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Dana Guenterberg | Outdoor learning and helping students feel seen

In school, I was the quiet kid. My silence and my kindness were perceived as intelligence, and I just never stood out. I never really felt seen — and I needed to feel seen.

I was pretty close with my brother. He ended up going to jail when I was in fourth grade. We were having morning meeting at school, and the question that day was, ‘How are you feeling?’ I said I felt sad. My teacher asked me why, and I didn’t want to elaborate much. I figured that she would forget and her interest would pass, because that was the prior experience that I’d had in my schooling. But then later in the day, something changed. My teacher initiated a conversation with me and checked in on me. That was something I’d never experienced before. That was the first moment in my whole schooling journey that I actually felt seen. I felt appreciated by a teacher when I needed it the most.

I became an educator to look for the students who feel like they aren’t seen. The students who feel like they blend in, who pass through each other. I want those students to feel recognized and to feel loved. I want to help those students understand how important their presence is in their surroundings and make that feel known to them.

I never received the coping and self-regulating strategies that I needed, in all of my schooling, and that would have been beneficial for me. And so I want to be a resource for my students: teach them how to breathe, and give them coping strategies for when the time comes that they need them.

My fourth grade teacher did continue to check in with me throughout that school year. Our whole class helped her husband propose to her, and I ended up singing at her wedding. But I always felt like I never left an impression on anyone. I don’t know if she would remember me today or not. But she had a positive impact on me. She made me feel that just because I might be quieter doesn’t mean I can’t be loved. I can feel accepted and recognized. Even through those hard days.

I appreciate the younger years: the curiosity, the growth, and how much children are able to absorb. I want them to have social-emotional resources at a young age and help them recognize the importance of who they are. The greatness that they are.

We are so quick to ignore who the whole child is and why their presence is impactful to our surroundings. We go either straight to the academics or straight to, ‘No, you’re doing this wrong.’ But there’s always a motive for why they’re doing something. And their gentle presence is still meaningful to us.

Even if I think of my most challenging learner, I know how compassionate that student is, and I want to help that student feel recognized and know that his actions are so important. He’s making his classmates feel seen and appreciated by greeting them each day. He’s making them feel comfortable within their skin when he compliments them. Each day in our morning routine, we go through our calendar, we do our shared reading, but then we stand up and do some hand breathing exercises and we do some positive words of affirmation for ourselves. We give ourselves a hug and we say, ‘I am creative. I am loved. I am a writer. I am a creator.’ Because the students don’t hear it. Or if they do, do they believe it?

I want to allow them to really feel and recognize that they are loved. They are helpful. They are encouraged. That is success to me.

The first thing we need to ask is whether a child’s basic needs are being met. We know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Do they have their food? Do they sleep well? Do they feel secure at home? Do they have a relationship with us? You have to have those needs met before you can get to any teaching or any academics.

I have students who come in with hurt bodies, anxious minds, and racing thoughts. Their hearts are hurting, because of whatever is happening at home, or because of the unknown of what’s happening in the future.

And if they have that mindset, and that’s what their body’s feeling, they’re not going to get any learning done before that’s taken care of… so if we can meet the student there and provide them with the resources that they need at that moment, to get those basic needs met first, then we will be able to get to the academics and benchmarks.

I had a student who would come to school hungry. He would say, ‘Mom’s not home. I don’t know where Mom is. I didn’t sleep last night. The dog’s barking. I didn’t have a blanket. I was cold.’ You could see on his face how draining it was, and the dirt and the grime that he came to school in.

So asking him to write a three-page book right then in Writer’s Workshop was not the right choice. Giving him an extra snack and letting him go in the Cozy Cube and take a 20-minute nap was what he needed. Someone needed to allow him to get those needs met. And then seeing what he was like afterwards: he felt refreshed. He felt rejuvenated. He felt like he belonged. He felt like he could attempt the tasks, and he felt successful.

