Tag Archives: Nature

Nice To Just Be Outdoors

I have been thinking and writing a lot about nature and the outdoors lately. As I slumber through a post-trip funk, I just returned from Chiang Mai after six days of caving, trekking and rafting with kids, I can’t help but continue to reflect on how valuable those times outdoor are to learners and teachers. I have a mammoth post brewing about my recent trip, but I wanted to scratch out a quick post about a simple experiment from yesterday.

I was teaching my grade 7 BTC (Be The Change Class) and I had planned for students to share memorable experiences they have had in the outdoors. Trying to get the kids to realize that it is difficult to care about anything or to take any action if they don’t have actual experience with it, I wanted them to mine their own experiences for times when nature meant something. Armed with Sam Sherratt’s recent post, I wanted a way to build a bit of awe and wonder.

So often, we allow ourselves to over-think how to get kids to shift their perspective and feel curious. I realized that I did not have to plan some huge trip, or create an immense experience to show kids that we are surrounded by wonder. All we have to do is notice it, move amongst it by changing where we work and think and learn. I needed something quick and easy and different.

We have a small patch of green space on our campus (not enough for sure) but it is what we have so I worked with it. I took my class down to the grass and we shared our natural experiences beneath the shade of the trees, the floating clouds and the slightly damp and muddy ground.

Nothing earth-shattering, I know. But you should have see the excitement and ease with which the kids adjusted to this new environment. Read for yourself the affect of such a tiny shift of going outside to learn can have on a student’s day.

I think that going downstairs into the grassy area was not really something we normally do at school, so it was a different experience, but also really fun. It was exciting and surprising to hear everybody else’s stories about interacting with nature and also to share my stories too. A lot of people had stories where they had done similar things that i had done in the past and it was interesting to relate to them with my own experiences (such as interacting with dolphins, whale watching, drinking out of streams, snorkeling etc.) . Additionally it was really nice to just be outdoors and get a bit muddy, relax and just hang out with friends instead of being in the air con all day and working on our laptops like we usually are.

Today was a very different class because we went outside into nature and talk about our outdoor experiences.  I really liked it because I am more of an outdoor person and we got to talk and reflect about how we take nature for granted sometimes.  I found today’s lesson very relaxing, and was fun at the end when we got to chill and play tag. It really taught me how much fun you can have without our expensive things and how we should all help conserve the small amount of nature we still have.

Today in BTC we went outside to a green area, close to the gate where the buses go out. We sat in a circle in the grass, and talked about our experiences with nature, whether it was wildlife or not. I learned that a lot of us had really interesting encounters with nature especially in regard to wildlife. Several people had gotten close up to manta rays, others with lions, and even more to turtles. I recounted when my family and cousins went to Hawaii for a vacation when I was 5, and we were swimming in the ocean when my cousin spotted a green sea turtle. my cousin, brother, and I went over to the turtle and just started swimming along beside it. The turtle didn’t go away and we spent over an hour just swimming next to it. It was an amazing experience. We also talked about how living in an Urban area can cut off our connections to nature and how our senses get dull over a while if we don’t connect with nature. We also talked about how we don’t need aircon all the time, or the environment around us doesn’t have to be clean all the time.

We ended with a short lay in the sun and a quick game of tag. Next time you want to get kids excited about being outside, all you have to do is take them there. It is amazing what a little breeze, some mud, grass and a few clouds can do for a kid. Now I am left thinking about how can I authentically incorporate more experiences like this into what we do on a regular basis. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?


Ubiquitous Exposure

It is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination.


It is that time of year again. My favorite part of the year actually. Tomorrow, I will travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet my mentor group for five days of camping, caving, trekking, and rafting in the jungle. Like most years, I am ready for a week of disconnecting and really connecting with the kids I teach. I always look forward to getting my nature fix and spending time in my own head, free from the noise of everyday life and routines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of nature and the affect it has on learning when I criticized a Toys R Us commercial. And I have been thinking about the “ubiquitous exposure” to nature ever since. We have spent countless time and energy making sure that every kid who needs access to technology can have it. Through the implementations of 1-1 programs world wide, many students, like their adult counterparts, now use technology without even thinking about it. It has become part of what we do. And this is (can be) great.

What bothers me, however, is that we still are not thinking about a “Nature 1-1 program.” These types of outdoor trips are still an extension of what we do in schools. Even at a school like UWCSEA, where we are committed to the five elements of our learner profile

And Outdoor Education is valued equally with academics, it still feels like a trip like this, one that only happens once a year is only part of our student experience here at school. So how can we change that? Even as I write this, I am keenly aware that our school gives students so many opportunities to go on trips and participate in hands-on-activities. We are luckier than most. I also realize that I need to speak with our outdoor team and learn more about their curricular links to what the kids do on a daily basis. But I cannot help but think about how can people living in urban, technology rich environments make sure that our students are influenced by nature and the outdoors everyday? I am thinking of school gardens, maybe even chicken coups, or outdoor classrooms, regular camping trips closer to home, or weekend hikes to local parks. A school greenhouse or animal center. And how can we make all of these things a reality for all the students–  as part of what they do, instead of an opportunity for some kids who choose to take them on.

