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Those Pesky Wildlife Distractions, Always Disrupting my Ecosystem Lesson

Environment

It has happened to every outdoor educator: you are sitting outside with a group of students and right in the middle of your closing point, just as you are beginning a critical sentence containing the key connecting information that will tie up a well planned lesson, when from one student there is a rapid and astonished intake of breath, the student’s arm and hand and index finger all extend in one exalted motion and that student emphatically interrupts “look, a bald eagle!!!” At this point your fantastic closing sentence is lost in the wind, no one is listening to you blather on, and you find yourself, once again, yielding to the majesty and awe only nature can inspire.

Spending this past year immersing myself in the world of being an outdoor educator, I have many such stories, sometime it’s a bald eagle, other times it is a particularly cute mushroom, or often, a slimy banana slug. Without fail, when such a situation arises the students’ thoughts and attention are instantly redirected from the verbal words or instructions being expressed to something tangible, real, and right there! Now, as any sort of educator one must be able to switch gears at a moment’s notice, or redirect attention swiftly and cunningly, but it has been my experience that this particular phenomena, of being ‘interrupted’ by the very nature students’ are out tromping through the woods trying to explore, is a distinctly different situation that requires outdoor educators to be prepared in a different way. Here are a few ideas that helped me:

Change your attitude; don’t just get used to it, get excited about it

I recall a time, early in my adventure in outdoor education, that I actually found myself getting grumpy and upset at a mistimed owl sighting or a lesson-diverting duckling appearance. It took me some time to realize that this very attitude, of wanting students to experience the natural world but only at the ‘right’ times or in the ‘right’ ways was absolutely antithetical to my goals as an outdoor educator. Additionally this attitude was also quite detrimental to my ability to provide students with a meaningful educational experience. It is a sad day when an outdoor educator is disappointed at a student’s opportunity to experience the natural world, regardless of the timing. When I finally came to this realization, and started embracing these surprise ‘distractions’ as amazing learning opportunities rather than things detracting from my well planned outdoor education experience, I was better able to achieve my objectives as an outdoor educator.

Buy yourself some time

The beauty of teaching outdoors, in and about the very subject one is helping, students to explore, is that absolutely everything is connected. For the eager outdoor educator there is always a way to tie in any ‘distraction’ into any given lesson. However, sometimes it takes more than 15 seconds to come up with a thoughtful and meaningful way to use a wonderful learning opportunity like a wildlife sighting to enhance a lesson. One very useful trick I started employing was allowing students to observe whatever distract and then to have them put those observations into writing encouraging lots of detail and as many questions as possible. Even if it is in the middle of a lesson, this time when student are independently observing and recording, gives me a little time to consider how I can best utilize the excitement generated and harness that energy in a way that allows my students to deepen the already existing learning objectives. It can also be very useful to pose this question to students as well and allow them to think about how different components in nature are related.

Allow students to enjoy a natural ‘distraction’ but maintain the expectation that they can and will refocus when it is time

This step involves an element of trust and may be something to consider addressing with students before you are out in the field. If students understand that you also appreciate the unique opportunity observing nature can provide and that you want them to get those experiences they often are more willing to see your point that there will always be something else to observe and it will at times be necessary, even in the field, to refocus. Frontloading this expectation can be helpful. But even if this has not been done, it is useful in the moment to clearly state what you expect of the students. For instance in the event of a bald eagle sighting an instructor could say, ‘That is a bald eagle! Take a few minutes to observe its appearance and behavior and then we will refocus back on our conversation about the harbor ecosystem.” With a statement like this, students can see you care about their experience and also have an idea about what is expected from them.

 

Know when to cut your losses and switch gears

There are some ‘distractions’ that are just to rich and diverting to only spend a few minutes on. In these instances, it has always been important for me to remember that I am teaching in order to facilitate student learning. And sometimes I need to make the call that in order to best facilitate this learning it may be best to place pause on the current topic and switch gears. If I do decide that shifting focus is the best course of action, it is very important that I make time later to return to whatever lesson was interrupted. By returning to the original lesson I am demonstrating to students that the things I am teaching are important and worthwhile. But shifting the lesson I am also demonstrating that I respect student’s interests and learning goals.

As outdoor educators, the world is our classroom, and while we may not be able to control it, we can learn to use it as one of the most powerful teaching tools in existence.

