Quick Instructions and Outdoor Exploration: A Typical Middle School Class
In this blog post:
Getting back to blogging at Arete
A brief narrative of what a class period at Arete looks like
Some examples of smart decisions a teacher made to help 2e students thrive in class.
Max here- the school director at Arete Academy and so far, the lone Arete blogger. At the end of July of 2021, we published a couple of blog posts. The goal was to chronicle some of the work that our staff was doing to prepare for the 2021-2022 school year.
… and we haven’t published anything in a month and a half. “We” means “me” here. Whoops! We’re a few weeks into the school year and the building is full of chattering students and we’ve got a normal day-to-day routine. I’m excited to add blogging about what happens at Arete into that routine.
I’ve had the chance to sit in on a couple of classes. I like to get to know our new students, spend time around the returning students, and get a feel for what’s happening in class. I sat in on one of Jeff’s classes last week (I've added a picture of him below because I think that it's helpful to pair a face to name). Also, Jeff gave his full permission for me to write about class.
One of the hats that Jeff wears at Arete is teaching elective courses. This quarter, that includes a middle school class called Outdoor Explorers. The goal of the class is to get students outside, interacting with nature, moving their bodies, and playing physical games together. As it happens, I didn’t actually get to “sit-in” on Jeff’s class… I got to go exploring with Jeff’s class.
Class began at 1:50- a time of the day where some students are starting to get squirrely and some of them are starting to hit the wall. It depends on the day. Game on, Jeff. Students walked into class, settled into their spots, and their collective energy level was clear… they didn’t just hit the wall, they crashed into the wall. They were tired.
I won’t provide a play-by-play of each part of class or every decision that Jeff made, but here is basically how the class played out:
Instructions in the classroom were brief. Jeff told students that they’d be headed outside soon, gave a broad overview of the activity (outdoor scavenger hunt), described how students would work together, told them what supplies they were responsible for, instructed them to use the bathroom and get a drink of water, and then they were out the door and on the way to the woods.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, students walked through the woods and on a dirt trail that led to Brownie Lake, the northernmost lake in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. All told, it was about a one-mile walk. Students moved at their own pace, sometimes walking as a large group, sometimes breaking off into pairs, and sometimes taking time to walk alone.
The whole time, students bounced between dedicated attention to their scavenger hunt, talking about internet topics that don’t really make sense to “old people” (anyone who remembers a time before high-speed wireless internet), and quietly traveling.
As the end of class approached, students made their way back into the classroom, Jeff wrapped up the scavenger hunt activity, collected their materials, and students were off to their next class.
So that’s a class... but that description doesn’t really cover what actually happened during class. I want to highlight some really smart teacher decisions that Jeff made… these are the kind of decisions that aren’t necessarily required for 2e learners, but man does it ever make life easier for everyone when a teacher does make them:
Instructions happened in quick chunks. Jeff fit the initial instructions into a 2-minute window or so. Students didn’t have the whole picture, but they had enough to get to the next level of engagement. This is helpful so students don’t get overwhelmed trying to process too much at once- or complain about something that they’d be expected to do later on in the class period.
Jeff had students carry writing utensils and he carried the clipboards that held the scavenger hunt sheets himself. This served a couple of purposes:
We’ve seen notebooks, novels, chargers, etc. seemingly disappear into thin air with our 2e students. Many of our students struggle with executive functions and those are hard skills to learn. By keeping the clipboards/sheets for himself, Jeff mitigated some risk to the learning activity (scavenger hunt). It was more important that they have the materials for the learning activity than having the executive function practice of not losing the clipboard.
Jeff also knew that there were at least a couple of students in the group who, immediately after receiving the scavenger hunt materials, would begin aggressively pursuing completion of the hunt. It would be hard to catch their attention for instructions ever again and there’s a real chance they would finish early (this is not always a good thing… especially when it’s not uncommon for 2e learners to rush through work so they can be finished, even if the work could be a little better).
As Jeff gave instructions throughout the class period, provided students feedback on their seeking skills, asked open-ended questions, and guided the group in general, he kept many “access points” open for students. In other words, the class activity was led in a way that made it easy for all of the students to be successful- not because the expectations were low, but because the expectations were both broad enough and accessible enough that there were far more ways for a student to do well than to do poorly. It’s hard to imagine that anyone felt like they did a bad job during that class period. Sometimes you need to get things wrong, make mistakes, and feel your cheeks get a little warm to learn a lesson, but we are still in the first few weeks of school and a lot of students are still working on just getting back into the swing of things. For a lot of 2e students, it takes a long time to get back into the swing of things. Plus, a lot of our students don’t really identify as “outdoorsy people”, so in some cases, just being happy to participate in an outdoor activity feels like a step forward.
Obviously, Jeff doesn’t do a scavenger hunt each day, but he and all of the other teachers at Arete are constantly watching, listening, and experimenting to see how we can light a spark with our students… to see how we can provide opportunities for them to engage with their teachers, classmates, and their schoolwork in a way that fits who they are as unique individuals.
If you are an educator or some other type of professional who works with 2e learners, I hope that Jeff’s practices either give you some good ideas or that they feel familiar to you. Down the road, I hope that educators can work together to standardize these approaches to help more 2e learners all over the place. If you are a parent at our school, I hope that this offers some insight into what a class period might look like at Arete or what kind of decisions teachers make to help your child make stronger connections at school.
Thanks for reading. I hope I can share more classroom stories in the coming weeks.