Educator Spotlight: Getting Outside for Empathetic Learning

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Nicole Ross, this week’s Educator of the Week, empowered her emotional and learning support students with an interactive and localized BioBlitz at Red Mill Elementary School in Etters, Pennsylvania. Nicole has switched schools since and is currently a middle school teacher in Havre De Grace, Maryland, and a member of the National Geographic Teacher Advisory Board. Check out to learn more about BioBlitz and how to bring one to your school.

Nicole Ross is a middle school teacher in Maryland. Photo by Crystal Duff

What is a BioBlitz?
A BioBlitz is when you get a group of people of any age together to look at and explore the natural world around them, cataloging as many species as they can. I did mine in a school yard, but you can do it anywhere! It’s about getting outside and challenging students to think about the wide range of species that make up an ecosystem. Incorporating GIS and iNaturalist gives students an opportunity to do basic analysis, share what they learned with others, and feel they are part of a team.

Doing a local BioBlitz gives students a chance to understand the problems in their neighborhoods and communities. This is great because kids experience what it takes to get to the root of an environmental problem—going outside and getting your hands in the mud.

How did your kids respond to the BioBlitz?
Oh my god, they loved it! They were engaged the entire day. I had parents saying, “my kid never talks about what happens at school!” We had kids who went home, told their parents about the BioBlitz, and asked to go digging around their own backyards. It was amazing to see what that one day could do to inspire kids.

Students use field microscopes to observe their specimens and takes notes in their BioBlitz journals. Photo by Nicole Ross

How did your assigned journaling enhance the BioBlitz experience?
The journals came in as the writing component for this project. It was both a ticket out the door and a way that students could showcase what they learned. Some of my lower level students just drew pictures. Some of the older students were writing sentences and felt like they were little scientists at that point, reflecting on what they had seen and what they wanted to learn more about. Being able to take a little piece of BioBlitz home enhanced the lesson of being environmental stewards. Hopefully, they keep going and when they’re older they’ll keep that lesson in mind.

What are the differences and similarities between a learning support class and an emotional support class?
Learning support classes are all about giving the students tools to get through the curriculum easier. Emotional support classes have students that need that curriculum piece, but also the mental health piece.

Hands-on lessons and learning experiences work great for these students, and I wish there wasn’t as much stigma because they can do anything a normal set of students can. That’s why it is such a big deal to do hands-on activities (like the BioBlitz) with them. They always come through when expectations are fairly set and the activity is framed as a team effort where we are all learning together.

Students observe a specimen found near a creek. Photo by Nicole Ross

How did your BioBlitz help your emotional support students in particular?
They want to dig deeper, they want to share what they are learning, and who knows? Maybe they’ll become scientists or naturalists when they are older and better equipped to self-manage their own behaviors. We shouldn’t keep them in a special education environment forever. We shouldn’t limit them before even giving them a real chance. An experience like BioBlitz, where they can work together outside the classroom and be a part of something larger, is so important for kids who really benefit from moments of “aha, I really can do this!

Is there any advice you have for teachers about this population?
In these support classes, it’s all about providing opportunities for empathetic learning. Anytime you can take a lesson and show them that everything matters and what they do affects others around them is an amazing opportunity. If you can show them that the choices they make have consequences—not just when they’re angry or feeling out of control—but at any point of their life, it’ll help them make better choices all around.

We need to take risks with our students. Yes, they might need a little more support, but they need the opportunities to try. Never second guess them and give them a chance to show you what they are capable of. They’ll surprise you every time.

The interview has been edited and condensed.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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