The Outdoor Classroom: Where Nature Nurtures Kids’ Ability to Learn

magnifying-glassModern life often moves at a frantic pace: families, friends, and others often maintain full schedules with little time allowed to pause and take in what is happening around them.

For students arriving at school for the day, their morning may have been a blur of activity – hopping out of bed, getting dressed, eating a quick breakfast, then grabbing their backpack to head off to school.

A student’s day—like those of most adults—is often just moving, from one car, classroom, or building to another. The outside world oven gets overlooked. But it’s this outside world that may help students inside.

stewardshipAs adults, we know that the ability to focus on the task at hand can ensure its success. We also know that sometimes it is easier to maintain our focus than at other times.

The process of becoming better able to focus is where nature can help. And often it’s just a matter of getting kids outside.

In one study[1], children who spent one class session in a natural outdoor setting were more engaged and less distracted during indoor class time afterward than if they had been indoors for two consecutive classes.

Some teachers may have concerns that an outdoor classroom would over-stimulate students, making them less able to focus afterwards. Yet this study found the opposite to be true: classroom engagement was better for those students exposed to nature than those students taught solely in an indoor classroom.

studentsBeing in nature not only helps students to be more focused, it also introduces students to the first step in the scientific method: to observe

From watching the clouds while looking up at the sky, to rolling back a fallen log to investigate which creatures live underneath, to watching a flower emerge from the ground and ultimately bloom in springtime, nature offers an infinite number of opportunities to witness how plants, animals and climate interact.

Observation can lead to asking questions, instilling a curiosity about our natural world that spills over into the classroom.

And as teachers know, curious children make better students.

A student who develops a question based on their personal observation is developing curiosity and critical thinking skills.

See what these educators have to say about the benefits of nature for young learners.

Nature provides engaging and relaxing ways for students to learn, so let’s make the most of our greenspace to expand and transform children’s learning experiences.

Learn more by visiting today.

Questions? Contact us at

Mary McConnell

Author: Mary McConnell, Director, The Nature Conservancy Indiana Chapter

[1] Lessons in nature boost classroom engagement afterward. Yates, Diana. University of Illinois. January 17, 2018.

Meet Rick Heggan, the 2015 KDP/ATE Student Teacher of the Year!

On behalf of Kappa Delta Pi and the Association for Teacher Educators, I am honored to introduce Richard (Rick) Heggan, our 2015 KDP/ATE National Student Teacher/Intern of the Year.

Heggan 2Rick is a 2015 masters of science in education graduate from Rowan University and a member of the KDP Eta Psi Chapter. He currently teaches sixth and eighth grade science at Neeta School in Medford Lakes, New Jersey.

Rick has been described by his student teacher supervisor, Carol Fioresi, as a “natural” in the classroom with a true passion for teaching. Selected from a competitive applicant pool, the selection committee praised his student engagement, energy, and composure and said his project epitomized what they are looking for in an exceptional student teacher.

In sharing the news of this achievement, Rick wrote:

“I am so humbled to receive this prestigious award. I take great pride into representing not only KDP for the next year as National Student Teacher of the Year, but also Folsom Elementary (where I gained a vast amount of teaching experience during my clinical internship 1 & 2) and Rowan University. Without my cooperating teachers and staff at Folsom, adviser and professors from Rowan, and the support of my family and friends, this would never have been accomplished.” 

KDP and ATE congratulate Rick and wish him well as he begins his first school year as a practicing educator. Rick will be honored at Kappa Delta Pi’s 50th Biennial Convocation with a $1500 award and the opportunity to speak at the closing banquet.

If you or someone you know will be student teaching or interning this academic year, I encourage you to learn more about the KDP/ATE National Student Teacher/Intern of the Year Award. Applications are due by June 15, 2016.

Kristen Jackson is Director of Advancement. She will be happy to answer your questions about KDP/ATE National Student Teacher/Intern of the Year, Classroom Teacher Grants, or Scholarships. Email her at

Could Twitter Be Your Next PLN?

Ryan Hanna is an initiate of Zeta Chapter at the University of Cincinnati and a current fifth-grade teacher in Cincinnati. He has been teaching for ten years. He served as a Scholastic Book Clubs Teacher Advisor for two years and was named his school’s Teacher of the Year in 2012. Ryan is a fortunate member of the Nerdy Book Club and is a fanatic about reading (and recycling). You can find him on Twitter @rantryan and on his blog. Check out the Nerdy Book Club blog!

