50 Ways to Wonder: Have Outdoor Hour.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

In an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

10. Have Outdoor Hour in your schedule.

There has been lots of media coverage on the benefits of children spending time in nature. A recent article in the Atlantic that fills me with joy, called Kindergarten, Naturally, describes a “forest kindergarten” in Finland where students spend 80% of their day outdoors. Now, being a public school teacher in the U.S., this isn’t a plausible goal for my classroom. Most schools don’t have access to rolling acres of forest and hills that are walkable from their building. I am lucky enough to teach at a place that has a school forest (albeit a “mini” one in the courtyard), but I still can’t get through everything I need to teach if I spent 80% of my time out there.

Forest Friday in the classroom

I can, however, afford to dedicate one hour a week to learning outdoors. I’m calling it “Forest Friday,” and it’ll be at the end of the day on Friday (when my students’ already-short ability to concentrate on indoor tasks has plummeted). Every Friday, for one hour, we’ll go outside to do whatever it is we need to do that day – a science lesson, a math lesson, a Readers Workshop. It’s not going to be play time (although there’s nothing wrong with that); it’ll be Explore time or Reading time or Writing time. Of course, we’ll talk about the rules for learning outside, so it doesn’t become a distraction-fest. And I know it’ll be a learning curve for me (How do I bring all these bookboxes outside? What if the kids need to go to the bathroom?). But I really believe it’ll be beneficial for my students.

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I’ve been telling parents about my plan for Forest Friday, and also telling my students. They’re really excited about it, and we had our first one yesterday (even though it started to rain so we didn’t make it to a whole hour). I told the families and students so I could hold myself accountable, since I know it’s so easy to lose motivation when you have so many other things on your mind. But this is one I want to remain committed to, because kids deserve the chance to learn outdoors.

It’s a small step, but I’m all about small steps towards bringing joy and wonder back to the classroom.

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Education for Sustainability: a bit more on what it means

Education for Sustainability

A few days ago I shared with you my definition of Education for Sustainability (EFS). Of course, EFS can look like different things to different people, depending on who, what and where you teach. But in general, it’s a whole new way of looking at how we teach. As the Sustainable Schools Project puts it, EFS is learning that links knowledge, inquiry and action to help students build a healthy future for their communities and the planet.

Here are a few more ways to describe Education for Sustainability.

EFS 1

Education for Sustainability is place-based.

  • Many districts (including my own) ask teachers to use prescribed curricular programs, written and sold by companies far removed from local classrooms. While these curricula are often research-based, they can leave both students and teachers bored and unchallenged.  Teachers approach their subject by saying: “on Day 1, we will do this; on Day 2, we will do this,” no matter what their students seem to need.
  • In contrast, EFS asks teachers to approach their subject by saying: “What is happening in our classroom or community? Can I use any of it to meet learning standards and benchmarks?”
  • Here’s an example. My reading curriculum has as one of its benchmarks “Great readers ask questions as they read.” It then asks the teacher to read aloud the book Baby Talk by Joy Cowley. This is a book about animal babies of all kinds. Instead of teaching this book automatically, I could make note of what students have been wondering and discussing in the classroom lately. Have kids been asking about why the leaves are falling? Find a book on why trees lose their leaves, and use this to stimulate questions as we read.
  • Teachers can look at what is going on in their wider community as well, and listen to students’ conversations to help determine where to steer their lessons.

EFS 2

Education for Sustainability integrates the curriculum.

  • One of the biggest take-aways I got from the EFS Institute was the importance of having a wider theme that threads throughout your entire curriculum. Research supports integrated instruction. It’s better for students’ brains and their interest level.
  • A de-emphasis on having separate times for social studies, science, math, and reading makes sense. In the world outside of school, whose job requires an employee to do math for 45 minutes, then completely stop what they are doing and switch into reading mode? This isn’t how students will think and learn when they are out of school, and it shouldn’t be how we teach them in school.
  • To tie your curriculum together, the EFS Institute suggested that teachers come up with a “Big Idea” that threads throughout the year. Here is a list of Big Ideas that relate to sustainability. Having a Big Idea will give meaning and purpose to your curriculum. It will make sure that everything you teach is related in some way to the bigger idea of sustainability and understanding one aspect of how the world works.
  • Here’s an example. Let’s say you decide that your Big Idea is Cycles, because you want your students to really grasp the idea that every organism/system goes through different stages. From here on out, every time you begin a unit or delve into a lesson, you can start by saying “How will this help them learn more about cycles?”

EFS 3

Education for Sustainability empowers students (in several ways).

