Teaching Outside and other AdventuresTodd Barnett's Blog
Road Trip Journal, Back in Charlottesville, 11-11-21
We arrived back from our two-month journey earlier this week. After all that time inhabiting 300 s.f., our house seems immense. Instead of turning and taking one step to get to the fridge, I walk across the room. Our bedrooms seem cavernous. We have so much stuff. The children are off playing now and we can’t even hear them. Our life was so dramatically different during this past season, and though it was probably not sustainable just the way we did it over the long term, I enjoyed it immensely. As I look back on it and make the transition back to my normal life, I mostly remember the virtues of the experience. First, we saw so much of the country–people, landscapes, wildlife, parks, and cities. We saw bald eagles, bowling alleys, zoos, streams, mesas and buttes, lizards, strip malls, beach rocks, schoolies, the New Mexico statehouse, adobe houses, and so on. It was quite an education for all of us and an extraordinary life experience. Second, we were closer as a family. This might have been a struggle if we didn’t get along, and the tensions in the family were certainly exacerbated by the close proximity. But on the whole, it forced us all to spend more time together, and we all know one another better than we ever have. Third, it represented something that our family has not really had in the past: a shared bonding experience. There were moments of adversity on the trip, when our tire blew out and when a dead battery forced us to change plans for a day. We two parents had full-time chances to be parents and to educate and guide our children through the days, weeks, and months. It gave us all the opportunity to persevere, and we did so, and can be proud of what we all accomplished and eager to take on new challenges in the future. We all breathed a sigh of relief once we’d returned to our familiar home, with its relatively lavish bathrooms and nearby friends, but I think we will long to be back together in tighter quarters soon enough, with a new destination in mind for the coming week, and adventures on the road ahead.
Road Trip Journal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10-13-21
Road Trip Journal Grand Haven, Michigan, 9-8-21
It’s not quite winter yet, but it’s starting to feel like it in mid-December. It has been relatively mild so far here in central Virginia, with a only handful of nights below freezing so far. I haven’t spent enough time outside in the winter to know just what it would feel like at particular temperatures. I do know summer temps, and though the heat can be stifling here, it doesn’t much change my routine much at all. I have been telling myself that I would adjust to the cold temperatures too, and I continue to be confident in this.
I recently decided that I will take my classes would go inside whenever the temperatures were freezing, and that I wouldn’t hold back-to-back classes outside for students under such conditions. We have not had such a class yet, and the forecast over the next few weeks suggests that we won’t have to retreat indoors until at least after the holidays. It is indeed getting cold, but I have been keeping myself warm with appropriate clothing. The boys have been increasingly prepared for the weather. Many middle school boys are loath to dress warmly in the winter, preferring to tough it out rather than lug around added layers. But they seemed to have learned some lessons about being cold on earlier, moderately cool days. Now, they have the layers.
The worst part of it is the wind. Our school is near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the winds here can be brutal. When everything is blowing around–papers, book pages, leaves, my unsturdy whiteboard contraption–it is both a distraction to class and just plain shivering. Sometimes we can hear the wind coming, and we all brace ourselves. Middle school boys erupt easily enough, and the wind seems to bring the biggest challenges to remaining a stable learning environment.
It could be that we could make the tents better learning spaces. For example, we tried to put canvas tarps on two sides of the tent to create a windscreen, but we had no way of securing them at the bottom on the blacktop, and they only flapped in the wind. The best placement for the tent might well be in a sunny spot near a windbreak set of trees or tall wall. A tent with translucent “sunlights” would also help to keep its interior warmer in the winter.
If we thought we would need to be outdoors for more than just the next few months at school, we might well put more effort into building permanent outdoor learning spaces. In general, I have thoroughly enjoyed the outside part of school this year, and I think that it’s been healthy for the mental well being of our students. So maybe all that I am learning could be part of a long-run outdoor learning space that makes for a better school experience, especially for middle school boys.
Power Tools, 11-15-20
The most challenging element of teaching outside, particularly in the fall, might well be neighbors’ power tools–mowers, chainsaws, and leaf blowers. Our school is in a suburban area and has many neighbors, and I have to contend with these sounds most days. I have a microphone with which I speak, and so I can raise my volume without straining, and that works okay. But it sure is so much nicer when it is quiet outside, and the only sounds I have to contend with are the natural ones.
The natural sounds are so pleasant, on the other hand, and they probably have a soothing and settling effect on my classes. At the moment, I can hear crickets, and tree frogs, as well as the caws of the crows. “Caw, caw, caw!” I continue to hear the songs of passing cars, but that is modest, and we mostly hear only the sound of the tires on the road–it’s not bad.
The Challenges, 11-1-20
Teaching outside has had its challenges, though on balance, I am enjoying the experience and I am becoming enamored with it (of course, it’s 64 degrees out right now and we’ll see if my attitude changes through the winter). But the Covid challenges this year are demanding and are making the job much more of a slog than has always been the case. I have given up administrative duties at my school that used to be a drag on the quality of my work life, but the Covid rules have been similarly burdensome.
