Podcast: The Benefits of Outdoor Teaching with Hannah French

30 Min Read
Podcast cover with Hannah French

Photo: Hannah French in the woods where she teaches her students year-round.

Today on Teachers in America, we met with Hannah French, fourth grade teacher at Rowe Elementary School in the Rowe School District in Western Massachusetts. Hannah's specialty is place-based education. You can follow her on Twitter.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by our Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. I'm Lish Mitchell.

Our guest today is Hannah French, who teaches third and fourth grade at Rowe Elementary School in Rowe, Massachusetts. After graduating with a Master of Education in Elementary Education in 2017, she moved to the Village of Shelburne Falls and began her teaching journey. Along with a co-teacher, Hannah introduced her class to a concept called “Forest Fridays,” an outdoor teaching method that allowed them to make the surrounding wooded area their classroom. There, Hannah taught lessons, and students engaged in location-specific challenges, journaling, and free play, all while becoming more familiar with the natural area around them.

When COVID resulted in social distancing mandates, Hannah and her class expanded their outdoor learning experience by going into the woods every day, no matter the weather. When not in the forest with her students, Hannah can often be found in her studio, playing music, or working on a creative art project.

Now, here are Hannah and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Hey, Hannah. I'm so excited to meet you. I'm Noelle, and welcome to Teachers in America. As I read, you are from Village of Shelburne Falls.

Hannah French: Yep.

Noelle: Who gets to live in a town called Village of Shelburne Falls? It sounds so fantastical, so romantic. Tell us about yourself. Tell us where you live and how you came to live in this town.

Hannah: Sure. So, I grew up in North Central Massachusetts in a town called Townsend, which is a pretty average town as far as Massachusetts towns go. And when I went to college, I went to UMass Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is in the middle of the Pioneer Valley. And I finished my undergraduate degree there and then went on to do my master's degree at Antioch University of New England, which is in Keene, New Hampshire. And then, I ended up applying for and being offered the job that I am at now, a teaching job in a third- and fourth-grade classroom. And it's in a town called Rowe, Massachusetts, which most people have never heard of. It's a tiny town in the Northwest corner of the state, very hilly, very snowy in the winter. And I knew when I got that job, I was going to have to move up into this corner of Massachusetts.

So, I found an apartment in Shelburne Falls, which is a beautiful place to live. I actually live in the town of Shelburne, and there is no actual Village of Shelburne Falls in the list of official towns. It's really interesting. There is a town called Buckland, and this Venn diagram where Buckland and Shelburne overlap in the middle and where the Deerfield River runs through the towns is this little picturesque village called the Village of Shelburne Falls. And yeah, that's where I live. And a lot of people come to visit. We have a bridge called the Bridge of Flowers that used to be a trolley bridge. And in the twenties, when the trolley was decommissioned, the women's club said, "Oh, let's plant flowers on this bridge." And they did. And it's been a walking bridge lined with flowers ever since. And it's just a gorgeous place to be. So, I love living here. I love working up in the Hills in Rowe.

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Noelle: I was looking at some of the pictures, and it's just amazing. First, before we get into some of the specific questions and we get into the nitty gritty about teaching, did you always want to be a teacher?

Hannah: That's a great question. I don't think I always wanted to be a teacher. I think I had phases through my childhood. I wanted to be a movie director. I wanted to be an oceanographer. I wanted to perform magic tricks and be a magician. All these different little interests of mine through my life. But I always loved organizing things, organizing other people, and I always loved playing school. I made my siblings play school with me. I assigned us all homework. So, I think there was a theme through that. And then, when I went to college for my undergraduate degree, I didn't study teaching. I studied environmental science and biology. And through that study, I ended up working in an environmental education center. And that was where it all clicked, "Oh, I can be outside, and I can be teaching, and I can be working with kids," and well, it all came together in this way. That was like, well duh!

Noelle: I guess, the light bulb went off, and you saw your surroundings.

Hannah: Exactly.

