KNPE, Lorado Taft staff combine forces to keep field experience despite COVID

Gail Koehling
Gail Koehling

COVID-19 is not stopping P.E. majors in Gail Koehling’s KNPE 466: Field Experience at Outdoor Environments course from getting a taste of Lorado Taft training.

Students in KNPE 466 typically visit the NIU facility in Oregon, Ill., for three days and two nights as they deliver lessons to fifth- or sixth-graders on birds, Native Americans, forest ecology, orienteering, survival skills and more.

The Huskies lead team-building activities. They play games full of running and jumping. They guide night hikes through dark woods.

But Lorado Taft cannot currently host children overnight or in large groups.

Only one school has sent a group since last March, and its small number of visitors was divided into two tiny groups that followed NIU and state guidelines by wearing masks and staying far apart. They came for two consecutive days and went home in between, leaving the cabins empty.

“Under Phase 4, overnight youth camps are not allowed in the state of Illinois,” says Melanie Costello, campus director. “I’m hopeful, even as we remain in Phase 4, that as more data comes out about safety and as more people are vaccinated, we will be able to resume doing overnights.”

Koehling’s students need not wait, however.

“Outdoor education has been a class that alumni always share was one of their best learning experiences/clinicals that they had while at NIU,” says Koehling, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Melanie Costello
Melanie Costello

“COVID-19 has made this an experience that we are not able to achieve this semester,” she adds, “but the Taft staff has worked with us, and we have been able to modify this so that our pre-service teachers are still able to become familiar with outdoor education, face-to-face peer-teaching, classroom management, facilitation of lessons and many different forms of debriefing.”

Thirty-seven NIU students visited Lorado Taft on two separate days in late January, reporting in small groups of six that met the current safety guidelines at that time.

They received the traditional modeling of the content and the delivery – in essence, temporarily becoming the fifth- or sixth-graders they eventually would teach. They also received their assignments on what one activity they will lead either March 2, 3 or 4, when they now are allowed to gather in larger groups of 13, 12 and 12.

What is different is the students who will receive those lessons; not children from an elementary school in the region but their KNPE 466 classmates.

And it will come thanks to an NIU alumna who has hiked in their boots.

Shannon Forney, Outdoor Education assistant coordinator at Lorado Taft, graduated from NIU with her B.S.Ed. in Physical Education in December 2013.

Shannon Forney
Shannon Forney

Motivated by her own experience at Taft, Forney applied for and scored a one-year internship at the field campus, stayed two years more as a full-time staff member, left for two years and eventually returned for her current role.

Forney obviously knows how momentous that trip to Ogle County can become for a P.E. major.

“The biggest thing that I learned from coming here was group-management skills,” she says.

“From a teaching standpoint, it’s huge to be able to adapt from teaching 10 kids and then teaching 150 kids and having no problem with it. I’m pretty confident now that I could take 150 kids out in the woods by myself and that everything would be perfectly fine,” she adds. “You don’t get that anywhere else because you’re confined to a gymnasium. Here, you’ve got the woods. Anything could happen.”

Coordinating with Koehling, Forney overhauled the program to fit the pandemic-driven situation.

“I’ve basically crammed them into three days. Each day the schedule looks identical, and it’s a long day. They’re not spending the night,” Forney says. “I’ve modified the curriculum but made sure that all the classes use games and activities that the students can use later on when they get into an actual school. It’s going to be a big deal for them.”

Beyond the excitement the students gushed from finally seeing each other in person when they reported to Taft for training, she adds, they also responded positively to their task at hand.

“A lot of times, we see them come in for the weekend, and they don’t understand why they’re doing it. Then, they come back and teach, and they understand why we did everything the way we did,” she says. “This time, when they came through, everyone was very enthusiastic for the classes we were teaching them.”

Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes.
Now NIU-alumna Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes during the February 2017 program.

Koehling has witnessed that exhilaration since.

“Yesterday in class, I made each group give a peek preview of what they were going to be teaching. I put them in small groups – six for ecology, six for orienteering – and they were allowed to say 15 words to pique the rest of the class with what they were going to be teaching,” Koehling says.

“Everybody created their own little scenario, and you could just feel the excitement they have about coming out to teach,” she adds. “Forest ecology did smell, see, hear – they were doing all the senses, and they were really on target. They were very creative, and that made it really fun.”

Despite the necessary abridging and alternation of the experience, Koehling says it still should prove beneficial and maybe as transformational as it did for Forney and for alumni who constantly tell her that Taft was the best, and their favorite, time.

“They’re getting teaching experience out of it in peer-teaching each other,” Koehling says. “They’re getting the ability to practice lessons that hopefully, one day in the future, they can teach in P.E. classes, and I’m hoping it’s a confidence-builder.”

Such self-assurance will serve them later this spring as they begin their secondary clinicals, she says, and again in the fall as they start student-teaching.

Wooden stairs wind down a Lorado Taft hill.
Wooden stairs meander through Lorado Taft.

And, if previous years are any indication, these one-day sessions at Taft will pay dividends in those gymnasiums or even the grass playgrounds right outside the door.

“In the past, while the NIU students are there for planning weekend, a lot of times they don’t put that puzzle piece into place on why we’re doing things. Then, the students say to me, ‘Wow, I get why we had to do this and this.’ It falls together for them, so that’s always been a win,” Koehling says.

Meanwhile, she adds, “not everybody has the ability or the opportunity to teach outdoors, and it’s always this experience that everybody brings up when they’re leaving, or after they’ve student-taught. It’s bigger than outdoor education. It’s something they can take to every class that they’re ever going to teach.”

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