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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 




Setting clear and achievable expectations for students is paramount in any educational practice. It is especially important in outdoor education in order to set every student up for success. Whether the experience is something familiar to students or completely foreign, being transparent regarding expectations and providing explanations as to why they are important helps students have a clear understanding of learning targets, safety, and more.

When expectations are made clear upon meeting your students, you immediately set them up for success by highlighting your faith in their capability; i.e. you expect something because you know they can achieve it. Being explicit about what you would like the group norms to be also helps students to feel safe and gives them an understanding that they have a voice in their learning, and thus ownership over it. Of course, it is essential to explain the why behind your expectations so that students understand that these expectations are being set for an important reason beyond you as the instructor merely seeking compliance.

As you roll out your expectations for students at the start of their educational experience, it is important to give clear examples of ways they can follow these guidelines and expectations by framing them as positive actions; what you would like to see from students, rather than what you would not like to see. If you set expectations early on and students are unable to follow instructions or behave in accordance with your expectations, this tells you that some students may need more scaffolding in order for them to be more successful in meeting these academic or behavioral expectations. This could also inform you that your expectations are unrealistic, that you need to be clearer and more concise in how you explain them to students, or break your expectations down into smaller steps that students can more easily put into practice.

Because students may be unfamiliar with the structure of your program, providing a schedule along with expectations for group norms can provide a sense of structure and consistency when students may otherwise be feeling dysregulated by the change in academic setting and sheer unfamiliarity of being away from home.

In an outdoor educational setting, expectations can look like [asking for]:

  • Positive and respectful communication
  • Full participation during discussions (so that students are able to learn to collaborate and share ideas with one another)
  • Active listening (so that everyone in the group is heard)
  • Challenge by choice (so that every student is challenged and has a choice in the degree of which he or she is challenged)
  • Build a positive audience (so that students feel supported when sharing and speaking with the group)
  • Assume positive intentions (so that students can work through conflict with one another)
  • Take risks
  • Physical and emotional safety
  • Get dirty and/or uncomfortable
  • Have fun

If you notice that students aren’t reaching their potential and you’re realizing that it’s because you neglected to inform them of any expectations, it’s important to be transparent with your students about this. Owning up to mistakes and admitting to students that they weren’t set up for success by no fault of their own is important in order to help create a culture of error within the group; that is, teaching students that everyone makes mistakes, even adults.

In sharing expectations with the group, it is equally as important to ask for students’ expectations. This will help you to meet their unique needs, incorporate their interests into your lessons in order to increase their learning, and build rapport. By taking an interest in hearing what students expect their outdoor educational experience to look like, you demonstrate that you care about making their experience a meaningful one, and that you’re taking a personal interest in each and every individual in the group. When students see that you’re able to communicate with them why you are unable to meet their expectations, but that you’re at least interested in hearing them out they are more likely to trust in the time and effort you put into the group, which will result in stronger relationships with your students in the short time you may have with them.

Building trust with your students and showing that you have faith in their learning and their ability to take on new challenges to meet expectations will go a long way in enhancing the group dynamic, ensuring that students have the most memorable, meaningful, and transformative outdoor educational experience possible. Overall, communicating clearly with your students about your expectations and authentically showing them that you have their best interest in mind will enrich the impact of their learning experience and can positively affect how they approach new learning experiences in the future.

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