Happy Teen Read Week 2014! I come to you to share a piece of advice – if you are a pre-service or professional classroom teacher WITHOUT a Twitter account, pick a creative handle and sign up as soon as you can! What are you waiting for?

The professional development provided by our school districts can sometimes be lacking. While these trainings may be planned with good intentions, teacher professional development is often “one-size fits all” and instructs us in a way that we would never instruct our own students. One of the most prevalent “buzz” words in education today is differentiation, but I often wonder why teacher professional development isn’t also differentiated.

Twitter Chats for Teachers

So, as teachers, we must seek out our own opportunities to learn from others and gather knowledge about our craft. This is where Twitter, the best professional learning network I have ever been a part of, comes in. Connecting with educators across the country is a benefit of the online Twitter community. Professional development through the use of Twitter is real-time – resources and great ideas are simply a click away, day or night. Not only are there individuals to connect with and learn from, Twitter chats occur weekly that cover different grade levels, subject areas, different regions of the country, and educational topics (such as diversity or technology use). These chats are organized and held frequently, and you can either contribute to the conversation or just observe and take notes as wonderful ideas fly across your screen. Check out this map of all of the education-related chats that occur (generously developed by Sean Junkins). You can also check out this even larger list of Twitter chats, created by Jerry Blumengarten.

The professional learning network, or PLN, on Twitter has changed my teaching for the better, and I wholeheartedly believe it can change yours, too! Not only have I been able to improve my classroom instruction, I have found an online world where authors, books, and readers are celebrated – through the Nerdy Book Club blog and its members. Anyone can join this amazing club! I feel that I am more successful at encouraging and teaching reading because of my connection to this wonderful group. Every day, an inspiring post is shared on the Nerdy Book Club blog. Nerdy Book Club Chats are held frequently – my favorite being “Title Talk,” hosted by teacher and writer Donalyn Miller and teacher Colby Sharp.

If it weren’t for the Nerdy Book Club and my Twitter PLN, I would never have discovered the book The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, which profoundly changed how I taught reading in the classroom. I also would never have been able to connect with authors such as R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder, and directly share with her my students’ feelings about her book. There’s no other place where students and teachers can connect so easily with their author heroes! Without Twitter, I would never have read The Only and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, heard about The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, experienced the beauty of Rainbow Rowell’s writing, or discovered my new favorite writer Andrew Smith (author of Winger, Grasshopper Jungle, and 100 Sideways Miles).

Please don’t wait any longer – get on Twitter and join in on the learning fun!

Mandy Jayne Stanley Named 2014 National Student Teacher of the Year!

Laura Stelsel is director of marketing & communications at Kappa Delta Pi.

Mandy Jayne StanleyMandy Jayne Stanley, 2014 graduate and current fourth grade teacher at Charles A. Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala., is the 2014 recipient of the Kappa Delta Pi (KDP)/Association of Teacher Educators (ATE) National Student Teacher of the Year Award. Stanley is a 2012 Kappa Delta Pi initiate of Zeta Theta Chapter at Samford University.

The award recognizes one student teacher/intern annually who has demonstrated the ability to plan and develop classroom management skills and instructional strategies that support all students; establish interpersonal relationships with students, parents, faculty, and staff; and reflect powerfully on their student teaching experience. Award winners are acknowledged with a $1,200 scholarship reward.

“Birmingham is a city that has a very painful past but an exceedingly bright future, and I want all of my students to be a part of it,” Stanley said. “I knew that by striving to achieve this accolade, I could show my future, now my current, students that anything is possible with the combination of hard work, respect for those around you, and a positive mindset.”

KDP and ATE congratulate Mandy and wish her well as she begins her first school year as a practicing educator!

Role of Parents in Student Success

Laura Stelsel is director of marketing and communications at Kappa Delta Pi.

Engaged ParentsDid you know that this past Sunday, July 27, was Parents’ Day in the US? President Bill Clinton started the national observance in 1994 to honor parents as positive role models and recognize the need to “promote responsible parenting in our society.”

Parents certainly play a huge role in the success of their children, so make sure you get your school year off to a great start with them! If you need help or guidance working with parents, we have MANY free resources in the Resources Catalog, including:

Simply head to the Resources Catalog and search using the term “parent.” Make sure you are logged in to access all of these resources for free!

Now, we want to hear from you about your experience. Tell us:

  • How have involved parents positively impacted your students?
  • What ways have you found to engage parents who need to be engaged?
  • How do you thank parents for being a part of student success?