Noelle: I love the idea of how you nicely put it. I enjoyed organizing people. I think my sister just called me bossy, but I loved playing school. And I find that interesting, too, with your science background, how do you think you process with just being someone who's curious by nature, loving outdoors, how do you bring that in? You have the nature, you have this location, I can definitely tell, and I'm sure our listeners can tell you're using, well using is not a great word for an environmentalist, but you are exploring and embracing the environment that you are handed. You have Forest Fridays. Tell us a little bit about that because I am very curious about that.

Hannah: I'll rewind a little bit. I did my master's degree in elementary education and environmental education at Antioch University. And there, one of our huge focuses was place-based education. So, place-based education is this idea that everything we do is rooted in here where we're located, in our local community, in our local ecosystem, and we're making connections, and we're doing projects that really ground us in that place. To get this job in Rowe to become a fourth-grade teacher, I co-teach with the third-grade teacher to this mixed-age group. We have a lovely school building. And the landscape around us is just incredible. And we're in these rolling Hills of Western Massachusetts. There's forest around. There's a lake and a park across the street from us that has trails and a mountain, and it's just amazing. And honestly, feels a huge shame not to use.

In my first year of teaching, my co-teacher and I, she has been there much longer than me, we decided we're going to commit to going outside once a week and being in the forest. So, thus began our Forest Friday program. And this is something that a lot of forest kindergartens or other elementary schools and other teachers I think have done in a lot of different places. There are a lot of forest programs in Vermont and New Hampshire, and in Maine, especially in the younger ages. So, we were able to look at some of those educators and see what they were doing and use that to inform our work. And we're teaching third and fourth graders. There's not a super ton of like here is how to do this with third and fourth graders kind of material. So, some of the stuff we were doing we had to really reimagine what teaching would look like. So, we started small. We started going out on Fridays, and we did that for two years.

Every Friday, we would go to this park across the street from the school. We would go on a hike. Sometimes, we would do nature observations. Sometimes, the kids would bring independent reading books and read. We would play running games that were based in math concepts or science and social studies concepts and other games and a lot of community building challenges, and then, of course, we provide lots of time for the students to just play in the woods. We call it forest choice time. And they can choose what they want to work on, whether it's building a fort or pretending to run a store or just playing some game that they've created, all these different choices. And we just saw that with that one day a week, the creativity and the excitement about being outside, no matter what the weather, just grew and grew. And now, we actually were outside every day.

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Noelle: Every day?

Hannah: Mm-hmm.

Noelle: Wow. Cool choice. I want to go back and just have this stick with me because I have never heard of the term place-based learning, which I do love.

Hannah: Yeah, sure.

Noelle: To me, it's like bringing farm to table to the classroom where you can inspire children, students of all ages to learn [about] their community and embrace and see how much wealth of learning can happen right in their yards, their community. And when we think about how global everything is, there's also this importance to help students be connected to home and where they live thinking of just about maintaining some brain trust in the local community. So, I'm amazed, and I applaud. How would a teacher or where would a teacher go to start reading and get more background on the place-based learning?

Hannah: I think that there are probably a lot of resources associated with groups like the [National Association] for Environmental Education. I think it's the National [Association], NAEE. And also, there's a fabulous kind of hub of resources that's called Inside Outside that's run as an extension of Antioch programming. And through Inside Outside, there are different chapters all over the Northeast and now extending, I think even further of educators doing this kind of work where we will get on a Zoom meeting this year, it's been a Zoom meeting or people have met in person in the past to talk about what we're doing in our classrooms and share ideas. And then a lot of those people share resources through platforms like this.

So, I think there are lots of ideas around. I think it's hard, though, because there's no way that I'm going to go online and Google place-based education unit for Rowe and find something because it's so specific to your place. It really is going to depend on you. And so, I think that there's a lot of thought work that needs to go into that from myself as an educator and my colleagues. And there's a lot of planning and preparation that teachers need to have time to do in order to do this work well with their students. So that whether we're doing a unit on indigenous people and we're learning who this land that we're on belongs to or if we're doing a unit about trees and studying the trees in our forest, right, there's all this background knowledge that we as educators can do some prep work in learning and then also learn alongside our students. So, I think it really depends on where you are in a lot of ways.

