by Zachary Zimmerman
Bainbridge Island, WA
s an outdoor educator, I often get sucked into the false binary that lessons are either fun or informative, that content must be sweetened with games, stories, and activities like applesauce for children’s medicine. But stories are one of the oldest forms of teaching known to humankind, and games and interactive activities help students interpret and internalize what they learn on trails, in classrooms, and at home. In this article, I invite you to stop apologizing for your content teaching and start weaving it into lesson sequences that include stories, games, writing activities, and more. Sequences can make your teaching practices more effective, more equitable, and yes, more fun.
Recently, I learned that teachers visiting Islandwood with their students were passing on the same feedback week after week: many of the lessons our instructors were teaching on ecosystems fell short because students didn’t fully understand what the word “ecosystem” meant. They might be able to give examples (“rainforest”) or describe them somewhat (“habitat”), but they were missing the definition and significance: communities of different living things that interact with each other and their physical habitats. An ecosystem isn’t just a place; it’s a dynamic arrangement of matter and energy; sunlight, water, and nutrients; life, death, and life again. Of course it needs some scaffolding
Because ecosystems are one of my favorite things to teach 5th graders, I took note immediately. Learning about ecosystems helps students understand the world in which they live, sets the stage for deeper sense-making outdoors, and aligns neatly with NGSS standards and cross-cutting concepts. Ecosystems are also teachers themselves, offering lessons on diversity, interdependence, resilience, and identity. When students see forests and intertidal zones as neighborhoods full of unique and diverse beings supporting each other through their mere existence, they may have an easier time valuing their own identities and thinking more about how they fit into their communities. To restate ecologically, they may discover their own niche.
As heady and enticing as these ideas are to me, I know that teaching for equity means letting go of preconceived notions of how students will use my lessons, and creating space and support for them to connect ideas presented in class to their own lives. It also means ensuring that all students are working from the same baseline of knowledge as they explore those more abstract spaces. In the past, I had equated “baseline” with “lecturing” and “lecturing” with “boring”, leading me to approach core content apologetically and half-heartedly.
To address my reluctance and reimagine content teaching as a part of, not apart from, the immersive fun and exploration that drew me to outdoor education, I started experimenting with lesson sequencing: using stories, activities, and games to bookend and contextualize core concepts. What started as an apologetic approach to content has proven an effective and equitable strategy for outdoor teaching that makes complex ideas like ecosystems meaningful, memorable, and fun. Below I outline a favorite lesson sequence on ecosystems that envelopes content with storytelling and modeling activities. But first, a few tips for developing your own sequences.
Mapping the core concepts you need to scaffold into a larger lesson can reveal where your content time will best be spent. In the ecosystem example below, I use worksheets to get all my students on the same page about producers, consumers, and decomposers: what they are, what they need, and how they relate to each other. Knowing which concepts I need to teach about can also help me select starting lessons that introduce relevant terms or relationships.
Know Your Audience
Are your students quiet or chatty? Do they like individual reflections, pair-shares, or large group discussions? Maybe a combination? Do they ask a lot of questions, or wait for you to give answers? Do any of your students have IEPs or 504 plans? What other accommodations might one or many students need to feel safe, comfortable, and ready to learn and participate? Consider these questions when thinking about your group and reflect on how they might impact your plan. Maybe you need to switch out that starting story for a running game; maybe that running game works equally well walking or sitting.
Find Your Flow
Once you know what information, structure, and supports your students need to reach their learning targets, think about an order of operations that makes sense for the spaces you’ll be teaching, your style, and the energy you expect. Thinking about biorhythms can be a helpful clue here – if you’re starting this module right after lunch, will students be more or less active than if you began your morning with it? There’s no perfect formula here, but Ben Greenwood’s Lesson Arc (Introduction, Exploration, Consolidation) provides helpful inspiration. Personally, I like to start with something engaging that models the ideas we’ll use and end with a game or reflective activity – again, this is where art meets science, so get creative.
Now that you have some ideas for sequencing lessons, let’s look at an example.
