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Teacher Testimonial — Kristie Elliott

In hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer.picture1

I used to create separate lessons for everything.  It was exhausting.  But after working with Out Teach, I saw how easily different lessons could be combined.  It was easy to include science into my writing and math lessons.  Linking subjects together created this continual learning experience, where we would just keep expanding into new standards, not stopping one thing and then starting up another. The Outdoor Learning Lab was a natural place to extend learning, and it was easier than I expected to have subjects taught partially indoors and partially outdoors for labs and experiential learning.   It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. 

Breaking up my traditional way of teaching with “mini-field trip” outside was refreshing. I just loved it all and plan to incorporate it more into my other lessons. I was surprised how well my students behaved, and how well they performed.  They were so engaged and it naturally led to opening up their creativity and ideas. Leading experiential lessons is like swimming with the current, rather than against it.  You’ve still got to know what to do, but you get where you’re going so much faster, and it’s so much less work. 

The ready-made lessons I got were great, but I really enjoyed adjusting and adding onto them so they fit my class and my school-wide initiatives perfectly. Out Teach had an opinion writing lesson on salsa, but I needed the class to work on informational essay writing, so I took my new lesson planning skills and created exactly what I needed.  I had students start with a lot of prior knowledge and then research what goes in salsa.  Growing salsa ingredients, like corn, takes space, so we practiced measurement, area, perimeter and geometry.  We then brainstormed what to do with the salsa we were going to make.  Students suggested donating it to homeless shelters or selling it to raise money for the Outdoor Learning Lab, the latter suggestion bridged over to our math and economic standards nicely.  I loved it because it was a different type of informational writing that was created for them but there was a bigger purpose that motivated them—helping their community. Lots of great “Ah-ha!” moments.  I just love watching kids’ light bulbs turn on when they start making connections to other lessons and standards.

Beyond the lessons, even just getting the students outside was helpful. I found some of my highly active students were more attentive and had better recollection of the information that was shared and discussed. I have a very active, emotional and kinesthetic class, and being outdoors made it for easier for them to engage with the lesson, which helped minimize behavior problems.  And for others, you could tell that moving around outside helped decrease their stress and anxiety which elevated their mood.

My experience with Out Teach was awesome and eye-opening.  Now that I know how to use the outdoors as a tool, and how to plan out experiential lessons, you’ll see my class out there all the time.  Now, my lessons can grow and connect not only their standards, but our community as well.   Thanks Out Teach!

Carolinas June Update

Announcing our next Great Outdoor Learning Laboratory at Devonshire

Out Teach Carolinas is proud to award our next Outdoor Learning Laboratory to Charlotte Mecklenburg School Districts – Devonshire Elementary. Dr Ted Miracle has served as the lead outdoor learning coordinator for several years and this year he was one of 6 teachers engaged in our school-year long professional learning program. Principal Hough has led her schools vision to support experiential learning outdoors as an effective academic tool. This award is brought to Devonshire through the Corporate Support of Novant and Hornets Foundation who will bring 100 volunteers to transform this schools unused outdoor space into an outdoor learning laboratory. This is the 6th school to receive this amazing award to date in the Carolinas.

CMS Schools can now apply for Evergreen Scholarship
Mecklenburg Health Department is once again committed to supporting Out Teach through providing scholarships for our Evergreen Group Training Sessions. Each of these sessions (Fall, Winter, Spring) incorporates 4 hours of CE and an array of resources plus hands-on demonstrations. This is also where we infuse nutrition education into science, math and ELA. Each participating school also receives access to our online coaching center. To apply for this scholarship please reach out to Alec Macaulay, School Partnerships Manager amacaulay@out-teach.org or at 980-297-4181.
Governors Village K-8 STEM Academy
On May 10, Out Teach and 120 Duke Energy Volunteers completed our 5th Outdoor Learning Lab in the Carolinas. This school is the largest K-8 school in the state with more than 2,000 students, so we constructed two outdoor classroom seating areas to accommodate multiple classes at once! Mr. Crow had elementary students outside for an ELA lesson and Ms. Thiel had middle school students doing an observation – both utilizing this space while volunteers were finishing up.
Summer Thoughts and Grants
School is out and summer is upon us. Please don’t leave your school gardens without a strategy to support them. Each school has the opportunity to engage neighborhoods, parents and faith-based neighbors in helping you maintain (weed and water) your garden boxes. One of our favorite grant web resources is the N.C. Office of Environmental Education check it out!