From my last post many teachers shared amazing stories of schools in Europe and other places committed to the concept of learning outside, and I love that idea. But how do we transform our schools to function in that way? How do we create schools that give students that ubiquitous exposure to nature? I know that my students will learn so much from the ten days they are in Chiang Mai. We will trek and suffer and feel discomfort, but I also know that we will grow in nearly every aspect of our profile. I just hope that we can continue those conversations and experience when we get back to the urban jungle and back to the daily grind of school.

I guess these are the kinds of things I will think about tomorrow as I feel my feet sink into the mud and the sun shine on my back. Or maybe not, maybe I will just enjoy the river and the fires and the conversations and the kids and our learning as we sleep beneath the stars and be grateful that at least we can go into the jungle once a year.


Toys R Us We Are Watching

I had a great day today. When I got home around four pm, I was feeling tired, in a way only the sun can bring about fatigue. I was calm and feeling content and peaceful. Getting out of the car, my kids were sweaty, hair wind-swept and their feet were dirty. They carried with them flowers they had found on the ground to give to mommy, who was at home recovering from a cold. In short, I was basking in the glory of a day well spent at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Bollywood Veggies. See for yourself:

As my children prepared for bedtime, someone in my network posted this article with a link to the following Toy R Us commercial.

I was immediately stewing in indignation. I tweeted a few angry tweets and shared the video clip on Facebook, but was left unsatisfied. I knew I would not be able to leave this alone until I wrote about it and explored why I was so upset.

I am lucky. I do not live in the US where my kids are constantly bombarded with TV ads. But I do still feel the effects of corporate bullying on our family’s collective psyche. And ads like this are more than just a cute way to get kids to buy toys. Ads like this are weapons used by consumer culture advocates to create a new generation of kids who are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and more and more obsessed with consuming corporate culture.As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to say something, do something when we see flagrant disregard for our own values in the face of this consumer attack.

It’s hard being a parent. I get it. I love the movies. I even love the toys. I occasionally shop at Toys R Us. I have two kids, how can I not? But at the end of the day, how far I allow my kids to be manipulated by this kind of garbage is up to me.

I sat Kaia down and showed her the commercial and asked her what she thought. She is seven. She mentioned that a trip to Toys R Us to get whatever she wanted sounded pretty cool. (She actually used the word amazing!) My rage was palpable.  But what about today, I asked. Didn’t you have fun? Would you rather spend time in the toy store or sitting under that fig tree we saw. (This tree was amazing by the way)

No, the farm was really cool. She said. It was fun seeing all the fruit trees and watching the Skinks in the mangroves. Ah, there it was satisfaction! The fact that kids love nature is no mystery. I can remember countless hours spent exploring western Marin county and Samuel P. Taylor Park. But like most things in their lives kids need our help to gain exposure to nature. I am beginning to wonder if addressing Nature Deficit Disorder is not a bigger problem than showing kids how to use iPads. Take a look:

Why are we not having regional conferences on how we can bolster our schools outdoor programs?  This problem with urbanization and distance from nature, seems to be a global problem. The thing that makes me so mad about the Toys R Us ad, is that it is hard enough getting kids to engage with nature without the not so covert corporate interference. But their tactics are nothing new:

So what now? Who cares? What do we do?

1. First step, should always be to talk to our kids! Our own children as well as the ones we teach. Show them the ads, talk to them about the messages, show them alternatives. Expose them not only to nature, but show them the contrast to the corporate culture that thrives on their disconnections from nature. I plan on showing this post and the videos to my Be The Change class first thing Monday. I suggest you do the same.

2. Take the kids outdoors. Embolden your outdoor ed programs. Take your kids outside and let them play and explore and get dirty. Teach them the names of plants and animals. Arrange field trips. Spend your weekends as a family in nature.

3. Speak up. Tweet, share, write about these companies and tell your friends to do the same. In this day and age of connectivity, it is audacious for  a company like Toys R Us to make an ad like this and not expect massive blow back. Show them that we are here and not happy about what they are teaching our children.

