In "Experiential Learning," D. A. Kolb (1983) defines learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (p. 38), and he identifies "reflective observation" as one of four important steps in the transformative process. Writing activities are one means of facilitating reflection and learning because, as Easley (1989) explains, the process of writing "is active in the sense that it requires a re-creation of an experience on paper and reflective in that it requires a conscious search for meaning . . ." (p.11). This Digest summarizes a procedure for designing writing activities, and it describes six activities appropriate for outdoor education curricula: journals, freewriting, descriptions, literary responses, letters, and essays.
Having answered these questions, the next step is to prepare a description of the writing activity for the students. This description should communicate concisely and in language familiar to the students the purpose, form, and audience for their writing during the activity. Although it is tempting, especially in the field, to present these assignments verbally, Lindemann (2001) emphasizes the importance of providing written directions, which students can review throughout the writing process.
Planning and communicating writing activities in this manner assures that they will be integrated fully into an experience and that they will contribute to the process of transforming experiences into knowledge.
Often, however, students have preconceived notions about journals. Some associate them with private diaries; others are intimidated by the journal's formality, feeling that they must write in an elevated style and record profound thoughts. Broadening students' conceptions of a journal frees them to use their journals as working notebooks, where they may collect thoughts, observations, and even objects. Petersen (2001, pp. 39-50) offers a helpful description of different journal types and approaches to keeping them in "Writing Naturally."
In general, journaling activities ask students to do the following: (1) express their feelings at a given moment; (2) record what they see, hear, smell, and touch; or (3) probe the emotional and intellectual significance of their responses to readings, landscapes, people, and experiences. Specific suggestions for journaling activities may be found in a number of recent books. Of particular note are Hinchman's (1991, 1997) "A Life in Hand" and "A Trail Through Leaves;" Leslie and Roth's (2000) "Keeping a Nature Journal;" and the works by Murray and Petersen cited above. Raffan and Barrett's (1989) essay "Sharing the Path: Reflections on Journals from an Expedition" offers an analytical study of the role that journals might play in an outdoor experience.
The activity is a simple one: Students write for a designated period of time about anything that comes into their minds. During this time, they should write continuously; they should write in sentences, rather than lists or phrases; and they should not correct or revise. After completing a freewriting session, students can select a sentence or idea from what they produced and use it as a prompt for a second session, thus focusing their unconscious exploration of an idea. Or, students might share what they have written in a discussion. However the writings are used, they should not be graded. Students must be confident that what they write will not be judged.
Further suggestions for facilitating freewriting activities may be found in Elbow (1973) and in Tallmadge's (1999) essay "Writing as a Window into Nature."
Typically, these activities require students to describe their surroundings. Hinchman (1997), for instance, asks her students to keep "cloud logs," updating them hourly from dawn until nightfall (p. 130). Tallmadge (1999) encourages students to refine their observations of color by asking them to describe the sky, which requires them to consider not only hue but also texture, sheen, and density. In longer courses, students might visit a specific geographic location over time, describing what they experience at different times of day or seasons.
Description activities do not, however, need to be limited to observations of nature. Students might describe the behaviors of other participants in the course or, if skill development is a component of the course, how to start a fire with flint and steel.
Written responses to the readings facilitate reflection by providing a starting point. For instance, students may not know how to begin processing their personal experiences of a wilderness canoe trip, but reading an essay by Sigurd Olson gives them something to respond to. Thus, a student might write, "The emotions that Olson describes are not the emotions I felt, but I did feel. . . ." Another benefit of these activities is that the writing of others gives students models, providing words or structures that help them capture their own experiences.
Other letter-writing activities ask students to compose letters to future participants in a course or to their parents. Foster, Biernat, and Wheeler (1985) provide an overview of these and other activities in "Letter Writing for Outdoor Education."
These assignments are most effective when they are presented as an opportunity for students to formulate their ideas for presentation to an audience. Asking students to follow specific length and format guidelines heightens the sense of formality, as does publishing the essays in some manner, whether in a self-published course reader, institutional newsletter, or even a professional journal.
Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Foster, H. L., Biernat, N. A., & Wheeler, J. V. (1985). Letter writing for outdoor education. Outdoor Communicator, 16(1), 37-39.
Hinchman, H. (1991). A life in hand: Creating the illuminated journal. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith.
Hinchman, H. (1997). A trail through leaves: The journal as a path to place. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kolb, D. A. (1983). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Kolb, D. C. (1988). Letters from the past. The Journal of Experiential Education, 11(1), 50-51.
Leslie, C. W., & Roth, C. E. (2000). Keeping a nature journal: Discover a whole new way of seeing the world around you. Pownal, VT: Storey Books.
Lindemann, E., with Anderson, D. (2001). A rhetoric for writing teachers (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Murray, J. A. (1995). The Sierra Club nature writing handbook: A creative guide. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Petersen, D. (2001). Writing naturally: A down-to-earth guide to nature writing. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.
Raffan, J., & Barrett, M. J. (1989). Sharing the path: Reflections on journals from an expedition. The Journal of Experiential Education, 12(2), 29-36.
Tallmadge, J. (1999). Writing as a window into nature. In C. W. Leslie, J. Tallmadge, and T. Wessels (Authors), Into the field: A guide to locally focused teaching. Nature literacy series (Vol. 3, pp. 1-33). Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
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