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.
These students are checking out Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island, WA with sight, touch, hearing, and smell. Photo credit: Glassy, 2018
Adventure Hike to a Harbor:
Creating a space for all to engage with marine science
By Julia Glassy
I am currently a graduate student of University of Washington over on Bainbridge Island, WA at IslandWood, a non-profit outdoor education center. I am passionate about adventuring outdoors and marine science education. Interacting with the marine ecosystem allows people of all ages to explore a new ecosystem and grow an appreciation for all that ecosystem provides to the plants and animals who live there and for us, as humans.
What exactly is an adventure hike?
To some it may be walking somewhere with style or awe inspiring activities on the way to a location. While for others it may be getting in a car and driving to a location to check it out and explore. Lastly, an adventure hike could be riding a bus to go out and explore an outdoor space. To me, it is all of the above!
What might one do on adventure hike?
This all depends on the mode of transportation to a waterfront or shoreline and the age of the members going. Games you can play include wind storm (everyone needs to find a tree to hold onto or someone else if they are connected to a tree). Also flash flood (where everyone has to be on higher ground then the caller of the flood). Another game is “I-Spy” where you say “I spy with my little eye something that is blank” and you can fill in the blank. Talking as a group work too!
If in a car, then look out the window and take in the nature outside. Play a couple rounds of “I Spy” with all members in the car.
If on a bus, do what Ms. Frizzle does and make the adventure unique and exciting. Ms. Frizzle is a fictional charismatic 4th grade science teacher who takes her students on unique out-of-this-world field trips via her magic school bus.
Public transportation is an eco-friendly option to get to places that are a little farther away where walking is not an option. Also buses bring people together from all backgrounds, ages, cultures, and economic statuses. Taking a bus might not always be the most direct option, but it sure is the most fun as seen by Ms. Frizzle. It is okay to let the inner child out during these adventure hikes and explore in a new way. Aim for getting to the point of being comfortable with saying “We are on another one of Ms. Frizzle’s crazy class trips!” (Cole, 1995, p. 18). Take ownership over the adventure and be like Ms. Frizzle or like her students.
If visiting a shoreline is not feasible
Visiting your local aquarium:
They will have marine organisms that you can check out up close or hands-on. This hands-on experience is important for children of all ages in order to learn and understand similarities and differences among a variety of ecosystems.
Even if you do not have access locally to a marine or fresh water ecosystem that is okay! Books and films are good resources for learning more about an unfamiliar ecosystem. Reference books and documentaries can be purchased online or in store, but many of them can be checked out at your local library.
Getting more out of a visit to the shoreline
Get familiar with shore and ocean creatures and be a part of an investigation with children or adults you take to the harbor as an adventure hike or school field trip. Investigations do not follow the strict procedure of experiments, but instead are informal ways of wondering and discovering something. An investigation can be done in multiple ways, by taking in observations through sight, hearing, touch, or smell, and making guesses, and asking questions. Taking in observations through the different senses allows someone to become familiar with and gain a sense of place. With this new information, you can gain an appreciation for the place or item that was investigated.
Some books to refer to while familiarizing oneself with shore or ocean habitat depending on age are:
On the Beach (Smith and Howell, 2003)
Young Readers and Explorers:
In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails, and Salty Tails (Fredericks, 2002)
Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor (Cole, 1995)
Ocean (MacQuitty, 2000)
Seashore (Parker, 2000)
Shoreline (Taylor, 1993)
Beachcombers Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest (Sept, 1999)
Activities to do at a Harbor, Shoreline, or Beach
Free explorations are where someone takes a few minutes or longer of unstructured time to wander or explore a new space or ecosystem. This unstructured time can reduce all aged students’ distraction level and setup for other activities by allowing students to self-direct their investigations and learning. This is important because it allows students, children, and adults to build confidence, independence, and a greater understanding about the world around them.
Students at IslandWood’s School Overnight Program searching for crabs at Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island WA. Photo credit: Glassy, 2018
Crab-itats are a fun, hands-on way to explore and learn the important components that crabs need to survive and thrive. One way to make a crab-itat is to use natural materials from the beach you are on to make a habitat for the crabs found there (IslandWood Education Wiki, 2018). The logistics of this project are up to the person making the habitat, and the habitat could take many forms, and be made with several different natural items. Young students and adults can try to add abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) items to their habitat and then think and describe their reasoning behind the items they chose.
