Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Designing a Custom 4-Day Curriculum with BEETLES, Part 2

In the spring of 2019, Waskowitz Outdoor Education Center hired BEETLES to develop a curriculum for their 4-day residential outdoor school program. The curriculum was to include BEETLES activities connected to the theme of Ecosystems, Matter, and Energy, that would engage students in science practices while building students’ sense of place and connection to nature. Waskowitz has implemented the new curriculum and program for their fall 2019 season, and we interviewed Meredith von Trapp, Assistant Director of Waskowitz, to hear more about the goals of the curriculum and how it’s been going.

Part 1 of the blog focused on the rationale for and BEETLES design of a curriculum for a 4-day outdoor school program. Now, Part 2 dives into the implementation of the new curriculum, including how Meredith prepared staff for the changes in programming, teacher and student response, and more! 

BEETLES: How did you prepare your field instructors and classroom teachers for this shift in teaching and curriculum?

Meredith: We’ve always had a required training for classroom teachers who bring students to Waskowitz. For this new program structure, we offered 2 different 12 hour trainings they could attend. The curriculum took them through the lessons. There’s also a lot of teaching and supporting in the moment when the teachers are here. One of the big reasons why BEETLES is a good match in this case is the field cards – they really support teachers who haven’t had the time to prep as much as they may have wanted to. 

For our field instructor staff, we spent an entire week training them on the new curriculum. This was really valuable. Before that, they were excited for this change, but also nervous because they were going from having a class of students for only 90 minutes, to having a class for 6 hours. I think our instructors were nervous about how they would fill the time, but now they feel they have plenty to do because of all the activities and options in the curriculum. Our staff really loves change and professional learning and growth, which makes it really easy. And we’ve been preparing for this. We let them know last spring we’d be doing some changes and embracing BEETLES lessons and curriculum. BEETLES had been a slow trickle already. Our staff love all the videos and support materials. BEETLES activities are really set up for people to be successful, so the field instructors already felt a lot of success with the teaching style. 

We also have high school students from a school that’s attached to the outdoor school to draw upon. We trained them with Questioning Strategies, and how to lead Walk & Talks. During programming they lead the Walk & Talks, and are model co-explorers with students. They ask great broad questions, and it’s embedded professional learning for the teachers who are watching the high school leaders! 

One of my outdoor educators had this to say about BEETLES: “I think that the overall structure and language of the BEETLES curriculum help me be a better educator. When I am implementing a written lesson, they are clear, detailed, and scalable to time and class needs. When I’m not teaching written lessons and just come across cool things in the field, the practice I’ve had with written lessons kicks in and allows me to enhance the discovery process for my group of co-explorers.”

For the classroom teachers, we have all the materials ready for them when they come to teach, like all the field cards for BEETLES activities, all the student materials like Lichen keys, Mind Pies, and field guides, and posters that include sentence starters and key definitions in English and Spanish.

BEETLES: How’s it going? What kinds of changes and shifts are you seeing in your students? What kind of feedback and responses are you getting?

Meredith: Our field instructors have loved it. They’re very much teaching the curriculum. They’re learning how to support students’ engagement by changing locations more during lessons. When asked about the new BEETLES curriculum, one of my outdoor educators said, “As an instructor I get excited to use the BEETLES way mostly because I feel like students can make connections about the natural world without being afraid of having the ‘wrong answer.’”

This is the first time there’s been a sequence, overall goal, and overarching structure to our student learning time. Before, it could kind of be all over the map, and inconsistent from student group to student group in terms of what they experienced. One of the teachers who was very familiar with our program in the past, said “This new curriculum is so much more aligned with our science content, I really appreciate the rigor.” I think this new curriculum really gives students a rigorous science experience where they’re deeply engaged with nature, and also benefit from the Social and Emotional Learning opportunities that come from living and learning collaboratively. 

Now students leave knowing what they studied when they were here. On the last day, the students take all the notes in their journals and make a big model ecosystem map from everything they’ve seen and studied and thought about. It’s so cool to see, there’s tons of writing on there, arrows and connections. Students are walking away with a much deeper, richer experience because there’s something that ties it all together, this overall theme of What Lives Here? and ecosystem interactions. The students will always find cool things in the moment, and with this overarching frame, the teachers can go off-script. We tell them, “If you’re doing Lichen Exploration and the kids are excited about slug, look at the slug! Then, connect it back to thinking about What Lives Here?” Students share a lot of aha moments like “I never knew all these animals and plants were here.” As they use I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of, they slow down and look at their surroundings, which isn’t always easy to do.