When you’re putting an unreasonable task onto a student that doesn’t have their needs met, you’re just asking for frustration. I think at times, we have to look closer at negative responses from students. Is it because their needs are not being met? Or is the task that we’re putting on them unrealistic? And then go from there.

As teachers, it’s important to keep pushing for what children need, because we know our students and we’re with them all throughout the day. When we take the time to build that relationship, each child is able to then share more with us. So then we can meet them at a deeper level and problem solve together to reach success.

Success is meeting benchmarks, but it’s also personal growth. Success could be a student who was dysregulated for ten minutes because they were frustrated that a peer didn’t want to play with them; but then the next time, they’re able to regulate their feelings within five minutes. Or instead of coming up to a teacher to zip their coat up, they were persistent, and they kept trying and zipped up their own coat. That’s success.

One of the things that has motivated me is advocating for developmentally appropriate practices. Each year, I’ve battled with what we’re asking our young learners to do. I’ve asked myself over and over and over, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I felt defeated, emotionally and physically. And I knew something had to change, but as a new teacher, I couldn’t do it.

Last year, I had the opportunity to co-teach with one of the reading specialists here. We would chat and reflect on our teaching together. We got to have conversations about the purpose behind what we were doing. Those conversations got us thinking, and then the thinking led us to research, and the research led us to classroom observations. That led us to planning and grant writing, and then finally, it all led us to our outdoor classroom.

Along the way, there was pushback and frustration. There were moments when I felt like I couldn’t keep fighting. But research tells us that our children learn through play. So why aren’t we doing that? Why aren’t we teaching kindergarteners how they need to be taught? That question kept me going.

Even though it’s only been a few months with our outdoor classroom, it really helps me and motivates me to collaborate not only through co-teaching, but with my whole class. We collaboratively use our power and passion to figure out what we need in our outdoor classroom to help drive our learning. And it’s been so delightful and so refreshing to see the kindergarteners in a natural, developmentally appropriate setting. Even just seeing the difference between them in the outdoor setting versus the indoor setting — it’s so different for their problem-solving skills, their social skills, and for stepping out of their comfort zone.

I remember on the first day, one of our students was standing on a tire. I have a picture of her still working on her balance and being wobbly. She said, ‘I’m gonna get it by the end of the school year! I’m gonna hop all the way across.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you are. Of course you are. If you have persistence and you keep trying, you’re gonna do it.’ And by the end of that week, she was all the way at the end of the tires.

There are so many opportunities in the outdoor classroom for developing social skills and problem-solving skills and allowing them to fail graciously. It’s incredible to see how they interact. Giving the kindergarteners time to learn at their own pace is beautiful. Play-based learning has given me hope.

These tires are dug halfway into the ground. They’re for however the students want to use them, but I envisioned them for working on balance. A lot of students in the early childhood years are still developing their core balance — if you go into a kindergarten classroom for a day, just count how many students fall off their chair. It will blow your mind. They’re still developing the core strength to sit up in a chair. And so allowing them to practice jumping from one tire to another has a purpose for children: they’re working on their strength and their balance, but they’re also improving their gross motor skills to then transfer over into the classroom. We’re expecting our students to sit for 20 minutes at a time during class, so we need to help them build that strength to allow them to have the stamina to sit in a chair or on the carpet.

These wooden sticks were a group project to provide a sense of ownership of the outdoor classroom and allow them to feel like this is our space. It’s not just a teacher space, it’s a space that belongs to all of us. They each got to decorate their own stick. The only request I had was for them to write their name on it. But they could decorate based on their passions or the colors they like — however they wanted to do it. And we talked about what it’s like to feel like part of a group: the feelings you have on the inside, what your body might look like if you feel welcomed, and what it means to feel proud of being in a strong community. I loved that conversation and seeing how influential it was for them to have a sense of ownership of a place.

Then some vandalism happened here. We didn’t notice it until we went out that day. I was blindsided, and the devastation on their faces was awful. Their little hearts were broken and they said, ‘This is our space. This is our classroom. Why would someone want to do this to our learning space?’ It’s their area, their community, and they’d created and grown it.

