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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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Julie Bell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While walks outside may be a rare treat for many students, we should consider our outside world another classroom! I am also involved in my graduate studies at Walden University, and I noted in the same article that Maggie referred to that students have a higher chance of recalling information when they've experienced it in a variety of ways (Wolfe, 2003). This, of course, is something as teachers that we're widely familar with, but when we have a great idea like going for walks outside to inspire students in their writing and in other areas, it really drives the point home.

When we study nouns, I always take my class on a noun hunt. We walk through the building, silently collecting proper and common nouns, but my students are always thrilled to walk outside and have the chance to collaborate with each other on what they see and feel. Experiencing the air blowing around them helps them to recall easily that things they can't see--like the air, and consequently abstract concepts such as love and freedom--are nouns as well. When it comes time to incorporate imagery into our writing samples, the students have a variety of real-life experiences to draw upon thanks to their outside experiences. This is especially useful when it snows. I live in Georgia, and if it ever snows during the school day, it is quite a treat. More than once I have had the joy of watching students experience snow for the first time! No textbook or video can replace the sensation that our outside world can give, and my students' writing pieces are all the more richer for it.

Kara Woodworth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this blog. I teach 6th graders and it is amazing to me how they do not stop to look at detail. I even find myself flying through the day and not engaging my senses. Our school has adopted the philosophy of Charlotte Mason. She lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s and believed that "Education is a science of relations," among other things. Some of the activites we focus on in our Middle School are picture studies, nature walks, composor studies, etc.

I teach science and history. For science class, we occasionally go on nature walks. Sometimes students are required to take their composition books and write reflections on what they see. Sometimes we take our sketch books and students draw what they see. This causes them to focus on detail. It is amazing to see the change after a few nature walks or picture studies. Before they only knew they were "outside" or "in nature." Now they understand the many different organisms that make up nature. They see how they interact and the detail embedded in each one.

Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005) write about how to make learning fun and succesful, how to drive your students to want to learn. They say this concept takes place, "When you are being challenged to do something that is not beyond your ability and, when mastered, will allow you to accomplish other things that you want to do" (p. 27).

When students begin to become close observers in nature, they can carry that over into all aspects of life. They can learn to stop and make observations. When we stop to make observations, we become much more involved in the world we live in.

I really enjoyed reading this post and it reminded me how important it is to help our students understand little things in life, but how those little things can pique our interest to involve ourselves in a work full of learning opportunities.

-Masters Student at Walden University

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Brenda Church's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Steven your idea is brilliant! I know a few other teachers in my district that will be very interested to read your blog. I love the way you tapped into the variety of intelligences of your students. There is a seminar that I know of that I think you would be very interested in. It is called Integrating Writing Skills with Art and Technology. Children create outdoor art with natural materials in their environment. They take photos of the art work then write poems or essays about the art. It is compiled and formed into a book and the book is shared with other children participating in this program from other countries. You can get more info at the following websites (I believe the seminar is held once a year) lkelly@eirc.org eirkm@eirc.org or www.MonarchTeacherNetwork.org
Thanks so much for sharing your idea!
Brenda Church
Special Education Teacher

Stacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a very good activity for students. Not only will they be motivated to write,but this is a good way to express their opinions openly.I noticed from the article that the students were able to write in different ways.Some chose to share their thoughts through poems,songs or narratives.In Dr. Sonia Nieto's DVD entitled "Teacher As Professional",the view was expressed that teaching should be extended outside the lines.Therefore I endorse the idea of taking students outside for the Artist's Walk. Students should never be confined to the curriculum,they should however be given the opportunity to gain new and enriching experiences. Most of my Science lessons are taught outside, but I think the idea of the Artist's Walk is something I would adopt in my classroom.

Elif Atali's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea of artist's walk. Your entry reminds me of the movie " Dead Poets Society" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/) in which the literature teacher takes the students out to the garden and runs his classes there. I loved how the idea of having different perspectives was studied in the movie which is very similar to your approach.

I find working outside with my students very refreshing. Being outside the regular classroom concept excites and encourages them to create and produce more. As a part of our unit of inquiry "Life Cycles", last year, we took the students out to the school garden and let them observe the Sakura (cherry blossom) tree. Each week beginning from March we let them draw pictures of it and write about it. At the end the month, when the trees blossomed, we had great pictures and writings created by our students. It gave them a great opportunity to observe and learn outside the classroom.

This year we have a unit based on the concept of "where we are in place and time". In this unit we were discussing of engaging it with the concepts of geography and history. This Artist's Walk project may be
a very useful tool for us in terms of practicing mapping and finding about history of our neighborhood.

Elif Atali
Walden Graduate Student

Debbie Rosa, Seneca Elem. 3rd grade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Debbie and I am a graduate student at Walden also. I live in Southern California and have taken classes outside before for science. I have gleaned many new ideas that I want to try in my third grade classroom. This year I have a very active class and I think they will enjoy this activity. My friend, Laurie, and I team for Science and Social Studies and I can see many ways to incorporate this into both subjects. Laurie loves to teach writing and I can teach an art lesson.

www.realparentsrealanswers.com's picture
www.realparentsrealanswers.com
parent of 2. Advocate for youth smoking prevention.

As a parent, I often take the children outside to do homework or just read books. Sometimes just the change in atmosphere inspires us.
We also talk about seeing things in a different light. Call us crazy but we lay on the couch, hang our heads upside down off it and look at the room. We also lay on the grass and look at the clouds. Amazing what you see when you really look!

Andrea Andersen's picture

In situations where taking a walk out in the neighborhood isn't an option, the use of touch baskets is another idea. Baskets full of natural objects--feathers, leaves, seed pods, rocks, etc--can be great for writing prompts. Bringing in music CDs with natural sounds (thunderstorms, wind, etc) can help too. Of course, the ideal would be to take a walk or sit outside, but otherwise, bring nature inside! :)

Stephen Hurley's picture
Stephen Hurley
Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
Blogger 2014

[quote] 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. [/quote]

Hi Carolyn,

Thanks for the feedback and comments. This activity has turned into a weekly part of our program now and, as winter approaches, the students have been reminded to bring warm clothes!!! The last two times we have gone out, I have had students "get lost" to write. By this I mean that I have sent them out around the school to find a place to write. They are not permitted to be sitting with anyone else for the 20 minute period, and upon return, they have been invited to share some of what they have written.

To be quite honest, I have been really impressed with the quality of their reflective writing. For the most part, they have been able to express themselves using rich language. Their writing is gradually beginning to show some deep levels of connection. In some cases, they have picked up on one image from the walk; other times, they have centered their writing on something broader.

Next week, my two teacher candidates from York University will be leading the walk. I'm looking forward to this!

Stephen

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