees in Seattle is 3 years (Brinkley, 2018). Students may understand trees can live to be hundreds of years old, but learning that Douglas-firs can live to be over one thousand years old makes their eyes light up with wonder. Even the relatively young trees on campus have been present for decades, watching the landscape change with the inhabitants. Coming to an outdoor learning facility where the trees reach hundreds of feet in the sky can instill a feeling no book or photo could. Let the trees greet our students with arms and branches wide open.
Marlie Belle Somers is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood, partnered with the University of Washington.
Remnants of the lumber mill docks at Blakely Harbor. Students use this as a clue while investigating what came before our campus stood on these grounds. Photo by Marlie Belle Somers.
Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (n.d.). Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town. Retrieved from http://bainbridgehistory.org/port-blakely-portrait-of-a-mill-town/
Brinkley, W. (2018, November 2). Urban Ecology. Lecture presented in Antioch University, Seattle.
Suquamish Tribe. (2015). History & Culture. Retrieved from https://suquamish.nsn.us/home/about-us/history-culture/
Brave with Braids
Empowering young female voices
By Jennifer Allen
uthor Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words have been echoing in my head recently; “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller, we say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’ ‘You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.’” Up until five years ago, I was that small girl. I strongly believed that I could not learn. I went through school without faith in my abilities in math or science, and history and language felt irrelevant. Fortunately, when I attended college, I met a few professors who provided me with life altering experiences, and my attitude towards learning completely changed. My new love of learning fueled my way through my undergraduate degree in education. After graduation, I spent three years teaching fifth grade science, hoping to inspire the same love of learning. Today, I am working towards my Masters in Science Education, somewhere I never dreamed I would be academically. I am a part of a unique program through the University of Washington called Education for Environment and Community at IslandWood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, WA. I take classes and teach students who come from the Seattle area and stay for nearly a week to learn about science, stewardship, and teamwork.
There is a stark difference between classroom teaching and where I am now. Breaking down the classroom walls and teaching in the natural world means that I get to spend my days exploring the forest, wetlands, and shoreline with students, looking for magical teaching moments and providing lessons in the context of the content. What I didn’t anticipate is how much I would miss building strong relationships with students over the course of a year. I miss watching their growth, coaching them through arguments they would get in with friends, and being a shoulder for them to cry on when things didn’t feel safe at home. During my first few weeks teaching at IslandWood, I contemplated if I was making any lasting impact in such a short time spent with the students. Just when I had decided that I could make a bigger difference elsewhere, I met a girl who changed my mind.
In my group that week were four girls, most of whom were incredibly soft-spoken, and five boys, most of whom were loud and opinionated. Where the boys scribbled down answers to reflection questions and quickly returned to exploring or joking around with each other, the girls took their time, answering thoughtfully and with perfect, petite handwriting. When a question was posed to the group, the boys were quick to raise their hands or shout out answers, while the girls either avoided eye contact or hesitantly put their hands in the air. It was troubling how quick the girls were to step back and let the spotlight shine on the boys of the group, and how happy the boys were to bask in it. This confidence gap became most apparent with Maddie*, a small girl in a bright pink raincoat with her hair pulled back in two neat braids.
The first time her confidence, or lack thereof, was brought to my attention was on our way down to Blakely Harbor, about a mile and a half away from IslandWood’s main campus. Each team member had a role to fill on our way down the hill. Maddie was a “Navigator” along with Nate*, a highly eloquent and confident boy. Maddie had communicated with me early on that she did not like to speak in front of groups of her peers, so when she volunteered to be a Navigator, I was delightfully surprised. Armed with their maps and a compass, they started to lead the way, as I walked a few strides behind them with the rest of the group. Nate’s friend Mateo*, an equally confident and even more outspoken boy, decided he would help the pair in finding their way to the harbor. We reached a split in the trail, the trio paused, and the two boys loudly proclaimed we needed to go to the left. Maddie disagreed quietly as the boys took off. She had an idea of which way to go with evidence to back it up, but did not have the confidence to share it with her male peers.
I was once a lot like Maddie. I lacked confidence in my ideas and in my ability to contribute them to a group. As I read Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap by Peggy Orenstein, I was frequently faced with memories of my past; my development as a young woman was reflected in the stories of many of the 8th grade girls with whom Orenstein spent time over the course of a year. I was reminded of my lack of confidence, my need to be well-liked, and my fear of making mistakes, especially in public. I was also reminded of many students from my three years in the classroom. Daily, it was made clear that there was a discrepancy between the boys and girls when it comes to academic self confidence. Orenstein described this accurately when she states, “For a girl, the passage into adolescence is not just marked by a menarche or a few new curves. It is marked by a loss of confidence in herself and her abilities, especially in math and science.” (1994, p. xx)
Troubled by the evidence of the confidence gap in my personal and professional experience as well as in my research, I reflected on how I got myself to graduate school coming from the days of making myself small and believing that I could not learn. I started to wonder where I gained my current, sometimes-wavering, but much higher sense of confidence. Slowly, I began to realize that my most influential moments were those spent outdoors. I found confidence deep on the rainforest floor, high up in the misty cloud forest, on the tops of frigid mountains, in the eyes of bats, and the flippers of sea turtles. It took until college for me to experience science in a way that was accessible, in a place we can all feel a connection: the natural world.
