Like many staff-members at Out Teach, our VP, Regional Operations and Impact, Scott Feille, was once a classroom teacher.  Scott was beloved, that teacher that all the kids are excited to see, and part of that was due to the fact that he loved taking his class outside for hands-on lessons.  The other day, Scott shared this story about a student we’ll call “Victor,” and we all liked it so much we wanted to pass it along.

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Experiential learning is transformative.  Let me explain…

Victor was held back a year and had to be a 4th grader twice.  He transferred to our school in search of a fresh environment, but he wasn’t like our other 5th graders.  He’d gone through a growth spurt and towered awkwardly over his classmates, who had been together since Kindergarten in our little neighborhood school.  His first whiskers were beginning to poke through as well, and he was clearly out of place physically.  But under his intimidating façade there was a witty boy with a good sense of humor, and his classmates were drawn to him.  My interest was piqued.  Where there is wit, there is intelligence, I reasoned.  This boy can succeed…

Then, one day in the first weeks of school I heard a loud crash and raised voices next door in Mr. Jones’ class.  Mr. Jones was the other 5th grade teacher and taught math.  Victor was in his homeroom and came to me for all his other classes.  I went next door briefly to see what all the commotion was about, and it was Victor.  He’d been corrected for not following instructions and took it out on his desk, hefting it up and slamming it to the floor.  Mr. Jones followed our procedures for classroom management, and we engaged the school counselor, continued to work as a team and hoped for the best.

Victor continued to be a challenging but manageable student.  Then, as we were nearing the winter break, after having barely passed his classes the first couple of reporting periods, things took a turn.  During dismissal, as Victor was heading out the heavy, metal school doors, Mr. Jones reminded him to complete a homework assignment and Victor whipped around, cocked is right knee all the way up to his chest and booted the door shut with everything he had.  It slammed in Mr. Jones’ face as Victor added a few choice expletives regarding what Mr. Jones could do with his assignment.

Victor was suspended for three days, and while he was out, Mr. Jones and I conspired.  We weren’t going to let Victor escape 5th grade without succeeding, but we were going to have to be sneaky about it.  On Victor’s first day back from suspension there was a buzz of anticipation among the students.  All they knew was that we were going to be spending the week in the outdoor classroom for science.  What Mr. Jones and I knew was that the internal temperature of the compost pile had reached 126 degrees F, that the Nitrogen and Water Cycles were coming up in the science scope and sequence, and that when a student is oppositional, he needs to be in charge of something important…

“Okay, class,” I began.  “Today we’re going to break into groups for some activities in the outdoor classroom.  You get to choose which activity you participate in.  There’s one that’s hard and physically demanding.  I need someone tough with lots of energy for…”

Before I could get all the words out, Victor’s hand shot into the air, “Me, me, me!  That’s the one I want to do!”

“Sure, Victor”, I replied calmly.  “You’re just the guy for the job.  Your group will be turning the compost pile.  Would you mind leading that group?”  On the inside I was smiling and wanted to run next door to Mr. Jones to announce that step one of our plan was a success.

We ventured out and groups went to their designated areas in the outdoor classroom.  We’d been outside for about 5 minutes.  I was rotating through the groups to ensure everyone was on task when I heard Victor’s voice rise dramatically into the cool fall air, “HOLY C**P!  The compost pile is on fire!  It’s on fire!  Everyone come look!  I HAVE CREATED FIRE!”  Step two, complete!

Soon, the entire class was gathered anxiously around the compost pile, with Victor at the center wielding a shovel, staring in amazement at the “smoke” billowing out of the area he had dug into.  “Watch this,” he announced to the class as he dug deeper into the pile and a fresh cloud of steam formed.  The students were enthusiastic about getting to the bottom of this strange new phenomena.  They determined that the pile was not on fire but additional evidence was needed.

When a student inquired, “I wonder how hot it is in there,” that was my cue.  I went around the corner and grabbed a compost thermometer.  Victor took the lead, planted the thermometer confidently into the compost pile and collaborated with the other students in his group to read the temperature.  “Whoa!!! Over 120 degrees F!  That’s crazy!”  Step three, complete.

We decided to collect compost temperature data daily, after lunch.  Guess who volunteered to be in charge?  In the time it took to shovel a couple of scoops of compost, Victor rose from infamy to become the Compost King and our little plot succeeded.  I asked Victor to pick two students who could help put together the procedures and gather the data for the first couple of weeks.  Edgar overheard and said, “Victor, holla at ya boy!”

Victor’s response was totally unexpected, “Sorry, Edgar.  I’m going to ask Alisha and Monique to help the first couple of weeks.  I’m afraid if you go out there with me, we’ll get in trouble.  You can be next.”

Mr. Jones and I laughed hysterically about Victor’s response to Edgar after the students were gone.  The following day, we invited Victor, Alisha, and Monique to a planning luncheon in the classroom and worked out the logistics.  We invited Edgar too.  It just seemed like the right thing to do!  For the rest of the year, Victor chose two students to assist with measuring and recording the compost temperature daily.  The data was recorded on paper and taken to Math with Mr. Jones where a compost data center was created, so when students completed their work, they could enter the compost data into Excel, create graphs and interpret it.

Honestly, I expected our little plan to fall into place, but I had no idea what a complete turn-around Victor would make. His behavior was exemplary for the rest of the year, and he passed his state tests with commendations.  Victor is one of the reasons why I believe all students can achieve more than they think is possible, and his story exemplifies the transformative power of experiential learning to unlock student performance.  How many more Victors do you think are out there, just waiting for a shovel and a clipboard…?

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Out Teach, formerly REAL School Gardens, provides professional development for elementary school teachers. Out Teach prepares them to use school gardens, outdoor classrooms, and green schoolyards to improve instruction through three-dimensional project-based learning, and outdoor experiential inquiry-based education. Professional learning with Out Teach improves hands-on science and STEM education through instructional coaching and digital education resources and improves 21st Century skills.