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It’s widely believed, and has been spoken by many, that anything is interesting; one must simply look close enough. It’s similar to the idea that questions rarely lead to answers, merely more questions. Both sentiments are at the crux of environmental education; explore, examine and dig deeper. All lead to greater discovery, inner-connectivity and subsequent stewardship.

Human interaction is a crucial facet of environmental education. Much like nature, or any subject, get to know a person well enough, and soon they’re no longer people, but rather an individual with his/her/their own feelings and experiences. All humans are guilty of grouping and categorizing people. Such detachment is what allows us to move our own agenda forward. It is equally important, however, to instill in young people strategies for connecting with others and building relationships. In the end, it’s by working together that we will build a greater future for everyone. Teamwork is key.

It is the role of an educator to build opportunities for student interaction and meaningful exchange. How to have a mutually beneficial conversation that enables people to connect and have empathy is an evolving skill that takes practice, consideration, motivation and reflection. Even most adults haven’t mastered this skill! Educators have the unique ability and responsibility to facilitate avenues for practice.

There are various tools/activities in environmental education that I have found particularly useful in bringing students together and prompting conversation.

Name Game: There are endless ways to bring a group together and share information, particularly a new group coming together for the first time. One particular activity involves having students come together in a circle and share something about their name. Perhaps a person was named after someone else, or a name can be translated to mean another word. Understanding a person’s name or why they were given that names can offer interesting insight into a person’s background.

Interview: Divide students into groups of two. Require each group to meet for ten minutes and share personal information with one another. Each student must learn at least three news things about the other person. Give an example by sharing with the group some information about yourself f. While the students are conversing, shout out some prompts (“Now discuss your favorite book and why”). After ten minutes, bring the students back together in a circle and ask each student to share what they learned about their partner.

Walk and Talk: Before walking somewhere, have students stand behind you and form two parallel lines. Each line should have an equal number of students if possible. First, have students high five the person directly across from them. Then pose a discussion topic (“While we walk, please discuss with the person across from you what your perfect weekend would be”). After a few minutes of allowing students to walk and talk, have the student at the front of the line on the right (or the left), move to the end of their line, forcing everyone to move up one position. Then have students high five the new person standing across from them, and deliver a new discussion topic. Go through as many rotations as time or attention allows. This activity is particularly effective on a wide trail, or during a long walk.

Personal Species Account Cards: Have students create species account cards for themselves. Information could include a drawn picture, both common and scientific name, place of origin, and three interesting facts (have fun with this!). Then give students a card of one of their peers to learn and present to the rest of the group.

Theses activities foster two important skills: listening and sharing. Such skills are necessary in developing empathy and bridging people together. Conversation is a lifelong practice and a mindful educator can help to begin pave the way!

Have you ever felt angry, frustrated, or even a little afraid when interacting with a student? Has a student ever responded to instructions with bargaining, refusal, or the infamous statement, “you can't make me”? You have likely encountered a power struggle! Every teacher faces power struggles, especially during transitions between activities. “Young people sometimes confuse their yearning for personal power with a desire for interpersonal power...Teachers have to learn how to sidestep the power struggles and help students exercise legitimate personal power.” (Albert)

There are several effective steps to avoid and defuse power-seeking confrontations. The first is to focus on the behavior the student is exhibiting, not the student, and to correct the behavior that is happening in the present, rather than referencing past behavior. This is a part of practicing growth mindset, the belief that students' learning and behavior is not fixed and can always grow when given the opportunity. Next, when responding to a power struggle, it's vital to maintain a firm yet warm tone. Contrary to popular belief, being strict and being kind are not mutually exclusive, in fact they complement one another. Even during a short week at IslandWood, the firm yet warm approach, as described in Teach Like a Champion, demonstrates that you are enforcing boundaries because you care about your students. Another way we can show this caring is by keeping our emotions level in the moment, and not allowing ourselves to lose control. When we model positive, non-aggressive behavior in the face of a power struggle, we show students that they do not have power over us, we are totally in control of the situation, and that their efforts to rankle us are useless against our calm.

