The Benefits of Taking Students Outside to Inspire WritingSeptember 15, 2009 | Stephen Hurley
The following quote is one of the first things my eighth-grade students see when they walk into their classroom in September:
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:
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?
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.