Me and Herbert, Down by the Schoolyard
Readers of a certain age will remember a catchy Paul Simon tune with the chorus, “Well, I'm on my way, I don't know where I'm goin' / I'm on my way, I'm takin' my time, but I don't know where… “. I’m not sure why Simon’s carefree narrator is so desperate to say goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona, or even exactly what he Julio are doing down by the schoolyard.
But I do know the hook captures something essential—and increasingly rare in schools today— with its refrain about aimless wandering and the openness to discovery that comes with it. Anyone in or near 21st century schools is painfully aware that they are ever more regimented, with teachers scrambling to administer backwards-designed lessons and districts working even harder to administer tests that measure exactly how many of these lessons have been learned.
Walking past a schoolyard these days, one is less likely to see a bunch of kids clustered around a butterfly bush identifying local species than a forlorn soccer field near a brick building that displays a banner proclaiming, “This school is fully accredited.”
Which is exactly why I have chosen to dedicate today’s post to a review of a current publication from Stenhouse by Herbert W. Broda, “Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8.” (Also, I agreed to review the book for TLN , a group to which I belong that promotes dialogue among teachers and thinks we deserve a seat at the policy table. Full disclosure: TLN gave me a hat to write this).
Broda is an Ohio-based university educator active in experiential learning. Pictured on the back cover, he looks like that special granddad who captivates the kids on nature walks in the backyard. And, let’s face it: unless you’re the type of teacher whose idea of an English class involves building a dugout canoe, this might not be the first book you’d pick off a shelf of recent publications related to education.
Thus, Broda’s first task in a book like this is to assert the relevance of his topic. He does so in part through the equivocal title. “Schoolyard-Enhanced” learning, after all, is still learning. Broda spends much of the first chapter clarifying how to make lessons relevant to standards-based curriculum, in part by arguing for its effectiveness at increasing student engagement and hence achievement.
Broda makes the soft sell. “Getting the Support You Need,” is discussed in Chapter 3, which offers “The Nuts and Bolts” of actually leaving the classroom proper. He offers ideas about how to get administrators on board, acknowledging, “The days of justifying a method by saying, ‘This is good for kids—look how much they are enjoying the experience,’ are gone. Mandated curriculum and standards-based testing have made it essential that there be clear linkages between activities and standards.” (61) Use of the word “linkages” alone should appeal to wary administrators.
When he’s not clearing the brush, Broda’s experience as a real-life teacher taking squirrely groups of kids into the wilds of the school yard becomes apparent. The book is full of hands on how to, regardless of proximity to national forests. For example, one subsection (also in Chapter 3) sagely instructs, “Use Outdoor Time for Doing, Not Telling.” Basic management tips like setting up groups, defining vocabulary, and going over ground rules in advance provide a reassuring framework for even the most deskbound teachers.
As an inveterate day tripper with kids myself, I appreciated the common sense reminders about management as much as the ideas about how to weave the lessons into my curriculum. “Wear long pants on a hike” sounds like a no-brainer. But I confess that on one trip by the riverside with 4th graders a few years ago, a student wearing shorts got what we thought then was a beesting. When the area on her leg surrounding the bite went necrotic a few days later we realized she’d encountered a brown recluse spider.
Chapter 4, “Developing Process Skills in an Engaging Environment,” is rich with ideas that promote observation and analysis, like having younger students match shades of green found in nature to paint chip samples, or having older students do tree bark rubbings and then, after mixing them up, attempting to identify each tree by the crayon rubbing of its bark.
Chapter 5, “Teaching Content-Area Concepts Outdoors,” gives specific examples of how teachers at a range of grade levels have successfully incorporated experiential lessons. TLNer Cossondra George, for example, is cited for taking advantage of Michigan’s abundant snow. Her kids learn to handle data by charting its depth, predicting melt rates, and estimating how much water is in a given amount of the white stuff covering the playground.
The book suffers a bit from being broader than it is deep. The last chapter, for example, covers GPS activities, initiative games, and residential camps. But rather than focusing on what it is not, let me stick to what it is. Covered in ivy and never once departing from its avuncular tone, this book does something essential, and in today’s environment, almost radical: Broda argues that test-stressed teachers can take video-game addicted kids into the outdoors for a meaningful natural encounter within the framework of school.
Many of us in schools and beyond are starved for this and don’t even know it. Educators who get it can join me and Herbert down by the schoolyard.