We Moved Class Outside for the Pandemic. I’m Never Going Back

The events of the past year gave us an opportunity to take stock, to slow down, and get playful with education. It taught me a lot.

by Joseph Sarosy
A collage of a girl writing something in her notebook and a field and hill background during a sunse...

COVID forced many teachers and parents to get creative with school this year. Students felt the impact in countless ways, some negative, some surely positive. My class managed to stick together by moving outside. From fall to spring we never set foot inside a building, choosing instead to weather the sun, rain, snow, and freezing winds right on our cheeks, desks, and multiplication sheets. I won’t go back to the way it once was.

Before I describe our situation, I want to be clear that I applaud every teacher, parent, and student out there. So much conversation around education is presented as if it’s an argument between subjects, people, modalities, systems, testing, and so forth. I think that’s a distraction, so please believe me when I say that I’m not better than you or anyone. I have a small window onto a huge subject. There’s a lot I learn when I glance through yours.

Part of the magic of this school year was that we were forced to diversify, think on our feet, and resist uniformity. Different things worked in different places. The impacts of COVID were real, tragic, and worthy of respect, but the hoops we had to jump through sometimes made it fun.

I live in the southern Rockies. I’m going to avoid telling you exactly where I’m at, because some of the things I say might raise red flags in education departments. Think Colorado. That’s what it’s like here. Lots of sun, little rain, but plenty of snow and freezing temperatures. Winds like banshees.

My students range in age from six to nine. Like the landscape, we’re pretty rugged. We’re also privileged. All my parents can afford to pay me. We are entirely independent, attached to no school at all. We’re mountain people, in the modern sense, and we’ve been doing this for years. I’ve known most of these kids since they were a few days old, and every one of them since they stepped foot in my partner’s forest kindergarten around age three or four. We’re intimate.

So let’s also be real and admit that we’re outliers. This isn’t common core. But we’re more normal than you think. Being outdoors has always been a major component of our education, but I’m neither a groovy wildflower nor a redneck. I’m an urban transplant, like most of the parents in my group, and I’m a math nerd. I have a degree in engineering, a second in philosophy, and a book due out in June by a celebrated publisher. This isn’t vital. I dislike self-promotion, but I want to dispel the idea that we’re traipsing among the daisies. We are. But I drive these kids hard. Myself too.

Before COVID, I taught out of an apartment attached to our house. We live on five acres, with a huge expanse of wilderness in every direction. We have always taken advantage of this, but when the virus struck we moved outside permanently.

I bought a carport for $350 dollars and I love it. For $90 each, I replaced our wooden tables with the most common school desks in America. I just let them sit in the rain.

After a catastrophic failure of the carport (it’s basically a huge steel kite), I bought 8-ft steel fence posts and drove them like tent stakes into the ground beside each pole of the carport. I tied the poles to the posts with medium-weight paracord, and this situation has endured nine months of very high winds. Even dust devils.

Our roof is basically a plastic tarp, and it has survived the barrage of UV rays better than I expected. We also have tarps on all four sides that we can roll down to block wind, snow, and rain, but I do this only for the most extreme events, and even then only one or two sides at a time. Fresh air we have. I can replace the tarp coverings for $100, which I don’t need to yet, and the steel poles should last indefinitely.

For most of the year, particularly the worst of it, we still wore masks. We are rural, but COVID is still a real and present threat. My parents and I set up protocols based on our state’s color code, and by the time our county went Green in March, we opted to drop the masks so long as we stayed outside.

We have a hand-washing station, hand sanitizer in the classroom and in our packs, and the first thing the kids do every morning is spray their desks with a bleach solution and wipe them. The kids turn the nozzle and argue over the benefits of a gentle mist or, as the boys prefer, “a bullet.”

Before the cost of lumber skyrocketed due to last year’s wildfires, I bought a 5/8” sanded sheet of plywood for about $45 and nailed it to the fence behind the carport. I already had another free-standing blackboard, and I gave both a new coat of chalkboard paint for $8. Next to each, my favorite amenity: a hand-cranked pencil sharpener.

