Beyond the Classroom: Developing leadership and community through outdoor learning

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On a typical wet, cool, May day in Wisconsin, 30 teenagers are ranging all over the land in and around John Muir Memorial County Park. This land was the boyhood home of John Muir, a place where he connected with the natural world and developed the first seeds of his later ideas about conservation and preservation of wild spaces. Their first job is to remove invasive garlic mustard on the Muir Preserve, where a coalition tied to the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir are working to restore the existing farmland to native prairie. Working in small groups, more experienced students help their peers identify garlic mustard plants and student leaders assign tasks based on their own personal interests and needs.

With that work done, they move across the road to the Muir Waterfowl Production Area to search for medicinal and edible plants, which they learn about as they go. A group of six students, with the support of an adult staff member, have developed a scavenger hunt for everyone to follow. Teams have to decide how to make the most of their limited exploration time, choosing where to explore, how to spread out, and what species to focus on. After lunch, they return to school, where they will create pesto, salad, and tea from wild ingredients. Teams of students also prepare the recipes, supplies, and additional ingredients for each of these dishes.

John Muir Memorial County Park has been a primary site for outdoor learning this year. Students have helped with brush removal, studying plant biodiversity at various stages of restoration, and broadcast spreading prairie seeds for that same restoration. In my eight years as a teacher at High Marq, we’ve visited the park at least two dozen times for activities ranging from hiking and birding to canoe tipping, ice fishing, and trail building. Muir’s legacy is important both to our broader community—Montello, Marquette County, Wisconsin—and to our school.

I did not set out to become an outdoor educator, project-based learning teacher, or really a teacher of any sort. I was certain I would become a geologist but my experiences in graduate school opened my eyes to a different track. I left with a master’s degree and a desire to teach. After two years of education classes, I happened upon a fantastic student teaching placement in an alternative high school that prioritized student relationships and hands-on learning and I was fortunate again to follow that up with my first teaching job at a school based around a PBL model. After another two years, I found my way to High Marq and I have been here ever since. What I love about this position is it allows me to incorporate PBL from my first job paired with the outdoor learning I experienced in college.

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High Marq Environmental Charter School’s mission statement is, “Compassionate Learners, Meaningful Work, Sustainable Communities,” and our weekly field experiences provide authentic opportunities for students to develop themselves as leaders, discover a sense of purpose, and learn to care for the land.

During a typical week, my students spend four days working through what would look like a typical student-driven PBL program. They spend a lot of time on Chromebooks, researching topics of interest, talking with peers about what they are learning, and discovering ways to share their learning with the community. At least one day a week, though, students take their learning outside of the classroom for a field experience. The benefits of taking these PBL students into an outdoor education milieu are many. For one, we are taking them away from their technology and into the natural world, allowing them to disconnect from the latter and reconnect with the former. For another, they practice the 21st Century Skills of collaboration, creative thinking, communication, and critical thinking while working to solve problems in small groups or as a whole class. These skills help foster stronger relationships between students that translate back into the classroom, and out into the community at large.

Students also feel more connected to the land and their community, which is particularly important in a small, rural school district like ours. The local economy relies heavily on tourism tied to our natural resources (mostly bodies of water and hiking trails), and our school helps some students who understandably may be feeling disillusioned with Montello feel like they might have a place and a future here.

None of this work happens in a vacuum. The most important factor in our continued success is our partnership with outside community resources, including the Wisconsin Green Schools Network, a partner since the school’s origins in 2010 that supports authentic outdoor learning experiences for students across the state. Partners in this year’s John Muir Memorial County Park projects included Wisconsin Friends of John Muir, the Ice Age Trail Alliance, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, among others. We have also frequently partnered with our town and county government, as well as other classes and teachers in the school district.

These partners provide us with logistical support, access to land and materials, and expertise in fields that our small staff could not hope to cover on our own. None of these partnerships were built overnight. We’ve cultivated them slowly over time by doing good work in the community, publicizing that work, and doing it year after year. Early on, it was a struggle to find authentic, long-term projects for our students to work on. But in recent years, we’ve received more requests for help than we could reasonably commit to, which is a good problem to have.

