My Story: Becoming an Experiential Educator
I almost dropped out of teaching school. I don't like to say that because I'm not a quitter. I never have been, but it's the honest truth. I wondered if I could have a full time career doing something that just wasn't sitting right with me. My own experience was telling me that learning comes from direct involvement, but I wasn't observing that in practice. Here's my story:
I got my undergraduate degree in biology and proceeded to work with environmental protection programs for three years following graduation. Education wasn't even remotely on my mind. It didn't even occur to me. I didn't grow up in a family of educators. I was at a selfish time in my life when I didn't care much for kids to be honest. I was still a kid myself.
Working in the field was amazing for so many reasons. I met wonderful people, saw places I wouldn't have otherwise seen, and gained practical experience for a career in environmental science. I learned more about science in three months in the field, immersed in the content, than I did over the course of my lifetime. Content that I studied in college paired with active involvement in the field was a powerful learning experience for me.
Several years of working in the field was exhausting, however. I was constantly getting hurt. I literally had a handful of near death experiences, one of which was rolling an ATV down a mountain with me inside, another getting chased down by a nesting female alligator. I'll save the details of those stories for another day. I felt like my personal life was a revolving door. I would become close to my coworkers like family and then we would go our separate ways six months later. All of the jobs were temporary assignments. I was exhausted, hurt, emotionally and physically broken, and I was lonely. I decided enough was enough. It was time to go home.
I went back to Minnesota where I was raised and still had family. I applied to get my teaching license at the University of Minnesota, was accepted, and started the program within days of returning home. The program itself was great, but things went downhill when I started my high school student teaching experience.
I was torn. What I was learning in my teaching program was starkly different than what I was observing as a student teacher. My teaching program trained us to take a student-centered approach. We spent almost the entire year practicing inquiry-based learning strategies, which I thought was amazing at the time, and still do. Then I would go student teach under the supervision of an instructor that was very teacher-centered. Many classes that I observed were of her writing notes onto an old-school overhead projector, using a note-taking template that was photocopied out of a textbook. The students sat in their seats for 40 minutes copying her notes verbatim.
I don't believe this to be the fault of my cooperating teacher. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to fit in all of the standards, meet testing requirements, stay under budget, and "educate" the 180 total students that walked into her classroom each day. We would talk occasionally about how she felt a little stifled and restricted, especially when it came to experiential learning activities such as field trips. The logistical nightmare it was to transport 180 students to the science museum, for example, limited learning beyond the walls of the classroom. She was a seasoned teacher and she was intelligent. I have to believe that she felt there was no other option. I felt it too when I started doing the teaching myself.
I knew I couldn't operate that way for the rest of my career. My experience working in the field was always in the forefront of my mind when trying to work out my educational philosophy, along with the "student-centered" theory I was learning in teaching school. I knew as a student myself, that a strictly teacher-centered, lecture-based philosophy would not be effective, especially with 21st century students. We don't have the need for notetaking of that kind or rote memorization anymore. At one time that was more important, as access to information hasn't always been what it is today. The information is at our fingertips quite literally. What the students need, I thought, is to learn how to learn, as I did in the field - how to problem solve, think critically, navigate sources of information, question current lines of thinking and adjust thinking based on new input and experience.
I decided I needed to check into some things. What other options did I have? A lot of options it turned out. Not only were there a lot of schools and educational organizations doing things differently, but teachers in traditional classrooms were mavericks as well, trying to promote active and involved learning experiences while under the same restrictions as the rest of us. Those educators that went above and beyond, that were creative and reflective, that tried new educational approaches that were supported by research despite restrictions and obstacles, turned out to be my inspiration and mentors over the course of the next decade.
As I was researching my options, I came across a website for an experiential learning school in St. Paul. I didn't see that they were hiring, but I decided to connect anyway. I called them up, asked if they were hiring, and I started teaching there a few months later. I taught there for nine years thanks to the staff, students and school philosophy.
The students in these pictures are engaged, observing, problem-solving, creating. Of course it wasn't perfect all of the time. But I watched the impact that experiential, student-directed learning had on my students, the same impact experiential learning had on me when I was working in the field. I started writing this blog a few months ago, and in that short time have discovered through research and networking, the abundance of experiential learning going on out there right now. I'm floored by the speed and force by which project-based learning, inquiry, problem-based learning, student travel programs, maker education, stem, and other forms of experiential learning are appearing on the educational scene.
