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Ketcham Elementary Principal Riddlesprigger

maisha-riddlespriggerWhen Principal Riddlesprigger came to Ketcham in 2014, the school’s standardized test score proficiency rates were in the single digits. Ketcham serves children in Anacostia, a neighborhood in DC with a history of under-investment.  This means that today, 99% of Ketcham students are from families who have lacked access to financial stability and higher education, most for generations.

Getting a good education early on is one of the few opportunities available to children in Anacostia, so when Riddlesprigger measured student satisfaction with Ketcham, and saw it was only 73%, she knew she had a lot of work to do.  If the students themselves were giving their elementary school such a low grade, it was no wonder they weren’t passing their own tests and thriving in school long-term.  At the time, Ketcham wasn’t an environment that supported their learning, so they weren’t getting the early education they needed to succeed.

So Principal Riddlesprigger set about transforming Ketcham into a place students wanted to come, and transforming instruction so that students wanted to learn.   Riddlesprigger partnered with Out Teach as  a strategic way to support both efforts.

On Earth Day 2016, Out Teach installed an Outdoor Learning Lab at Ketcham, and began providing teachers with professional development on how to use the outdoors as a tool to promote experiential outdoor learning.  That year, students’ school satisfaction with Ketcham went from 84%-94%, and rose to 97% the year after that.

Ketcham has also seen year over year growth in its standardized test scores.

  • ELA scores rose from 8-13% in 2016, and is now up to 19%
  • Math went from 16%- 34% in 2016 and is now up to 45%.

While many schools install learning gardens because they’re “nice to have,”  Prinicpal Riddlesprigger made sure Ketcham was first in line for a partnership with Out Teach because she saw the program as one key tactic in her larger strategy to fundamentally change the academic trajectory of Ketcham’s students.

Riddlesprigger says “Partnering with Out Teach was a strategic decision.  By providing students with alternatives to “Sit & Get” in the classroom, we’ve increased student satisfaction, made students feel more connected to the school, and made learning fun.  Now, our kids want to come to school and learn, even if their parents are discouraging them.  And when students are able to apply what they’re learning in a real-world environment like the Outdoor Learning Lab, the content sticks, they understand it more deeply, retain the information longer, and are able to apply it to different situations.  That shows up on their evaluations.”

“We’ve also seen some great side-benefits,” Riddlesprigger added.  “Parental involvement is also up. We have parents volunteering to work in the garden over the summer, and parents and community partners are making donations. Because it’s visible to the community, and most people find gardening to be a straightforward and accessible idea, it’s a great and easy way to start getting involved with a school. We recently had a local law firm donate seedlings.  That might just be the first step to a larger relationship.”

Additionally, teachers in Ketcham’s special education department often use the space as a therapy area and a positive reinforcement area for students with IEPs. Riddlesprigger says “My teachers tell me that their kids with self-regulation challenges are much better able to control their behavior in the Outdoor Learning Lab. Some students that have behavioral challenges in the general classroom setting, and even in a special education classroom setting, are fully engaged and on task when taken outside for applied learning.  Teachers also use Outdoor Learning Lab privileges as a reward for indoor learning, and students are aggressively on-task indoors to demonstrate how responsible they are so that they’re allowed to spend more time in the school garden.”

For schools thinking about installing a learning garden of their own, or launching an experiential learning program, Riddlesprigger suggests “First, come up with a plan on how to integrate the garden into your existing plan, see how it can support what you already have, and what you want to achieve.  Out Teach is really good at demonstrating how the program can help you enhance your school goals.  You don’t have to create something new.”

Program integration is key, but so is broad staff buy-in.  Riddlesprigger adds “Get advocates and champions out there early.  Because once other staff members see their peers being successful outdoors, they’re more likely to try it.  Those early champions are the ones who will generate real interest, it doesn’t have to come from the top down.”

