Inside SFS

The Importance of Outdoor Learning

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From the Tallahassee Swamps and the Sacramento River to the Adventure Playground

Carly Reiter (Director of Design, Engineering, and Technology) in Conversation with Jalen Allen ‘08, (Elementary STEAM Teacher)

As the Director of Design, Engineering, and Technology as well as member of the Curriculum and Program team, it has been so exciting to have Jalen Allen ’08 in his inaugural year as Elementary STEAM teacher. In this role, he is based in the new Field Station, nestled in the Adventure Playground.

This is really meaningful to me, as I have strong memories of outdoor learning experiences throughout my life. During my childhood in Tallahassee, Florida, I remember being in an outdoor natural history museum on pillars in the swamps, surrounded by snakes and gators where we were encouraged to explore, touch, and hold nearly all of the creatures around us.

Before becoming a teacher, I worked as a field biologist, searching for bird nests, counting sturgeon eggs, raising butterflies, extracting mouse urine, and intentionally getting stung by anemones so that I could study their microscopic nematocysts.Jalen teaches students about ecosystems in the Bay Area.Jalen teaches students about ecosystems in the Bay Area.

My first teaching job was working as a NYC Teaching Fellow at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, where I had the chance to bring my students on weekly trips to the nearby Bronx and Hudson rivers to use as our science lab.

Knowing that Jalen and I had some shared experiences, I recently had the opportunity to interview him about his experience teaching in an outdoor classroom, and much, much more. 

“What was your outdoor learning experience as a student?”

Jalen’s childhood outdoor learning experiences made deep impressions on him and his approach to teaching, too.

Prior to being an SFS student, Jalen attended river camp in Sacramento for weeks each summer. “We would explore the creek, what grew by it, what animals lived there. It showed me that the outdoors was a classroom.”

With 2nd Grade Teacher Lisa Ma and Extended Day Instructor Brendan Dunlap ’11, Jalen leads a fi...With 2nd Grade Teacher Lisa Ma and Extended Day Instructor Brendan Dunlap ’11, Jalen leads a field trip to the Burrows Park Extension in the Portola.His parents say that when he first started at SFS, he was so excited about the chickens, the wilderness of the Adventure Playground, and how “everything seemed possible.” The outdoors were always accessible, even in the city, from stewardship with Solveig [Dimon, former SFS naturalist] to camping trips.”

“What’s it like teaching in the Adventure Playground?”

Teaching outdoors, “everyday is an adventure,” muses Jalen. “We always expect the unexpected.” 

When the 2021-22 school year began, Jalen was excited to begin his newly created role. In August, he prepared the Field Station for its first full year of regular elementary STEAM classes and tidied the barn where Pickles the rabbit lives. “I cleaned poop for three days and filled seven big compost bags,” he laughs.  

Pickles seems to enjoy having the classroom nearby. While they learn stewardship and gardening, students have been making toys and edible snacks for the cantankerous bunny. With his students, Jalen has discovered wasps nests, friendly and inquisitive birds, a stick-wielding squirrel named Earl, and some nightmare-fueling arachnids of unusual size (note: Jalen is very afraid of spiders). 

Jalen describes his sessions in which he introduced the magic of the Adventure Playground to his youngest students, the 1st graders. As if in a Potions Class at Hogwarts (but more fun than Professor Snape), he encouraged them to experiment with different soap solutions and to explore this outdoor space by creating bubble wands from found natural materials. It looked like (and was) so much fun that 4th graders who were passing by promptly returned at recess to see if they could make potions and wands, too.

Creating three dimensional representations of the ecology of California.Creating three dimensional representations of the ecology of California.It was an activity that would have been much more difficult inside a classroom. “In the Field Station, you just hose it down and keep moving.” The 3rd grade topographical maps used to be a one day project because of the time it took to set up and clean up in a single class, “but now that we have regular STEAM classes twice a week, the students take several days to get deep into it, explore the ecology and geography more deeply, provide more details because there’s more time without the necessary preparations and cleanup time they would have inside a classroom.”

Being so close to the ecosystems of the garden space truly enhanced his teaching about adaptation. Building on their 2nd grade study of birds, Jalen led his students through a deeper understanding on the relationship between the form and function of avian anatomy and physiology – in their beaks, legs, and feet. Then they created their own “Franken-birds” in response to his challenges for their creatures’ survival. They devised habitats for them in the branches and brush of the Adventure Playground. And finally, they set up their iPads and created nature documentaries in the style of David Attenborough, complete with British accents.

He has continued to engage students in the excitement of outdoor learning through “a lot of play.” While kids receive formal instruction during class, they are encouraged to return during recess to extend their learning. “We’ll make Magnatile towers in an engineering class,” he says, “and when they come back during recess, they’ll have competitions to make the tallest ones. I give them the materials and time to explore and play freely.”

“How are teachers using the redesigned schedule?”