The dramatic emergence of these experiential learning approaches is because we know from experience and research that they're effective learning tools. If you hop on a search engine to find educational quotes, none of them will be about the profound greatness of direct-instruction.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. You can also check out my store on TpT for experiential learning resources.
Happy Winter Break from Experiential Learning Depot
Hello fellow educators, parents, students, and Experiential Learning Depot supporters. I just wanted to let you know that I will be taking a brief hiatus from this blog to spend badly needed time with my family during the holidays. Feel free to catch up on past blog posts, which is what I know you want to be doing during your time off! You can also check out experiential learning curriculum on my TpT site, Experiential Learning Depot. Get yourself set up for the rest of the year with my PBL bundle, which is on sale until the New Year.
I will leave you with this quote from one of my personal heroes. Have a wonderful winter break (if you get one) and a very happy New Year!
Students can relate to the characters, it’s a true story, the content is riveting, each episode ends with a cliffhanger, and my students love to play detective. That is why I continue to use "serial" in my classroom.
Is the Serial podcast old news? It’s not in the classroom!
I am obsessed with the Serial podcast! Well, I’m only obsessed with the first season, which I have listened to 8 times now. Not because it’s that good (it is), but because soon after I heard it for the first time, I began listening to it with my advisory group.
The premise of Serial season 1, is that a teenage girl, Hae Min Lee, from Maryland, was murdered in the ’90s. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan, was convicted of the crime on one individual’s testimony. Adnan has been in jail ever since with no actual physical evidence to prove him guilty. He interviews for this podcast from prison.
Why I Teach "Serial" to my High School Students:
1. Relevant to Students:
My students live parallel lives to the kids in this podcast. They can relate to the characters, the setting, and the general circumstances. All of my students have a friend just like Jay, one of the important characters, or have parents that are overbearing like Adnan’s. They have all had to defend themselves when accused of something, whether they did it or not. I experienced that often as a teenager. We all know the feeling. These connections make the listening experience meaningful for students. Serial season 1 is now several years old. It’s certainly old news. Yet it still works. It is still relevant to my students, therefore, they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
2. Students Gain Skills and Knowledge:
"Serial" is also an awesome way to build listening skills, critical thinking skills, organizational skills, note-taking techniques, and more, without the students even realizing they are building those competencies. My students develop theories that could only be conjured up by the mind of a teenager.
3. Builds Classroom Community:
I like to incorporate the Serial podcast in my advisory specifically because it bonds my students. They develop a deeper connection by understanding something that others may not get, like a secret language. They talk about the characters outside of class, they have constructive debates on who they think committed the crime and why. I’ve had students go above and beyond by investigating people or events online and enthusiastically bragging about their discoveries in class the next day.
4. Student-Directed Learning (and low prep):
The beauty of using this podcast in your class is that it teaches itself, especially if you allow the experience to be student-directed. Each class is going to be different. Different groups of students have varying reactions, roles in the group discussions, theories about this or that. Every listen is a completely new experience because the student dynamic changes group to group. The students drive the experience. What I’ve observed is that student-led ventures result in the most powerful learning experiences. Have students develop PBL projects along the way, lead class-discussion, and activities.
For those reading this that aren’t educators, listen to it anyway! If you’re a parent, try listening to the podcast together with your teenager. It will give you something to talk about! If you are a student yourself, ask a teacher if they would consider playing it in class. If those efforts are unsuccessful, try to take a break from the “rigors” of your everyday school life and listen on your own time. The perfect opportunity is only days away! Taking any road trips this winter break? Pop in those headphones and have a listen. Happy listening!
If you're interested in adding project-based learning to the mix, check out "Project-Based Learning: Podcasts" from Experiential Learning Depot on TpT, a teacher-guided project with a lot of student choice. You could also use the "Project-Based Learning Toolkit" that has all the templates you would need for %100 student-directed PBL experience.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
P.S. Season 3 was released a few months ago. Has anyone listened? Any insight? Let us know!
Click here for full article: Government to Hold School Debate on Climate Change
Student Activism on Climate Change - Students Get Vocal
I came across this article this morning and haven't been able to stop thinking about it, so I'm going to write about it! I'm so inspired, and want to spread that feeling.
Over 100 schools across Uganda will convene this upcoming Monday to debate on climate change. This event was organized by the government with the intention of "inculcating patriotic values and norms in order to develop resourceful, responsible, disciplined, and resilient citizens, who are committed to protecting the country’s resources."