How are you celebrating National Poetry Month?

Carrie Gaffney is the managing editor of The Educational Forum. She spent 12 years as a secondary English teacher and is still active in The National Writing Project and Second Story, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit devoted to bringing creativity to underserved schools. 

It’s National Poetry Month! Teachers, are you busily celebrating this ancient and loved form of communication? Or are you (like me when I was teaching) busily doing anything and everything else because you hate teaching poetry?

Okay, hate is actually a strong word to describe how I felt about teaching poetry. Maybe “fear” is a better descriptor.

Poetry is difficult…difficult to read and difficult to teach. There are too many possible meanings in the reading, and too many clichés in the writing. As a teacher, I worried about exposing my students to poems that went deeper than Shel Silverstein and about encouraging them to extend beyond lone wolf or shining star metaphors.

It took a lot of trial and error, but I eventually put together poetry units that worked for both my students and me.

Here’s a partial list of what I did:

1)      I threw away the textbook. Okay, not really. But I did forgo using it through the unit. The poems in the textbook were classics like “The Road Not Taken,” but, ultimately, I felt like the kids would be more open to multiple interpretations if they read work that wasn’t easily interpreted through the internet or the questions at the end of the selection. Together, we scoured and, among others, to sort through more modern and esoteric works by lesser-known authors.

2)      I allowed all justifiable viewpoints. Let’s say, for instance, one oooey-gooey eighth grader thought a poem was about love, while the kid with anger management issues thought the same poem was about being misunderstood. This divergence in interpretation stems from life experience and outlook and is based on what’s called “reception theory.” At that point, I allowed each learner to delve as deeply into the text as possible to support the individual theory. What I found was that when the kids realized that this dense form of communication could have multiple themes, their desire to read closely increased a lot.

3)      I made them write poems. Lots and Lots of poems.  We wrote sonnets, free verse, haiku, ghazal, narrative, and many other forms of poetry. I really wanted my students to understand poetry’s versatility, and to do so, we had make some connections about what we read and what we wrote. And then we had to write. A lot.

4)      When it was time to revise, I brought in an expert. As a teacher, I subscribe to the Roald Dahl philosophy that “Good writing is rewriting.” But paring down poetry, which is elusive anyway, was hard. To get my students really thinking about what it meant to revise a poem, I asked a friend of mine (who happens to be a poet) to send me two drafts of something she had published. We read the earlier draft and revision, discussing as a class what we noticed that shifted between the drafts, and then we wrote her some questions to ask about her process. Her responses were incredible and really got my students to think about the function of the poems they had drafted.

By the end of the unit, the students had produced enough work for an amazing public reading. In addition to being proud of the efforts they’d made to write, I was thrilled by the depth and sensitivity they expressed in their poems.

So tell me teachers: how are you celebrating?

My good days far outnumber my bad days

Zachery Durnell is a member of Phi Gamma Chapter at the University of Findlay.

Zachery Durnell--without MarineWhen I complete my teacher training program at The University of Findlay in Ohio, teaching will officially be my second career. Prior to this, I worked in fine arts administration in various settings from Florida to Massachusetts to New York.

Naturally, when you work for a not-for-profit organization, you are at the whims of the organization, the economy, and the donor base to support the organization and the organization to provide jobs to their employees. The lack of any security at all and the work in general was unsatisfying. Something needed to change, and an organization that was failing provided the impetus for that change.

I left Massachusetts and went back home to Ohio. My guidance counselor from junior high asked me to work with her on a musical. One day, a conversation commenced on my qualifications, the work that I was doing, and my interactions with students. She persuaded me to get a substitute’s license and get my feet wet with teaching. I found out that I really liked what I was doing and also found out how hard teaching is: the challenges, the disappointment, and the satisfaction. I have been subbing for almost four years and going to school at the same time. My good days far outnumber my bad days.

Teachers who have been at it a while think I am crazy for going into teaching with all of today’s requirements, evaluations, and observations. I sit back and think about the career I had and look at the career in teaching that I want, and do not want to go back.

I would rather have some certainty with a teaching job than none at all. Better benefits, and pay are also positive aspects of this career change. I could have gone back to school and into business or another field to make money. As a teacher I will make more hands down than what I did in fine arts administration. I will also have the satisfaction of have some impact on a future generation. To me that seems to be pretty important, powerful, and fulfilling.