One of Jalen’s new responsibilities is teaching STEAM to upper elementary students. His partnership with veteran educator, Damon Allswang, 4th and 5th Grade Math and Science Teacher, has been a fun collaboration. “Damon is the OG.” Whereas Jalen has taught lower elementary students for several years, he is enjoying the cross grade interactions as well as having “another science nerd to science it up with me.” Together, they are maximizing their differences in experiences to learn as much from each other as they can, share ideas, and be partners in their mixed grade teaching of coding and circuitry in the Workshop.

“The classes are mixed age AND longer than they were previously,” he comments. The strategic initiative to redesign the daily schedule to allow for this has had positive results. “The benefit of longer 90 minute periods (as compared to last year’s 45 minute “project time” periods) is more time to explore, fail, and try again–all within the same class period. It’s not ‘save it for next time.’ It’s ‘right now.’”  Which is so important for science. 

And this applies to younger grades as well – Jalen describes taking some of the past projects he’s done with lower elementary students in a class period and expanding them into longer, deeper experiments over several days.

The schedule has also allowed for greater consistency. Now that STEAM sessions are scheduled twice each week, “STEAM is part of everything they do.” For instance, 2nd grade traditionally studies the neighborhood. This year, there is a connection of the neighborhood to scientific kinds of community, such as the ecology of pollination in the Adventure Playground. “STEAM isn’t siloed by itself. Science is always a part of what we do at this school.”With 8th Grade Science Teacher Eugene Stampley, Jalen participates in the Creative Engineering wo...With 8th Grade Science Teacher Eugene Stampley, Jalen participates in the Creative Engineering workshop at SFS.

The resultant collaboration with other departments has been rich. Working with 2nd Grade Head Teacher Lisa Ma, Lower School Art Teacher Tiphani Russell, and Upper School Art Teacher Sadie Wilcox in the Middle School’s Portola Murals Map Project, the students have been learning about the artwork in the neighborhood and what it says about the community; they have taken this opportunity to explore maps and use technology in creative ways, such as making stop motion documentaries explaining the history of the neighborhood. 

“What’s been the best part so far?”

During recess, 2nd Graders approach the Field Station to explore the coding with a screenless rob...During recess, 2nd Graders approach the Field Station to explore the coding with a screenless robot mouse.Jalen says without hesitation, “The best part is when, after we do something in class, the next day a student says, ‘I downloaded that app,’ or, ‘I got that thing and I’m doing it at home now.’

I love hearing that they’ve taken it outside of the classroom, shared it, and want to do more.”

“What’s been the most challenging part so far?”

When asked what has been the most difficult aspect of his new role, Jalen responds, “At this school, there is a rich history of amazingness all around. I can’t help but see the music department and want to do an equally amazing thing. I tell myself I’ll do my best with it, see what works, change what doesn’t work, and try again.” He adds thoughtfully, “I want to be able to showcase the students’ work.”

“Are there distractions in an outdoor classroom?”

As I think back to my experience on the Bronx River and learning how to teach outdoors, I realized that I picked up different classroom management techniques – because focus can be hard outdoors! I asked Jalen about his transition from teaching indoors to outdoors.

“The distractions are real,” he says. “Not so much the freeway and the occasional noisy motorcycle, but literally, falling objects like leaves, or a crawling bug on the canvas shade overhead that the whole class is watching,… and squirrels!” So he works on how he gives instructions. “They are succinct. I don’t have time to be tangential, and I write instructions on the walls, or I engage them in demonstrations. Because the Adventure Playground is really pretty, and it can be distracting!”

And as outdoor teachers, if a kid is having a tough day, we can tell them to go play in the mud. “It’s huge to have that outlet. We have an opportunity to say, ‘You know what? Let’s go find a bug,’ and it’s super engaging for not only that student, but for the entire class.”

“How will the Field Station evolve?”

 “I am starting to see it become a hub of activity,” Jalen remarks happily. “During class time, it’s a classroom. And during recess, students show up to explore. They come not just with their own friends or classmates, but with students from other grades, too.” Someday, he hopes to have a regular schedule of activities, “like Engineering Wednesday, or Chemistry Lab Thursday.”

With Jalen facilitating, students are eager to play and learn in the Field Station under the popl...With Jalen facilitating, students are eager to play and learn in the Field Station under the poplar trees.As the Field Station is built out further, he would like to have more space to display the kids’ work. “Older students might remember doing similar projects in the past, and younger kids can be inspired by what the older kids are doing.” After a brief pause, Jalen says, “And it can get hot in the Field Station.” Which is an understatement, as it can be 20 degrees warmer there than in other campus locations. He looks forward to eventually having a roof with more shade [the design process of which is in progress]. Though there is WIFI and a generator, he’s excited to have solar panels for electricity. “For music,” he laughs. “And glue guns!” 



Posted November 02, 2021