Some program activity groups have 30+ students in them, plus chaperones. We’ve heard some folks say, “The groups I work with are too large to do student-centered BEETLES stuff.” We’ve heard other folks say, “Working with large groups forces you to make things student-centered, because it’s too hard to make it instructor-centered.” We interviewed Korena David of Foothill Horizons, Sonora, California. Her program works with large groups of students, and they’ve successfully adapted BEETLES activities and approaches. Here are her top tips.
Breaking down into smaller groups. When possible, we break down big groups into smaller functional groups during an activity. For example, with Bark Beetles Exploration, I do some instruction with the whole group, but then I divide the group into about 4 smaller groups of 7–8, each one led by a chaperone. I either circulate between the groups, or take one on. If the leaders are high school students, it’s better if I circulate so they don’t have to lead their group alone.
Using color groups. We often use color groups within a hiking group. We give each kid a wood cookie with their name, and before they arrive we use crayons to mark each one with one of four colors. There are 7–8 kids with each of the colors. Then we use the colors to group kids all week long. For example, if I’m leading Walk & Talk, I might say, “Everyone blue and green in this line, and yellow and orange in this line. But next time I’ll use a different color combination.” It’s easier and more efficient to make up line groups.
Making name cards. We also write every student’s name on a small (smaller than my pinkie) piece of thin cardboard (we cut up a soda box into cards). I keep them in my pocket. At the beginning of a hike I pull 5 new kids’ names and tell them that if they want, they can hike at the front of the line. Then I have a chance to interact and observe with them. If we come across something interesting I’m not gonna stop the whole group for, I can share it with them. This prevents certain kids from always being at the front or others to be stuck in the back, and gives me time with all the students. When I need a couple of people to do a specific role that everyone will want to do, the name cards give me a randomizer in my pocket. Sometimes I use them after they discuss in a small group. I choose a name from each group to present to the whole group.
Introducing routines. We use routines like Walk & Talk at the outset and throughout our experiences. If introduced well, no management of routines is needed after they’ve been introduced.
Transitioning from circles into lines. If students are already standing in a circle, instead of telling them to line up, we tell them “Everyone put your right arm into the circle. OK we’re leaving our circle to form a line, follow the person in front of you, and we’ll end up in a line.”
Sharing something interesting on a hike. I don’t ever stop and point out
something cool and small, like a wildflower, to the whole group. But if I know there’s a field of them, I’ll take them there and tell everyone to get on their bellies and look at a wildflower. I skip a lot of small things. Sometimes if there’s something cool to share, I’ll ask a student or two up front to stay with it and point it out to others as they come by. I might give them a question to ask, or something to point out, like “Feel the bark.” Then I let them come back to the front. If there’s something large, like a deer carcass, then I may have the whole group look at it together. Sometimes we’ll drag a carcass to a place where we can circle around it, so everyone can see it.
Talking to the whole group on trail. If there’s something I really want to say NOTES to the whole group, I’ll walk back to the middle of the line before saying it. As I walk back, I tell kids to turn and listen so half the group already knows to turn. Because I’m small I always stand on the uphill side, and I make sure they’re not looking into the sun.
Leading a discussion. There are times when I lead a discussion with the whole group, but it’s challenging, and lots of students aren’t going to be willing to participate. I do a lot more Turn & Talk, Walk & Talk, think and turn and talk, or write and turn and talk. Or I have them talk in their color groups.
Spotting wildlife. During “nature moments,” I fall back on I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of as a routine. For instance, if we come across a whole flock of turkeys, we use a hand signal for getting quiet to see a wild animal. I make deer antlers on your head with the fingers from one hand, while you point at it with the other hand. I tell them to remember their observation prompts, and to whisper with someone nearby.