Eyes Wide Open: Taking the Classroom Outside

Written by United Way

September 18, 2018

As a teacher, keeping a room full of fourth graders engaged and excited about learning can be an interesting task to say the least.

I’ll take any opportunity I can to get my students outside of the classroom. When I was approached by Carlie, a youth educator from Toledo GROWs, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to conduct a hands-on lesson about a few earth science topics we’ve been discussing.

I remember the first day Carlie visited Pickett Elementary. When I asked my students how many of them had gardened before, only a few raised their hands. As I playfully talked about all the worms and critters in the ground that help our earth grow, I noticed one of my students had a more terrified than excited look on their face.

Terrek was one of my quieter kids. He was always very aware of his surroundings and a little cautious of anything new. I know that his family moves around a lot. I think the ongoing changes in his environment have made him a little bitter towards anything “different”.

It was early on Tuesday morning when myself and all 24 of my little followers marched outside. Carlie met us with an array of digging and gardening tools for the students to see and use. As Carlie dove right into her lesson, talking about the plants she brought with her and what they need to grow strong and healthy, I could see Terrek drifting off.

He wasn’t really interested in what was happening, which was kind of surprising to me. Terrek, though quiet and reserved, was a really good student.


“What’s the matter, buddy?

Do you not like coming outside?”   I said.

“It’s okay,” he mumbled back.

“Well, why is it only ‘okay’? Are you not having fun?”

“I am, it’s just that…I’m afraid of those bugs you were talking about yesterday. And, are we going to have to eat the tomatoes we’re growing out here. I don’t know if I like those,” he reluctantly said.

“Terrek, I’m so sorry if I scared you. Just between you and me, I’m really afraid of bugs, too. But, I want you to give these veggies we’re growing a chance. Just try them, and if you don’t like them, that’s totally fine.”

He smiled when I said that. But still, he was staring at the ground, not really making eye contact with me.

“Well…” he continued, “I also don’t want to get my new khakis dirty. These are the only pair I have and my mom already said it’s the only ones I’ll get for a while.”

I just stood there, stunned. I didn’t really know what to say. Honestly, that hadn’t even crossed my mind.

“Tomorrow, when we come back out here, I’ll make sure we have some things with us that’ll keep your khakis clean for the rest of the school year.”

He smiled back at me and started to listen to what Carlie had to say.


Later that evening, I dug around a supplies closet and cut up a few cardboard boxes we had to create makeshift kneeling pads. That way, when Terrek and any other students knelt down to dig, they wouldn’t be pressing their knees into the grass and dirt. I also told Carlie my concern, and she happily brought some gloves and aprons for the kids.

Each day, I could see Terrek breaking out of his shell more and more. To my surprise, he usually was the first in line at the door to go meet Carlie in our side-yard at the school. And the lessons Toledo GROWs came with weren’t just science-based, but health-based, too.

A lot of our kids at Pickett live in food deserts. Which makes it even more important to give lessons on healthy eating and gardening, so that hopefully, our kids will be inspired to plant their own small vegetable gardens, either here at school or back at their homes.

On the last day of Carlie’s visit, I shook my head and laughed watching Terrek jump into some raised beds and start digging away. Yet soon, his work halted as a squeal come from his direction.

Terrek had encountered a worm and didn’t really know what to do. Carlie walked over and picked it right up. The look on Terrek’s face was priceless. Instead of being afraid, he gently raised his hand towards Carlie’s, and asked, “Can I hold it?”

“Why sure you can,” Carlie said back.

This was the first time I ever saw Terrek really overcome one of his fears. Months later, when our vegetables were ready to harvest, I saw Terrek pick up a small tomato. He held the little sphere in his hand, looking it over, inspecting its every feature.

He then took a bite right out of it, and smiled. Instead of eyes wide open in terror, his eyes were wide open with curiosity and interest. This behavior continued, as Terrek became an active explorer and “snacker” in our little outdoor classroom.



This post is brought to you by the generous support of Dana Incorporated. With more than 30,000 employees globally and $7.2 billion in sales, Dana Incorporated understands the power of their worldwide market, while maintaining a strong impact in the community surrounding their headquarters.


*This blog post is fictional but based on a real success story submitted by Toledo GROWs. All identities of submitted success stories are anonymous for privacy and story details have been added in order to provide a better understanding of the individual’s personal successes and struggles.

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