With such a track record of dramatic improvements, Principal Riddlesprigger was recently named DC’s Principal of the Year, and Ketcham has been named one of of DC’s Bold Performance School Award Winners in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and a Bold Improvement School Award Winner in 2018, designations given to schools that serve high at-risk student populations and dramatically outperform their peers.  Out Teach is a proud partner of Ketcham Elementary, and we look forward to helping ensure the Ketcham eagles soar, and get the engaging experiential lessons they enjoy and deserve.

Dan D. Rogers Principal Lisa Lovato

Dan D. Rogers Principal Lisa Lovato did a Q and A with us to share how the Out Teach program has impacted her students, teachers and the school as a whole.

 How has Out Teach impacted Science instruction?lisa-lovato-headshot

Most teachers haven’t received much training on how to teach Science specifically, so the Out Teach professional development was a game-changer, especially my novice teachers.

Experiential learning outdoors completely transformed our performance. Having and using the Outdoor Learning Lab changed the way children approach science.  The kids love being outside and learning while working on projects outdoors.   About 50% of our kids live in apartments and have no outdoor space of their own to really dig in and explore.  Now they can really explore and understand the real world in a whole new way.

Every year, the Texas Education Agency rates schools on a range of measures.  After partnering with Out Teach, we finally received a distinction in Science!  For the Science distinction, it’s got a lot to do with students understanding the content in depth.  Thanks to Out Teach, our students are curious and questioning and problem-solving.  Interacting with nature and making connections between what they’ve read in text books and real life deeply enhances their understanding of the content.

How has Out Tech made education more equitable?

Because 67% of our kids are English Language Learners, vocabulary acquisition is a huge challenge, and experiential learning outdoors has really helped there, especially in Science vocabulary.  Words such as “systems,” “properties,” “classification,” and “structures” are really complex concepts to pack in to a single word.  Imagine having to do it in a foreign language.  Not understanding key Science vocabulary words cripples a student’s ability to engage with a lesson.   But when students have deep context around key words when they’re learning them, all of those content connections help the word’s meaning solidify, and students are able to engage with the lesson and build on what they know.

We saw a big boost in figurative language and writing as well.   After participating in the Out Teach Program, we scored 100% on the achievement gap measure, which means our teachers are able to effectively work to close the achievement gap for these kids.  That’s life-changing for kids from low-income communities.

 We’ve seen that children who struggle with ADHD are more focused and driven in the outdoor learning lab, which helps those students and their classmates maintain their instructional time and really get the most out of every minute.  Since children in low-income communities are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their wealthier peers, that’s an equity issue.  Disciplinary visits to the office are also down, and those are a huge waste of instructional time for everyone.

The school has also showed strong gains on surveys that measure teachers’ attitude about the professional climate.  Dan D. Rogers now scores in the in the top quintile.  Higher than average teacher turnover is common for low-income schools, and turnover is proven to hurt student performance.  So maintaining a high job-satisfaction rate keeps teachers here longer, making the student experience more like the stable learning environment students experience in communities with more resources.

Have any other groups shown an interest in your participation in Out Teach?
People outside the school are starting to take notice too.  While public school enrollment is down in other areas, with parents send children to private or charter schools, Dan D. Rogers is getting an extra 200 children per year transferring in.   

And, after partnering with Out Teach, we started mentioning our work with the program in additional applications for awards and grants.  Now, in addition to a Next Generation Learning grant from the Gates Foundation to promote “authentic” learning, the school received an $80k deck and 90 trees to further enhance their outdoor classroom.  It’s like they say, success breeds success.

Gloria’s Transformation

At Out Teach, we’re always talking to teachers at our partner schools about the results they’re seeing with their student.  As the 2018-19 school year comes to a close, we wanted to share one story with you in particular.


