Out Teach Supports Aspen Institute
Commission Recommendations on How Learning Happens
Report from National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development
offers path forward
WASHINGTON, D.C. –Supporting the Aspen Institutes’ National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, national nonprofit Out Teach joined more than 200 education experts and child-well-being organizations in releasing the committee’s report outlining how best to promote children’s social, emotional, and academic development. Out Teach was selected to be a partner organization because the organization equips teachers to unlock student performance with the power of experiential learning outdoors.
The report, titled “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” asserts that our nation is at a turning point: We now understand that social, emotional, and cognitive development underpin children’s academic learning. This breakthrough understanding about how people learn is fueling a growing movement to educate children as whole people, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.
“A Nation at Hope” emphasizes that translating knowledge about how people learn into practice and helping students develop skills such as collaboration, empathy, and perseverance requires systemic change. It offers specific actions in research, practice, and policy to fundamentally shift how we teach children, with the understanding that the social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of learning are mutually reinforcing rather than distinct.
Out Teach CEO, Jeanne McCarty, said “This report synthesizes what experts in childhood well-being, including teachers and parents, have seen for years–that building strong social emotional skills goes hand-in-hand with learning and growth in the classroom. Together, the authors and contributors to this report have laid out both why and how we should ensure every child, regardless of background, develops critical social, emotional, and cognitive skills.”
Out Teach partnered with the Commission as part of its commitment to accelerate learning for children in low-income schools, not just including social-emotional skill-building in their Professional Learning Program, but demonstrating how teachers can use SEL practices to accelerate and deepen learning and achieve existing goals. By providing professional learning to building teachers’ expertise on how to lead experiential lessons outdoors and embed social, emotional, and cognitive skills into the curriculum, the organization help gives children in low-income schools daily access to these important life and career skills for years to come.
McCarty elaborated, “In addition to making Science, Math, and Language Arts lessons more engaging, meaningful, and fun, our professional learning shows teachers how easy and effective it is to enhance lessons by including techniques that boost self-management, collaboration, teamwork, self-directed learning, real-world problem solving, and decision-making. It’s a great way to keep children more engaged in learning. By learning to embed social-emotional skill building into experiential lessons, you strengthen the whole lesson, the whole class, and the whole teaching experience, all by strengthening the whole-child.”
What sets “A Nation at Hope” apart from other reports is the groundswell of support that has surged over the course of the Commission’s work and that now supports action across communities following its release. Out Teach is one of nearly 100 organizations that have signed on in support of the report’s conclusions and recommendations as part of an ever-widening coalition committed to advancing the work.
Drawing on input from more than 200 scientists, youth and parent groups, educators and policymakers, the report seeks to accelerate and strengthen efforts in local communities. These recommendations are especially pertinent as states and communities continue to leverage their increased authority on education policy under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The report includes specific strategies that schools, districts, and communities can pursue related to each recommendation and examples of places that are engaged in these efforts.
The report also outlines evidence that confirms that supporting students’ social, emotional and academic development has a positive impact on their attendance, test scores, success in college and careers, and overall well-being. This approach also improves students’ feelings about school and makes schools safer.
More information, including a toolkit to communicate about social, emotional, and academic development, is available at NationatHope.org.
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.
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…?
Back in 2015, Lila J. Walker was the Assistant Principal at Beacon Heights Elementary in Prince George’s County Maryland. That’s when Out Teach (then REAL School Gardens) expanded into the Mid-Atlantic, and Beacon Heights jumped at the chance to be the region’s first professional learning partner. Now that she’s Principal, and our Professional Learning Program has been there for a few years, Walker shared her experiences with us.
The teachers at Beacon Heights were always trying to think outside the box, and sometimes that meant thinking outside the classroom, so when they heard that we’d been selected to become an Out Teach partner, they were all over it, and really dove in to the planning and preparation. Once Out Teach built the outdoor learning lab and started training, the program really took off.
One thing I’ve noticed is that experiential learning outdoors encouraged writing tremendously. After coaching from Out Teach, we had one teacher turn the children’s fascination with some tortoises that live here into an experiential learning opportunity. Students read up on tortoises, researched what they ate, and then planted strawberries for them to enjoy. They wrote all about it, with references and everything. Now when was the last time you heard of a 3rd grader surprised and delighted by the idea of a research paper? When writing about any of their outdoor projects, the words just come spilling out. They want to write about it. They’re excited to share.
