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A long long time ago before smart boards, before desks, before classrooms even existed, there was a new teacher in the woods whose backpack was filled with stuff.  The weight of her stuff caused her to move at a sluggish pace, often struggling to keep up with students.  She lost her students’ attention as she shifted through the stuff in her bag looking for the right tool for each lesson. Finally she even lost track of the sun in the sky. 

After one very long, rainy day, the new teacher took refuge beneath an old Cedar tree as she tried to dry out the sopping pile of stuff spilling out of her bag.  As tears began to run down her cheeks she heard a soft voice from up above. 

-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, why are you crying?” 

She looked around, but could not see where the voice was coming from. 

-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, why are you crying?” came the voice again. 

She realized it was the voice of the wind whistling in the branches above. 

-”My body aches from the weight of all the tools in my bag, I used most of the sunny hours looking for stuff, and no matter how much I plan I cannot seem to keep the attention of my students.”

-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, leave your bag here with me.  All the tools you will ever need are within. “

The teacher girl left her bag beneath the cedar tree as she was told and walked back to her cabin feeling lighter than she ever remembered feeling before. 

The next day, as she set out into the forest with her students, she carried no bag and she found all that she needed, along the way. Whenever attention strayed she would gather the students beneath an old Cedar tree and tell them stories from within.  It was a sound not so different from the wind.  Storytelling became the new teacher’s most powerful tool.  It was her magic ribbon used to tie all the lessons together for her students to carry home within.  

 

Storytelling is like a Swiss army knife.   It is an effective teaching tool that serves many purposes without adding any weight to the pack of outdoor educators.  Stories can hook students into a new topic, reinforce new vocabulary or concepts, set expectations, allow students respite, create shared experiences, and so much more.

Current brain research provides evidence that optimal learning happens in low-stress environments where content carries personal meaning.  Stories naturally reduce stress, which is why we tell them to children at bedtime.   They serve as an effective hook for lessons that might typically cause stress.   Steps to an investigation, details about native plants, and group expectations may be difficult to assimilate on their own, but when paired with stories, they are more likely to be stored in long-term memory.  

Stories can be told in as little as five minutes and be expanded upwards depending on the need of the group.  Characters can be transformed to reflect the personalities of different students.   And of course many stories can be taken into the field to serve different learning goals without adding any weight to the backpacks of instructors.   Over time many students organically begin creating and sharing their own stories contributing further to the depth and diversity of learning.

Storytelling can seem daunting at first, but there is a steep learning curve and high return on one’s investment.  Beginning with small groups, friends or family is a great way to develop the art of a storyteller.  Wisdom Tales From Around The World by Heather Forest and Once Upon A Time: Storytelling to Teach Character and Prevent Bullying are great sources of inspiration.   The most important thing to remember is that there is no wrong way to tell a story.  Enjoy the learning curve.

The story teaches, the story connects, the story tells of a bigger world.

Writing may be a daunting task for students to get excited about but I have found creative writing to be a useful tool to get students to share unique ideas and push themselves beyond the bare minimum required to fulfill an assignment. Reading student’s creative writing is comparable to peeking through a window of their soul, without having to make them feel too vulnerable. And creative writing is fun, no one is wrong when they are sharing what comes from their imagination.

Students may want to know how long a poem or story has to be and I usually say, “when the story is all told.” Whether that takes one page or ten, you will know when you have nothing else to say. I also hear, “what if I can’t think of anything?” I respond with don’t think, just feel. For this process to be authentic it can’t be rushed. If you are giving your students free range with their topics, be ready to get a wide variety of writing, from silly to magical to emotionally telling pieces. Here are some ways to incorporate creative writing into your teaching.

