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ImagineIT Phase 5

In November, I conferred with several colleagues: Ms. C, a 2nd


grade departmentalized math and science teacher, Ms. R, a selfcontained 1st grade teacher, and Ms. M, a departmentalized math and
science teacher in the 5th grade. I shared with them the two dilemmas
I was considering for the project to help students build connections to
the natural world:
1. Managing the tension for the needs for structured versus
unstructured time in the outdoors
2. Student lack of comfort in the natural world
As I planned activities for a field trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo's
Nature Boardwalk Conservation Area, I used two conversations with
colleagues to modify student activities for the trip. What came out of
the conversations was the idea of using differentiated instruction to
do an end run around student lack of comfort (or interest) in the
natural world by allowing students to choose from a menu of several
different activities to demonstrate connections with the natural world.
By tapping into a group of colleagues with different biases for
activities than my own, I was able to develop some creative ways for
students to make connections on the trip that I would never have
developed on my own. For example, one colleague noted that many of
my students had interest in the fine arts and fashion design, so one
activity choice was to find a natural object on our short hike that
would serve as inspiration for a work of art or an article of clothing.

My own activities that integrated the fine arts were limited to


observational drawings, so I was happy to offer additional choices to
my pupils. Other activities I talked over with colleagues included using
digital photographs of the study site to inspire creative writing and
poetry. What pleased me most about my colleagues' suggestions is
that they tapped into a tension identified by Richard Louv in Last
Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit
Disorder: the degree to which our perceptions of nature are hyperintellectualized can limit the extent to which nature can be
experienced as a transcendent or inspirational.
As a science specialist, I have pushed back against this idea: my
colleagues and I can derive plenty of intellectual satisfaction as well
as awe from time spent in natural settings. However, it is important to
acknowledge that this is indeed a tension that many of my students
experience, especially when their time in the outdoors is limited,
which is certainly the case for some of my students.
Next I introduced the menu of activity choices to students and
their chaperons before a field trip and surveyed students in the 8 th
grade. Later, I interviewed 11 students after school in a short session.
As with my colleagues, I found comments to be insightful, although
very surprising in some respects.
The big surprise was the number of surveyed students who
indicated that they were already quite comfortable spending time
outdoors and found it to be beneficial. For example, for the question,
Do you enjoy spending time in natural settings? Explain, here is a
sample of student responses:

It is [enjoyable] to get away


from mainstream technology.
Yes, I enjoy time spent in the
natural world because it makes
me feel free and relaxed.
I do enjoy time spent in nature
because it's peaceful and quiet.
It's relaxing and refreshing.
It is fun, interesting,
quiet/calm...
It is something different from
the city or electronics.
It could be relieving from all the
stresses.
I also love the setting because
you get away from the [chaotic]
setting of the city to a more
peaceful and quiet setting of

Illustration 1: Indiana Dunes National


Lakeshore: Site of previous nature activities
with these students.

nature.
It's peaceful and it helps me think.
While these comments do not reflect every surveyed opinion
(e.g., I do not like insects, except for butterflies, and that they
enjoy being outside when doing something sporty. Otherwise it is
boring. were other responses to the question) there was a
preponderance of positive opinions expressed towards the natural

world. Moreover, there were many similarities in students' positive


perceptions of time spent outside, e.g., relaxation, stress relief,
appreciation of calmness and peace. What was most surprising were
student respondents who indicated that they were happy to get away
from technology, which was the exact opposite of what I expected.
In the focus group, what was most surprising was what the
students enjoyed about the modifications I had made to the original
plan for the work they would do on the field trip, namely, what was
most resonant for them was that the activity involved choice. It
appealed to students that there were more things that you want to
do instead of one thing that you have to do, and that the different
choices were appreciated because there were things students knew
how to do already. Students also commented that it was unusual for
them to have choices for activities in classes other than science.
When I asked them why they thought that was the case, students
commented that it was probably easier to differentiate in science class
which led to a discussion about differentiating instruction in other
classes and student suggestions that I will be sharing with my grade
level team.
In conclusion, this experience was truly surprising to me. I
realized that I do not mention these kinds of problems very often with
my colleagues, especially those in other grade levels. I was also really
pleased with the kinds of suggestions they gave me, and I
acknowledge that it is useful to seek this kind of feedback from peers
more often to keep classroom ideas fresh.
Similarly, with students, I enjoyed getting some serious

challenges about assumptions I was making about student comforts


and perceptions as this project continues. I realize that for the
majority of my students, the kind of nature appreciation I am
interested in cultivating has already taken root, and I can now
consider ways to reach out to other students who are not in the same
comfort zone with natural experiences.
Finally, the degree to which differentiation was the best aspect of
the project was also surprising. As lead teacher for the middle school,
I will be sharing my summary of the student focus group with my
colleagues so that our whole middle school can use opportunities for
differentiation to motivate students in all subject areas.