Once you've successfully avoided escalating the situation using these strategies, you can discuss the behavior with the student once emotions, yours and theirs, have settled. Ideally this discussion will take place away from the rest of the group, since many power struggles lose potency once the audience is removed. Again, it's important when having this discussion to focus only on the behavior, not the student, and only on the behavior shown in the situation at hand. During instruction, de-escalating a confrontation and kindly reminding students that compliance is not a choice but a requirement, is often enough to defuse a power struggle. This can be done by acknowledging that the student does indeed have power (“I know I can't make you do it”), tabling the matter until a more appropriate moment (as determined by you), responding cheerfully or even agreeably, or changing the subject completely.

The upshot of these difficult situations is that many students who engage in power-seeking behavior are assertive, independent thinkers, and often become leaders among their peers. When we encounter power struggles during our teaching, we can choose to view them as an opportunity to help students to develop their talents and social skills in a healthy and productive way.

It's easy to take power struggles personally, but it's important to keep in mind that these and other behavior problems we might encounter during instruction are not about you. Students coming to IslandWood may have a lot going on that we just cannot perceive. During the short time we have with students, the best we can do is meet students where they are and approach each one with compassion.


-Albert, L. (1989). A teacher's guide to cooperative discipline: How to manage your classroom and promote self-esteem. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

-Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Imagine students participating in group discussion. The teacher provides an opening question, a student replies with an answer, and the teacher responds to the student with an evaluative statement or additional question. This sequence repeats as various students offer their ideas and thoughts to the group. 

Now imagine the same students engaging in a similar discussion, this time without teacher mediation. The air is peppered with multiple student voices seeking attention at the same time. Students repeat previously shared ideas or ignore others as they compete for the floor. Fairly quickly, chaos ensues. How can we find middle ground, where students lead the discussion but make room for all voices to be heard? 

Group discussions can be an effective tool for assessing and building on student knowledge. Discussions serve not only as a way to review content and encourage higher order thinking, but also function as a space to build social-emotional skills. This is especially true in student-led discussions, where the majority of control around a conversation is placed on the students themselves. In my experience, students tend to lack specific skills and experience for effective discussion facilitation. Communication skills – such as when and how to listen and how to thoughtfully and respectfully contribute to the discussion – are important throughout a person’s life. Teaching students how to run and engage in an effective group conversation primes them with skills that they can use for their entire academic career, as well as other professional and personal settings. 

Explicitly building skills in a few key areas will guide students to success. 

  • Wait Time: Wait time is well-documented to improve student responses. The average teacher waits less than 2 seconds before having a student respond to a prompt. Increasing the wait time to a mere 5 seconds can increase students’ response length by 400% and decrease the number of students who don’t respond. Developing an explicit structure and culture where silent pauses and space to write down notes are encouraged can lead to more successful group discussion. Encouraging space to think not only gives time to those students who may need it to process, but allows all students to edit and strengthen their initial thoughts. 
  • One Voice: Taking time to practice listening to one voice at a time in all situations highlights the idea that all voices are important, both student and instructor. Student led discussions help fortify the idea that students can turn to their peers for knowledge and guidance. Asking students to call on one another helps to ensures the one voice guideline and encourages them to listen to one another.  I have found that students are more likely to stay engaged when they are accountable to their peers. You can support this process by using a talking object such as a stick or folded bandana, and having students pass it to each other as they speak. Alternately, you can have students say the name of the next person they choose to speak. 
  • Listening:  Explicitly defining what listening looks and sounds like in a group setting can be effective scaffolding for the group. For many people in the US, listening involves tracking the speaker with one’s eyes and body posture while being silent. Active listening may include non-verbal signs that the audience is following along, such as head nodding or cues such as “uh-huh” to indicate acknowledgement or agreement. For some people, fidgeting or doodling is an effective way to maintain focus, though it may portray disengagement to an outsider. 

Be aware of how listening norms may differ. While Western culture often values eye contact in social settings, other cultures may view direct eye contact to be unnecessary or disrespectful. Certain folks, such as those with Autism, may avoid eye contact for othe reasons. Discussing and agreeing upon a range of suitable options to demonstrate listening promotes an inclusive learning environment. 