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Noelle: You describe what does this outdoor classroom environment look like and how do you prepare to build that time into your plan to get to the park or where you have your outdoor meeting space?

Hannah: We used to have to hike a long way. Our outdoor meeting space was probably a 15- or 20-minute hike into the park, across the street from the school. And that was part of why we went once a week, only on Fridays. And we would probably still be doing that if it weren't for COVID. In the spring of that first shutdown, our school went remote, and everyone was at home and the fall. What year is it?

Noelle: The same. It's all one big year.

Hannah: In that fall, our school committee decided to have us be in person unless families opted for remote learning. And we knew that if we were going to be in person, we knew that the indoor classrooms were going to be rows of desks distanced and in one room where the same air is going to be in there with you for a while. And so, we just said, let's just get outside every day, knowing that's a safer option than being in a room together.

So, I think of COVID as like a catapult in a sense. It took us from what we were doing in terms of outdoor learning that one day a week kind of thing, to where we wanted to end up anyway, but probably wouldn't have, if we didn't have a fire underneath us, we wouldn't have been outside every day for another few years at least. It really motivated us to figure out how to do this. It really motivated us to build the space. And we found an area across from the school and up a hill and right inside the woods there that is flat area of lightly wooded land that extends back. And we said this is going to be our outdoor classroom. And at the end of that summer, it was just us brush and trees. I think we had a parent come help us clear a little bit of that.

And we had some stumps. I think we had stumps right away from the cutting down of some trees and the cutting up of some logs that we did. And that was it. That was all we started with. And as the year went on, we started to add more and more to the outdoor classroom. We have two different areas now for the third grade and the fourth grade, grade-level math and reading lessons that we teach. We have a whole area that we're now calling the Western Woodland, where they have their forest choice time. We have an area of picnic tables that were built for us by the students at the local technical school. We have different areas with tarps over top so that in the rain, like today was a rainy day, but we were just under our tarps. And we have an area that the kids just built a couple weeks ago that is the nest. And they built a giant nest with all these branches that were just down from no one being in the classroom all summer.

Right now, if you walk into our outdoor classroom, it's whoa, amazing all these different spaces, all this stuff, but we started with a barely cleared area of land and worked from there. And I think it took us being in the space and using the space to start to realize what we needed here and, oh, what we needed there. And then we were able to pull things in. So, now, we're still in this pandemic, but it's a little less intense than it was last year. Now, myself and my colleagues are vaccinated. We know a little bit more about the virus, and things feel a little bit more contained or a little bit calmer, at least at our tiny school.

And so, we feel like now, okay, here we are, we built this amazing space last year. Now we can really use it and continue to develop it with our full attention. Not just the part of our attention we were able to give it during all the other stuff that was going on. We were also teaching remote students, and we were rethinking all of our lessons and plans so that kids play games and do activities at a distance from each other. There were so many pieces of last year that were challenging and difficult, no matter how anyone was teaching. So, it feels like we're really on the other side of that. And we can super focus now on making our outdoor classroom even better.

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Noelle: What a gift to create a solution for connecting with students during a pandemic. I'm curious two things, Hannah, how you got buy-in from your administration and then second, how did you explain this to parents, families, caregivers?

Hannah: We are super fortunate to have a very fabulous principal. Our principal is really trusting of us as teachers, and he is willing to listen to our ideas and help us figure out how to get what we need to try out the different projects that we want to try. It was the first week of my career as a classroom teacher. I had only been a para before I got hired at this school. So, in this first week, my co-teacher and I said, "We want to start going outside on Fridays." And he said, "Great, try it out." And we were outside the next week. That's how open our community and our colleagues are to the trying out of different ideas like this. And I think that's huge. I feel like my co-teacher and I have a lot of freedom to shape our outdoor program in a way that really truly meets the needs of our students.