Lesson Sequence: Ecosystems and Interdependence
- Ecosystem worksheets (Islandwood journal is used in this example)
- Ecosystem cards (make your own or find publicly available regional sets like this one from Sierra Club British Columbia)
- Ball of string or twine
- Writing untensils
Lesson 1: Read The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer (read-along here
This is the story of a young boy who brings home a salamander to live in his room. As his mother continues to inquire about how the boy will care for the salamander (and eventually, to care for everything else he has added to his room in the process), students begin to see not only how different living things rely on each other, but the impacts of removing a more-than-human friend from its chosen home.
Additional discussion questions:
- How did the room change throughout the story?
- What else would you have changed?
- What relationships did you notice?
(Of course, any storybook of your choosing that describes habitats, food webs, nutrient/energy cycles, and interconnectivity will work – I just like this one!).
Lesson 2: Ecosystem Components and Definitions
Transitioning into the content component, begin by asking students if they have ever heard of the word “ecosystem” and what it means. While assessing answers, ask whether they saw an ecosystem in the story they heard. These discussions can help decenter the instructor as the holder of knowledge and assess potential leaders in your group.
Next, pass out worksheets/journals and give students 5-10 minutes to complete the assigned pages, encouraging them to quietly work alone or in small groups. Set clear expectations that they should do their best to fill out whatever they know, and that we’ll fill them out together as a group afterward.
Drawings from a student’s Islandwood journal. Mushrooms are depicted as decomposers, trees as producers, and squirrels as consumers. On the next page, sentence and word starters help students decode core definitions.
When students indicate that they are done, invite them back to a large group. Ask if anyone can give definitions of producers, consumers, and decomposers, or share examples that they drew or wrote in their journals. This helps individual students confirm or correct their answers without judgment and add test their knowledge by adding their own examples to the discussion. Talking through producer growth, animal consumption, and decomposition a few times helps reinforce how different inputs and outputs relate to the process and emphasizes its cyclical nature.
When students have completed their worksheets and all questions have been answered, move on to Lesson 3.
Lesson 3: Web of Life (adapted from Sierra Club British Columbia)
Because a full lesson plan is linked above, I focus here on ways that I consolidate knowledge from the above lessons, assess content learning, and prepare students to apply these new ideas to future exploration.
Pass out Web of Life cards to your students and save one for yourself. If you plan to introduce a new element later (e.g. birds migrating from habitat loss or new trees planted by conservationists), hold onto those cards.
As you pass out cards, ask students to take a moment and acquaint themselves with their element. Some questions you might ask:
- Are they a producer, decomposer, consumer, or something abiotic?
- What do they know about this element?
- What does this element need to thrive?
- What threatens it?
When students are ready, begin the lesson as described in the linked plan. Empower students to help correct or add to others’ ideas. For example, if a student assigned “worm” passes to “soil” and says, “I relat to soil because I eat it,” invite the group to discuss what they know about how worms relate to soil or how they get their energy (i.e. decomposition, which makes soil).
Once the web is fully developed, you can take this lesson in many directions, inviting students to consider what happens when one part of the web is removed or changed. When they can see that everything is connected, even indirectly, you’re ready to explore ecosystems!
Zachary Zimmerman (he/him) is an outdoor educator, teacher training facilitator, and insatiable problem-solver residing on the traditional Suquamish/Coast Salish land currently known as Bainbridge Island
5-LS2-1 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics | Next Generation Science Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://www.nextgenscience.org/pe/5-ls2-1-ecosystems-interactions-energy-and-dynamics
Greenwood, B. (n.d.). What is Lesson Sequencing and How Can it Save You Time? Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://blog.teamsatchel.com/what-is-lesson-sequencing-and-how-can-it-save-you-time
Mazer, Anne., & Johnson, S. (1994). The Salamander Room (1st Dragonfly Books ed.). Knopf
Sierra Club BC. (n.d.). Web of Life. Sierra Club BC. Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/Web-of-Life-Game.pdf
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.