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Help - I'm teaching a pack of squirrels!

Instruction

Have you ever been in charge of a group only to have them begin scattering like squirrels at a golden retriever convention? Not to worry, think of all that energy as "Leadership Potential!" You can harness that power for the good of all...if you consider the following ways to change your teaching--one thing you have direct control over.

Have you ever been in charge of a group only to have them begin scattering like squirrels at a golden retriever convention? Not to worry, think of all that energy as "Leadership Potential!" You can harness that power for the good of all...if you consider the following ways to change your teaching--one thing you have direct control over.

1. "Hook" them--Consider that "losing" a group is just feedback about their passions, and find a better "hook" to combine their passion with yours. Think scary, suspenseful, amazing, or surprising as the words to describe your hook. An example is to say "Hey check out this rattlesnake!" while pretending to hold something. Yes, I know, safety concerns, crying wolf, etc. You can only cover all of that once you have their attention, so get it! (Then apologize for crying crotalid, with a sly smile).

2. Create a progression--start very active and fun, then move to observational and finish with reflective, detailed work. If you begin in an open space and play an active game that requires them to do what you say quickly, you are training them how to respond in their new "classroom."

3. Use the whole group--this tip is like bottled lightning: ask everyone to turn to a partner and review what they know about something (e.g. nocturnal adaptations). This is exciting for them, and at the same time provides you with a moment to observe, reset and make a decision about what to do next with your squirrels. This is huge! Think of it as pressing "Pause" when the wheels are about to come off the wagon. As another example, using the whole group might mean designating a timekeeper so you don't have to answer (or not answer) questions about that. For every challenge, consider putting a group member in charge of regulating it (e.g. "Kayley, can you get the group circled up?").

4. Explain yourself--take a few moments to sell why what you are about to do is great. Even just saying "We are about to do something that many people say is their favorite experience of their whole time here" can be a good lead-in. Other things you might say by way of explanation include sentence stems like "See if you can figure out (e.g. "if this pond is clean or dirty")..." or "There is a mystery about what is going on here (e.g. 'all the trees are much smaller than over there')...."

5. Activity--in a given sequence, people are most likely to remember the first and last things encountered. This is known as the "Serial Position Effect" and is the result of how our brains are wired. To use this to the benefit of a squirrelly group, change locations and activities often, keeping a weather eye on what you do first and last (i.e. make those things the most important part of your goals).

6. Use props--imagine placing a bear skull in the center of a circle. You will have their attention. The same goes for a hula hoop or a rubber chicken attached to your pack. All of these communicate "This is going to be fun and interesting." When I taught entering kindergarteners in a class of 32 (before class size reductions in California!) I soon realized that instructions coming from hand puppets were listened to for longer and with better recall than anything I could say directly!

7. Talk less--with some of my most challenging groups, I show up with a small whiteboard and a plan, then don't "say" anything for an hour or more. Everything I communicate comes from my expressions, body language, and the written word. I might write "What happened here?" or "Smell this tree," for instance. Adults and children alike are amazed at how well everyone becomes tuned in to each other, often listing it as a highlight of their time and asking when they can do it again. You absolutely must try this if you haven't! Those are some of my tips for teaching groups resembling tree climbing rodents in attention span and energy. You might also wish to visit my tips for outside circles and teaching in the rain . This is not an exhaustive list (perhaps it is even an avoidance of "exhaustive" list!), so what tips can you share?

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About the Author
Ray Cramer, M.S.Ed.

SENIOR FACULTY FOR TEACHING PRACTICUM, ISLANDWOOD

Since beginning as an environmental educator in 1982, Ray has taught at outdoor programs in Virginia, Vermont, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Virtually all of his experience involves what he calls “Turning work into play while helping people to make connections with the environment around them.” Ray’s life outside of IslandWood includes leading expeditions as a senior field instructor for Voyageur Outward Bound School and teaching for the Wilderness Medicine Institute. Education: B.S. in Psychology, Virginia Tech; M.S.Ed. in Outdoor Teacher Education, Northern Illinois University.