And that also is really fabulous for our students in a way that sitting inside a classroom can still be a fabulous experience, but it's just different. I think about it too. When kids come into a school, they're stepping into this world that has been created for them by adults, and there's furniture in certain places. And there are rules about how you walk in the hallway. And so, they're really stepping into our worlds. And I feel like in the forest, especially during forest choice time, during free playtime, or even just when our kids are going off to their hammocks to independent read, that's their world, and now we're stepping into their world and meeting them there and then learning and growing together from that spot. So, I think that having such a supportive administrator has enabled us to do that kind of work.

And then, with families, I think it's a similar thing. Right from the beginning, we've really tried to communicate clearly our plan and also our reasoning. We know it's great to be outside. We're not just going to go out there and run amuck. We have clear plans of what we want to do with our class when we're outside, and we can talk more about that if you want to talk more. Another thing that we really were careful about was just ensuring that all of our students were prepared to be outside because we're going outside in all kinds of weather through the whole year, Massachusetts winters. So, we have done some grant writing, and we have gotten some other funding and even just some of our supply funding, I think probably we've been able to use on things like mittens so that we can have mittens available for kids who maybe don't have some or maybe forgot theirs.

And we have extra rain pants and extra raincoats and extra snow pants and all those kinds of things. We still ask students to bring their own gear to be outdoors. And we have options available so that if that's a hardship for families, we're there to work with them and make sure that it's not a hardship so that their student can access these experiences just the same as any other student.

Noelle: That is amazing and so thoughtful, and I think about when I lived in Chicago, my daughter was [in] first grade, and she always had her snow pants in her cubby, but she had worn them. She had needed to wear them home one day, and me being a mom who accidentally forgot to wash them right away and send them right back. And I remember one day it snowed so badly in Chicago, and she needed those pants because they still allowed for some outdoor time. And I remember getting the call from the school, and my child was devastated, mortified, probably more than anything, but it's so important to think about those things. And I think as a parent, knowing that accidentally forgetting is not going to prevent my child from still participating or any child still participating. So thoughtful to think about that. You said all-weather, am I allowed if I'm a child to sit in the hammock even in winter?

Hannah: Yep.

Noelle: I'm really curious, Hannah, because I'm thinking an eight-year-old as an eight-year-old. Is anybody trying to flip in the hammock? Has anybody fallen asleep in the hammock?

Hannah: We have had both of those things happen. And that's just part of being a kid in the hammock. There was one time last year when a kid fell asleep in his hammock during independent reading at the end of his school day, and it just was a busy day. In that kind of moment, we just, gently, "Hey, wake up. It's time. We're done. We're moving on." And then always they want to swing in their hammocks. And sometimes, there are moments when that's okay. And then sometimes you just have to say, "Right now, you should be focused on your nature journal so that you can share what you've written when we all come back to our meeting." So, it's a balance, and it's also a great place to be flexible. There are so many things that I feel constrained students, especially in an indoor classroom, and when we're outside, the sky is the limit. So, I'm all for swingy hammocks as long as everyone feels safe and is taking risks that they are comfortable with. I think it's really important that we're letting them be kids.

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Noelle: Is there any technology in this space? Are you using Wi-Fi or is it observational notes and journals and that type of learning?

Hannah: We're up in the hills anyway, so even cell phone service is not ideal where our school is located, so we definitely don't have Wi-Fi in the woods. We tried doing a little bit of tech outside last year just when we were in the COVID scramble, and it was difficult. There's a certain distance that you can get from the school where no longer can you be on a Google Meet. Generally, outside, we don't have any devices. We'll take photos. We take a lot of photos of our different activities or end of the kids at play and working on things so that we have that documented. But a typical day like today, we had the kids come into school. They arrive in the morning, and they have their morning work time. Some of them eat breakfast, and that all happens in the classroom.

