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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Benefits of Taking Students Outside to Inspire Writing

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-- T.S. Eliot

It occasionally shows up on a handout or an assignment sheet, and we will reference the quote frequently in the discussions that we have that center on questions about our purpose for doing particular things as part of our program.

This year, though, for the first time, I actually built an ongoing, optional assignment for students around the quote. Quite honestly, it was an idea that came to me at the very last moment, but it proved to be quite powerful.

During the past few years, I have developed the tradition of taking a walk with my students every Friday morning, as soon as students arrive in class. Here in Ontario, we have a relatively new requirement that all K-8 students engage in 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. So a brisk walk around the neighborhood every Friday morning helps us to meet those requirements.

Over the years, however, I've adapted the activity to be more focused on the habit of mind that can best be described as attentiveness.

The new focus came after asking students on several occasions, "So, what did you see on your way to school today?" Silence. "What did you notice that was different?" More silence. So, I started to use the walks to focus attention on things that may not be familiar to them, even though they may have walked this same path for many years.

On one walk, for example, we looked at the geometry of landscape, applying our knowledge of shapes, area, and perimeter to our journey. On another walk, we focused on words we could use to describe the look and texture of the various things we encountered. Good for as far as it went, but I felt the need to go deeper.

The night before one of our Friday walks this past March, I decided to change things up a little and bring an artistic focus to our journey. Instead of simply walking through the neighborhood, asking students to be on the lookout for particular things, I actually wrote a narrative guide for our walk.

I chose five specific places to stop along the way: at a tree, at a flat and dry piece of our school field, at the top of a hill in the park near the school, at an area where a number of rocks are gathered, and, finally, by a stream. For each stop along the way, I collected some of my own reflections, and the reflections of poets, artists, and others who had written about that particular feature.

When we returned, we gathered to write and talk about the experience. Most everyone had something positive to say about our Artist's Walk. Most of the responses reflected on the fact that they had walked along the same path many times over the years, but they had never stopped to notice the things we had taken time to notice.

Many made note of the fact that they didn't think a tree was anything more than a tree!

I was pleased with the result, and I challenged students to work with someone else to design another version of the Artist's Walk for us. It was an invitation, not a requirement, so between April and June I had only four takers, but I was impressed with the results.

Marcia and Alysha decided to find songs that spoke about the stopping points on their journey. At each stop, they quoted lyrics from a song and reflected on how it applied to the point at which we were standing, as well as to their lives in general.

Others spoke of the inspiration that could be found in our natural world, and some even reflected on the human-made features they had encountered: buildings, fences, and churches.

Mary's work was thoughtful and deep. She actually took us on the same path of our original walk back in March but proved that much more could be said. Here are a couple of excerpts from her work:

Fence

There are many things in life that hold us back. We have all gone through a point in our life where change occurred and the perfect serenity of "now" slipped through our fingers. You rejected the alteration, and had to accept the defeat. It truly was unstoppable, while the memories come bashing at you, throwing you up against the wall. The significance of memories became torturing to bear. How could such innocence change its course?

Rocks

I've stumbled upon a rock that stumbled upon me. Without a care in the world, I picked it up and meticulously examined the contour of the object. I hadn't gained the super power: x-ray vision, but I could see beyond its interior. Something beautiful was hidden beneath its cracks and erosion. It's not frequent that people stop to admire the simplicity of this particular thing.

Next year, the Artist's Walk will be a required assignment, with the results becoming part of their exit portfolios. And we will continue to try to make the familiar strange.

What do you think of this activity? Have your undertaken a similar project? Please share your thoughts.

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Luz M Herrera's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I t is a wonderful idea to provide students with ways to see things differently. Going outside the classroom to explore will address the different learning styles we have in our classrooms.
Thanks for the ideas.

Luz Herrera
Walden Student

Heather Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I used to frequently bring my students outside for quiet reading and writing time. However, after reading this it made me realize I haven't done that in quite awhile. I had a teacher in 6th grade who used to do this, and it brings back fond memories. I think I will start to do this with my current classroom to see what it sparks.

Heather Johnson
Walden University

Maria Kontogiannis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Connie,
I am also pursuing my Master's through Walden. This is my first experience with blogging. I love the idea of taking walks with the children outside. I am a Kindergarten teacher and we often go outside to exercise and play. In the fall, I have a scavenger hunt activity for the students to collect various items that represent fall (acorns, leaves, etc.) We also collect leaves to sort, graph, and make leaf rubbings. In the spring, we go outside to read and plant flowers in our butterfly garden. As I think about all the activities we do outside, I can take it a step further and have my children write in their journals or write a class story about our outside adventures. I really like your idea about taking pictures on your walk. We could print those pictures out and use them as writing prompts or include them in our class story.