  • Nonverbal Communication: When students agree with their peers, they often want to express their endorsement. Many people restating the same idea or uttering “Yeah, I like her plan” can impede the flow of a conversation. Using non-verbal cues or hand signals to show agreement is an effective use of time. Silent applause or thumb-and-pinky-out-hand-shaking are common hand signals I have used. Encouraging the group to come up with their own hand signals for agreement and/or appreciation is a great way to get buy-in from the students. Having a special signal that only applies to the group imparts a sense of belonging to those who use it, and can be highly effective at building community and camaraderie. 
  • Agree to Disagree: Reflecting on how students can and want to respond in a conversation can be an eye-opening discussion. Disagreement should be celebrated and encouraged. It shows critical thinking and engagement on the listener’s part, and encourages the original speaker to substantiate their claims with more evidence and/or consider other viewpoints. Intentionally discussing possible reactions when disagreeing with others provides a structure that may prove useful with many students. This can be scaffolded with sentence stems that are visible and available for students to use, such as:

“Yes, and ____________.” 
“I disagree with that because __________.” 
“Have you considered _______________.” 
 “Could you tell me more about _____________?” 

As with many other communication norms, the form argument and disagreement takes varies amongst people. Recognize different degrees of directness, assertiveness and aggressiveness students may naturally use and provide space to discuss different approaches to communicating disagreement. 

This is just the beginning when it comes to building communication and conversation skills. Once your students have gained experience with the framework, bring in additional ideas. Encourage students to self-assess their contributions – should they step up or step back? Discuss the benefits of speaking in the positive, stating what one should do rather than focusing on what one shouldn’t do. Explore and try out different questioning techniques with your students. The possibilities are endless.  


However you choose to explain conversation norms with your group, concretely naming them and creating a visual aid will increase success. Below are few mnemonics developed by IslandWood instructors this past year that have been useful in naming the steps to a successful student-led conversation. 

When engaging in discussion, remember your TONE 

Think about your response; Wait 5 seconds after a question is asked to answer 
One Voice; one person speaks and everybody else listens 
Norms; We will respect different opinions. We will politely agree and disagree 
Everybody Responds; We can respond verbally and nonverbally. Everyone’s contribution is important to the group. 

We will SLOW down our conversations

Speak one at a time
Listen to all responses
Observe our Surroundings
Watch for emotion

We will LEARN from each other

Listen; listen until the speaker is done 
Eye Contact; Make eye contact at some point with the speaker to let them know you are listening  
Agree; use  a hand signal to show agreement 
Respectfully Respond; if you disagree or want to add on, raise your hand to do so respectfully 
Notice who’s next; students will call on the next person, be sure to include people who haven’t had a chance to speak yet 




A student arrives to their overnight environmental program, a smile beaming from ear to ear with excitement and a camera ready at their hand to take photos- of everything. That student might end up taking a lot of photos during lessons and cameras and that can be distracting for the entire group. For this reason many places have taken the model of ‘leave your technology at home’

Cameras are something that the majority of people have now. Because of this social media sights like Instagram are popping up and encourage people to take pictures of their life and what they are doing, all the time. Some organizations have taken full advantage of these media sights and have photo contests nationwide to get people outside, like the Find Your Park campaign by the National Parks. Environmental educators’ audience have expanded because of social media. But, we have also been ignoring the fact that we’re inspiring people to go outside themselves to get that next epic photo. As an educator, I feel that we need to educate people so they can go out and get that photo in a proper and responsible way.

Due to the lack of education, people are hurting themselves and the place environmental educators are trying so hard to protect. A great time to teach people, especially children, about this responsibility is during an overnight environmental programs, like IslandWood School Overnight Program.

Here at IslandWood, lessons can be done with IPods and cameras with the students to have them take photos while they are in more of a nature setting. Going over a few things will set them up for them later on as they explore with their cameras at hand.

Some possible things to talk about when doing a lesson about responsibility when taking photographs:

1) Do Your Research- Know some background pieces about the subject. Where and when should you go? Is it mating season for this particular species? Is this ecosystem more delicate in some seasons?