And then we sit down for our morning meeting. We do a responsive classroom-style morning meeting. So, we greet each other, and we share something, and we do an activity together. And then we read a morning message. And then, we split into our groups, so that third graders go with my co-teacher, and I take the fourth graders. And today, we headed right outside up the hill into our outdoor classroom. I did a brief math lesson with my students where they answered a question that I had for them on a piece of printed paper on clipboards that I keep up in my outdoor classroom. So, I gave everyone a clipboard and their paper. They solved the math problem. We did a sharing circle where they shared their responses with some other peers. And then we talked about it altogether. They have little chalkboard slates because we found out the dry erase markers don't work well on a rainy day or in the winter, so we don't use them outside anymore. So, they have little slates.

So, then we did some work together, and then they played a partner game. All they needed for that was a record sheet and their math cards. So, they did that and practiced the skill that we were working on today, which was some double-digit edition kind of stuff. And then the third graders join us. They were over in their space doing their math. They joined us, and we did our sentence study that we do along with our nature journaling. And then they have snack and choice time then outside reading. So, I did a little read-aloud, and we did a response to the read aloud, and the kids read independently.

Sometimes they do that in their hammocks. Today they just read in our little area because we only had a little bit of time left. And then we go in for lunch. Sit quietly inside and eat lunch. And then in the afternoon after lunch, sometimes we'll go back up to outdoor classroom for writing workshops and for other things. Sometimes we stay in depending on if we need technology or if it's just going to work better for us to be inside for this lesson. But we're working on making that afternoon time more outdoors.

Noelle: I know you mentioned that students, that you've seen more create creativity, you've seen more stamina and risk taking. What other benefit when you think about student learning, and you look at your reading results and your math results that you would connect back to this approach with using outdoor spaces?

Hannah: I think a lot of it is about the space, about having lots of movement, and if we were in an indoor classroom, it'd have to be like, "Okay, let's all get up and do a movement break now." But when we're outside, it's built into everything that we're doing because we're always moving around that classroom. So, there's a lot of movement. And I think that just helps gross motor and fine motor operations. Kids can develop better writing stamina. And then, I also think that focus is a huge piece. I think being outdoors and having a natural setting really improves focus in a lot of ways, and it just is calming, I think, to be outside. Plus, just to go back to the creativity and imagination. The students are building worlds out there when they're playing and making forts, and all of that, we can tie back into the learning in different ways to really meet them where they are.

And so, I think it just starts to feel really intrinsic and feel really student-led in a lot of ways. And even when it's the standard math lesson from the math curriculum, we're spinning it in a way that involves all of those pieces, body movement, and gross motor, and using different areas of the outdoor classroom, and using the natural world. I have posters right now that I'm developing for my multiplication unit that I'm going to start. The kids need to learn their multiplication facts. So, I've made a poster for each multiplication table. So, it's like, count by fours with red F. That's the juvenile phrase of the red spotted newt. With red F legs, and each salamander has four legs, so you see, 12 salamanders and every salamander it's 4, 8, 12, 16, 20. So I have something that has five leaflets for fives. For eight, I have ticks. Count by eights with tick legs.

Noelle: I just have the heebie-jeebies.

Hannah: Oh, we do tick checks every day. We actually have a song for tick checks now. One of the classroom jobs is the tick tallier. And so, when we come inside, the tick tallier has a little stop sign that they hold up that says, "Stop, check for ticks." And we all sing our tick check song, which is head, shoulder, knees and toes kind of thing. And if kids find ticks, we put them in tape, and we put them up on the tick tally. The kids fill out a little form with their name and the date and where they found the tick, and they tape it up, and we keep a tally of all the ticks we've found. And we also talk about ticks and learn about their life cycle and why they're biting us. And I think that through all of this work, it's not a scary thing to find a tick anymore. It's exciting.