Anne Marie Fayen blog from NSTA

In April, Out Teach’s very own Instructional Coaches, Wendy Kelly and Sammy Wren, presented at the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Their session, “Take It Outside: Using the Outdoors as an Experiential Learning Lab” was designed to help educators from across the country use outdoor spaces and engaging instructional techniques to inspire students’ passion for Science.

Anne Marie Fayen, Academic Programs Manager at the Dallas Arboretum, attended the session and shared that Wendy and Sammy “spoke from experience and made going outside to learn sound exciting and, with some planning ahead, not too complicated or overwhelming.”

Below are some of Anne Marie’s favorite tips and tricks from the session:

• Ask teachers to think about a time they connected to nature. What do they remember about the experience? What made it meaningful? They will probably share a childhood memory. How can we help our students have these same positive experiences in nature?

• Create a culture of outdoor learning with your students, and set appropriate rules for learning outdoors. For example, consider going out a specific door (ideally not the same door used for recess/PE) to access your outdoor learning environment.

• Treat the outdoor classroom as a resource for all, like the library or computer lab.

• Have a few basic materials on-hand that students can use to explore the outdoors and engage in hands-on learning:
o Hand lenses
o Thermometers
o Tape (to collect items)
o Small bags (to collect and sort items)
o Safety scissors
o Wooden stakes (for marking locations)
o Something that makes noise, like a harmonica or bird whistle, to get students’ attention

Taking students outside to learn Science, or even do cross-curricular lessons that incorporate Math and Reading/Language Arts, doesn’t have to be difficult. With a few tools, tips, and tricks, students and teachers across the country can take learning beyond the four walls of their classroom!

Gaby Lopez – Sope Creek — 2nd Grade

Out Teach has transformed my teaching, my students, and my outlook on life.

I’d always considered myself a strong teacher.  I worked really hard to create lesson plans that had me lecturing for 10-15 minutes, then letting the kids work independently or in small groups for 25-30 minutes, and then we’d have a closing activity.  It was all very teacher-directed.  It’s just how I’d been trained and how it had always been done.gaby-lopez-sope-creek

But during those lessons, out of 23 students, I’d notice that less than half were ever actively on task and participating.  Especially my ESOL students, who always struggled to grasp new concepts.  So I’d spend more time supporting them and less time challenging the kids who were doing fine on their own.

But then my school partnered with Out Teach.

At first, I was hesitant about joining the Out Teach program. I have never been a “Science” person, or an “outdoorsy” person, but I wanted to challenge myself to try something new.

I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to Out Teach.

My coaching sessions were so HELPFUL! It is great to have an expert in the field watch me teach and build upon their lessons. My meetings with my coach were truly eye-opening.  I got such amazing feedback, techniques I could use the next day, and I didn’t ever feel judged.  In fact, I’ve never felt so supported in my work.

I still remember the last lesson I did with my coach watching, a parts of the plant lesson.   Before, I probably would have shown the students pictures of plant on the board, then had students label drawings, or maybe draw something themselves and label it.  But this time, I made this lesson the hook to our overall fourth quarter STEM PBL project, and had the students examine the tulips they had planted months before. By reviewing the parts of a plant by identifying their importance, we gave my ESOL students a wealth of new vocabulary and word usage.  And they really responded to comparing the functions of different parts of the plants to parts of the human body – which part is breathing?  Which part is drinking? How is it moving nutrients?  It’s all so much more meaningful and relevant in the real world.

It was so wonderful to see ALL the kids actively participating and having vocabulary rich conversations with their peers. All the students challenged themselves with rigor, many finding multiple plants to document. To this day, they all remember information from that lesson.   In addition to getting the right answers on Science tests, I started seeing more descriptive language in essays.

Now that I Out Teach, I know that I shouldn’t restrict myself or my students to the classroom. All my kids deserve engaging instruction and more of a hands-on approach to learning. They all need to get their hands dirty and become more of an active participant in their learning process.

And now that ALL my kids are so eager to participate and take an active role in their group, I get to step back and take on a support role for my students. They have taken over their learning and guided themselves through this whole process.

Now, students are more willing to make mistakes and learn from them.  It was hard for me to learn to let go of the reins and let them explore.  But now, I trust my students to lead themselves down the right path.  Even when I’ve had concerns, the kids keep proving me wrong. These new science and garden concepts make them more eager to learn and discover new knowledge.

With all this new knowledge, I’m never looking back.  Now when I plan lessons, I will allow students to explore for themselves and develop their own conclusions, all while I serve as a support. It will be interesting to see how next year’s students rise to the occasion. A new journey awaits, and I cannot be more eager to begin! Thank you Out Teach for guiding me through this process.

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

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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.