“My biggest transformation this year?  For sure that was a student I’ll call Gloria.  I’m calling her Gloria* because her transformation was truly glorious.  gloria-school-hidden

Gloria was one of my ESOL students.  She was way behind in her reading abilities, and she struggled in every content area.  In kindergarten, she wouldn’t even speak in class.  In first grade she would speak a little when prompted, but she’d never contribute much.  I worried that she’d fall even further behind in 2nd grade, because that’s when kids move from learning to read to reading to learn, and they start asking much more complex questions about what interests them.  Now that her classmates’ learning was going to shift and accelerate rapidly, was Gloria going to be left behind, frustrated and demoralized?  Some kids never recover from that.
But I trusted myself and I trusted what I’d learned from Out Teach.  But most of all, I trusted Gloria.  She could do this if I could just give her what she needed to connect with the material.

So I took classes outside where she was able see and touch everything we were talking about. Sure enough, she could name everything, and showed that she was understanding the more abstract concepts words represented.  Now, not only would she answer when I asked her a question, she started talking things through with her peers!  Taking her outside the classroom had also taken her outside her fear of criticism.   Who was this child that was so confident and willing to speak?   Students just feel more comfortable and confident being outside! It’s such a rich and different experience for them, no matter what type of learner.

I still find that if Gloria isn’t seeing and touching what’s being taught she starts to struggle, so now I make sure to include manipulatives and visuals in every lesson.  Luckily for me, the Outdoor Learning Lab is made entirely out of manipulatives and visuals.  It’s perfect for her.

Since I started taking class outside, Gloria is so much more present in the class. She actively participates and shares her viewpoints. Her writing has come a long way, because she’d writing more, and including more details.

In fact, Gloria went back to visit her Kindergarten teacher, who was delighted to see how far Gloria had  progressed, and made a big fuss over her.  Gloria was BEAMING.  It was such a proud moment for her and I was so proud of what we’d accomplished I almost cried.  Second grade has been a life changing experience for her.  She has truly found her voice and wants to make sure it’s HEARD!  And we found it together outside.”

 *The student’s name, image, and location have been changed to protect her identity

Vanessa Ford’s video blog

During a very wet Big Dig event, our head of curriculum and training, Vanessa Ford, stepped out of the rain for a moment to explain how our Professional Development Program works to those of you not lucky enough to have seen us in action.


What makes Out Teach unique?

Why Out Teach focuses on experiential learning outdoors?

The Out Teach Professional Development Program model

My Intro to Out Teach

One of our new board members in the Carolinas Regions shared her experiences encountering Out Teach for the first time.

My Intro to Out Teach — Written by Helen Hope Kimbrough

My first introduction to Out Teach (formerly known as Real School Gardens) came as a surprise. While visiting Tuckaseegee Elementary School to conduct a reading program, I stumbled across this amazing outdoor learning space in the Spring of 2018. While delving closely and indulging peacefully, I began to take photographs of the mounted signage describing the official names and images of leaves, herbs, roots, flowers, and seeds. I noticed painted tree stumps and a wonderful covered space for teachable moments, and to my amazement, I was startled to see a chicken coop.helen-hope-kimbrough

As a child growing up in Georgia, I had the experience of working in my grandparents’ garden and seeing how the neighborhood would come together during planting and harvest time. At Tuckaseegee, I envisioned that students would hopefully learn unique things about planting and gardening in general enhanced with experiential learning through science, math, and reading coupled with essential skills like teamwork. Additionally, I hoped that their curiosity would flourish in knowing where food comes from, how it grows, and ways to prepare it. And with this knowledge, to further obtain the tangible elements to enrich and empower themselves and their community.

As lovely as the “Outdoor Learning Lab” is, the main focus of Out Teach is providing coaching to teachers to improve classroom instruction with experiential learning. Thankfully, I got a chance to witness up close a teacher and his students journey from an indoor classroom to the outdoor learning space with laptops in tow to complete a period of instruction. The students resumed their work in a calm manner and were focused and engaged. Plus, I’d like to think that the fresh air served as a nice reprieve on that beautiful day.

