Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Graduate School of Education News

Teach at the beach

Sitting in a circle on the beach, 15 teachers’ heads are bent over their notebooks, writing away as they ponder their connection to this location. Seemingly oblivious to the mid-40 degree temperatures and the threat of rain in the distance, each one is dedicated to the task at hand. After several minutes, they are asked to share with a partner, and energetic faces turn to nearby peers to hear and tell their stories. beach

Each of these teachers, as well as the 30 more at this retreat, had given up their first day of spring vacation to attend an overnight workshop at Camp Westwind. These dedicated educators, who teach in Lincoln County and Portland, were attending the second annual Pedagogy of Place Retreat in March, a professional learning experience for teachers that is all about bringing literacy and learning to the outdoors.

Professors Jill Bryant, Jennifer Roberts, and Tobias Irish, faculty in the Graduate School of Education, joined their collaborative partners from the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Lincoln County School District, and the Westwind Stewardship Group, to host these dedicated teachers on their learning adventure. Teachers spent 24 hours at Camp Westwind, located just north of Lincoln City on the Salmon River estuary, being writers themselves, learning about the teaching of writing, and having a little fun along the way.

Teachers had opportunities to explore the Salem River watershed, comb the beach, and hike through old growth forests as they explored a single question, "What happens at the edges?" As participants journeyed throughout the area, they made observations, collected data, discussed their inquiry questions and hypotheses, and, most importantly, they explored ways to bring writing into the field.

As a part of the retreat, teachers produced writing from all genres, including personal stories of how they connected with the place in which they were learning, poetry and other prose inspired by their surroundings, expository writing that included personal field guides and other data collection techniques, and argumentative writing to evaluate the value of a place such as Westwind. These writing activities, similar to ones they could do with their own students in the classroom or the field, provided opportunities to write in ways that helped participants process, ponder, and pontificate.

While writing was certainly the focus, there was plenty of time for fun, too. This year, teachers were asked to “brand” their environmental literacy initiatives, creating slogans and jingles with new catchphrases to help others understand their work. The fun activity resulted in raps, songs, bumper stickers, and billboards, but also lots of laughter and camaraderie. Throughout the retreat, participants made up songs, walked on the beach, and sat by the campfire, enjoying the company of peers and colleagues in ways most have neither time nor opportunity to do in today's busy schools. The Pedagogy of Place Retreat was created to be a safe haven for teachers, a fun and relaxing way to learn and reconnect to other professionals and to the environment in which we live, work, and play.

As one participant shared, "[The retreat] is in a beautiful location, and it’s a great escape! More importantly, you learn lots of great teaching techniques and ideas for writing in the field." Teachers valued the time to share with one another as well as learn from their hosts, and they "loved the variety of activities and that we learned through doing rather than just reading or hearing about them."

The partnership between the four organizations began last year as a way to provide professional learning experiences for Lincoln County teachers to support them in connecting their students to the ocean, which is, for most students in that county, right in their own back yard! The school district sought out partners who could support teachers in their marine science content knowledge, their skills in literacy integration, and their understanding of how to teach outdoors and access local resources for teaching and learning.

Jill and Jennifer began working with the partner organizations last year, along with Larkin Smith (BS '09, MAT '10), who is a teacher at McKay High School in Salem. New Clinical Professor Tobias Irish joined the team for this year's event. Each WU partner brings something unique to the experience, but they all share a love of teaching, learning, working with teachers, and outdoor learning. "I am grateful for every opportunity I have to work with teachers, helping them to find new and better ways to bring learning outside the walls of schools," said Jennifer.

The teacher participants had high praise for their experiences, and their one complaint was they wanted MORE! It's not often you hear busy classrooms teachers, who are, in most cases, already overloaded and overworked, ask for more of anything, but this experience has proven so rewarding, they see the value in additional "time to present, reflect, collaborate."

The partners hope to continue the retreat for years to come, as they see the valuable opportunities it offers local educators. For them, it is important for teachers to have learning experiences that are meaningful for them. One participant's final words illustrate this goal. "I feel inspired and I am returning to my students with so many new ideas. Actually, I have more than ideas. I have the valuable field notebook that you created for us!  I know I will be a better teacher with all these plans!"