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“Can you hear the silence? Our ancestors taught us to listen to the silence. It is beautiful to teach our minds to turn everything off, then mentally listen to the lessons that present themselves through this way of allowing silence to teach us.”

-Vi Hilbert, Upper Skagit Elder, Cultural Teacher, circa 1980s


At the beginning of any teaching week, I receive a list of my future students with their names, important medical information, and any other notes written by the parents and/or classroom teacher.  Although I value this information, I often take the notes with a grain of salt; learning in an outdoor setting allows students who struggle to be successful in a classroom to channel their energy or think in other ways, so the notes often seem irrelevant. On one particular Monday, I received a lengthy paragraph about one student with autism, who I will call Wayne. I prepared myself mentally to make some slight changes to my instruction and speak very literally. When the students arrived and settled into the group, I noticed that Wayne was high energy and needed boundaries, both personal and physical, and for these boundaries to be drawn out explicitly. The students in that week’s field group seemed to keep about a 5-foot distance in between themselves and Wayne. He was very kind, but had a hard time knowing when someone was trying to communicate that he had crossed a line. After making these observations, I took a deep breath and channeled some extra calm and patience to get me through the week.

The transition from classroom teaching to environmental education was challenging for me. At IslandWood, I work with the same 8-12 students all day long, rather than with 30 for an hour at a time. My classroom is 250 acres of forested land, rather than contained by 4 walls. The weather affects the mood of my students more than ever (it was a soggy winter.) But more than anything else, my biggest challenge has been adjusting to having a group of students for just four days, rather than a year and beyond. Each week, it gets harder and harder to say goodbye to my students, but I have learned how to hyperfocus my teaching on just a couple of main objectives and connect them to all that we do. At the beginning of every week, I ask myself: What do I want these kids to leave here with? What skills need to be practiced so that we can come together as a team? and, What problem do we have in our society that I would like to address through my teaching? And I keep coming back to the same theme: Listening.

An outdoor classroom lends itself well to practicing listening. At any given moment, there may be a woodpecker pecking, a coyote howling, or the wind rustling through the trees. At any given moment, I can pause the lesson and have my students listen. At any given moment, there is magic to be heard, but it is not that kind of listening that has brought the most magical moments.

The goosebump-inducing moments come from when my students listen to the land, listen to the plants, listen to the animals through what they notice. I ask them to think about what we can learn from the behaviors or growth patterns that we observe. Through one lesson in particular, each student becomes an expert in a plant and teaches the rest of the students about that plant. After everyone has taught, the students take what they learned about the plant and transform it into learning from the plant in an arts-integrated lesson I call Lessons from the Forest. For example, a Big Leaf Maple provides a habitat many plants and animals, so a lesson that could be learned is to be welcoming. This challenges students to take characteristics of a plant, build a relationship with them, and be open to listening to the earth’s lessons.

Trailing BlackberryThe first time I did this lesson was the same week that I had Wayne as a student. In the past, students with autism that I have worked with have had challenges with more abstract thought, which led me to believe that this activity would be a challenge for Wayne. After I rolled out the lesson, I immediately checked in with him. When I asked him to explain something he learned about his plant, Trailing Blackberry, he said, “Native Americans use it to purify. Can I write ‘be pure of heart’?” Instant goosebumps! I think Wayne might have gotten a little bit creeped out as my eyes opened incredibly wide and my face beamed with pride and excitement. I had been completely wrong about Wayne. He took the time to create a beautiful page about the Trailing Blackberry and all we can learn from it.

Wayne took the lessons on listening seriously that week, with some occasional resistance. By the end of the week, I had noticed a change in him. It was as if he had slowed down and really tried to understand what others were saying. On the morning of their departure, I heard Wayne talking to another student in the group, “I didn’t know I was going to make new friends when I came here.” As if it were a movie, the other student smiled and put his arm around Wayne’s shoulders and said, “Me either!” The other students learned to listen to Wayne and Wayne learned to listen to them. The simple act of listening brought Wayne into the group in a way that he may have never been brought in before. Listening made our group a place of acceptance, understanding, and love.

In western culture, true listening comes few and far between. We are constantly in a hurry, have too many things on our to do list, have too much to worry about in our own lives to worry about what is going on in someone else’s life. The kids that come to me are the future teachers, politicians, lawyers, activists, doctors, environmentalists, leaders and so much more. If we can teach them to slow down and listen to each other, to the earth, to themselves, the future will be filled with peace, acceptance, and equity.


