Beyond the Textbook

My new favorite magazine is “Outside Magazine”. I have read it on and off for years, usually drawn back by a specific article mentioned elsewhere. For my birthday, my husband picked up a copy of the most recent issue and I read it immediately. Sometimes, though, the articles that piqued my interest from another site appear as icons on my “to do” list and sit, waiting to be read. Such was the case today.

When I sat down to write this morning, I thought of the issue my husband bought me. The article of intrigue shared a new approach to medical therapies – getting people to get outside and experience nature. It was an interesting read and one I thought about posting about but couldn’t quite connect it to education the way I wanted to. Staring at my screen this morning, I saw the Outside magazine icon, thinking it was this particular article and that I would just need to read it again for things to fall into place, and I clicked on it.

“The Key to Better Students is Getting Them Outside” by Katie Arnold first appeared in January of 2017. Why it took me this long to open and read it is a mystery. This morning, though, I read the short article and found myself ready to write to all of you. Taking students outside ought to be part of every class every year, preferably multiple times per year. The article focuses on bringing students to places outside for day- and overnight-trips. Those experiences can be powerful and often provoke life-long memories. I suggest we take our children outside in smaller ways as well. A simple walk around campus looking at what’s in bloom and then a walk a week later to notice the differences in those plants seems doable for many schools. The same could be done with moss, fungi, or even insects, if plants are not part of your campus. These experiences take a little time out of the curriculum and work to connect them back to the learning in the classroom.

And here is where my soapbox post begins! Textbook driven curriculum does not always allow for time to be allocated on an outside adventure. The companies have done a better job of incorporating hands-on experiences into the curriculum they offer, but rarely does it offer enough time for teachers to bring in outside resources. There are other options besides a physical textbook but those often (if not always) include a digital device. I am beginning to look into some of the online curricula that follows NGSS and am excited by what I see. However, I have some concerns.

Pacing guides and the number of standards to get through in one year diminish our success with open-ended options and bring the reliance on physical textbooks back. This kills me. I want to see a classroom where the focus is on the children learning. If I spend our limited time (some days 9.5 months seems like an eternity, I know, but it is relatively short when you consider all that we pack into that time) allowing a textbook company to plan my lesson and determine my pacing, have I offered the best learning opportunity for the students sitting in my classroom? I don’t think so. I need to be able to adjust in order to meet the needs of not a theoretical learner but the actual learners in front of me right now.

Can we get through the standards intended to be taught in our year and learn, too? I think so. Can we learn relevant, connected information related to our curriculum? Absolutely! Can we learn by connecting with the outdoors? Without a doubt! So, I encourage you to rethink the way you approach your curriculum and the emphasis you place on a textbook, and instead envision a space of learning that allows time for what the students (and you) need to connect with nature and the curriculum 🙂

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