With any class, the children are so much more engaged when they’re not just sitting in their classrooms. With experiential learning, they get to see and touch, they get to move around, and there’s something different to discover every day. And that kind of full engagement really pays off. I had one teacher tell me “I get better answers and better thinking when the children are in the Out Teach Learning Lab.” That’s because experiential lessons outdoors make everything more real, relevant, and relatable.
For example, our 5th graders were studying perimeter and area. Indoors, they clearly struggled, and when the teacher asked them to plan out their raised beds on paper, it was just a mess. But once they got to come outside and measure the raised beds and understand the key concepts more deeply, they not only understood the math better, but they cared about the outcome. It mattered to them how many plants they could grow in the raised bed, and they worked hard to get it right.
The Out Teach Professional Learning Program also enabled us to attract some great new teachers. I even had one tell me that the Out Teach Program was the deciding factor in why they chose to work here. We’ve even got one teacher who used to be a professional scientist, and she infuses the outdoor learning lab into everything she does. It’s fantastic to have science embedded into everything, and you can see the difference it makes for our students. Our 5th graders have been getting experiential learning outdoors for three years now, and I’ve seen their Science scores increasing every year.
In addition to attracting new teachers, it’s so important to help your current teachers keep that spark, that love of teaching, alive. Now Beacon Heights has always had great morale, because we’ve always focused on stepping up to empower and equip our teachers, then stepping back to let them do their jobs. But Out Teach has really given our teachers a different outlook. It gets everybody, teachers and students alike, more engaged. I had one teacher say “I finally get to see them laughing and learning, it doesn’t feel like drudgery for anyone.”
That’s why I’m the proud principal of Beacon Heights Elementary, and a proud partner of Out Teach.
“I had this one student, Sara. She was a sweet girl, but a distracted student, just bouncing off the walls, failing test after test. I worried about how to keep her engaged in my science class.
Then we partnered with Out Teach. I learned how to use the outdoor learning lab, and took the class outside for a “forms of energy” lesson. At first, Sara didn’t want to go, saying ‘Ugh! I don’t like going outside.’ But then I asked her to find an example of sound energy in the outdoor classroom, and she was immediately engaged and interested. It was like she had flipped a switch! Outdoor lessons finally unlocked what had been there the whole time — intelligence, curiosity, and wonder. The outdoor lab gave her the chance to be herself because there was always something new to do and investigate outside. Soon, Sara was even coming up with her own lessons and sharing them with her fellow students.
Now, Sara and her classmates are confident problem-solvers, easily connecting what they’re learning to the real world — and it shows on their report cards! Thank you, Out Teach, for helping me bring learning to life for my students. They’re eager to come outside and explore with me, and I’m happy too, because every day their futures get brighter and brighter.”
Out Teach equips teachers to unlock student performance with the power of outdoor experiential learning.
Help us empower more teachers like Mr. Gibbons to reach more students like Sara!
- Names have been changed to protect student privacy.
Superstar teacher Kerrie Lalli at Walter G. Byers shares how she used a rotting cantaloupe to help her students learn about decomposers in the outdoor learning lab.
A teacher at one of our partner schools discusses how her outdoor learning lab is like having a second classroom. Also, how outdoor experiential lessons allow children to connect what they learn in school with the rest of their lives.
One of our teachers, Kerrie Lalli from Byers elementary, shared this sweet story about how her first graders exercised their problem-solving skills when they noticed that aphids and monarch caterpillars were both eating their milkweed.
My name is Elsa Hartmann. I am a 4th grade bilingual teacher at David G. Burnet Elementary School. My experience working with Out Teach was amazing. Before I started the program, I did not know how to use the garden in my lesson. Mrs. Kelly came to model a lesson in the garden and that helped me tremendously. I didn’t even know where to start, but now I have the tools I need. First, I observed how Mrs. Kelly took a TEKS and purposely aligned it around the school garden. Another thing that I observed was how one hundred percent of my students were fully engaged. Even the students that have difficulty staying focused where excited about the lesson and the work. I was very impressed at how Mrs. Kelly used the lesson cycle and motivated the students to create their own figurative language using the garden. Also, the kids were using higher order thinking skills because they created their own poem with the figurative they collected around the garden. I feel more confident about creating lessons in the garden and taking advantaged of it. My favorite part of the modeled lesson was how hands on and engaging lessons can be in the garden. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can use the garden for informational text/TEKS.
David G. Burnet Elementary School.
Luisa Aviles wasn’t always an Instructional Coach for Out Teach. She first encountered the organization when she was a teacher at L. K. Hall elementary, where she taught for seven years. Luisa remembers what it was like before the Out Teach program (then REAL School Gardens) came to her school.