This process of thinking and then explaining the habitat they created allows for the connection to the survival needs of crabs. You can then relate this learning to any animal or plant in other ecosystems. Another important take away from this activity is for someone to gain a sense of place and appreciation for the beach environment. With this new appreciation the person will feel more inclined to take small steps or community action to help take care of the ecosystem so others can enjoy it too!
Step 1: Pick three different locations on the shoreline (ex: sand, rocks, and water’s edge).
Step 2: Make a table similar to this one:
|# of crabs found
Step 3: Count the number of crabs at each location. The number of trials is up to you.
Step 4: Calculate average of each location, if you have more than one trial. The average will give an area that crabs are more likely to be, providing evidence for a potential claim. Through this investigation, you can gain knowledge of the preferred habitat of the crabs in your area, make observations, form claims with evidence, and be like a scientist. Investigations are important because you can make them relatable or personal to you and then gain skills that you can use at school, work, or other aspects of your life. You can also look for and investigate sea stars, sea anemones, or snails depending on your personal interests and the beach location near you.
Finding something new to learn more about:
This is similar to free exploration, but instead each person or pair can find something they are interested in and use different tools to explore and learn about it. This includes using a Lummi Loupe (a domed magnifier), small containers, magnifying glasses, and/or reference books. For example, a group of fifth graders I was teaching were excited to go to Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island so I brought some small clear containers and some Lummi Loupes to the harbor. Some students were excited about barnacles so we picked up a rock with living, but closed up barnacles on it and put it in one of the containers with saltwater. While still at the beach we observed the barnacles in the container. Also the students used the Lummi Loupes to look at the barnacles up close. We then returned the rock to where we found it and put the saltwater back in Puget Sound. Using the different tools to learn something about the organisms through the use of the four senses (sight, smell, hear, and touch) and then referring to a guide to find out the name of the plant or animal allows for more comprehensive learning and understanding.
Common Animals and Plants Found At the Shoreline
Crabs: Shield-Backed Kelp Crab, Purple Shore Crab, many types of Hermit Crabs (Sept, 1999)
Sea Star: Leather Star, Pacific Blood Star, Purple Star, and many others (Sept, 1999)
Sea Anemones: Giant Green Anemone, Plumose Sea Anemone (Sept, 1999)
Barnacles: Thatched Barnacle, Acorn Barnacle, Goose Barnacle (Sept 1999)
Limpets: Rough Keyhole Limpet, Ribbed Limpet, and more (Sept, 1999)
Chitons: Gumboot Chiton, Woody Chiton, Cooper’s Chiton, and more (Sept, 1999)
Plants On or Near the Shore: Common Sea Lettuce, Bull Kelp, Iridescent Seaweed (Sept, 1999), and Pickleweed
Guidelines for Exploring At the Beach
- Gently roll a rock over to see what is underneath and then return to original state. The rock should be no bigger than the size of your head.
- Be cautious of picking up animals higher than your knee (that is a long way to fall)
- Have a blast exploring the beach and enjoy discovering and learning about something new
Julia Glassy is a current graduate student of University of Washington over on Bainbridge Island, WA at IslandWood. In addition to taking classes, she teaches 3rd through 6th graders who come over to IslandWood from their schools in the greater Seattle and Bainbridge Island area for four days as a part of the School Overnight Program.
Cole, J. (1995). The Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor. Littleton, MA: Sundance.
Cunningham, Jenny. (Ed.). (2017). IslandWood Field Journal. Bainbridge Island, WA: IslandWood.
Ecosystem in a Box. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2018, from https://wiki.islandwood.org/index.php?title=Ecosytem_in_a_Box
Glassy, Julia. (Photograph). (2018). Blakely Harbor, Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge Island, WA: IslandWood.
Fredericks, A. D. (2002). In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails, and Salty Tails. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications.
MacQuitty, M., Dr. (2000). Ocean. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Parker, S. (2000). Seashore. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Sept, J. D. (1999). The Beachcombers Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Pub.
Smith, A., & Howell, L. (2003). On the Beach. Tulsa, OK: EDC Publishing.
Taylor, B. (1993). Shoreline. London: Dorling Kindersley.
The Compassionate Educator:
Empathy and Environmental Education
common challenge in environmental education is working with students who feel disconnected from their environment. This disconnection not only impedes a student’s ability to understand how natural systems function, it also affects how they value the natural world. This is caused not necessarily from lack of education, but the lack of focus on types of learning that build social-emotional skills in students.