4. Boycott? Not sure on this one. I am not against toys. I remember the thrill of going to Toys R Us as a kid, and I see the value of toys (even corporate ones) I want my kids to be aware not shielded. I want them to notice and see the grotesque commercialism of some products and ideas versus other more Eco-friendly ones.  I want my kids to be able to enjoy a great day at the Nature Reserve and come home and play with  dolls they love. I know corporations only listen to the dollars and cents, but I would like to think that a powerful campaign could do more than not buying my kids toys. However, I will limit my shopping at stores like Toys R Us and try to find alternative stores that offer better toys.

5. Let’s make some posters and videos and projects to get kids excited about nature and share them amongst our schools. Student generated ones would be even best. I will ask some groups in my Be The Change course to take up this cause. I will share what they create.

I feel better! I had to get that off my chest. I wish you could have seen the look on my kids faces as they ran between cocoa and coffee trees barefoot today. As they saw a “real” scarecrow. Felt the humid heat and enjoyed the rain drops. Felt the mud between their feet and saw where bananas come from.

Sorry Toys R Us! I have never seen them look like that leaving one of your stores. It was a magical day. One that was much more exciting and memorable than wandering your florescently lit aisles looking at toys that try to show my kids how to be girls.

Would love to hear your thoughts! What are you doing as a parent or a teacher to get your kids exposure to nature? What project ideas do you have? How can we show Toys R Us that this type of message is unacceptable?


Young Grasshopper

We have been working on Haiku in my grade 6 Language B (low-language level students) class. I have been trying a new scaffolding assignment that I would like to share. Before I continue, let me state that I understand that poetry in general, and Haiku in particular, are best enjoyed alone and outside. Let me save you from your own argumentative voice, that is begging you to scream:

“What? Using computers to write Haikus? Get those kids outside and let them feel the nature!”

True. I agree, but I am dealing with grade six students who lack the vocabulary, the motivation, or the life experience to sit like the Buddha under a tree and see the universe in a dew drop. So I am using media and technology to help them get to that mental head space, by building their skills and knowledge of language. This assignment is not meant to replace authentic poetic experience, but to help students understand it, and hopefully by the end of the unit be able to write a decent Haiku after spending a meditative period outside with nothing but a scrap of paper, a pen or pencil, and the wisdom of a silent moment beneath a tree.

Let’s start with the nuts & bolts. We have been working with images all year. After their daily shoot assignment for our last unit on film, students should now be familiar with the basic idea of capturing a poetic moment through images. The hope is that making the jump to capturing a poetic moment  through text will not be too difficult. We have spoken a lot about how poetry is the art of of recognizing and naming the unnameable. We can do this through the lens of  a camera or through the power of language.

In addition to taking their own pictures, they have used Flickr and the pool of amazing Creative Commons photographs there to supplement their language, so it was with Flickr that we began.

I asked each student to find four Creative Commons pictures from Flickr that embrace and celebrate nature. Choose one from each season and try to include each element: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall + Earth, Water, Fire and Air. I thought these images would be conducive to Haiku later. They were reminded to cite each photo and keep track of the URLs for later use. This has become a habit I am proud of.

Next, I created a Google Presentation as a place to pool our images. This way, I could keep track of who was doing what and comment on their choices in one place. This also allowed them to see what types of photo their peers were choosing. They added their name and the URL of the image to each slide.

Then, they were asked to brainstorm a list of words that came to mind when looking at these images. I walked around and sat with kids to help the ones who were stuck. Next we did a quick lesson on parts of speech and discussed Nouns, Adjectives, and Verbs. I asked that they create a three-column table on the slide and separate their list into the correct part of speech. We discussed how most of them lacked verbs.

But there are no actions in nature? What can a tree do?

Ah young grasshopper, this is the soul of the Haiku! But I didn’t say anything yet. Next step, I asked that they find some synonyms for the adjectives. Take a look:

Yesterday, we began to discuss Haiku. We spoke about the 5-7-5 structure of the lines, syllables, and I gave them this format to get started:

  • First line- Describe an object or scene (Adjective +Noun)
  • Second line– Give this object or scene an action (Verb)
  • Third line– What is the lesson?

I have been impressed with the quality of images and words they have been using. As you can see, by using tech I was able to give these kids the skills and language they need to connect to Haiku. I hope that next week, we can leave the laptops behind and go outside to observe. I hope that we can sit near a flower, make a list of words, separate them into lists and begin to write. Better yet, I hope that they begin to see the Haiku hiding in their everyday lives.

In closing, we are hoping to create a class collection of Haiku to publish in a book and perhaps a short film in which students read their Haiku over the pictures with some sound effects. Will keep you posted.


Urban Dwelling Mammals

Despite the fact that I champion technology at my school. Despite the fact that I often write about and promote the use of technology in my personal and professional life. Despite the fact that I am presenting next week at a conference about how technology can help second language learners express themselves. Despite the fact that I encourage my daughter to feel comfortable with a camera and her way around a blog. Despite all of these things, or maybe because of these reasons I am often nervous about technology and the effects it has on all of us. We all should be.

