My Experience As An Educator: Finding New Strategies in Challenging Times

By: Dre Wakely

September 02, 2020

Category: People of the Parks

When the pandemic hit, I had almost made it through leading the first year of Explorer Club, a new afterschool program for middle school youth funded by a Hennepin County Green Partners Grant. During our weekly class, Explorer Club participants went sledding, made forts, built fires, discussed climate change, met live animals and went on field trips. 

In March, naturalists at Three Rivers transitioned to a new online learning “normal.” Like bees swarming to rebuild a hive, we worked swiftly and cooperatively to select digital tools and to reimagine teaching outside online. We produced an incredible amount of online content seemingly overnight. 

So, with tools and new lessons in hand, I continued my work with Explorer Club students online. 

Each week, I posted new Explorer Club challenges that I hoped would encourage students to keep going outside and exploring on their own. But as the weeks progressed it became clear that participation had faded away.

While I felt inspired by online learning, I also felt discouraged by the challenges I was experiencing with Explorer Club. As I was looking for ways to respond to those challenges, I found a webinar called Emergent Teaching: Principles in Practice. 

Attended by educators from around the world in every field imaginable, this three-part workshop invited us to reflect on this unique moment and turn toward the wisdom of nature as described in the book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown.

As I read Brown’s book, new worlds opened to me. The author shared stories, thoughts, and ideas from brilliant creative women who use nature to restore inspiration, awe and hope to our future despite the challenging social and environment problems we face today.

 In her book, Adrienne Maree Brown offers a two-part definition of emergent strategy:

“Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” and “the word ‘strategy’ is a military term, which means a plan of action towards a goal.”

Instead of looking at a challenge (for example, “How do we start doing nature education online?”) and choosing only one or two courses of action, emergent strategies can be numerous and complimentary.

Brown writes, “We live in a system that thrives when conditions are abundant and diverse, in a universe that holds contradictions and multitudes, and we often reject that chaotic fertile reality too soon, as if we can’t tolerate the scale of our own collective brilliance.”

During the webinar, we dived deeply into the principles outlined in Brown’s book. I'd like to share only a few of these principles with you and how they relate to my experience leading Explorer Club. Then, I’ll offer a question or two for you to reflect on.

1. Small is good, small is all. (The large reflects the small.)

In one of the Explorer Clubs I noticed a student who acted like he didn’t want to be there. He’d bring his laptop and sit apart from the group, not participating in most lessons. One of the techniques I used with this student was gentle encouragement and letting him show up as he was. I just kept letting him do more of what he liked doing outside (which was fort building). So, to my surprise, I received an email from his mom saying that he would come home each week and talk all about Explorer Club and how much fun he was having. Fun? I had no idea this kid was having fun.

When I challenge students to eat dandelions, climb trees or make their own decisions about what we do together, I am cultivating the kind of outdoor education I want to see in middle school. I do this because adults have a deep distrust of eating plants and climbing trees and letting middle schoolers simply “be” outside. So, my approach to teaching about the environment can be my own personal remedy for what I think needs to change. It has an impact on the lives of students, even if I can’t always tell.

Explorer camp participants sit together in the grass.
Explorer Club participants. Photo courtesy of Dre Wakely.

Reflect: Take one thing you wish you could change at work, home, or in your community and start doing that thing. Practice what you wish to see more of, even if it’s not the norm or it interrupts certain ways of doing things. You’ll second-guess yourself but do it anyway – I hope it brings you joy! 

2. Change Is Constant — “Be Like Water.”

One of my biggest challenges was that I expected students to stay in Explorer Club the entire year. Each Club’s members changed a lot, often weekly. To deal with this, I tried to tighten up my expectations about Explorer Club. I wanted students and their families to feel like Club was worth committing to. I wanted to develop a sense of community, and I struggled with how to develop that sense of community given the changing group dynamic. Once COVID-19 arrived, it was a good reminder that no matter how hard I try to control the outcome, there is and always will be change. Everything always changes. 

I learned to trust that students came when they wanted to or needed to and that they stopped coming when they wanted to or needed to. Once I began to embrace the flow of the program, I could relax a little more and know that the right group of students were always there with me for the right activity. 

Reflect:  If you embraced change in all aspects of your life, what would you give yourself permission to do (or not do) anymore?

3. Less prep, more presence. 

Something interesting started to happen at Explorer Club. I would get all prepared to teach a lesson, arriving at school with arms loaded with lesson plans and materials, only to have students run up to me and say, “Ms. Dre, can we go sledding today?” and it would change my plans completely. I went to my supervisor and told her I was worried that all the students wanted to do was to go sledding. I feared letting go of the work I had prepped.

Being more present means being able to respond to the intrinsic excitement that flows out of kids. Sledding is tons of fun. In addition, students get to be physically active outside in the winter, they use engineering skills to make jumps, and they practice social skills when negotiating who rides with who and how to take turns sharing the sleds. It's a meaningful outdoor experience!

Three girls stand outside in the woods in the winter.
Explorer Club participants. Photo courtesy of Dre Wakely.

We are taught to prepare in school and work. It’s important! It makes the difference between being intentional and being sloppy. But if I’ve learned anything at all about teaching outdoors it’s that the monarch butterfly isn’t going to wait to flutter past until you’ve finished your sentence. An off-leash dog will come crashing through the middle of your class. The unexpected happenings are one of my favorite things about being an environmental educator. Rain, snow, insects, birds and mammals have a way of interrupting my plans.

Reflect: Where in your life could you use more presence and less prep? Why do you think we are taught to value prep over presence in school and in work?

I’m proud to be teaching Explorer Club. It’s accessible, it’s built on relationships over time, and it responds to the needs and interests of students. Understanding and embracing the Emergent Teaching concepts and principles has not only made teaching more fun for me, it has more importantly revealed new ways for me to engage and inspire students in outdoor learning. 

About the Author

Dre is an environmental educator working out of Mississippi Gateway Regional Park. She has also worked as a naturalist at Lowry Nature Center, Buffalo River and Gooseberry State Park, Nature Bridge San Francisco, and Wolf Ridge ELC. In her free time she studies herbalism, makes art, plays roller derby and hangs out with her pet rabbit Omar.

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