Environmental work is inherently about responding to the needs of a changing planet. Environmental education must also continually focus on responding to the needs of our students so that they can grow to do the same for others. The study of nature is the study of relationships, and we would be wise to include ourselves in that definition, and perhaps even more importantly, those around us.
Author and educator Joseph Cornell shares that, “Our enjoyment and appreciation of life depends on our ability to sense feelings of other creatures, escaping our self-definitions to taste the joy of self-forgetful empathy with others” (Cornell, 1998, p.33). If young people are not well practiced in putting themselves into perspectives outside of their normal selves, how can they be expected to understand and care for the natural world?
Through my own reflections and experience as a field instructor at Islandwood, “a school in the woods”, located in Washington state, I have witnessed the value of being able to take on other perspectives. By adopting new points of view, we are better able to make informed and meaningful connections with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. As educators, the opportunites we provide our students largely do not come from the knowledge we can impart, rather our ability to engage students in experiences that speak to where they are coming from in life. To teach in this way, we must be willing to step out of our own experience from time to time and into the experiences of others in our community. Fortunately, with practice and thoughtful action, empathy can be used to increase the impact of our teaching.
In Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, the authors describe a progression toward empathy that begins as students learn to recognize and express their own needs. “Over time and with your encouragement, they will go beyond asserting their needs into taking responsibility for them and being proactive about them” (Young, Haas, and McGown, 2010, p. 268). This growing sense of responsibility might be observed in simple acts, like noticing a student plan ahead by bringing warm and dry clothing. It might be a student who articulates that they are uncomfortable with a certain aspect of an activity and opens a conversation to plan an alternative.
Young, et al. go on to describe how this behavior often expands into a greater awareness of others and tending to their needs as well (2010). I have witnessed this progression in my students as I see them begin to speak up for each other. Students also feel more comfortable affirming the positive attributes that their peers bring to the group, and begin to feel a sense of comradery and pride with group identity.
“This same tending sensibility will also show itself as care for the natural world -and especially one’s own native romping grounds” (Young, et al., 2010, p. 268). In watching how self-care can grow into caring for others, it’s easy to imagine this expanding beyond just people and encompassing the environment as well. Developing a sense of place begins when a person starts to have deeper familiarity with their surroundings, and ultimately begins to feel at home where they are. Feeling a sense belonging is a true testament to the number and quality of the relationships built.
Helping Students to Cultivate Empathy
An important way to help a group of students begin to see from perspectives other than their own is by helping each individual realize the interconnectedness present within a community. One way to encourage this sense of interpersonal connection is by engaging them in team-building challenges. Of course there are millions of activities that achieve this—I’ve seen wonders happen when I challenge group of ten students to transport themselves 25 feet across an expanse of “shark-infested hot lava” using only four foam seat-pads as stepping stones. They become invested in a successful outcome for the group and along the way, they discover the role that each person plays and how they can more carefully and effectively communicate with one another.
These types of play-based collaborations have helped groups of students with intense trust and interpersonal challenges to become significantly more community-minded and thoughtful of each other’s needs. Sometimes, we must recognize that there is more work than can be achieved in our time together with students, but we must not let that stop us from trying.
One of my favorite activities to facilitate with students to dive even deeper into empathy is to engage them in storytelling from the perspective of a non-human element of the natural world. Students get to create their own narrative, which could be a short story, poem, or comic about any living or nonliving component found in our place.
One memorable story came from a student who, after having trouble coming up with ideas for his story, eventually wrote a beautiful piece about a plant he had learned about earlier in the day, the Evergreen Huckleberry:
One time there was [an] Evergreen Huckleberry. People and animals came every second to take the berry. A bird comes and make a house out of you, but the evergreen huckleberry can’t do nothing. So every time it grows [berries], people or animals take it. The tree was mad…because they were eating its berry. It [wanted] revenge and a 10-year-old kid came and said, ‘Stop, we were not hurting you, we were only [taking] berries because it taste good and we take out the seeds and grow another tree. No big deal.’”
Another student wrote from the perspective of a Salal plant that lives through the challenges of each season and ultimately feels unwanted by the other members of the forest community. She wrote,
“A small blueberry tree [looked] at me and said, ‘Salal you are great just like you are. You don’t need to be bigger and we need you. We need you, like you have very [delicious] and sweet [berries] and animals need you. Look, the [deer] needs you for your [berries].’ Salal said ‘Cool, I’m special.’”