My second introduction to Out Teach was through a “Big Dig” at Walter G. Byers Elementary School sponsored by Duke Energy. Duke Energy provided tons of employees to develop another outdoor instructional space for teachers and students in the Charlotte community. At one moment, there were mounds of dirt and fertilizer, piles of shovels and garden utensils, and cans of paint to liven up the space. After a few hours of intentional design, creativity and hard work, magic appeared and a sense of accomplishment enveloped the school atmosphere! Staff and students from Walter G. Byers were joyous and pleased, and their reaction confirmed that I needed to learn more about this transformational organization.

In March 2019, I joined the Regional Board of Advisors at Out Teach, and I look forward to sharing its impact in the Carolinas (and nationally) through a monthly blog

Teacher Tips – Joe Ludes

By Joe Ludes, Instructional Coach, Out Teach
This story first appeared on the Green School National Network in 2017.  The original story can be found here.
It has been edited to reflect the organization’s new name.

A Teacher’s Most Powerful Tool

I still remember the day I learned that the outdoors was a powerful teaching tool. I had been working in a high-poverty school for several years. It was usually very rewarding, but often incredibly frustrating.

One time, I had been working with a small group of fourth graders with learning disabilities who were struggling to understand the concept of fractions. Such an abstract concept presents a challenge to many students, but it was proving to be exceptionally difficult for the children in my group. Mastering the properties of whole numbers was hard enough for many of them, now this?

For days, I would ask my students to divide shapes into equal parts, cut something in half, or draw a line down the middle. I stubbornly thought that if they just kept practicing, they would eventually get it. My students struggled, becoming more and more frustrated, getting off-task, and exhibiting disruptive behaviors. I finally decided to give my students a break with a change of scenery and brought them outside to plant some seeds in our school garden.joe-cropped-square-300

I was surprised at how excited they were. And as we prepped the soil for the seeds, I got an idea: I asked the students if they could divide the planting bed into two parts. They initially looked confused but they began talking about the task, and one of the students suggested they use a stick to show where the two parts would be divided. She put the stick right across the middle of the bed. I was amazed that the students seemed to suddenly understand the concept of equal parts. Then they showed repeated success with a variety of fractions. I was so excited that I designed a few follow-up lessons to work on fractions in the garden. The following week, all my students scored 80% or higher on the same fractions test their non-disabled classmates took.

From that moment on, I knew that the outdoor classroom could be my most powerful teaching tool. Today I apply those practices as an Instructional Coach for Out Teach, a nonprofit that gives teachers the tools and training they need to use school gardens to improve academics. For schools that already have a learning garden, our Instructional Coaches spend two years working one-on-one with teachers during class to model effective outdoor teaching. Once teachers see how powerful outdoor instruction can be, they use the learning garden to teach everything from Math and Science to Language Arts. For schools without a learning garden or an outdoor classroom, Out Teach lines up corporate partners to provide funding and volunteers to help build one.

In the hands of a trained teacher, the outdoor classroom becomes a powerful instructional tool. Not only does this immersive environment magnify the power of experiential learning, but outdoor classrooms are also the perfect place for cross-curricular lessons. For example, a lesson on erosion may require students to read an informational text, conduct a hands-on scientific experiment, collect and interpret mathematical data, and collaborate with others to engineer a solution. This kind of complex, real-world problem solving, conducted using cross-curricular literacy, is a key skill that children in low-income communities desperately need to succeed in school and in life. In today’s classroom, a complex math problem may require background knowledge and experience with scientific concepts while a lesson in English Language Arts may ask students to interpret data from a chart or analyze concepts from Social Studies and Art. In today’s world, all students must be able to “read” across subject areas to succeed. Children in higher-income neighborhoods receive lots of these types of experiences in and out of school. To try and give children in high-poverty schools a fair chance, we need to start providing them with more meaningful experiences.joe-with-red-bandana-girl

Outdoor teaching is not supplemental though. Every child can benefit from engaging hands-on instruction. And luckily, because most schools have usable outdoor space, with planning and preparation, any teacher can make a lesson more effective and engaging by stepping outside. If you have not had a chance to participate in the Out Teach Professional Learning Program but you want to try teaching outdoors, here is some advice I give first-timers.

