It’s a cool Thursday in fall, and 30 middle and high school students are gathered on the outskirts of our school property, spaced just outside of whispering distance from one another. Wearing multiple layers of clothing, they lean over yellow rainproof notebooks, simply writing. It’s almost eerily quiet, save for the calls of birds and scratching of pens and pencils on treated paper. No electronics, no talking, no interruptions. The students periodically raise their heads to take in their surroundings, observing what the changing seasons have wrought since they were in these spots last month.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, the students come back together and share their words and sketches, some bringing along a leaf or twig. This is a monthly ritual during the school year, and some students will continue to visit the same spot for years to come. Inspired by the work of Aldo Leopold, whose famed Shack is just a 45 minute drive away, they watch and record the changes they observe. These students are practicing phenology, the study of nature’s cycles. They are also practicing skills of writing and scientific observation, all while reaping the benefits of simply being outdoors, away from the fluorescent lights and windowless walls of their classroom.
Why do we take this time away from their desks and devices, from test preparation and timed assessments? In the dozen years since Richard Louv’s best-selling Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder was published, a cottage industry of similar titles have popped up, with Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative only the most recent example. Suffice it to say, there is a copious research base showing the mental, physical, and academic benefits of children spending more time in nature, if you’re interested it that sort of thing.
I’m in my sixth year of teaching at High Marq, and in that time I have watched hyperactive seventh graders, self-described slackers, and kids who can barely string together a coherent paragraph in the classroom slow down, sit still, focus on their surroundings, and write — and draw — beautiful and thoughtful observations of the natural world. It’s also a tremendous benefit for myself as a teacher. I find it impossible to ruminate on negative experiences from the classroom when I’m strolling outside, watching my students, and — ideally — sitting down to write alongside them.
What can you do tomorrow?
- Start Small: We teachers tend to go all-in on new ideas and then castigate ourselves when things don’t go according to plan. There’s no need to travel far to find a suitable site for outdoor writing; chances are there’s a pocket of nature right outside your doors. Similarly, students need not write for vast amounts of time right away. The distractions of the outdoors are myriad, and students need time and practice to build their outdoor writing stamina.
- Scout Your Location: I learned the hard way that a former granite quarry can be a fine place to write in fair weather, but not so much in the dead of winter, with snow covered crevices menacing students’ ankles . Take the time to scope out potential writing spots beforehand and the whole thing will run smoother. I recommend looking for rocks or stumps for sitting, trees and plants to observe, and treacherous terrain to avoid. Ideally, you’ll be able to have everyone in sight at once.
- Set Clear Expectations: I’m not breaking new ground in saying that our students will live up or down to the expectations we set from them, or that consistency in those expectations is critical. Think about those expectations ahead of time, and talk with your students about them before heading outside. Our expectations for students include wearing appropriate clothing for the weather, spacing themselves at least eight to ten feet apart, remaining quiet, and writing for the full amount of time.
- Just Do It: It’s easy to overthink the logistics of taking students outside to write, as we try to prepare for every eventuality. Maybe phenology does not fit your curricular goals. No worries. Your students could be writing anything outside. Our students write journal entries and read books outside, too. (They also work outside on their Chromebooks in good weather!) The specifics matter far less than the simple pleasure and benefits of sitting down outside and creating something new from our words. Weather and calendar permitting, take your students outside to write tomorrow. You will not regret it.