There is a certain emphasis I have experienced as an outdoor educator on the importance of community. Maybe it is the setting in which this type of learning takes place, or possibly the influence of the field itself, but the forest, in my case, lends itself to discussing community. When my group of students and I gather along the edge of a trail on our first day together, we are not forming a community among four walls, but a community amidst a larger ecological context. This year, I focused on using the practice of arts-based teaching and learning to help build community amongst my groups of fourth through sixth graders. In an interview in 2017 in Sciart Magazine, Harvey Seifter describes Arts Based Learning and Teaching as, “...the instrumental use of artistic skills, processes, and experiences as educational tools to foster learning in non-artistic disciplines and domains” (Ferguson, J., 2017). As an artist and science teacher, I find myself integrating not only the artistic practices I know well and enjoy, but the thinking practices that are cultivated in the arts. In the context of this lesson, how watercolor images can be used represent the qualities each of my students brings to our field group.

Incorporating some of this research into my practice, I decided to use my understanding of the practice of arts-based teaching and learning for community building. As a residential environmental educator, I receive a new group of 10-12 student each week. I find the use of community agreements to be essential to a successful week in the field and am continuously thinking of how I can improve my process in this area. This week, I choose a visual arts integration to help my students express the qualities that they were bringing to the group. This idea was loosely based off of a deck of feeling cards I have used in the past. The cards have images on one side and words on the other. I typically place the images face up after team building in the center of our debrief circle as a way to help students tap into the emotions they experienced during the activity. Students can select an image and explain how they felt. I began to wonder if my students could make their own images.

I began this teaching week with my new group of students by having them participate in a solo walk along a path, as the students arrived at the end of the trail one by one every three minutes or so, they were asked to journal about a positive quality they were bringing to the group. Once all students arrived and had time to journal on the prompt, I handed out small pre-cut squares of watercolor paper. I asked them to represent their positive quality as an image; I had created an example of a coy fish. I told them I would explain later what it meant to me, but I wanted them to do the same. For a few students, representation was a difficult leap in understanding. I presented them with several modifications, one being to select a color that represented the quality, the second, to write the quality in words, then watercolor it. All students were able to successfully participate.

CommunityAgreement TextThe next day, I glued all the images into a circle on a large piece of paper. As students went around and shared what their image represented, I traced the conversation between each speaker. The web represented between all of us that week, represented the strength we have together as a community. The middle of the web was filled with words that defined teamwork. I used the agreement each morning as a tool for goal setting. Students selected one word as their goal for the day. At the end of each day, we debriefed our goals and how we accomplished them.

When thinking about why the incorporation of visual arts was valuable in this lesson, I think about how that week felt with those students. Team building and by virtue of that, teamwork, was very challenging for this group, but individual strengths were mentioned by students in each activity we did. The students recognized that each member brought something different to the community. Additionally, I saw an initial deeper understanding on an individual level from each student as to what quality they were bringing to the group. In comparison, I have had groups select a positive quality without representing it visually and struggle explaining why they choose the quality they did, or what quality to choose. The above experience furthers my belief that the arts helps us as humans make sense of the world around us, help us understand ourselves, and help us represent that knowledge for others.


Ferguson, J. (2017, February). Art as a means to scientific discovery: the work of Harvey Seifter
and the art of science learning. Sciart magazine. Retrieved from sciartmagazine.com


A major component of environmental education is learning about place and through place. To ground one’s learning in place gives it context. What skills and mindsets enhance place-based learning? This and similar questions are valuable for all environmental educators to consider. As a result of own questioning, I have been diving into an exploration of the use of maps and mapping skills to support a range of student learning.

mapping with studentsMapping fosters many important skills for students including collaboration and critical thinking. Mapping also requires thinking differently about place. We must look at ourselves relative to our surroundings. This is true in the creation of maps, but also in using maps for wayfinding and navigating. To create and use maps requires taking information from the real world and changing it into more abstract representations and vice versa. Mapping can be used artistically, analytically, personally, collaboratively, or all of these at the same time. Because of their tremendous variety and utility, it is worth considering the value that maps might have as a tool to enhance place-based learning. What considerations should educators have when using maps with students?

David Sobel, author of Mapmaking with Children illustrates both the challenge and beauty that can emerge from using maps with young people. “We do a disservice to children when we jump in too quickly at a prematurely abstract level in map reading and mapmaking. It’s important to have children begin mapmaking the way they begin drawing; maps and drawings are representations of things that are emotionally important to children...children’s maps represent their experiences of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort” (1998, p 5). To skip practicing mapping skills on subjects close to a child’s heart might have a negative effect; mapping loses its relevance and they may miss out on the chance to acquire mapping skills in a natural way.

Sobel goes on to recommend an “expanding horizons” approach to using mapping with children. This approach takes into account the developmental progression of spatial learning. Mohan and Mohan (2013) add to this by advocating for younger children between the ages of 3 and 6 years to use mapping in a way that complements their largely tactile approach to learning. Maps should be big so that children can explore them with their whole bodies. Subjects should be places that are familiar, such as home and school. Between the ages 7 and 9 years children can begin using maps in slightly more abstract ways, including the use of intuitive symbols (i.e. for legends). Mapping content can begin to move outward and reflect neighborhoods, communities, and other places that children experience routinely. By 10 years old, the expanding of horizons continues as children are able to comprehend and construct maps that are more and more abstract, using symbolism that might not directly relate to what’s being depicted. Content again expands outward to cover watersheds, bioregion, and beyond.

