Tori Delaney manages the K-5 summer programs for DC Public Schools.

At the beginning of March, Tori had the 5-week program all prepped and ready to launch. Her teachers were trained. Her facilities were booked. Her students were registered.

“Everybody else looks forward to the summer so they can wind down and relax. I look forward to summer because that’s like ‘game day’ for us. We were excited and ready to knock these programs out of park this year.”

Then COVID struck, upending every single aspect of summer learning, and sending Tori back to the drawing board to re-invent her programs, not just in their delivery, but in their meaning and purpose.

“We have students who participate in our programs from all levels and backgrounds, whether it be for enrichment activities or to get a little help on areas they didn’t quite master during the school year,” Tori said. “Then COVID-19 created new groups of kids who could benefit from summer learning: kids who needed to counteract the learning loss that began when school doors closed in March, kids whose summer activity plans were suddenly cancelled, AND kids who might need more caring adults in their lives on a daily basis.”

Suddenly, in addition to training teachers, parents, and students how to effectively use distance education technologies, Tori had to re-imagine all her summer programs.

“In the spring, teachers really struggled to get students to log on, not just in terms of internet connectivity, but just interest in coming to class. Attendance was a real issue.”

So, in addition to looking for ways to compliment and supplement the curriculum, Tori prioritized student engagement.

“To get students excited about summer learning, I really wanted to make it more student-driven and more hands-on, with more active time away from screens. Sort of a happy place in-between the classroom and summer camp. Even after they log off, I wanted them to keep having fun and doing activities on their own or with their families. Summertime is an amazing opportunity to learn, and I want to be sure as many students as possible make the most of it. To get them excited to log on and enthusiastic to come back, we really focused on how to effectively deliver rigorous project-based learning remotely.”

But that kind of change takes an incredible amount of planning, preparation, training, and support, which Tori and her teammates took on in June.

“I’m not going to lie. After two weeks of 8+hours per day of online trainings and meetings, the teachers prepping for summer instruction (again!) were less than thrilled that I added yet another session to the very end of the very last day. Their cameras were off, but I swear I could hear their eyes rolling when I told them I’d added the Out Teach session.”

Tired and skeptical, but ever diligent and professional, teachers grudgingly logged in to the Out Teach virtual training session, only to have Out Teach Instructional Coach Luisa Aviles promptly send them outside for their first hands-on outdoor activity.

“The second they came back in from outside and started sharing, you could tell the mood had completely shifted. They were happier, interested, and getting more engaged with the exercise. They were coming up with really creative strategies to incorporate outdoor learning into their lessons. I thought to myself, ‘We’re adults and we’ve struggled to stay focused learning online for the past two weeks. Imagine how hard it would have been for the kids, and how much they’d love this new approach.”

Teachers’ showed their appreciation for the new ideas in their exit comments:

  • We like to think of virtual learning as something done indoors at a computer, when in reality there are many different ways we can engage our students while we have them for virtual learning.
  • I feel good about bringing a hand- on approach to the virtual learning program for my students. I plan to use the journaling idea to get my students moving around and excited about the outdoors!
  • Get moving, and get outside! This will be especially good for this time as we’ve just experienced such a lengthy lockdown with the pandemic.
  • I feel excited to implement outdoor explanations in my lessons.
  • Nature can add a lot to traditional lessons, in very simple ways. It can also make lessons more enjoyable. Simply going outside or looking outside the window for the opening example that we engaged in was exciting.
  • I have struggled to engage students in fun ways during distance learning that allow us to explore the world together but away from the computer screen. I now feel more capable and have new ideas to bring to life.
  • I feel good about bringing a hands-on approach to the virtual learning program for my students. I plan to use the journaling idea to get my students moving around and excited about the outdoors!
  • During the summer, I need to make sure that I assign and encourage to get kids outside! This could be through journaling, nature scavenger hunt, and science experiments. I am currently working on a hummingbird feeder for kids to make while we are focusing on the country Jamaica. Hummingbirds are its national bird!
  • There are many ways to integrate the science lessons into the curriculum as activities for students to go outside even though we are not directly instructing in science. I enjoyed being able to take a moment and go outside and take notes on my surroundings. It was actually pretty calming.

Tori added “I was really glad at the way the PD session was set up so it wasn’t yet another brand new thing I was forcing teachers to add to their ever growing list. Everything was focused on supporting teachers, and giving them more effective, efficient, engaging, and fun ways to help students achieve their objectives. Lots of specific content and concrete examples. It was very practical, useful, and not at all overwhelming. Lord knows there’s enough out there to be overwhelmed about. I certainly didn’t want to add to that.”

In addition to making summer learning more active, student-driven, and engaging, we hope that these teachers can take the same techniques and use them in the fall, regardless of where instruction takes place. Students have always loved going outside, and with COVID-19, the benefits of increased social-distance and fresh air shouldn’t go to waste.

Thank you to Tori and all of the teachers in DC Public Schools’ Summer Learning Institute for everything that you’re doing to ensure #EducationIsOpen. We’re incredibly proud to partner with you in your important work!

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.