It has happened to every outdoor educator: you are sitting outside with a group of students and right in the middle of your closing point, just as you are beginning a critical sentence containing the key connecting information that will tie up a well planned lesson, when from one student there is a rapid and astonished intake of breath, the student’s arm and hand and index finger all extend in one exalted motion and that student emphatically interrupts “look, a bald eagle!!!” At this point your fantastic closing sentence is lost in the wind, no one is listening to you blather on, and you find yourself, once again, yielding to the majesty and awe only nature can inspire.

Spending this past year immersing myself in the world of being an outdoor educator, I have many such stories, sometime it’s a bald eagle, other times it is a particularly cute mushroom, or often, a slimy banana slug. Without fail, when such a situation arises the students’ thoughts and attention are instantly redirected from the verbal words or instructions being expressed to something tangible, real, and right there! Now, as any sort of educator one must be able to switch gears at a moment’s notice, or redirect attention swiftly and cunningly, but it has been my experience that this particular phenomena, of being ‘interrupted’ by the very nature students’ are out tromping through the woods trying to explore, is a distinctly different situation that requires outdoor educators to be prepared in a different way. Here are a few ideas that helped me:

Change your attitude; don’t just get used to it, get excited about it

I recall a time, early in my adventure in outdoor education, that I actually found myself getting grumpy and upset at a mistimed owl sighting or a lesson-diverting duckling appearance. It took me some time to realize that this very attitude, of wanting students to experience the natural world but only at the ‘right’ times or in the ‘right’ ways was absolutely antithetical to my goals as an outdoor educator. Additionally this attitude was also quite detrimental to my ability to provide students with a meaningful educational experience. It is a sad day when an outdoor educator is disappointed at a student’s opportunity to experience the natural world, regardless of the timing. When I finally came to this realization, and started embracing these surprise ‘distractions’ as amazing learning opportunities rather than things detracting from my well planned outdoor education experience, I was better able to achieve my objectives as an outdoor educator.

Buy yourself some time

The beauty of teaching outdoors, in and about the very subject one is helping, students to explore, is that absolutely everything is connected. For the eager outdoor educator there is always a way to tie in any ‘distraction’ into any given lesson. However, sometimes it takes more than 15 seconds to come up with a thoughtful and meaningful way to use a wonderful learning opportunity like a wildlife sighting to enhance a lesson. One very useful trick I started employing was allowing students to observe whatever distract and then to have them put those observations into writing encouraging lots of detail and as many questions as possible. Even if it is in the middle of a lesson, this time when student are independently observing and recording, gives me a little time to consider how I can best utilize the excitement generated and harness that energy in a way that allows my students to deepen the already existing learning objectives. It can also be very useful to pose this question to students as well and allow them to think about how different components in nature are related.

Allow students to enjoy a natural ‘distraction’ but maintain the expectation that they can and will refocus when it is time

This step involves an element of trust and may be something to consider addressing with students before you are out in the field. If students understand that you also appreciate the unique opportunity observing nature can provide and that you want them to get those experiences they often are more willing to see your point that there will always be something else to observe and it will at times be necessary, even in the field, to refocus. Frontloading this expectation can be helpful. But even if this has not been done, it is useful in the moment to clearly state what you expect of the students. For instance in the event of a bald eagle sighting an instructor could say, ‘That is a bald eagle! Take a few minutes to observe its appearance and behavior and then we will refocus back on our conversation about the harbor ecosystem.” With a statement like this, students can see you care about their experience and also have an idea about what is expected from them.

 

Know when to cut your losses and switch gears

There are some ‘distractions’ that are just to rich and diverting to only spend a few minutes on. In these instances, it has always been important for me to remember that I am teaching in order to facilitate student learning. And sometimes I need to make the call that in order to best facilitate this learning it may be best to place pause on the current topic and switch gears. If I do decide that shifting focus is the best course of action, it is very important that I make time later to return to whatever lesson was interrupted. By returning to the original lesson I am demonstrating to students that the things I am teaching are important and worthwhile. But shifting the lesson I am also demonstrating that I respect student’s interests and learning goals.

As outdoor educators, the world is our classroom, and while we may not be able to control it, we can learn to use it as one of the most powerful teaching tools in existence.

About the Author
Jenine Adam
Author: Jenine Adam
Jenine Adam has spent the past year in graduate program through IslandWood and the University of Washington focused on Education for Environment and Community. As a part of this program she was immersed in the experience of teaching students in about the outdoors and learned a few trick of the trade.