“After even just a few years, teachers can get tired and frustrated. You want to help these kids learn, but over and over again, it can feel like you’re hitting a wall. There’s always kids who struggle with certain concepts, or behavior problems, or attention issues. And you’re struggling to help all your kids, searching for new ideas, or you’re spending hours trying to create solutions on your own. I’m a creative person, but sometimes it felt like I was reinventing the wheel.
I knew I needed more professional development. And while the district offered one-day PD sessions, their one-size fits all approach meant that there were only a few tips you could apply to your own daily practice. That’s not helpful to a teacher’s professional growth. Think of teachers like doctors or lawyers. For every student individually, and then the class as a whole, you need to analyze the situation, spot the challenges, then holistically look for long-term solutions. For 30 kids, for every lesson, every single day. And no one-day session is of much help there.
So when our principal partnered with Out Teach (then REAL School Gardens,) I knew that this was something very different. I could tell they were there to support me as a fellow professional.
During the first training, we were outside, learning in our own space, and I realized that this was what I had been searching for. This was different. This was a whole new way to teach. Everything I needed was right there outside. I could use all my skills, all my creativity, and shift over to experiential learning in an outdoor setting. It was so exciting.
And then our Instructional Coach returned, over and over again, working with teachers with their own students, in their own environment. I couldn’t get enough. I worked with the Instructional Coach and developed a six-week cross-curricular unit for my kindergarten class. That class had a number of behavior issues I needed to manage, so some teachers were really surprised that I was taking my students outside, but I knew this approach could work wonders, and I was right.
For six weeks I got the children more engaged and self-directed by giving them experiential lessons outdoors. At the end of it, not only did they all do well on their district test, but the kids who had exhibited difficult behavior beforehand, they shaped up and stayed right with me when we were learning outdoors. Outside, I could just redirect all of that energy into the project and they really thrived. I could really see a new path for myself and way to be more effective every day, and that’s deeply fulfilling professionally. Now every day, I enjoy helping other teachers transform learning for their classes and themselves.
MORE THAN 150 VOLUNTEERS BUILD AN OUTDOOR LEARNING LAB FOR LEBANON ROAD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
On September 26, more than 150 teachers, students, and community volunteers will work side-by-side to build an Outdoor Learning Lab at Lebanon Road Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Soon, Lebanon Road students will have a dynamic new Outdoor Learning Lab where teachers can lead exciting and engaging outdoor experiential lessons that add relevance, purpose, and real-world meaning to every subject.
This “Big Dig” event is hosted by Out Teach (formerly REAL School Gardens), a national nonprofit that coaches and inspires teachers to unlock student performance with the power of outdoor experiential learning. The Charlotte Hornets Foundation and Novant Health have stepped forward to provide both funding and the volunteers for the project.
Outdoor experiential learning deepens students’ understanding of key concepts, sparks children’s curiosity, and gets them excited about learning. This new Outdoor Learning Lab matches up with two of the Charlotte Hornets Foundation’s four pillars for community outreach – education and wellness. The new Outdoor Learning Lab will contain dozens of curriculum-aligned features that will give students hands-on real-world activities to get them more engaged in their Science, Math, and Literacy lessons while also boosting their health and well-being.
Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center, the health system’s 15th hospital, will open its doors on Oct. 1 just a few miles down the street from the school. Team members from the new hospital are excited to lend a hand in creating this community’s Outdoor Learning Lab.
“Both education and environment are key priorities for Novant Health, and this project blends the two together beautifully,” said Joy Greear, president and chief operating officer of Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center. “We see this as a long-term community partnership, and look forward to building relationships with the teachers, students and families at Lebanon Road Elementary.”
Where: Lebanon Road Elementary School
7300 Lebanon Rd, Charlotte, NC 28227
When: Wednesday, September 26 – Opening Ceremony 9:00 AM
The project began with students drawing out the different features they wanted in their Outdoor Learning Lab. With even more ideas from dozens of parents, teachers, and administrators, the Out Teach team created the final design and volunteer building plan based on the school community’s vision.
By the end of the day, the new Outdoor Learning Lab will be complete with dozens of features that enhance instruction and give students hands-on lessons in every subject. The finished outdoor classroom will have seating areas, white boards, raised vegetable and flower beds, a weather station, earth science stations, rain barrels, animal and insect habitats and more.
Out Teach will then provide years of training and professional development and coaching to show teachers how to use each different feature to improve instruction and deepen student understanding. By leading engaging outdoor experiential lessons, teachers will get students excited about school and give them a deep understanding of what they’re learning, building a strong foundation of knowledge on which to grow.