Thinking about evidence and using evidence to support explanations has been a really big part of the curriculum and learning. Students are using evidence and reasoning to think about organisms and interactions in What Lives Here?. Kids will often say, “It’s a fern. I know it’s a fern,” before they really look at it. The activity gives us a way to bring students through the process of trying to identify it and share their thinking, saying, is it strong evidence? Less strong? Weak? The teachers love that, and use that a lot during the week and afterwards.  

The students are super engaged. They’re engaged with nature and looking for things and they’re super engaged with the field guides (we created our own for Waskowitz).

The design of BEETLES activities and the approach of creating curriculum that’s inclusive and equitable, and grounded in student and nature centered teaching is really noticeable. This is important in the context of our district which is very culturally and linguistically diverse. It works because students can talk to each other about their ideas in any language, and make direct connections to their surroundings. We also support language learners by having high school school leaders speak languages that the students do, and we also have some dual-language programs. All of the BEETLES materials are very adaptable in this way.

BEETLES: Were there unexpected outcomes of this curriculum project, or ways the work has translated back to the classroom?

Meredith: One thing that surprised me was how much teachers have embraced this as an interdisciplinary curriculum. The classroom teachers that come to the program aren’t all science; some are Math teachers, English Language Arts teachers or even school counselors. The teachers are finding ways to embrace what students learn and then do that back in the Math or English classroom. We sent a survey to gather feedback on the program and one teacher commented, All classrooms, no matter the subject, benefit from the character education that Waskowitz provides. It dovetails perfectly with the environmental science teaching that we are all connected but, in reality, that connectivity is the foundation of the study of literature, world language, and history.”

They’re using I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of in the math classroom and to look at math problems. The Language of Uncertainty– using sentence starters like “I think, maybe…” or “Based on this evidence, perhaps…” extends to everything. This goes full-circle back to the goals and focus of our committee. The science curriculum lead for the district was on our committee- she recognized students had a hard time disagreeing in science when they had a difference of opinion. The language of uncertainty has helped scaffold skills for respectful disagreement and thoughtful discourse. This can work in any subject, whether it’s what you read in a book or how you would solve the math problem, and that’s been really transformative for teachers.

I’ve been working to collect evidence from students on impacts Waskowitz has with students. The language we use in the program to engage students in learning and science practices are also seem to be used a lot after the fact– teachers have talked about students starting to use words like “evidence” in an English class while discussing readings, after coming to Waskowitz.

BEETLES: What are some challenges related to implementation? How have you or do you plan to work with these challenges?

Meredith: This is all new. Generally, it’s been received very well. There have been some subtle changes and things we have taken out of the program to make room for this new curriculum. Some teachers who have been coming for a long time miss some of those things, but when we explain the process and our reasoning, they seem to understand.

One of the challenges we’ve had is that teachers aren’t getting to all of the activities every week. I’d rather have too much than not enough, though. I think the main thing that’s challenging is that it’s so much new stuff. The teachers really want to do a good job. It’s great to have a very structured curriculum, and it’s very well laid out, but I’ve had to remind them if they get overwhelmed, the main point is about connection. It’s about the students connecting to each other, this place, and nature. 

I think the teachers might start doing more classroom work before and after the program that are written into the curriculum. I know they’re definitely drawing on the experience after they go home. And I think teachers have had “aha’s” at the end of the week, that it would’ve been great to have taught more before coming to Waskowitz.

The level of detail in the materials and activities in the curriculum has also, paradoxically, been the most exciting thing for teachers. They have all these concrete things to work from, and the teachers are surprised and excited to see how excited the kids are to find critters and engage. The materials facilitate students in having that experience of connecting with nature. 

BEETLES: Anything else you’d like to share?

Meredith: Student and nature-centered teaching has transformed what we do here. I’ve been in education for 15 years, and I wish I’d had this when I was a classroom teacher. I wasn’t student-centered as much as I could have been. I would have used I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of all day long. That activity change my life. I think all teachers can benefit from this, asking open-ended questions and using a student and nature-centered approach to guide students. Thank you BEETLES!  

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