Cheryl Stock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like your idea about taking pictures on a class walk and using them as writing prompts in the classroom. This year, where I teach, we have a huge writing initiative in place. All teachers, including PE as well as connections (art, technology, music, etc) teachers are expected to take time out of their subject and implement writing in hopes of improving all students' writing skills. As a Health and PE teacher, I am happy to be a part of something that can help in another area, especially writing; however, I am not the most creative person when it comes to writing, so this picture idea sounds fabulous!

Maggie Harrigan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the idea of taking students outside. I teach middle school and so often my students get distracted by just looking out the window. If we are truly committed to helping our students become successful as human beings, we should incorporate the outside world into our daily experiences!

I am working on my graduate studies at Walden University, and I just read an article on brain research and how it relates to education. One of the most interesting parts of the article, for me, was when the author, Dr. Pat Wolfe (2003), explained that so often teachers use intuition to guide effective instruction. She argued that we must have scientific knowledge to back up our intuition if we want to be taken as serious professionals in our field.

Wolfe explored many conclusions of brain research and almost all of them reinforced things I already do in my classroom that have previously based on my own intuition or observations about students. For example, brain researchers have learned that "memory is not stored in a single location in the brain" (Wolfe 2003). Our students will be more likely to remember something if it has been experienced in numerous ways. Taking students outside and using natural features to reinforce ideas from your curriculum will only help students remember these ideas better. I think many teachers understand the idea of using different experiences to reinforce an idea, but incorporating the outside world takes it a step further. You can use these walks not only to reinforce what you are teaching, but also to help students become familiar with nature!

I work at a farm in the summers and we often have school groups and daycare groups take field trips there. One first grade teacher brought her students to the farm because she had asked them to draw a chicken for an assignment, and many drew four-legged chickens. These inner-city children had never seen a real chicken before!

Thank you for reminding me how important it is to make sure my students are not just experiencing my curriculum, but experiencing it in the context of the larger world.

Emily George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like a great activity. We do similar activities at the science center I work at. Often we have the children try to see things from different perspectives, such as a bug's eye view or that of a giant. We try to get them to notice those things we usually pass by without a thought. They are always amazed by what they find.

Elizabeth Rogus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this blog. This is a great idea for writing time in my classroom. I love how this lesson gets students to notice things that they normally see on a day to day basis but they are able to look at those things in a different way. I have never tried doing anything like this before, but I would really like to. As I was reading, I thought about how I could tie this into something that I already teach in writing in my classroom. I have a writing unit in my class for poetry. For one of my students' poems, we focus on the six trait of word choice and we talk about the five senses. We focus on trying to find colorful words to add to their poetry using their five senses. I would love to take a walk outside for this lesson to create powerful and creative writing. What do you think of this idea? I can't wait to try this during my unit.

Erin Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it's beautiful how passionate you are about providing beneficial "real-life" experience to your students to inspire their writing. This is important to keep children excited and passionate to truly understand the beauty of expressing themselves through writing.

I'm currently a First Grader teacher and we always go on inspirational journeys during our writing workshop time. We enjoy going for walks, testing our senses through writing by coming up with various adjectives to describe different foods we try, listening to different sounds and writing about our predictions of what they could be and simply being a scientist and observing things and being in various perspectives. It's amazing how inspired children become about writing from providing various experiences for them beyond the norm.

As I pursue my Masters from Walden University I hope to collect more ideas to inspire my students as well as make them successful learners. Thanks for your writing. I loved your short verse about rocks. Keep up the great work!

Amy Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Amy Richardson and I teach kindergarten at a title 1 school in Elkhart, IN. I also am a graduate student at Walden University. I took a writing class several years ago and we did an activity like this. We had to use all of our senses to get a list of adjectives we could use in our story, and we actually sat outside and wrote. We are trying to tie some subjects together more this year than in the past, and doing science within the writing time is one example. We seem to be so pressed for time so this should help. We have a little courtyard and all of the kindergarten classes decided to plant flowers. We are having the kids write in that area, and about things growing and living in that area. They love it. It does help them branch out from the typical "I like ...." sentences and stories.

Joann Mills's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I LOVE this idea. As an undergraduate student, a Professor of Science took classes out on their first day of class as a 'walking field trip' across campus, pointing out and questioning things such as 'why are there striations in the stonework which makes up the curb'... 'what causes the rust on the metal post?' and things such as this. What an ingenious way to promote student thinking! This is a win-win for all ages, from first grade to 4th year college students. I am an advocate for this form of creative writing practice.

Joann Mills
Graduate Student
Masters in Education
Reading & Literacy
Utica, NY

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