  • First, it encourages students to ask questions. When you are not stuck to a prescribed set of activities, you can really listen to kids’ questions and use them to steer your teaching. If kids are really interested in where water goes after you flush the toilet, you can use this curiosity to delve into understanding our water supply. If kids are really interested in why some families are homeless, you can use this momentum to explore the root causes of poverty.
  • Second, it helps them understand how the world around them works. Because Education for Sustainability asks students and teachers to look at what is going on in their community, they will leave these investigations with just that – a better understanding of their community. For kindergarten, this might be a better understanding of their classroom and how to be a good friend. For fifth grade, it might be an awareness of how climate change is affecting their city’s food supply. For high school, it might be knowledge of how the country’s political system.
  • And last, it teaches students that they can make a difference. Instead of just learning about problems in the world, EFS asks teachers and students to come up with solutions for these problems. Instead of just tallying the number of cars idling in the parking lot, it asks students to put up signs reminding drivers to turn their cars off when not in use. Instead of just discussing the number of homeless people on the street, it asks classrooms to raise money for local homeless shelters.

Now I know that is a lot of information. But hopefully it gives you a slightly better understanding of Education for Sustainability. The Sustainable Schools Project has TONS of great resources, including some curricular examples, if you want to read more.

And while all this is really exciting, I know there are lots of teachers who will say “But my district requires me to teach exactly what is in our teacher manuals.” Have no fear. As a teacher from just such a district, I’ll talk next time about how I am going to implement these huge and amazing ideas into my classroom – one tiny, manageable step at a time.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Use science journals

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

2. Use science journals

Science journals are a cheap and easy way to give your students somewhere to write down all their questions, observations, and thoughts about the world, without you having to manage lots of papers or activities. I just bought cheap notebooks and used rubber cement to glue these covers on the front. They have lasted all year. You can have students use science journals for all kinds of science-related activities, including:

  • making KWL charts at the beginning of a unit
  • recording observations about animals or plants
  • drawing what they see on a nature walk
  • writing down questions they have
  • recording results from science experiments
  • writing new facts from non-fiction books
  • reflecting on what they learned at the end of a unit

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I keep my students’ science journals where they can easily access them , and encourage them to use them however they see fit! Some teachers do very involved science journaling, which I admire and wish I had time for! I keep it simple, though, and basically use them for my students to record what they observe about the world.

Here are some places to find more info on science journaling (also called science notebooks).

The Science Penguin
Science Notebooking
Kristen’s Kindergarten
Little Miss Hypothesis
Kindergarten Kindergarten

Making room for joy and wonder in the classroom

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As a kindergarten teacher, I find that most people are surprised when I tell them how much is expected of five-year-olds these days. Most of us remember kindergarten as a place for coloring, playing with playdough, and taking naps. The majority of our time was spent running around the recess playground and learning how to make new friends.

Nowadays, the majority of time in kindergarten is spent in academic pursuit. In one seven-hour day, my kindergarteners get exactly 20 minutes of free play and 20 minutes of rest time. That is 40 minutes of unstructured play, out of 420 minutes, each day. The rest of the time is spent on academics – reading, writing, phonics, spelling, math, computer, library, music, art, gym, and a small bit on science and social studies. (That doesn’t include 20 minutes for lunch and 40 minutes for recess each day – but lunch and recess are a chaotic whirl of overcrowded, yelling groups of children, which hardly counts as downtime for a kid.)

While I am a firm believer in the importance of learning throughout the day (I am a teacher, after all, and I love teaching Writers Workshop and Guided Math and everything else), I am also constantly frustrated with how much is demanded of these little guys. By the end of the school day, my students are visibly exhausted, both mentally and physically. And many of them go home to even more structured activities, like gymnastics and soccer practice and piano lessons. I know this is a much lamented problem, but the level of concern doesn’t seem to be changing our expectations of kids in school. As a public school teacher, I can attest to the fact that what is expected of my kindergarteners (from my district administration, from state standardized testing, from Common Core standards) is unreasonable, and is too much.

Think about what you remember most from elementary school. For me, it’s the weeks we spent studying the rainforest in third grade, learning about beautiful animals like quetzals that require our protection. Or the time in sixth grade that we dressed up and acted out the Greek myths, turning over our desks and building props out of cardboard and paint. What will kids remember from my kindergarten class? If I followed the required curriculum to a T, they might remember lots of time spent writing and editing personal narrativesidentifying the number of vertices and sides of a 3D shape, and learning the difference between plywood and particle board.

Don’t get me wrong – these are important endeavors in learning. But I think they need to be balanced with time for free play and exploration. There is so much evidence out there already on how children learn best through play, but play time is decidedly NOT written into the curriculum.

I realize that most of what I’m expected to teach is currently at the whim of politics and corporations. I am fortunate, though, to teach in a school with a very supportive principal who trusts teachers, and gives them room to use their professional judgment on the best way to teach children. Therefore, I have made it my goal this year (and all the years in the future) to make as much room for free play and exploration in my classroom as possible. I’ve decided to start sharing some of my ideas, since there’s not a lot out there on how to bring more joy and wonder into the classroom. I’ll start by listing some of the resources I’ve used when learning how to create space for exploration and guided inquiry in the classroom, and later share lesson ideas, both large and small.

Here are some resources that have inspired me so far:

Websites by Teachers

Books

Pinterest Boards

I’ll end with a quote that has been floating around out there that gives a nod to our need for balance between exploration and structured learning. More ideas for how to find this balance will come!

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