I work at a 1:1 Apple school, and I am not gonna lie, I love it. I cannot ever imagine working in a non 1:1 environment again. My kids have instant access to any and all websites, we blog, we create music, art work, writing, videos, you name it; we are on fire. I have kids who barely utter a sound in class who can now share their learning and express themselves beautifully, but despite my comfort with the tools and success with my students I am weary of the cost of too much screen time. I am sure, by the end of this post, I will end up justifying much of what I say by claiming validity for both sides of the screened or disconnected life argument and cry that balance is key. Taking the balanced approach, however, is the easy way out, unless we look deeply at what this balance system looks like in the lives of our students.

I do not and have never believed in technology for it’s own sake. We have had that conversation too many times. It is the learning not the tools, blah, blah blah. I hope we can all agree that technology, connected learning and the use of multi-media to create new content is crucial to student learning. I am not here to argue for either side.  It is important, however, no matter which side of the debate we are on to slow down, douse ourselves with cold water and re-evaluate what exactly it is we are shouting. It is important to take a step back and consider all sides of our ideas. In the last few weeks, I have written often on the effects of social media on my personal psyche, and now I want to take a look at what hyper-connectedness and “screen” time can do for students.

This train of thought left the station after I read, Technology and Schools: Should We Add More or Pull the Plug?. I was very impressed by the final paragraph:

It is time to engage in a purposeful, reasoned debate about where we’re headed with the use of digital devices in the classroom. We recognize that there is tremendous value in technology and learning, and are by no means advocating abstinence. But we need to be cautious about plugging our kids in more, pushing them into an even greater dependence on electronics. We need balance that stems from understanding that more isn’t necessarily better.

So many times, we draw lines in the sand, and the use of technology in schools is no different. I never want to be seen as the Techie-teacher who is so enamored with my own ideas and philosophy that I am not willing to rethink what I am most passionate about. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

Criticize the tools you use and use the tools you criticize.

This quote hangs up in my room as a reminder that we owe it to our students to consider every angle when it comes to their future especially since we are all dealing in unknowns. We can claim that blogs help non-English speakers communicate in ways that were not possible before, but who is to say that my daughter’s affinity for my computer will not affect her attention span or interpersonal skills. We can claim that creating media rich content helps develop new literacies which allow students to interact with the world in new ways, but whose to say that staring at a screen seven hours a day will make it impossible for them to take a walk alone and contemplate the clouds.

I am always so saddened to see the students at our school constantly gathered around their laptops, not because I find what they are doing as time wasted, but because I do not think they have had a chance to get a taste of the other. In our global issues club we are working on a campaign for animal rights, but after a brief talk I realized that very few of these urban dwelling mammals have ever had an authentic experience with a wild animal, most not even with a domestic one. Who’s responsibility is it to make sure these kids run their hands through the soil or hike a mountain? Who will teach them to value nature and the simple sound of rain as it falls around them?

image by sean dreilinger

This post is running in circles a bit and that is fine with me. Maybe we can find some place to land in the comments. Let me try and squeeze out some kind of point. In between the typical, “computers are ruining our children” rhetoric, the article makes a few important claims that I would like to highlight and address:

Today’s kids are losing the ability to enjoy the sweet and mundane moments that are part and parcel of ordinary life. Most youngsters, if stuck waiting for a ride, cannot endure simply waiting: they whip out their cell phone to feed their insatiable need for stimulation. The tradition of playing outside after school to shake off the stagnation of sitting at a desk all day has been abandoned in favor of more sitting in front of the TV or computer, contributing to alarming obesity rates in children.

I know this is true because I see it in my students. I see it in my daughter. I sometimes see it in myself. For teachers who love tech and are using it is effectively, passionately, innovatively, those of us who claim that balance is important: what are we doing about it? We all know what we are doing to help students connect effectively, but how are we helping our students disconnect? I was thinking of introducing unplugged days, which would focus on reading, maybe drawing, playing acoustic music, singing in small groups, or just spending time alone drenched in silence. Maybe initiating yoga classes, nature walks around campus anything to slow life down to a manageable speed. I would love to hear your ideas about these or other ideas in the comments.

Now that I have read the article again several times, I am finding less there is less and less with which I agree. It makes some ridiculous claims like:

Increasing the use of technology in the classroom is like feeding our kids pop tarts and soda; it tastes good and they like it, but it doesn’t offer the nourishment they need.

I refuse to allow what I do in my classroom to be called a Pop-Tart. So please do not find flaws in the article. That is not what this post is about. I simply want to share thoughts on how we can help students see beyond their screens, so that when they are connected they can create more authentic and rich content.