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Noelle: I'm staying with you. I'm finding it also just so confident of you. When I said I have the heebie-jeebies, and you were like, I'm just going to just keep talking about the tick. I feel like Noelle needs to embrace that they are out there. They exist. So, I really, Hannah, just find you so lovely, so fascinating that I can only hope for you that you always have an administrator that lets you have that freedom. I really do want that for you because I think about teachers like yourselves who may not have had that freedom and need that so much for their teaching soul, and then they leave the profession. So that is my hope for you. But I want to ask you too because there's something about being a teacher that we often live that profession, 24/7, 365, how do you allow yourself to separate and just be you and nobody in school, nobody in the classroom needs to know that's something that you love to do except you or your significant other?

Hannah: I love that question because I think that just the way that teaching as a profession kind of is painted in popular culture and in a general sense, it's that exact idea of if you're a teacher that is your identity. Period. End of story. And I think it's really important that teachers are other people outside of teaching. So, outside of my teaching, I play the fiddle and the banjo, and I play an old-time jams, and I love to listen to standup comedy, and I've tried a little bit of standup comedy myself, and I have played in a band a little bit, and I have got lots of different art projects going on. I like to build puppets and do all kinds of different creative things. All of that is also part of who I am. And I think that instead of being a teacher and then letting that inform these other pieces of my life, I think of all of these other pieces like my identity, who I am, and then that informs my teaching.

So, if we're doing a book study and we all are really interested in these characters, maybe we could all build puppets of the characters from the book and use what we know about the characters from the story to inform our puppets, right? So, I'm pulling pieces of myself into my classroom in that way. And I'm not losing myself in my teaching or vice versa, but I think my identity informs my teaching. And I also think that COVID really reminded me and a lot of other educators about boundaries. In the first part of the pandemic, it was really hard to separate work from home because we were working at home. And now, I feel like I'm able to more firmly put down my work when I'm at home and focus on other things. I'm giving myself that space.

I'm saying, you know what? You don't have to be working. And also, I think that I'm using my time at work way more efficiently because last year, I was alone in a classroom. My co-teacher and I had to be in separate rooms because of how large our groups were and physical distancing. So, anytime I was indoors with my students, which ended up being a fair amount of time, I was alone in a room with them and sometimes a para in and out, but I didn't have any breaks. I ate lunch with them. I was there when they were on the computers for their remote Spanish lessons. I was with them from 8:15 until their dismissal at three o'clock.

They were long days. And I just realized, okay, now when I have 30 minutes, because they're in read-aloud with the principal who, amazing principal, he does read-aloud for our students two times a week, but, okay, what do I need to get done in these 30 minutes that is imperative for tomorrow? What do I need to start to prepare for next week? I think COVID reminded me to use the time that I have in these little pockets really efficiently so that I'm not feeling like I have a ton more to do when I'm at home. And I think that teachers, we could be working all the time if we didn't stop ourselves. So, it's really important to set those boundaries and to say, "Yeah, I'm putting the work down. I'm not in teacher mode. I'm done."

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Noelle: I usually always ask teachers at the end of the episode to share what their walk-up song would be when they walk into the classroom, but one of the things that you've inspired me and I'm remembering as a child, watching Bob Ross. Now, there's a whole new fascination with Bob Ross, but there [are] three quotes that I feel you embody. So, his quote, "We don't make mistakes, just little happy accidents."

Hannah: Totally.

Noelle: And then his quote, "There's nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend." I feel like that needs to be a sign in your outdoor space.

Hannah: I'm sure I have students who would whip that up right quick tomorrow morning.

Noelle: Please send me a picture. And then, "I can't think of anything more rewarding than being able to express yourself to others through painting." And I think this episode, we could flip that to, "I can't think of anything more rewarding than being able to express yourself to others through teaching and allowing them to learn in the spaces that they are." So, thank you for this talk. Our listeners are going to love learning and thinking about these tips that you've shared. And I hope that the rest of your journey this year is just filled with fantasy and moments of total awe.

Hannah: Thank you.

Noelle: Thank you.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes.Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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