I’ll get to my traditional costs in a second, things like folders, paper, printer ink, and books, but there is a hidden expense worth acknowledging. Because we’re all outdoorsy people, we have the gear. Every child has excellent rain and snow gear, outdoor packs, insulated snow boots, sun hats, warm hats, cheap gloves, good gloves. This is standard gear for most people out here, but if you don’t already have it, it can be mind-bogglingly expensive to acquire in one shot. Second hand stores in mountain towns like ours are a great place to find cheap but high-quality gear for kids.

The carport, desks, chairs, and a few miscellaneous items were irregular expenses. I split that cost among parents (myself being one), which came out to $250 per child. I provided all the rest of our school supplies – things like books, copies, pencils, paper, etc. – for about $200 per child, and that was typical of years past. That means it cost parents $450 to outfit our school this year; in normal years it’s more like $200.

Let’s return to the privileged part. Not only do we live in a beautiful location, with access to vast wilderness, highly skilled farmers, educators, and craftspeople, all of our families can afford to pay me $55o a month for their child’s education, or trade, which some occasionally do with firewood, help fixing the roof, and so on. Still, it’s pricey, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. What’s interesting is that I am the major expense, not the infrastructure. Maybe I’m worth it, and maybe I’m not.

It sounds luxurious, but I’m far from wealthy. Last year, my brother gave me his old car when mine was on its last leg. We get by. But it’s worth every penny to me, because I’m also a student. It’s convenient to call me a teacher, but I don’t really adhere to that term. I do this to learn. My education is as important to me as the kids’, and I’m upfront with everyone about that. There’s no need to minimize my skills — I’m well-trained in many subjects — but you’ll find this reflected in my teaching style. I ask the kids to educate themselves. I’m here, I’m available, and of course I guide our studies, but my primary focus is to allow the children to identify their strengths and weaknesses and feel proud of their diverse accomplishments. I’m sure that I fail sometimes.

Some of my students are academic stars. Others are not. It’s the vitality of each that interests me. This is where my discussion of infrastructure, COVID, and environmental context overlaps with the broader scope of education theory. And it’s why I’m going to continue outside even once COVID is no longer a threat.

There is a great quote variously attributed to Socrates, Plutarch, or Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.” This takes us right to the heart of the matter, because it’s easy for most of us to recognize that an emotionally grounded and healthy child with a spark of curiosity in their chest is a valuable asset. They’re alive in a vigorous and resilient way. When a human feels valued and respected for who they are, they become self-driven. Education is no longer something you have to give them. They give it to themselves.

I recognize that there are holes in this position. My method is not without leaks. But it’s sufficient to say that this is the foundation of my approach.

We see this quality mirrored in speech and language acquisition. You cannot prevent a healthy child from learning how to talk. They do it for themselves. All you need to do is stand next to them and speak. Walking is like this. Life is like this. Trees grow of their own accord. They do not teach each other to grow. They study their unique position to the sun’s rays and the movement of water because they yearn to be alive. Every human has this essential quality. It has served us for hundreds of thousands of years. Math and reading scores are important, but they represent a tiny sliver of that expression of life.

Do not get distracted by the mention of the three R’s. They are important. I’m a maniac for math and reading skills, and my students know this. But what’s important here is that the internal sense of value within each child drives the acquisition of those skills more effectively than the quality of their teacher or curriculum. In other words, we have a larger lever on a child’s education if we focus on their emotional and mental health than if we focus on the content of their education. This is why my group is small.

Again, you will find holes in my theories, but you will find none in my heart for these kids, and I think that matters most.

When I taught inside, I encountered the same distractions, challenging behaviors, and stagnation that all teachers do from time to time. Even with all the challenges this winter, being outside actually improved my students’ abilities to focus, particularly the ones who had the hardest time in the first place. It also improved my ability to let things go, to recenter. Tension dropped. It’s not gone. It was never super high. It’s just diminished.