In both of these stories, students are demonstrating their understanding of ecological relationships but also have some compelling themes of personal struggle. Both stories have moments when the main character is feeling underappreciated until another member of the community shows them they are valued. People of all ages struggle with self-confidence or feeling like an outsider. These stories illustrate how students can identify threads of connection across boundaries. This helps them develop new interpretations of environmental relationships andf also interpersonal relationships.
Another strength of perspective storytelling is that it helps students to view the natural world through a creative lens, and allows them to do so on their own terms and in their preferred medium. The perspective storytelling activity I shared with my students involved writing, but perspective storytelling can be done with singing, rapping, dancing, acting, or any other interpretation. By giving them flexibility in how they complete the activity, students will be more successful in reaching the goals of connecting with place and practicing empathy.
Showing Students We Care
Environmental and outdoor education inherently provides experiences that are new and often uncomfortable for students. Some students have spent very little time outdoors, some are away from their families for the first time, and some are working with people they don’t know very well. It is a vulnerable time for many, and often students’ interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges are placed secondary to content. The best way we can teach empathy is by practicing it ourselves.
I frequently encounter students with anxiety from being away from home. It is incredibly difficult for a student to experience the wonders of nature when they are in tears and sick to their stomach from being anxious. I approach these students by thinking about where I was at 10 years old. I remember being at outdoor school being unable to sleep, staying up at night crying, and feeling so alone in my discomfort. By stepping into the shoes of my 10-year-old self, I am better able to help students feel like they are being heard and help them persist through their challenges. I acknowledge the difficulty and pain, but remind them of the ways in which I’ve watched them succeed during our time together.
Being empathetic toward students also helps us as educators be more responsive to diverse groups of students. Something as seemingly straightforward as writing in a nature journal may cause great stress for an English Language Learner or a student with different learning abilities. It’s important for us to assess how we are connecting with our students, because it ultimately affects how they will be able to connect with the natural world
Many educators feel constrained when their curricula is focused on meeting state and national achievement standards. Some may not realize that NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) was designed to improve the equity of science education and serve diverse populations and learners (Quinn, 2015). At its core, NGSS help students explore concepts that are applicable across many different scales and subjects.
It is precisely this adaptability to a broad range of learners that demonstrates how integral empathy is in science teaching. An important tenet of NGSS is to create an environment where students feel at home and are “welcomed as full members, and invited to share their ideas and participate fully” (Quinn, 2015, p. 16). Reaching this place of comfort will happen after learning to be appropriately responsive to the needs of the students. Getting there could be as simple as providing opportunities for movement within lessons, inviting them to incorporate personal or family stories as part of the activity, or by keeping the focus on experience rather than outcome.
Making content more relevant to student lives can help concepts feel less abstract and more tangible. Kathy Liu Sun (2017) suggests incorporating guests to share their perspective and speak from experience. Hearing from voices that students can identify with helps add personal meaning and relevance. When learning is rooted in the experiences of real people and real places, students will recognize the authenticity and be more able to make connections back to themselves, their families, and their communities.
In her 2012 novel, Wonder, R.J. Palacio writes, “It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend” (p. 312). I interpret this to mean that we can treat others with kindness, but it means little if we are not working towards creating a meaningful relationship. In environmental education, we must prioritize relationship-building if we are to truly show that we care for future generations and the planet. By being present and attentive to student needs, we can help them cultivate a rich and meaningful connection to nature. By helping create these relationships, we are helping to create a future where people are fully invested in and advocate for the wellbeing of their natural and human communities.
Tom Stonehocker is a naturalist, graduate student, and field instructor who works with 4th & 5th-grade students at Islandwood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Cornell, Joseph. (1998) Sharing Nature With Children. Nevada City, CA: DAWN Publications
Palacio, R. J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Knopf
Quinn, Helen. (2015) Science and Engineering Practices for Equity. In NGSS for All (pp.7-18). Arlington, VA: NSTA
Sun, Kathy Liu. (2017) The Importance of Cultivating Empathy in STEM Education. In Science Scope. April/May. Pp. 6-8.
Young, J., Haas, E., and McGown, E. (2010) Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Shelton, WA: OWLink Media.