The door of that brown shed was broken down. The twine was ripped off of some of our straw bales and thrown all around, so we lost a few straw bales to sit on and climb on. We took the straw that was thrown around and laid it up against the fence underneath the sticks we’d made together.

That’s why we have a lock on our outdoor classroom now. I’d wanted a natural boundary and not a metal fence. But I hope that one day our outdoor classroom can become more a part of the community.

In our kindergarten science curriculum, one of our units is about pushes and pulls. The curriculum has a video of a town built next to a mountain, and there’s a boulder coming down the mountain. Our job is to save the town from getting crushed.

Instead of having a paper ball fall down cardboard and knock over a paper triangle, like we would typically do, I wanted to figure out how to do it outside with a physical boulder of some sort and allow them to create the town. I wanted them to collaborate with their peers, manipulate materials, and create something using their communication skills and the scientific method.

I had a knot from a tree stump that they could use for a boulder. But the students said, ‘Why don’t we just use the pumpkins over here?’ So they used the pumpkins as the boulders. One of the students found little tree stumps, and they used those to protect the town from the boulder. And then they stuffed little triangle blocks underneath the stumps to prevent them from rolling down, like brakes that you would put under the tire of a camper or a truck when it’s parked. And it worked!

Give a five-year-old the opportunity, the time, and the space, and they’re going to come up with a brilliant plan for how to prevent a boulder from crashing into a town. Now they all want to be a contractor.

We all know the demand that’s put on teachers for students to reach benchmarks. But it’s easy to look past the emotional aspect of what students bring to the classrooms each day.

There are social challenges that we have to problem solve. And even in this class of 20, you’re communicating with 20+ families — double families, and multi-families, and making sure that the student is going home to the right family. At times, you have double copies getting sent home. Not only that, but you’re continuing to advocate and make sure that you’re reaching out to the district resources for the families that might be needing those additional services. I’ve had multiple families where I had to continuously keep reaching out to either the school counselor or the social worker.

I know we’re told that we wear multiple hats, but when is it enough? We’re doing it for our students, because one day they’ll be our leaders and we want to make sure that they have the resources and the security now so that they can make those choices for us when we need them.

The standards are always going to be there. But how we make our students feel in the moment is up to us. And sometimes they need us. They need us more than the standards.

I went to a party last weekend, and someone there found out that I was a teacher. He eventually found out I was a kindergarten teacher. And he was like, ‘Well, at least you’re not a middle or high school teacher.’ I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, at least you don’t have to teach stuff. You don’t have to do stuff. You have naptime.’

And then he added, ‘…but by no means would I want your job.’

If being a kindergarten teacher is so easy, and all we do is nap and fingerpaint, think about the reasons you wouldn’t want to do it. Why don’t you want my job?

I wish we valued the power of the present age, instead of believing that it’s great to continually push our students to the next age. Let them be present at their age. We don’t need to push them along and pretend that they’re at the next grade level. I feel like we have six-year-olds going on 16.

One of the units in kindergarten is persuasive writing. They have to come up with a world problem and figure out how to solve that world problem. They have to write a three-page booklet describing their problem: what causes it, how they can solve it, and how it’s going to benefit their surroundings. But for children at this age, a problem is that someone cut them in line and they don’t like it. Why don’t we talk about how to handle that appropriately, instead of jumping all the way to the world’s problems? Or could we write something persuasive that’s not focused on the negative, where they still have to come up with evidence?

To keep things in perspective, the act of handwriting itself is so challenging for a kindergartener. So if you add content that’s not relatable, it’s even more difficult.

Right now, according to the curriculum, they’re supposed to be writing at least one sentence with spaces in between. But a lot of them can’t even draw a picture that they can read yet. So I often bring it back to them being able to draw a clear and organized picture and then telling a story based on that. Then once they are there, we can go back to labeling that picture — and then if the writer’s ready, let them explore a sentence.