This is not playtime – The thing that keeps most teachers indoors is concern that their class will view a trip to the outdoor classroom as an extra recess. Out Teach addresses this by recreating elements of the classroom such as shade structures, seating, whiteboards, and learning stations specifically designed for weather data collection or earth science exploration. We also require that students arrive in the outdoor classroom with a pencil and a journal so that they are ready to perform an academic task and record their experiences. Finally, we give clear expectations for behavior that involve setting boundaries, listening over outdoor noises, and respecting the living things in nature.

You are not more interesting than a bug – Do not try to compete with the excitement of the outdoor classroom. Use that excitement to learn, explore, and get students moving around and having interactive, hands-on experiences early in the lesson. Simply moving students outside so that they can sit and listen to a lecture from the teacher does not go over well. All of our model lessons involve at least 10-15 minutes of exploration during which the students are free to move around, test theories, make mistakes, and collaborate with each other. This crucial element of exploration allows students to stay engaged as they take on learning tasks in their own authentic ways. When students are gathered to discuss their findings, teachers can address any misunderstandings, encourage students to compare solutions, and require them to defend their answers with evidence that they collected.

The sun is bright – Keep your students’ experience in mind when teaching outdoors. This falls in to three big buckets: comfort, safety, and distractions.  Comfort – Do not make them look into the sun to watch you, sit on wet seats, or be outside if it is too cold or hot.  Safety – Scan the learning garden for attractive nuisances and hazards. Normally, we see this in terms of non-edible plants, broken glass, or tripping hazards. If you cannot remove the hazard, just warn the children beforehand. Distractions – Something as simple as litter can turn into a distraction for kids, especially when they feel an ownership of the space Out Teach works to create. You can clean that up beforehand or have the kids quickly round it up as part of their caretaking duties.

Once teachers see how effective hands-on experiential outdoor learning can be, they lead more outdoor lessons, bringing joy and excitement back into learning.

About the Author

Joe Ludes taught special education for D.C. Public Schools for seven years before becoming an Instructional Coach for Out Teach (formerly) REAL School Gardens in 2015. With his Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, his years of experience working in schools, and his love of gardening, Joe has been able to flourish in this role, training elementary school teachers to work with students in their own outdoor classrooms. Joe is also the Kitchen Garden Program Instructor for Neighborhood Farm Initiative, a contributor to the textbook Exploring Agriscience, and ran his own half-acre urban farm with his wife and two children just outside Washington D.C.



Teacher Story — Gaby Lopez

Gaby Lopez, a 2nd grade teacher at Sope Creek Elementary, just shared her experience using the Outdoor Learning Lab with us. Thank you for sharing Gaby, and keep up the great work!  Sope Creek specializes in STEM education, so it’s wonderful to hear how well teachers are doing taking STEM instruction outside!

My journey with Out Teach has been quite the adventure! Throughout my entire teaching experience I’ve taught a whole group session in front a smart board and the kiddos have participated in small group rotations. My instruction time has always been so structured, and didn’t allow for much movement.gaby-lopez-sope-creek

So, when we were introduced to Out Teach I was a bit nervous. I thought to myself “I don’t have a green thumb!” I’ve never taught a lesson in an outdoor environment and I was worried about maintaining my kiddos’ attention.

However, I was unexpectedly surprised. My kiddos LOVE being outdoors for instruction. Being outside, instantly made all of them more comfortable. They were all eager to participate during our whole group instruction time. Since we were outside I didn’t have visuals on a smart board, which required me to be more creative. For each of my lessons, I used real-life objects and our outdoor resources. I was hesitant to let them wander around our garden without my supervision, but my kiddos proved me wrong. They were all more eager to participate in discussions with their peers and actively participate in the learning process.

I can’t believe it has taken me so long to take this step. I wish I had done this years ago. Joining the Out Teach team at our school has been a life changing experience professionally. I’ve learned to embrace the outdoors, and most importantly instill a sense of respect and appreciate for our environment to my kiddos. Thank you Out Teach!

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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.