I know now from 9 years of experience working with teenagers that they often have the best ideas and the most unique and creative solutions. They blow me away on a regular basis. My children and my students are growing up in a very different world than I did, with unique perspectives, resources, and skills. This event in Uganda not only gives student's the chance to speak on the issue, but to proffer solutions, and to propose initiatives that can be adopted nationwide. Ideally, globally. Uganda is setting a great example for the rest of the world, which is not only to pay attention to climate change, but to utilize the ideas that come from the most underutilized minds - those of our students!
I took a course on teaching climate change with the National Museum of Natural History. It was a really great class that I highly recommend for those of you interested in teaching climate change. I'm going to get some project-based learning climate change curriculum up in my store at some point, but that'll take some time. Climate change is also not really the point of writing this post. My point is more about the ways in which students can AND should get involved in important global issues. The debate event in Uganda is a great example.
I recommend checking out my "community action project" lesson at Experiential Learning Depot. Students use the templates to create a project around any issue, climate change if you wish. They can do this by raising awareness, advocating for legislation, organizing fundraisers, donating their time, or any other creative mode of action they would like to undertake. These projects can be done independently, in small groups, or as a large group project. My students have done community action projects on climate change. Check out these examples:
Climate Change Community Action Project Ideas:
1) Create an awareness campaign - each student created a promotional video or poster that educated the public on climate change, specifically communities most heavily impacted by climate change. They then shared their work on social media.
2) Interview businesses in the community on the impacts of climate change - I traveled with students to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2017. We toured the island interviewing business owners, those in agriculture, landowners, citizens, etc., on how they saw climate change impacting their livelihoods in the future or how they might already be feeling the effects of climate change. The interviews were eye-opening. We may not have coffee in 20 years! You do not need to go to Hawaii to do this project! I live and teach in Minnesota, and according to stats, Minnesota is one of the most vulnerable states in the U.S. to the impacts of climate change.
3) Organize a drive or fundraiser for climate refugees - this could be a group project or an independent project.
4) Host a school event such as a speaker series - invite climate scientists, business owners, aid organizations, students, renewable resource companies, ecologists, and more to come speak on their perspective.
5) Finally, host a debate! It is reasonable to do this with your own class. If you're ambitious, host a state-wide event.
To see more on the trip to Hawaii and the climate change project, check out The Jennings Experience. This was a student travel blog I kept when I was teaching.
Thanks for stopping by on this Friday afternoon. Have a fantastic weekend everyone!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
10 Free Gifts to Give Your Students This Holiday Season
Children of the 21st century need so much more from educators than content delivery. We as teachers (and parents) grew up in an entirely different world than our students. Information is available to them anytime, anywhere. Memorizing facts, we know, isn't relevant to this generation, it won't be relevant to the next generation, nor the one after that.
What students need now are the "free gifts" on the list above, among other things. There are many more student-needs than what I listed on my gorgeous graphic up top, I just couldn't fit anymore on the page!
Educators are (or should be) well aware of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Basic needs must first be met for learners to reach a level of "self-actualization." Many children do not even have consistent access to their most basic needs: food, water, warmth and rest. School may be the only place they get those things. Safety, friendship and the tools to build a healthy self-concept are additional student needs. Most children struggle with these ideas, especially tweens and teens. They need us to help them navigate through this unique time in history.
What we can give our students this holiday season is support, kindness and love. We can listen when they need us to listen. We can provide our students with learning opportunities that help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. We can offer experiences that foster the discovery of skills, talents, interests and desires.
I left my job a year ago to stay home with my own children, and since then have done some serious reflecting on my career. The last few years at my job I felt bogged down by constant student behavior issues, the pressure of adhering to standards, truancy, and my own stuff going on at home. I lost patience with my students and lost-sight of their most inherent needs.
We all know teachers don't teach for the money! We teach because we love our students. You are likely already giving your students most, if not all, of the gifts on the list. If you're not, it's okay! Give yourself a break. We as teachers are up against a lot. But try to do some serious, honest self-reflection this winter break. Make changes in your classroom if you need to. Create the conditions they need to thrive. Assign projects that promote student voice and choice. Provide a plethora of input to aid students in discovering their interests and talents. Focus on your students, who they are as individuals, and what they really need from you.
Check out some of Experiential Learning Depot's projects that might be just what your classroom needs. They are all student-centered, so provide that choice, voice, autonomy and hands-on experience mentioned on the list.
Activities for Building a Strong Advisory Community
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.