I could liken this to a grounding wire in a house’s electric system. To reduce unwanted shorts or energetic flare-ups, electricians bury a wire (or pipe) into the earth below your house, where the ground absorbs it. Lightning rods work on the same principle. By being outside, the short tempers and flare-ups in our classroom no longer bounced off the walls. They still came up, but when they did they traveled away like ripples on a pond. Nothing was there to bounce them back into our overtaxed brains. If you have ever stepped out from a long meeting into the fresh air, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Did we have plenty of days where the sun was too hot, the air too cold, or the wind too gusty? Yes. That was a major distraction. But in time, these things came to be seen as the elements of life itself. We worked with them, not against them. I call it soft learning, or incidental learning. The kids were free to move their desks in and out of the shade. We put the side walls up, then down. Not constantly. Not erratically, but as needed. As we did, our bodies and minds absorbed the lessons inherent in the clouds. We were aware. Our reading was not impaired.

The kids are free to get up from their seats and move around the yard. This allows them to blow off steam any moment. You might think this became a constant distraction, but it did not. Cows go crazy when their hooves hit the grass after being cooped up in a building for months. Left in the field, they remain peaceful except for the largest outbursts. By allowing regular breaks for free movement, my students were able to hunker down when it mattered in ways that continue to amaze me.

Trust is a crucial element here. It allows us to reduce the amount of attention given to classroom management. I do not look for ways to constrain any outsized energy – I just let the earth do that. That’s my grounding wire. This leaves me free to devote more attention to each child’s learning rate and style. What do I care if Ashley is playing in the sandbox after nailing her fractions? Does it matter if Jacob is sitting in his chair or standing? Everyone else is still working. We can negotiate these small changes.

What the weather, freedom, and birds have taught us is that the world is not a static place. In fact, our minds and moods are equally variable. Socially, we have days that are heavenly. Others are laden with discord. Over time, we’ve learned to work with it. It’s not a distraction, it’s the very essence of our life in that moment.

Every class encounters these ups and downs too, but our environment reflects that variability back to us, and gives us a place to offload any excess frustration so we don’t lay it on our peers. How can we greet this moment for which we were unprepared with honesty and respect for each other and our ultimate purpose? Does the rain have anything to teach us?

I don’t want to create an overly dreamy picture. It’s just that this arrangement worked for us. It was a great year, not a compromised one. And other situations worked for other families, situations they may have never considered before. I think that’s kind of cool.

COVID has allowed average folks like us to rethink education in a big way. We’re in an unprecedented era of experimentation. We’re not education executives. Some of us aren’t even teachers. But every parent in America gets it. Ten percent of children were home-schooled this year. That’s one out of every ten kids. I know other teachers with groups similar to mine. We’re mostly invisible. We operate silently. But we have mentors, people who’ve walked this path before. Most numerous, perhaps, are the families in the US who took advantage of remote learning and remote working to travel or do things a little differently.

It’s easy to dissolve this conversation into an argument, and I would like to avoid that. I think there are fantastic educators in every corner of the education totem. My cousin is an inner-city vice-principal facing an entirely different situation than I, and I respect her for what she does. I would love a chance to learn from everyone, to look through everyone’s window. Like my students, I think we can do that if we listen with gentle ears, gentle hearts.

But here’s a powerful statistic: According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, American adults are, “about as likely to say they are satisfied (50%) as dissatisfied (48%) with the quality of K-12 education in the U.S.”

This isn’t new. The satisfaction level has been hovering around 50% for the last 20 years. In Plutarch’s words, that means half of our flames aren’t really being kindled. We all know friends and family who struggled through the mire of school, hated it, and were brilliant. We also know a few that loved school from start to finish (that’s me). And we know folks who had their inner flame snuffed out.

There is an opportunity here for each of us to take stock, to slow down, and get playful with education. There is a joy in the diversity, the intimacy. My weather is not like yours. My mountains are not your green fields. But when the rain falls, as it does on each and every one of us, we have a chance to let it touch our shoulders. It can disrupt our math worksheets. It might leave the chalkboard empty. But if we drop the resistance for just a moment, we can feel what it’s like to be a creature in the rain, twisting, adjusting, yearning for life. Moments like these help children reckon with what it’s like to tend the flame inside, and why it’s so vital to keep it burning.

Joseph Sarosy is a father, a teacher, and the co-author of How to Tell Stories to Children.