According to the Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation survey done in 2009, only 24% of the STEM careers in the United States are filled by women (2011). Women are underrepresented in these fields because we, as teachers and parents, fail to provide girls with an accessible science and math education. Giving girls a meaningful, natural, scientific experience at the prime time for their coming into womanhood will plant a seed that, with the right amount of nurturing, can grow into a gloriorious bloom of self love, determination, and confidence in science.
This started to become clear to me during my week with Maddie and her classmates. After several minutes of reluctance, she eventually spoke up about which way the harbor was. The boys finally listened to her and decided to try it out. When it was clear that they were leading us the correct way, Maddie beamed. I watched her closely throughout the week as she began to participate, get her hands dirty, and shamelessly and aggressively participate in science.
Her new confidence began to leak into other areas. When the boys were loudly playing the piano in the art studio the next day, I saw her staring longingly in their direction. “Can you play?” I asked. She nodded shyly, as if she knew what I was going to say next; “Let’s hear it!” After many shakes of her head and encouragement from me, including a reminder of the navigation event the day before, she agreed to play a song and blew us all away with the beautiful tune. The climax of the entire week came on the last night, when she sang a song all by herself in front of over 100 other students at community campfire. She was extraordinarily nervous and insistent that she wouldn’t end up performing. When she got on stage and started to sing, tears filled my eyes. Here was a young girl that came to IslandWood on Monday, reluctant to talk in front of her eight other group members, putting herself in one of the most vulnerable positions a fifth grader can be in. I watched Maddie steadily feel more comfortable with science as she engaged in hands-on, approachable activities and team building.
At IslandWood and in similar programs, there is a focus not only on the sciences, but on building a safe community. Between countless team building opportunities and honest and explicit discussions on kindness, empathy, and emotional and physical safety we create an environment that allows students to feel comfortable to take risks and make mistakes. This space allows girls to begin to engage scientifically, and Maddie is not the only girl in whom I have seen this growth.
More recently, I had a group of five girls and seven boys. Like Maddie’s group, most of the girls were timid to participate in discussions, and most of the boys had more to say than we had time to hear. On Tuesday morning, we had a discussion to debrief an activity called Each One Teach One, where each student takes turns teaching the other students about a plant found on IslandWood property. The students had a chance to reflect on the discussion questions beforehand by answering them in their field journals. The first question was, “What was it like to be a teacher?” The students were encouraged to call on each other and they did so by whose hand was up. Every student with their hand up had the chance to share. Five of the twelve students responded, with 100% of the responses coming from males. Not a single female raised her hand to contribute.
We focused a lot that week on team building and productive discussions, and it paid off. I watched as the girls gradually opened up more to each other, the group, and me. Our two navigators for our Wednesday Harbor trip were both females who started the week off not at all friends, but had their arms around each other’s shoulders by the time we go to the harbor. When we were exploring the nutrient cycle, it was mostly the girls who dug their hands deep into the compost and fearlessly breathed in the scent of decomposition. On Thursday morning before the students left, we had one last group discussion. I posed the question, “What can you do after IslandWood to continue practicing stewardship?” This time, there were 22 total student responses, 64% of which were from males (who made up 58% of the group) and 36% from females (who made up 42% of the group.) Every student responded verbally, and four students responded in writing. After they had left, I sat down to read the feedback the group had left for me. One of the questions was, “What was one thing I taught you?” Atari*, the most quiet of the girls, the one who needed the most encouragement to share her ideas, wrote, “You taught me that my voice matters.”
I have only been teaching at IslandWood for a short amount of time, but I have learned that I can make a difference in students’ lives in just four short days. I’ve seen many girls, and even some boys, go from keeping their eyes on the ground and standing aside to getting their hands dirty. I’ve seen them go from speaking in near whispers to getting excited about science. Seeing these incredible changes take place never fails to fill my heart. We need to teach boys to share the spotlight and encourage girls to shine. We need to provide an accessible science education for girls if we want to live in a society where all genders share the responsibility of caring for the environment and moving forward through the STEM fields.
Adichie, C.N. (2012, November). We should all be feminists [Video file]. Retrieved from
Beede, D. N., Julian, T. A., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., & Doms, M. E. (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation.
Orenstein, P., & American Association of University Women (1994). Schoolgirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap.
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.