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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

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the input and connection. Just to clarify: students aren't actually doing the writing outside in this particular activity. They are creating a narrative based on their experience of the outdoors. They then take us on their narrated walk.

I do agree, however, that the physical act of writing, drawing...heck, just "being" outside should be a big part of the school experience!

Stephen

Jodi Eaton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This reminds me of a book I read last summer, "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv. Not only does it explain the benefits of tuning in to nature and the awakening of our senses, but there are several chapters dedicated to the effects it could have on education, even citing examples of several schools built around this concept. I've often imagined a school that opens its walls to nature and allowed the outside in.

Ann Chappel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

During my Summer Institute for the Upper Peninsula Writing Project I took a walk outdoors with my colleagues and found a place to sit and write. Led by Stephen Smith, we experimented with effective prompts to engage us in writing using metaphorical language, effective repetition, parallel structure, etc. to consider the vitality of our special places and perhaps the ritual of sacred ground. The Artist Walk reminded me of the significant writing that can occur about places we inhabit.

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Jodi,

Today, we completed our second Artists' walk for this year and the two students that organized it led us, as the final stop, to a very large willow tree. They told us of their connection with the tree over the past couple of years, how they got to know the tree, some of the adventures that had come as the result of this connection and how they believed the tree to be "enchanted" in some way.

Enchanted...a great way to describe what can happen when we look to turn our schools "inside-out"!

Thanks for the book recommendation...I've added it to my list.

stephen

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

HI Ann,

Thanks for the connection to this. I was discussing the Artist Walk structure with my teacher candidates today, reflecting on the fact that it was more than an assignment. It was a learning opportunity that embraced so many different curriculum threads; it was one of those activities that could help us connect with so many aspects of our program, and of student development.

Metaphorical thinking and reflection have been strong in all of the Walks; its difficult for to imagine an area of my program that offers the opportunity to engage in the power of connection through metaphor as strongly.

stephen

Mark Nichol's picture
Mark Nichol
Editor / Writer

Staff comment:

We've quoted from and referred to Richard Louv and his book in several Edutopia articles, including this one. Search for his name on the site for the others!

Carolyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Carolyn and I teach students with Autism in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. I think this activity is great. I remember doing something similar in second grade, but I didn't have nearly the insight into things as your students obviously do... mostly because I was only in second grade. Our assignment was to write about the path during the fall and then write about it again during our second walk which was in the spring. It was really need to see the changes in both the physical path over the course of the seasons and our actual writing. At that age, even our handwriting had changed significantly. For your eighth graders, it's great for them to be forced, though not in a negative way, to take a second and observe their surroundings. Creativity seems to be a lost art these days, and you have obviously incorporated the creative arts into a writing assignment that seems to bring out some great thoughts from your students. I'm curious as to what they thought about the activity immediately when you brought them back inside, not so much about how they felt about writing, but what they were able to express to you when they got back into the classroom. This is a great lesson that involves so many parts of the curriculum into one easy and enjoyable activity for the students. Way to go!

Jennifer Rogers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is wonderful to see students in the community with their teacher going for a brisk walk. It sounds like the students had opportunities to see things in the area in which they live in a new way.

Connie Lewis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently pursuing my Master's in Education at Walden University and teach third grade in a Title 1 School. I love your inspirational walk idea.

I try to take my students outside for math walks and to read outside. My students are rarely outside once they leave school due to safety issues in their neighborhoods. I find that my students are more attentive and focused when we leave on a specified journey of thinking.

We recently took a walk looking for conifer and deciduous trees. We then return and wrote about them and drew pictures of our discoveries. The response was productive and positive. I had students write several paragraphs that in the past I was lucky to receive one or two sentences.

I really liked how you are constantly adding or changing the topic of your walk. I like the way you have given students ownership of the walk.
Have you ever taken pictures along the way that you can have student post in a podcast or class website?

Sue Little's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am going to start doing this! My students will really benefit from taking a walk outside. I can already imagine the wonderful writing they will create. Our school is an arts-based school for students with learning disabilities. Thanks for the great blog ideas!

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