In my own teaching I have been using mapping as a way to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking and transfer of learning with 4th-6th grade students. Maps have proven instrumental in bringing alive conversations of natural history, indigenous history, and colonial history of Seattle. Looking at maps across time illustrates how much the region has changed through such actions as the dredging and straightening of the Duwamish River, the lowering of Lake Washington from the creation of the Ballard locks, and the loss of numerous streams, wetlands, and other small waterways.

In this lesson, maps become a way to tie together conceptions of the natural world and human communities -key components in our working definition of place. Looking at the power of human impact, students can then begin to think of how they personally and collectively fit into this discussion. Each of them have spent significant parts of their lives in the places represented on those maps. In this way mapping highlights equity and inclusion. They allow students to become part of the conversation and discover how their ideas and their voice connect to the world.

Maps are representations of place, but they can be so much more than that. They can translate information across scale, time, and culture. They are versatile because they can be objective, and yet they can be expressions one’s creativity and imagination. If we as educators put care and intention in how we share mapping with students, they can begin to discover mapping as an empowering and valuable tool for understanding the world.


Mohan, Audrey and Mohan, Lindsey. (2013) Spatial Thinking About Maps: Development of 
 Concepts and Skills Across the Early Years. National Geographic Education.

Sobel, David. (1998) Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Early 
 Elementary Years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann


CommunityMapping2In my teaching practice I try to teach scientific processes while integrating both other ways of understanding and an element of critical thinking. Recently, I was incredibly inspired in reading an article on Community Mapping. Community Mapping is defined as, “local mapping, produced collaboratively, by local people and often incorporating alternative local knowledge” (Jagger, pg. 175). Or, more succinctly, as “snapshots of the community as the community sees it” (Jagger, pg. 175). Pondering this, I decided to try a miniature version of community mapping as a data gathering device for a soil investigation.

Tuesday morning, I rolled out how our day would revolve around exploring which types of soil contained the most macroinvertebrates. I unveiled a large piece of butcher paper with a very rough, basic depiction of the trails, buildings, and bodies of water at our facility. I explained we would be taking soil samples from three locations of their choice to investigate, and that we would use the map to record any pertinent observations or data about those locations. The field group then had a discussion over the meaning of community mapping. We talked about how maps are made, who gets to make them, and what they exclude. Students brought up the pieces they felt were missing from our trail map- people and experiences. This lead to a great back and forth about how not only were people moving and changing, but the land is also constantly shifting. Students agreed that we should try making our own map to use for the soil investigation, and in it include their own observations. We spent the better part of the day exploring IslandWood to find samples and take observations.

At each sample site, students first listed out potential important variables- the moisture of the soil, the leaf cover and available food for macroinvertebrates, plants nearby, proximity to a trail, etc. They then added the observations into the area of the map our sample was taken from. Some students chose to draw, others to write notes. But in all three locations, the map was populated with observations created a distinct picture of the differences.

When we got the lab and debated which soil sample would contain the most macroinvertebrates, this community drawn map turned into a valuable tool for recall and synthesis of information. Students were able to more thoughtfully talk about their observations and arguments.

Overall, this activity was a rousing success- measured in student engagement and ability to explain the “why” of an activity. This community mapping activity engaged socio-emotional learning, and engaged other ways of understanding. A few students were slow to engage in the observations, they seemed confused at first with the non traditional science and structure. The day started off with a challenging group dynamic, and the cooperative nature of this activity became the focus for much of the day as a way to augment social-emotional learning.

CommunityMapping1The “aha” moment came during our garden observations. Another adult came over to our group and asked a student why they were writing and drawing on the paper. That particular student had been minimally engaged all day, full of eye-rolls, and refusals to add anything to our map. However, the student gave an incredibly eloquent answer about how understanding the environment around where we took the sample could help us understand why macroinvertebrates like the forest or the compost. This answer was a wonderful surprise, and a reminder that learning looks different for each student.

I was unable to fully actualize community mapping as a tool to engage students in their home communities. My hope was to engage them in connecting with place enough to evoke “place meaning,” if not “place attachment” at our site. Students did seem to take closer observations and connections with the use of the map, on both a scientific and emotional level. In reflecting more, I would push the students to think deeper and more critically about the social justice components of community mapping. I chose to mainly focus on the lens of scientific contextualization. We touched on social-justice in group discussion, but I wonder what the activity would have looked like with connections made between social justice and science.

Jagger, S. (2013). “This Is More Like Home”: Knowing Nature through Community Mapping. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18, 2013, (173-189).



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