Part of the challenge has been the increased expectations around enforcing the new rules. Our school is doing screening, cohorts, masking, distancing, and hygiene, and the last three are primarily the responsibilities of the teachers. It is relatively easy to make up the rules, but the institution’s success will depend on their consistent enforcement. So teachers are expected to monitor mask wearing, distancing, and hygiene.
Of the three, the part that is most important to moderating the spread of infection is masking. Fortunately, my students have done well with that part. They are given the opportunity to remove their masks when they are drinking or eating, and that rule creates a gray area for them that some are exploiting. Some are taking hundreds of sips from their water bottles per day just so that they can remove their mask for a few seconds. But they got used to this whole regimen pretty quickly and I would guess that they have them on and in place 99% of the time. Of course, not a day passes that I don’t have to enforce the rule a dozen times, and I have to watch for it nearly all the time. That has been a drain, as it tends to crowd out so much of the rest of my teaching effort.
The harder task is to keep them apart. I am outside all the time, so this rule is not as important as it would be if we were in a confined space with less air movement, so we are not as concerned about it. Also, we are asking them to stay 6 feet apart, and though the average distance is probably more like 4 feet most of the time, even that distance is effective in moderating spread potential.
The last rule around hygiene is probably the least important of our control methods. There is scant evidence that the spread of the virus is occurring through surfaces, although public health officials still want to take the opportunity to enforce this practice. Our students are washing their hands far more than in the past, and that will be a healthy long-run benefit of this ordeal. But it hasn’t been an area that we have been as consistent about. To do so would require far more time than it would be worth, and I sense that we have developed a collective attitude, especially outside, that this should only minimally detract from our efforts otherwise.
They all add up to a day that feels much more about managing the students than had ever before been the case in school. Fortunately, the students are at an age where the risk to them personally is not as high, so we are not so worried about their health in particular but about the adults around them. It is hard for them and they don’t have much personal incentive to try to do all this well. Of course, it’s also a challenge to make them care about things that do personally affect them like the quality of their schoolwork, so this is no surprise. Also, I know that many of them are not held to the same standards outside of our school, by their parents or their coaches and others. As a result, it all makes for a management challenge that has never been the case in my teaching before.
It is also taking much of the fun of school away. Because we are trying to limit crowds here and the sort of complications that might come with being elsewhere, we have cut back on the engaging things like field trips, speakers, and team sports. Worst of all, it’s just harder for me to interact naturally every day with the students, my fellow teachers, or parents. Though I teach outside, the days seem more limited and restricted, and it just hasn’t been the fun place it has typically been in the past.
This Is No Fun (the Covid part, not the outside part), 9-15-20
We are now four weeks into class, and the outlines of the job are emerging fully. Many are curious about just what this is like, I know, because the public schools have not generally returned in our area, and it’s still unclear whether they are going to do so. The public school teachers worry about being exposed, and the worry is understandable. For younger teachers, the risk from the disease is more remote, but older teachers and those who either have a compromised health condition or who live with a vulnerable person have no choice but to be very cautious and wary about returning to the classroom.
I have been especially cautious in my life. I am determined not to be exposed to the virus in the next year due to a family member at increased risk, and it’s probably safe to say that I have been the most careful person on our faculty. And in my tent outside, I don’t feel much at risk. Of course, I don’t really know nor can I quantify the risk to which I am exposing myself, but it feels pretty low. I am masked except when eating or drinking, and I am at least ten feet from others when either they are or I am briefly unmasked. Otherwise, I am staying 6 feet away from others except for occasionally passing by someone, and I am outside most of the time. The only exceptions are occasional trips into the building to pick up printouts or during 45-minute faculty meetings that happen twice per week. During the meetings, I sit by an open window and at a distance of 6 feet from others. I feel like it is inevitable that someone in our community will become infected at some point, and my goal is to know that I have been careful and not unknowingly passed on an infection while limiting my risk when that time comes.
My school has made these accommodations possible, and I have appreciated the serious way in which the school has responded to this crisis. I work with middle school boys, and I can’t say the young clients have been accommodating, but they are working on it. The behaviors required of them (masking and distancing) are not natural, and in fact, they are at odds with normal and healthy adolescent behavior. As a result, I am spending much of my time during the school managing and moderating their behavior. That has been difficult. We are all doing our best to keep distance from one another, and modeling that behavior among the faculty. As a result, I am not much chatting with my colleagues, and that is making the job feel more isolated and less community oriented. It has been a drain on the soul of the school.
It feels like a much tougher job this year. It feels much more like a full day of managing the students.
What’s it like when it rains – September, 2020
The following was written during a rainstorm, and is thus in first person. I guessed mid-storm that the rainfall total during the day was more than an inch, but it turned out to be about 3.7 inches during the daytime–an immense rain.
