This week, my students worked toward their Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) topics and questions to investigate. As I likely said in an earlier post, I forget every year how time consuming and difficult this step is for students. This year is no different.
Long story short, I tried a new strategy with a class that was clearly stuck. As a whole group, there were a few decent ideas thrown out for topics, but most students did not know what they wanted to spend the next 6 months investigating. In an effort to spark interest, I pulled out all kinds of random equipment I have been collecting for OLE projects. I talked through several ideas and let them take time exploring the items.
We then returned to our discussion of what they thought they might be interested in working on. I had this grandiose idea that everyone would have a phenomenal project in mind. No. Not a single fence sitter had been intrigued by anything. I was so disheartened and struggling to think what to do next.
A great project requires interest from students, connects to the local environment, is reasonable and affordable, and has a benefit to the greater good. This week, we talked about each of these components, looked at local news stories, discussed past projects, and brainstormed, brainstormed, brainstormed. Now we were at the critical decision time and too many students were blank-faced.
Then it hit me. They had not made the connections yet. I needed to be less abstract and more direct. Plus, what these kids really wanted was a project that was meaningful and “right” for them. So, I decided on a much more direct, guided approach. I asked them to name environmental issues. They created a list of about 10 issues, including forest fires, trash pollution, climate change, and invasive species. From this list, I added ideas of what a project might be to address these environmental problems. For example, for forest fires I wrote ideas about measuring the effect on soil, the effect on air quality, and habitat loss and how to support regrowth. For climate change, we discussed observational studies such as carbon sequestration of soil and phenology. Suddenly, the students were perked up and ideas were flowing. I had to take topic selection out of the abstract “It’s all up to you,” “Follow your interests” to providing more concrete ideas that met the requirements.
I share this because I learned (or was reminded of) a valuable lesson. Not all kids know their passions and interests yet. Sometimes we need to offer more ideas in the hopes of sparking those passions. In other words, some groups of students need more guidance, even (maybe especially) the high achieving students, when you are asking them to make decision outside of their comfort zone.