How Planning Remote Plant-Based Lessons Made Me Into a Student Again

Educator Zana Pouncey wrote this post.

As the School Programs Coordinator at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, I’m responsible for designing and facilitating hands-on, plant-based lessons for K-12 Title I students across metro Atlanta. Like most, my job did a 180 last March when Georgia entered the first stage of lockdowns and I began working from home. It was no longer possible to visit with 100 students a day, share plates of kale, or let students pass around a Venus flytrap to touch. After the initial shock and scramble of canceling all in-person programs for the rest of the school year, our focus shifted to how we could continue to connect with students from home.

During a time when many of us were spending day after day in the same spaces, it felt vital to renew our appreciation of the outdoor spaces that were still accessible to us, like our own backyards. Quite literally. I leaned on the National Geographic Learning Framework as a guide to create lessons and activities that asked students to go outside and engage with the ecosystems surrounding them. I focused on fostering curious attitudes, observation skills, and knowledge of wildlife and our changing planet.

Each week from March to the end of the school year, we released “Science at Home” lessons to support students exploring nature from home. The activities covered a range of topics from compost to pollinators and had options to scale up or down depending on grade level. Our lessons aimed to transform things we might encounter every day into fun activities. A dandelion in the park could now be used for an experiment on osmosis, made into a nature bracelet, or baked into a cookie.

To support students and teachers at the start of the new school year, we offered virtual tours for classrooms as an online field trip. The virtual experience allowed students to “visit” the Atlanta Botanical Garden from their homes and interact with our education team. Even though we couldn’t be in person, we still wanted to create a live experience where students could ask questions and share observations in real time.

Since August 2020, we’ve been able to reach over 8,000 students through our virtual tours. As schools begin to reopen and return to in-person learning, we will continue to offer virtual tours through the end of the school year and will be back in person for summer camp. For me, this means planning a safe experience for our middle school STEM camp. For the sake of safety, I’ve been designing outdoor activities with no-contact indoor rain plans and will work with a smaller group of students. Even though I will be fully vaccinated, I will still wear a mask as well.

Although our programs have been successful, getting to a comfortable place with this new way of teaching required lots of learning and exploring. Beyond the expected challenges COVID presented us, one of the biggest hurdles was learning about the technologies we would need to run our programs. Summer 2020 consisted of substantial research, reading, and conversations with other institutions to determine how to provide informal education programs that were safe but also fun and engaging. A lot of brainstorming went into deciding what types of programs we wanted to offer and then how we planned to execute them.

Naturally, the process of figuring out what worked included trying, failing, and stumbling my way through learning OBS video software, virtual scheduling platforms, and audio engineering. It was a gentle reminder that learning is a lifelong journey. Thankfully, the dedication has paid off and we have a new catalog of offerings for students that we’ve never had before. These lessons and tours might not exist had it not been for COVID, and now we have a broader ability to provide resources for students to connect with nature, even if they can’t visit with us in person. As a result, we’ve connected with classrooms that we usually wouldn’t be able to (including a school in California!) in a way that would have been nearly impossible if not for these new virtual programs.

Watch how to make a nature bracelet at home in this video from the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Learning from my experiences, the advice I would share with other informal educators navigating virtual or in-person learning is to first and foremost be kind with yourself. What educators are doing to accommodate social distancing guidelines is no small feat, and it may take a couple tries before landing on something that works. I find it helpful to adapt the lessons I already have and look for ways to make them appropriate for the current circumstances, rather than trying to completely reinvent the wheel. Additionally, use your community network for ideas and resources. There may be something another institution has implemented that sparks a concept for your own programs. 

National Geographic’s Resource Library offers a great archive of lessons that can be adapted for different ages and subjects. Lastly, try adopting an Explorer Mindset as an educator and let it lead you to organically discover what you’re excited for students to learn and experience. What I realized about this new form of teaching was that in some ways I became a student again myself. Just as I’m asking students to explore, to be open-minded, and to look at their surroundings with new curiosity, I was doing the same in order to adapt to teaching during COVID. And I feel I’m a better educator because of it. The past year has certainly taught us a lot, and as we begin to move forward, these are lessons I certainly won’t be leaving behind.

Photos and video courtesy of Zana Pouncey

Want to learn more about how to cultivate an Explorer Mindset in your learners using innovative resources? Interested in joining a supportive community of educators? Sign up for our free, self-paced hour-long mini-course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset With Your Learners.”

For more at-home science resources from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, visit its website.

Use the following links to download National Geographic video backgrounds custom-designed for out-of-school and informal educators:

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