2) Cause No Stress- Lack of disturbance must be a priority.

a. Know the proper distances to keep. According to the National Park, a person should stay 25 yards (about the size of two school buses) away from large mammals like elk, moose, etc and 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from large predatory mammals like wolves and bears.

b. Be mindful of not following a certain subject. They might have young they don’t want to lead you to or they might become accustomed to seeing a person and become unafraid.

3) Leave No Trace- Stay on trails, using a quiet voice, camp on durable surfaces, and carry in- carry out. You want to limit your presence as much as possible.

Some questions to ponder before going out:

What is my end goal for this picture? Is it just for me or am I trying to inspire other people to come here? What will happen if a lot of people do come here? Can the environment and wildlife handle it?

As an environmental educator, I want people to interact with nature with cameras in a responsible manner so people and nature stay happy and safe.

When I first brought along the little grinning monkey with long Velcro limbs, I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to convince a group of 10-12 year olds that it would be a fun and an important part of our team.  Aren't students that age getting pretty concerned with being cool and not being little kids that play with toys?  After using my now very familiar and very dusty monkey friend over the course of the past several months, I'm totally convinced of its efficacy as a catalyst of positive social emotional development.  Even 6th graders didn't scoff at it.  From observing other instructors and making some of my own additions, I've utilized the following techniques to transform an inanimate object into a tool of positive social emotional growth and to foster a culture of appreciation.

1. Let the suspense build: On the first day, I attach the monkey to my backpack but don't mention anything about it.  There's usually at least one student who asks about it right away.  By the end of the day, several others are wanting to know what's up with the monkey.  Why's it here? Can they touch it?  Does it have a name?

2.Build up to the introduction: On the second day, I usually pull out the monkey and make a big deal of introducing it and let everyone know it will be an important part of our team.  By this point, most of the students have their eyes locked in and can barely stand not playing with it.

3. Naming as a team building exercise: I then hand the monkey over to the students and ask them to go away from adults and come back when they have a name (Bob seems to be a pretty popular one, with creativity award going to Chanjella).  When they come back, the first thing I do is check in with everyone and have them rate 1-5 if they felt like they were heard and respected in the naming process.  If there are a lot of folks rating the process low, we brainstorm how to make the process more inclusive, and then I give them another chance to decide on a final name.

4. How the monkey travels through the group:I then ask everyone to think if there is anyone who they can appreciate for being helpful/brave/generous during the naming process.  Once several students have received appreciations, I hand the monkey to the student who received the first appreciation.  I then explain that every hour or so (when we're circled up and not in the middle of a lesson), the person who has the monkey will pass it to another group member with an appreciation.  Everyone will hold the monkey during our time as a group.  It’s Important to mention that appreciations should be specific, and not only directed at friends that you already know well. When a student first receives the monkey, I remind them that they should be paying attention to other group members so that they can notice when someone deserves an appreciation.  I also give them a few minute warning before a circle/monkey pass so that they can gather their words, and so that no one student has the monkey for too long.

The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive.  In some groups where the interactions are pretty negative, the passing of the stuffed animal really keeps the group morale afloat.  I had one group of students that typically interacted with irritation and there was one little boy in particular that rarely said anything positive to other students.  When someone appreciated him for helping with lunch I saw the first smile of the week.  Although his attitude didn’t completely change, I did notice him interacting with several students in a positive way after receiving that praise. The infusion of structured positive interaction has real potential to support the health of a community.

Other possible adaptations/ideas:

  • have some (or all) of the passing be outside of circling up, more of a private appreciation between two students
  • pass it around at the end of each day for group appreciations
  • come up with a song for the passing/appreciation

When working in the back or front-country wilderness you may find yourself convincing your students or clients about the ease and comfort of disposing of their

human waste in a natural setting. You may have fumbled through a tutorial once or twice about “digging a hole and aiming”, or tried to explain the benefits of using a composting toilet with a seemingly-endless black hole and unfamiliar air currents.

The reality is, once a novice has one positive experience of using an alternative or natural toilet, the task becomes less embarrassing and stressful.

