When my son asked me the other day “Mom, why do you have to teach teachers?  Don’t they already know how to teach?”  I had to pause to think about how to answer that in 12 year old terms.  I said, “Well, you know how you update your favorite video games?  It’s still the same game but with new characters, items to collect and new ways to earn points.  I’m like the software update for teachers!  I give them new ways to teach the same thing.”  

This school year, Alliance’s VA Environmental Education Specialist, Meredeth Dash, along with educators, Penelope Gorman and Tyler Twyford from the James River Park System are teaming up for an eight part training series called “Come Outside to Teach” in which teachers learn how to incorporate the outdoors into whatever subject matter they are teaching.  Each part of the series has been designed to be appropriate in a virtual world but can be adapted for in-person once students return to school.  Until that return, our role in supporting teachers is vital.  With COVID-19 causing disruptions to regular classroom experiences, we want teachers to view the outdoors as an accessible extension of their virtual world.  Even from behind our screens, we must find creative ways to do as author Deborah Underwood writes and bring the “Outside In.”

The target audience for Come Outside to Teach reaches beyond formal classroom teachers of Richmond Public Schools to non-formal teachers called “providers,” who specialize in teaching afterschool enrichment classes for NextUp RVA such as sewing, yoga or cooking.  After the first session, Chelsea Young, owner of InspireRVA, wrote “Thank you for providing this platform and challenging us all to be comfortable with teaching and facilitating discussions outside.  It provided me with knowledge and skills that I can incorporate when working outside, as well as through virtual sessions.”  7th grade English teacher Charmaine Williams reflected “…I really enjoyed the session on Saturday. I came with no expectation but left energized and [with] strategies to implement with my kids.” The February session features an in-person field trip to the Science Museum of Virginia including a climate change program using the Science on a Sphere.  Other sessions link the outdoors to History, The Arts, and Student Voice.  Another field trip is planned for the final session in June to allow teachers to visit and explore their local watershed at the James River Park

Overall, the series has the potential to help 160 teachers build their confidence in teaching outdoors.  Emily Philpott of Blue Sky Fund participated in the second session and said, “I think it’s awesome that Alliance and JRPS are putting on this series and creating a space for folks to ask questions and learn from each other.”  In Spring 2021, the Alliance and JRPS will offer an afterschool student program that will complement the work being done with the teachers.  Students will learn about the outdoors through a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE).  The sessions will be virtual for now, but everyone is hopeful for in-person student sessions by summer 2021.  

These programs are possible through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Watershed STEM Education Partnership Grant.  The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and supported by the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded $2.35 million to 29 environmental education organizations that will partner with NOAA to provide enriching out-of-school watershed-related STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) projects. Learn about the full program here: https://naaee.org/our-work/programs/eeblue/21CCLC.