After years of teaching, Rayanne Pirozzi started to feel burned out. As much as she loved working to make a difference in kids’ lives, she could feel the frustration seeping into her days at school.
Looking for a way to get out of her rut, Rayanne turned to the outdoors. She’d always loved spending time outside as a child and signed up for a day of professional development from Get2Green in Fairfax on outdoor instruction.
“The literal AND proverbial skies opened. I was like, YES! If I’m loving learning so much more outdoors in a real-world environment, so will my students.”
So she returned to her “learning cottage” (a.k.a. portable classroom) sitting next to a swampy field and put her epiphany to work. Her 2nd graders needed to learn about life cycles and habitats, so she launched them on an outdoor project to create a garden.
Through guided discussion, the class decided to create a space to support Monarchs and other butterflies, and get it classified as one of the National Wildlife Federation’s schoolyard habitats.
“My class became a research and planning machine. Students who struggled to read were pouring through complex plant and insect guides. Classmates conferred on plant types and agreed that they should invest in native plants, both to support local wildlife, and reduce water usage and maintenance. They planned and executed a fundraiser to get cash for plants. Kids who’d never been excited about school before couldn’t wait to get to work on their project. I had one student who’d experienced head trauma and struggled with written or verbal communication. He used to get so frustrated in school and just disconnect, but for these outdoor projects, he started creating the most spectacular diagrams and drawings. He was making great observations and insightful associations, and he was interested and excited to learn what was happening in the world around him. Everyone’s joy and excitement was palpable. Learning is creating meaning in an authentic way, and there’s nothing more authentic than project-based learning in the real-world.”
Rayanne’s principal noticed her achievements with the 2nd graders and gave her a special assignment. Lynbrook students often faced serious challenges to their success in school. In addition to learning their classwork, many are simultaneously learning English, and annual household incomes limit access to out-of-school educational resources and opportunities. Though parents prioritize education, many are unable to provide academic support at home because of the language barrier. Without these extra resources, Lynbrook had a history of failing all their state’s standardized tests. But one by one, the principal and teachers had instituted systems to overcome challenges and pass these school-wide assessments. First in Math, which relies the least on complex language. Then in Language Arts, where specially trained ESOL teachers prioritized boosting English language acquisition. The last hurdle was Science, and try as they might, Lynbook students were not passing the test. Rayanne was asked to be part of the team to get an entire elementary school up and over a state-wide science assessment hurdle. Her principal gave them carte blanch permission to create a new program that would enhance the students’ classroom instruction and consult with grade level teams on Science instruction.
A common way to tackle a challenge of this size would be for teachers to reverse engineer the assessment system, focus exclusively on content, and basically teach to the test. Pedagogically speaking, this works in the short term. Focusing on having students repeat back the right answers to an upcoming test does work, but not for long. Without more context, authenticity, and meaning on which to attach new information, the brain quickly discards it, like last week’s shopping list, and students never get to build up on strong foundational knowledge.
Instead, Rayanne and her team focused on turning her students into “real” scientists, focusing on scientific practice and authentic real-world project-based learning. This approach ensured that not only would students acquire test-specific content along the way, but they would build a strong foundation of scientific interest and practice to drive their studies, deepening and expanding their understanding of the world around them.
First, she ensured students could actually see themselves as scientists. She addressed students as such, “Good morning scientists! What will you discover today?” She also presented them with a parade of examples of scientists of a variety of ages, races, and genders. When discussing the work of Dr. Jane Goodall, one boy was initially incredulous. “SHE? She’s a scientist?” he exclaimed, perplexed. Young scientists were of particular interest, as were scientists of color. “Representation sends a silent, but overwhelming message of who belongs somewhere and who doesn’t. None of my students are old white men in labcoats looking at a test tube. They’ve never even met an old white man in a labcoat looking at a test tube. That cliché is completely alien and inaccessible to them. To work towards something, you have to be able to see that it’s possible. Ideally, you do it yourself.”
Rayanne’s examples of “real” scientists also focused primarily on the hard work of the scientific process, not them magically being so smart they just came up with the right answer. Standard textbooks often overly focus on the moment of discovery, and not the years of questioning, observations, trial and error, processing data, not to mention resolving conflicting information with more of all of the above.
To get students away from this kind of thinking, Rayanne encouraged students to ask the “ungooglable” questions that interested them, collaborate on hypotheses, focus on the process, make mistakes, gather data, and build agreement, all in an authentic real-world environment, the outdoors. “The brain defaults to the path of least resistance, but it’s not exciting. Walking down a paved street is easy, but not exciting. Climbing up a rocky mountain is exciting. The infinite opportunity for exploration and discovery in an outdoor environment feeds students’ innate desire for higher-level thinking. All of those ‘why?’ questions you get when kids are little? Don’t answer them. That sends kids the wrong message. Respond back with questions that get them climbing up that mountain. They’ll learn pretty quickly that they can find the answers, that they have what it takes to learn and discover, and that they enjoy succeeding at these tasks.”
To deeply embed this dedication to Science into everyday instruction, Rayanne spearheaded Lynbrook’s partnership with Out Teach, whose staff came in to unite the school community around the construction of an elaborate Outdoor Learning Lab, filled with learning tools that supported hands-on experiential learning, not to mention a wide array of native plants (which Rayanne’s former 2nd graders insisted on during the design process). Out Teach also sent Instructional Coaches to work with teachers one-on-one on how to use the space and the entire outdoors to promote effective experiential learning in every subject, and how to naturally embed real-world Science into other lessons every day.
“Teachers have been amazed and delighted by the level of engagement from their students when using outdoor teaching techniques. We have had lessons in the outdoor classroom with students K through 6, which have covered all areas of content including Reading, Writing, Social Studies, Math and Science. Once teachers see how much more joyous and effective Out Teaching is, they become true believers. We have classes outdoors all the time, it’s that good.”
It’s with this level of support that four years ago, the first year all of Lynbrook’s students realized they were born scientists, that the school passed their state Science assessment, and every year since.
With schools closed because of COVID-19, and most of the Lynbrook community without internet or home computers, Rayanne was initially at a loss on how to help her students continue learning from home. She spent hours upon hours scouring the internet to find activities for students that faced her learning community’s challenges. “Then I slapped my forehead. I’d been wasting time on an ungooglable question. Talk about learning from failure. I’m the one who knows best how to help my students learn through this. I need to climb this mountain and create these resources myself.”
So Rayanne began to make a series of short mobile-friendly videos for twitter, since most students at least have access to a parent’s phone at some point in the day. In these little snippets, she encourages her students to continue to go outside to learn and make observations. To accommodate English language learners, she focuses on a few key science vocabulary words at a time, and keeps the rest of her language simple, allowing students to acquire the new words with lots of supporting contextual information. Videos include daily check in on the school’s caterpillars (whom the students adore), who are sheltering in place at Rayanne’s house, as well as complex questions around common outdoor phenomena — a tree transformed by rot, a worm on the sidewalk in the rain, eroding dirt. All things students have likely passed by a hundred times before without noticing. But that was before Rayanne showed them they were real scientists, and now there’s no turning back.
You can check out Rayanne’s COVID-19 distance learning videos here. And follow Lynbrook ( @LynbrookES_FCPS) and Rayanne (@rayanne_pirozzi) on Twitter for daily inspiration!