Morning – It’s our 2nd full day of classes, and I am teaching outside. I am in a 30’ x 30’ tent with classes of 12 students throughout the day. It’s an unusually heavy day of rain, probably an inch and maybe more. I pulled my car up close to my tent this morning, and brought in my backpack and a variety of school-supplied items that I store in my car including a bucket of hand wipes, and a pump hand sanitizer. I began by repositioning the chairs from Friday (I had gathered them together in the center of the tent in anticipation of rain). Then I had to dry off a few that had still gotten wet. I have to pull out an extension cord for class in order to have power, but I had to wait until morning dropoff had ended to do that because the cords runs across a parking lot and we are trying to minimize cars running over the cords. I thought this morning to wear a rain jacket, but I really wish I was wearing a sweatshirt too as it’s a little cold (probably high 60’s but wet). The rain on the tent is loud, so I put on my portable headset (Zoweetek) and microphone that clips to my belt, and that worked well today. The kids were hard to hear, talking through masks. The road noise is a little worse today because of the rain (my tent is about 25 yards from a moderately travelled suburban road with 2-3 cars and trucks per minute averaging about 40 mph). Another problem is that the ground is all wet. It’s not terrible, but there’s not a dry spot in the entire tent and it puddles a bit here and there. What an adventure this will surely be!
Afternoon – Over the course of the day, the whole blacktop on which the tent rests has become saturated, and at some point of confusion when students were moving into the space, I dropped my textbook at my feet and it instantly became saturated too. I know there may well be worse days here with high winds or low temperatures, but I hope this is just about as bad as it gets. Despite the challenges, it was a productive day in class, and the boys didn’t much seem to care about the weather. I had to upbraid some near the end of the day because they just kept managing to “accidentally” get wet.
I would imagine this is the part of the teaching outside job that would be most intimidating. But I have a feeling that it will end up as a minor inconvenience. I spend the summers exclusively outdoors at a camp, and when parents come to pick up their kids at day’s end, they often marvel that I can be outside in the heat all the time. But it’s not really a strain. My body gets used to the weather and adapts appropriately. I imagine it will be the same in the winter.
Teaching Outside, August 2020
I have been teaching since 1987, and for the first time, I am teaching outside for this school year. Of course, this is a function of the Pandemic.
I first became aware of the potential for a pandemic that would affect the boys middle school I founded, Field School of Charlottesville, in 2011 with the H1N1 scare. Though it didn’t end up affecting our operation in any way that year, I do vividly recall a nurse friend who told me that we were due for “the big one.” I misunderstood and wildly underestimated the complexity of pandemics at that point, but still, I believed the part about being “due.” So when the news of an outbreak in China began to make its way into the pages of the Washington Post in late 2019, I began to sense that our school was in for a historic disruption. When it came in the form of a state order to close all schools on March 13th, 2020, I was already immersing myself in all I could read on the virus and how we could continue to work with young people over the course of the coming weeks. I was naive as we all were, of course, as the pandemic has now stretched into months and it may well be counted in years before it is over.
Our school went online for the last quarter of the year and we did the best we could under the straitened circumstances. But I was intent on running Blue Ridge Field Camp, my outdoors summer day camp, and I started the research in order to understand how we could continue to operate in the summer while minimizing the risk to anyone in our community. On June 5th, we had our first day of camp and were in session for 13 weeks in the summer.
How to do that? We moderated the risk in 5 ways: (1) Screening, (2) Masking, (3) Distancing, (4) Hygiene, and (5) Cohorts. We asked all our parents questions about potential Covid contacts and experiences at their kids’ drop-off in the morning and took the campers’ temperature. We required the kids to all wear masks throughout the day, except when they were eating, drinking, swimming, or when we were all seated in circles 10 feet apart. There were many who were skeptical that kids would or could wear masks throughout the day, but that wasn’t a problem. The younger kids in camp generally followed the rules and wore the masks, while some of the older kids in camp were defiant and neglectful about it until warned that they would be dismissed if they could not keep their masks on. Then they kept them on. They all kept them on even when it was above 95 degrees outside. We did our best to keep them distanced, and it helped to have a higher than usual ratio of counselors to campers to make sure they were indeed doing their best. We also did our best to get them to wash and sanitize their hands. Last, we kept the kids in groups of no more than 22 as we were following a health department rule that would simplify contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. We did not, however, have any known cases in camp all summer. Had we had a case come into camp, we would have been confident in telling the health department officials that we had effective measures in place and that they were genuinely being enforced.
Over the course of the pandemic, we have all moderated our behaviors. This may be due to fatigue in some cases, but it also reflects greater understanding of how the virus typically spreads. As time has passed and more studies have emerged, it has been increasingly clear that the chances of getting the virus from surfaces, for example, is minor while the chance of contracting it from sharing space with someone unmasked and indoors is considerably higher. We seem to be most likely to minimize the risk by simply staying outside.
So, I am teaching outside this year. And, I am looking forward to it.