What are the options?

  • Nature pee (and pack it in-pack it out)
    When at a remote campsite or in high-traffic day hike areas, you may find yourself needing to embrace a nature pee. Teaching kids from a young age about proper stance and appropriate locations to “use the woods” will reduce soiling oneself and embarrassment on everyone’s behalf. Furthermore, to be a true steward in high-use areas without other facilities, packing out one’s solid waste in zip-top bags is common practice.

  • Outhouses and Portable Toilets
    External toilets are a part of our national heritage: these toilet systems have been around since the 1940s! They also use 90% less water than traditional flushing toilets. Many state and national parks use portable restrooms or restrooms that are drained throughout the season; while they can be odorous and occasionally soiled, the most effective way to be a steward is to ensure the lid is closed after each use and to have hand sanitizer available once you have left the units.

  • Composting Toilets
    These eco-friendly bathroom alternative use no water and they compost our human waste into a new product: soil! The composting toilet system works through aerobic decomposition of the solid waste and evaporation of the liquid waste resulting in solid garden mulch. Explaining to younger users how the composting toilets work and why they are great for the earth can help to alleviate fears and mistrust of unfamiliar systems!

Why does it matter?

Education Director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Ben Lawhon, states that human waste and what we do with it can be one of the most significant impacts that faces lands used by the public for recreation. It impacts disease transmission and health, water quality, aesthetics, and social realms --and it's something that a lot of people just have a hard time dealing with.” As environmental educators and explorers we strive to minimize the impact on our planet and our communities; our waste is certainly included in that impact. Using these three steps, doing your business in nature can become peaceful and stress-free:

  1. Familiarity: Determine the most efficient and sanitary waste system available to you and become familiar with it early on in your adventure. Introducing your friends or team members to composting toilets and how they function will help to alleviate stress; starting a backpacking trip with a hypothetical display of removing excessive clothing, digging a hole and squatting will ease those with concerns about future bowel movements and what to do when they occur in the backcountry.

  2. Promote Sanitation: Determine what materials you will be using (toilet paper, smooth rocks, leaves, etc) and how you will dispose of them. Pack it in, pack it out in sealable plastic bags and/or compostable toilet paper materials. Change into clean clothes as often as possible.

  3. Ask Questions! If you are unsure about the appropriate protocol for your outing, ask a friend or a local guide. Ecosystems are often fragile and susceptible to bacteria from human waste. Ask before you “go”!

Further Resources:





It is a scene that is repeated over and over. A student finds a stick on the side of the trail and soon enough, they are walking towards you as if they have just begun a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. As an environmental educator, with safety as a priority for my students, I feel myself getting ready to say “Please put the stick down”. However, unless the child is using the stick as a wand, sword, light sabre or other object that needs to waved in the air, I find myself taking a different route now, one that embraces the use of sticks in the field. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that using sticks in our environmental education setting can truly have significant benefits.

Sticks for Learning about Engineering

Incorporating a structured activity using sticks can be an educational and fun experience. Using sticks as a medium, it can be focused on the concepts of design and creation. Students can work in small teams to find a location to build a bridge, shelter, or something else, depending on the prompt. The level of difficulty can be adjusted, even going as far as creating a walkable and sturdy bridge over a puddle. After building and testing out their projects, each group can present their creation, explaining the design, process and complexities of their structure. The process of building will be an experiential learning experience about what works and what doesn’t, as well as offer a small scale glimpse into major concepts that are a part of building anything.

Sticks for Learning about Teamwork

Not only are students learning about different engineering concepts, they are also working as a team in the process. Decision making comes into play as soon as the teams are formed. What location will we pick? Who is charge of what parts? What design should we attempt? What size materials should we use? Team members get the opportunity to work together for a concrete task, all while practicing very important communication and decision making skills. At the very end, students can share about their experience building together and discuss what went well or could be improved.