If you are just starting out creative writing with your students, considering writing a poem that has a sentence starter for each line. An “I am like” simile poem or an “I ___ (am, fear, see, hear, love) ” poem is manageable for you as an educator to facilitate and give students a jumping off point. To delve in a little further, the students can include the who, what, where, when, how to each line. For example, if it says I am like a tree, write what the tree is doing, seeing, and feeling that make you like that tree. As you introduce the poem, be sure to share one you have written so the students have an example for their writing, whether exemplifying vulnerability or great detail. If you want to turn poems into a class piece, try having students select a couple of their favorite lines of the poem to encompass the ideas of all your students in a single poem; “I am like” poems are a good way to do this. This type of writing and the next one discussed can be especially helpful when writing with ELL students to help express some ideas because it offers plenty of scaffolding and structure.

Poetry can be some of the finest ways to share creative writing. If students are ready to move on from prompted poems consider introducing different poem styles and having students explore from there. For example, introducing a haiku style poem gives students template guidance but allows them to write about whatever they feel is appropriate or whatever you may be focusing on in class. Consider using new vocabulary words as themes to the poems students are writing. Acrostics, limericks, ballads or cinquains are all examples of poem styles you can incorporate in your teaching.

To take creative writing a step further, perspective stories or letters to oneself can encourage creativity while teaching you something. Students can write perspective stories about the life of a bee or from the perspective of a raindrop that you can use to assess understanding of concepts. A letter to a future or past self can give insight on how the student views themselves or where they hope to be in ten years. Creative story writing can take us to worlds only our students can imagine and help us better understand our students point of view to help them succeed.

Creative writing can take a long time to perfect but like everything, the more we practice, the stronger it becomes. It takes a lot of courage to write vulnerable pieces but even more courage to share, so set the expectation that students are in a safe space that is respectful. Alternative activities can be planned if a student is struggling to meet those expectations. Lastly, don’t force anyone to share if that expectation wasn’t clearly set from the beginning, students may not be ready to reveal so much in front of peers. Remember to have fun. Creative writing may spark a love of writing in your students that could last a lifetime.

For more resources in writing with ELL students visit: http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/14539/

Teaching outdoors lends a unique landscape for teaching ELLs. An instructor can have students make sense of the natural world through our five senses with little to no language commonality.

Some may be wondering, “What is an English Language Learner?”

To which I would reply: an English Language Learner is first a human and an individual like every other student. They just need varying levels of educational support in order to make the content, or input, more accessible.

Some may be wondering, “So what? Why does this matter to me?”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics 4.4 million, or 9.1 percent, public school students are enrolled in English Language programs. This number has nearly doubled since 1990.

ELLs are one of the fastest growing populations within the public school setting. Considering a majority of the students that go to outdoor education centers in the greater Seattle area come from public schools the instructors in those centers will likely get the pleasure of encountering an ELL in their group. The more prepared an instructor is to make accommodations, the more the instruction will be more deliberate and less reactionary.  

Some may be wonder, “Now what? How am I supposed to teach someone anything who does not understand me?”

The first suggestion for teaching ELLs is using that Total Physical Response (TPR) technique. TPR is a technique where the instructor pairs new vocabulary words with a motion. So instead of just saying there is a Western Red Cedar tree, the instructor could put their arms down and make a J shape while saying the new word. This technique is effective because it allows students to process the new vocabulary in different areas of the brain.

The next suggestion is to use graphic organizers to “chunk” similar ideas.  For example: during a debrief of an investigation an instructor can use a T chart where the students fill in what they found on one side and what they think it means on the other. By putting like information together an instructor is making input more comprehensible and condensed.

Another suggestion is using songs and or chants to teach a new concept. This approach can work very well if the song/chant is age appropriate. School House Rock, and all the individuals who can sing Conjunction Junction, is a good testament to this. Songs/chants can reach students through repetition and, if it is good, catchy-ness.

The last suggestion would be to remember to learn from your students. Take the time to learn how to say how are you in Mandarin, or do you understand in Sudanese. Show your students that you are ok with making mistakes in a new language, and are still willing to try.

It is my hope that you look at these suggestions and think, “I do those things with all of my students anyway” because many of the best practices for teaching English Language Learners are practices that will help all of the learners in your field group.