Every field experience begins with a purpose statement that is jointly crafted by the teachers and helps students understand the “why” of the experience. It sets the tone for the day and gives them a learning context for the work they’re called upon to do. Recent examples include: “To build habitat and community at school” (for a gardening day), “To investigate microenvironments in the school forest” (for a more science-based day), and “To learn how native and invasive plants can be used” (for the day at John Muir Memorial County Park).

During the field experience, students usually work in student-led field teams of 5-6 students, which stay constant through the school year. We use a distributed leadership style whereby the leaders will be given a goal, but will then work with their team to decide how best to accomplish it. Those field team leaders are self-nominated in the first weeks of the school year then elected by their peers. The only prerequisite for leadership is they must have experienced at least one full year at High Marq prior to serving as a leader. Our school includes seventh through twelfth grades, so it’s not uncommon for leaders to be younger than some of the members of their team. This can occasionally present challenges, but mixed-age groupings are the norm at our school, so there are fewer challenges than one might expect.

Outcomes from any individual field experience vary from short term and obvious (e.g., cleaning up a park) to the long-term and harder to see (e.g., restoring a habitat). Especially for those cases where the outcomes might not be so clear to students, it is important that we end each field experience with reflective journaling, including thoughts about how well they addressed the purpose statement and an open-ended question to provoke further thought. Ultimately, our goal for field experiences is not necessarily to build a generation of environmentalists—though that would be great—but to graduate students who care about their community and the environment, and have a strong sense of their place in the world.

As a teacher, my role changes year-to-year and week-to-week, depending on who we are working with, where we are going, what the weather is like, and even what’s been going on in our students’ lives recently. Generally, the teachers are responsible for scheduling, driving bus (that’s me, and yes, the correct phrasing is “driving bus”), first aid, safety demonstrations, and just generally maintaining the day’s momentum. Our emotions and reactions naturally impact the students, so it’s key that we approach the day with a positive attitude, a sense of wonder, and an ability to be flexible. Student leadership gradually increases throughout the year, and ideally, by May students have been planning and leading many of the experiences by themselves with minimal support from the adults.

During the field experience, I float between field teams while students work out what to do and how to do it. Even now, I still have to resist the urge to step in and tell them the “obvious” (to me) solution. For an authentic PBL experience, students must be free to experiment, experience failure, and learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, I’m just teaching them to look to me for answers, which is the opposite of what I want to accomplish. I think that’s my biggest job before, during, and after our field experiences—to build trust among students, between staff and students, and with outside experts. Without trust, everything falls apart. Often, this involves smoothing over miscommunications or figuring out win-win solutions for people who are at odds.

To be completely upfront, this authentic combination of PBL and outdoor education is frequently exhausting—both physically and mentally—but the effort feels so worthwhile when I read lines from my students’ such as:

“I think [land restoration] improves our lives because it’s very mindful and it’s good for your soul to help the earth.”

“The world around you isn't going to change if you want it to, you actually need to stand up and change the world yourself.”

“My community supports me when I need it. My community keeps me in check when I need it. My community gives me the strength to be a better person.”

“Today connected me to nature by realizing how lucky/grateful I am to live in a place with nature and natural resources/sustainability.”

“Something really big that I learned this year in [field] experiences is being a leader is more than just taking charge it’s really being responsible and looking out for everyone, not just yourself.”

“I will definitely take away a lot of skills from this school, I really have learned to be an effective leader and how to get along with a wide variety of people.”

After eight years of combining PBL and outdoor learning, I’m still finding new and better ways to meet my students’ needs and serve our community. I will always choose to take my students outdoors for authentic learning experiences that could never be matched inside the classroom. Collaborative field experiences transform my students, and in turn, my students are transforming their world.


Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship, and he also serves on the board of the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He teaches with compassion, mindfulness, and positivity, and is more than a little obsessed with lichen. He blogs at Medium, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project.