Sticks for Demonstrating Trust

Whether or not it is a building project, it is important for my students to know that I trust them to responsibly handle large sticks. This element of trust is a huge foundational piece for me, one that is extremely important to weave and communicate throughout any teaching experience. As mentioned before, one situation that comes up often when working with 5th graders is the desire to have a walking stick. I don’t ever bring up the idea of walking sticks unprompted, but as soon as a student inevitably picks up a stick I use it as an opportunity to explain my specific protocol that answers the following questions.

  • When and where will we be able to use walking sticks? This should be very clear. I often pick a trail that is removed from the main campus and doesn’t involve tricky terrain.
  • What does it look like to use a walking stick responsibly? Don’t underestimate the power of modeling this behavior. Pick a student and have them show everyone.
  • How tall can your walking stick be? Below shoulder height is usually easy to manage.
  • Where can we get a walking stick without harming our surroundings and each other? Make sure that getting a stick does not involve stepping into harmful plants or breaking branches.
  • Most importantly, why are you allowing walking sticks when the common expectation is to leave them on the ground? Without this, you may as well not let your students have sticks. I explain that I trust them and know they will show me this too.

There is not denying the magnetic force between sticks and students. The connection is quite real, and I think it is an opportunity to use sticks for good. I have never had any issues with students using sticks, whether as part of a more structured building activity or casually on the trails. When expectations are set high, and it is clear to the students that you trust them, they will rise up. I like to believe that all students will rise up if given the chance. Having this foundation of trust is when learning outdoors truly happens.

Students have a general affinity towards sticks and the potential to use it for learning responsibly, while still having fun, exists. Let’s embrace it.

Teaching in outdoor and informal education settings poses a number of unique challenges for those who choose this exciting and rewarding career. For example, instructors are faced with the monumental task of creating and maintaining a positive learning environment for students that they have just met. Additionally, informal educators must provide students with excellent learning opportunities in unfamiliar, exciting, and often totally distracting places. Finally, informal educators have a limited amount of time with their students to teach new concepts, address alternative conceptions, and stretch student thinking. Whether an educator has only an hour or an entire week with their students, most would agree that time is precious and should be spent learning and exploring.

How do we, as educators, maximize the limited time we have with our students? How do we ensure that we make the most of our instructional time? One strategy to help students transition smoothly from their classroom to a new environment is to set clear behavioral expectations early on and to hold students accountable. Well-defined expectations serve as a reminder to students that they are in a learning environment and that their behavior should align with the behavior expected of them in a classroom setting.

Through a series of trial-and-error teaching experiments, I have created a combination of 3 expectations that have proven to be exceptionally useful in concisely articulating my expectations for my students. It just so happens that they each start with the letter “P”, which works to my advantage, as it allows me to assign a snappy nickname to this grouping of behavioral norms: The Three Ps. The Three Ps are Participation, Positivity, and People Respecting Other People Speaking (otherwise known as P.R.O.P.S).

When used in conjunction, these three expectations address the majority of common behavioral challenges that I face as an outdoor educator. They are fairly straightforward, require little explanation, and, due to their simplicity, are easy to casually bring up when gentle redirection is needed.

I have found it most effective to introduce these expectations shortly after meeting my students and make sure to include my reasoning for each behavioral standard. The immediate presentation of expectations sets the tone for the remainder of an instructor’s time with their students. Once the norms are established and understood, the instructor can reference and enforce them quickly and efficiently. Additionally, a clear explanation of the “why” in addition to the “what” can help students understand that expectations aren’t the same as rules. Instead, they are guidelines intended to promote a successful learning experience for all members of the group.

Just as each and every student has a unique learning style, each instructor has his or her own distinct teaching style. I urge educators to play around with different sets of expectations and see what works for them. When brainstorming expectations for a group, consider how the skills they are practicing can be transferred to their home communities. Participation, positivity, and P.R.O.P.S are behaviors that can (and should) be used in any setting, educational or not. If there are exceptions to your expectations, consider leaving them out. It is confusing when expectations vary based on the setting or context. Expectations are most effective when they are constant.

In sum, here is a recap of how to establish and successfully use expectations in an educational setting:

  • Create expectations that are transferrable and universal.
  • Introduce expectations early on.
  • Explain the “why” of each expectation, not just the “what”.
  • Enforce expectations and provide reminders when needed.