Kindergarten is a precious time for learning and schooling. It sets the tone and the mood for how a student proceeds in school. We want to make it a positive experience. So if they come into kindergarten and Writer’s Workshop is incredibly challenging, and they have frustrations all the time, I am nervous that they’re going to have a negative view of writing throughout their schooling. I want them to explore letters and stories and to love reading and writing.

All day long, students are told how to sit, when to sit, and what voice level to use in the classroom or at lunch. If they’re told all these directions nonstop without time for creative play, then one day when they’re required to be intrinsically motivated and independent, we shouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t learned how to do that.

When are we going to teach independence? Why aren’t we starting that earlier in school? I want to allow children to take control and give them power, instead of us always having the power. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying no when they ask me to open their lunch for them. It’s a gift to them. They’re learning a skill. And they know I’m here if they really need help.

I remember my first year. I had a mom come up to me and say, ‘I don’t want my son in your class. You’re a first year teacher.’ I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

She told me, ‘My son’s a bully. So good luck with him. You’re not going to know what to do.’

I said, ‘I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a beautiful school year. There’s a lot of growth that we’re going to make together, both him and me.’

And so we started off the school year. There were a lot of challenging behaviors, as far as leapfrogging across the tabletops and getting milk thrown at me. You know. But I was an advocate for that student. I heard his mom when she needed to be heard. I was there when she needed someone to speak to. I was there when her son was in a fragile place. He needed consistency and a sense of security.

It was in the wintertime that his mom came up to me and apologized. She said, ‘Dana, I am so sorry for what I said to you and for questioning your teaching abilities. I am so grateful that my son is in your class. I can’t imagine him being in anyone else’s class, because you continue to listen to him, and you don’t give up on him.’

Then at the end of the school year, I found out that I was moving up to first grade that year. And she requested for him to be in my class.

To help teachers stay in schools, beyond appropriate compensation, I recommend giving teachers uninterrupted time and trust. Give us time to problem solve with our coworkers. Give us time to problem solve with our professional learning community — without an assigned agenda. Let us create the agenda. Give us time on professional development days for what we need to learn.
Let us use that time, and that’s going to be so beneficial for us.

We all know how essential mental health is, and we know how crucial downtime is, so give us time for mental health days. As teachers, we all ride the same stress level, we all ride the same timeline of end-of-trimester and getting assessments done for report cards, and we’re not able to support each other the way we want to support each other because we’re all exhausted and drained at the same time. We’re all drained leading up to breaks. So providing an opportunity for teachers to take off at different times of the year could help.

I wish I had all of the answers, but I’m not sure of the solution. One district I know has a program called ‘once in a lifetime’ where employees can apply every two years for the chance to have up to five days off during the school year. So if there’s a trip or opportunity that they’re never going to be able to take during school breaks, they can apply to have a week off. The downside is they don’t get paid for that time. Their paycheck is taken to cover a substitute.

I’m afraid of being a statistic. It’s been challenging being a new educator and coming in with new ideas. I’ve had to retrain my brain and to remind myself of what I can control within my environment. What can I do to find joy in myself? What can I do to control the atmosphere that I’m providing for my students?

For example: I have a minor in special ed, and where I did my student teaching, the classroom was full inclusive (which means students of all abilities learned together). Here, the philosophy is to cluster students into classrooms. So right now, I’m the inclusion room, and I struggle with how we’re not full inclusive — but that piece is out my control, so I focus on meeting the needs of the students in my classroom.

I tell new teachers: don’t give up. Think about what your goal is, and think about the restrictions that are holding you back from it. Don’t be angry with yourself for the restrictions outside of your control, but get as close as you can to your plan within those restrictions. You’re going to get closer to that goal.

My hope and my wish for new educators is that you continue sharing your innovative ideas and opening your door.

Be proud of what you’re doing.

–Dana Guenterberg
Teacher at East Elementary School
Jefferson, Wisconsin