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HOW TO - Lesson Plan Like a Ranger

“The first century was about bringing people to parks, the next century would be about bringing parks to the people.” - NPS Director Jon Jarvis

When we visualize a park ranger, we most often picture them in front of a majestic waterfall, an enormous canyon, or the remains of a historic site. Less often do we think of them standing in front of rows of desks in a classroom, but a large number of parks offer in-class programming where rangers visit classrooms and help teach lessons on topics related to the park. And while many rangers are seasoned educators in their own right, the transition from park to classroom often calls for different approaches to learning. 

What follows are a few of the planning strategies and techniques that are employed by “classroom rangers” that could be adopted by classroom teachers. 

Planning Strategies 

When developing programs and learning experiences, rangers often utilize several different design principles to help them create engaging and informative talks and lessons when they visit classrooms; 

Learn, Then Practice - The sharing of important facts and the building of new knowledge should be opportunities to reinforce what was learned through active participation. Lessons are formatted to essentially follow a Learn-Do cycle which research has shown to be very effective for deeper learning. 

Relate Material to Learners - Park rangers understand that the “why” is more important than the “what” and make sure to emphasize the authenticity and relevance they share so learners can better engage with the learning. When possible, the ranger coordinates with the classroom teacher to frame what is being shared with the unit of study going on in the classroom so that their presentation is immediately relatable and applicable to the learners. Because they are trained in interpretation, connecting learners to the content through relatable experiences is second nature. 

Instructional Strategies 

Once a plan is formed, the ranger generally selects a variety of high-engagement instructional approaches to deliver their content. Engagement is a key consideration for rangers because they have to keep their talks and programs interesting to keep their audiences, something that proves particularly helpful in the classroom.   

Buzz Groups - Small group discussions with clear focus questions. Each group designates a moderator who eventually reports out on the group’s conclusions.  

Example - Martin Luther King Junior Nat’l Historic Park - The class is divided into groups of four. The ranger reads a selection from MLK’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail and asks the students, “What cause would you be willing to go to prison for?” 

Panel Discussion - Three to six “experts” are chosen from the group and are tasked with providing answers to questions asked by the ranger. Experts can be outside adults or student learners provided with additional information. Particularly effective for illustrating differing points of view or perspectives on a topic.  

Example - Six student volunteers are picked to play different roles in an Everglades Nat’l Park panel (e.g. Sports fisherman, farmer, developer, ornithologist, etc) They are each given some background information about their perspective on water usage and take questions from the students.  

Role Playing - Student learners are each given a role and asked to interact through that lens. This can take the form of a “skit” they act out as a way of illustrating a concept or it can be a discussion where they take part as their persona.   

Example - A ranger from Harper’s Ferry Nat’l Historic Site provides a group of students with a script that recreates John Brown’s Raid and the events that preceded it. They act it out for their class and then use the show as the basis for the rest of his program.  

Case Study - Stimulates thinking and discussion through the analysis of a case study or example of phenomena provided by a facilitator. Learners analyze the case study in pairs or small groups and use what they learn as background knowledge to fuel discussions.  

Example - A Mount Rainier Nat’l Park ranger breaks the class into groups and provides each a case study connecting the NGSS standard of human impact on the environment with something going on in her park such as glacial retreat due to climate change, the relocation of Mountain Goats, etc. Each group focused on understanding their case study and shared the connections they found between it and the larger theme of human impact.   

In-Basket - Learners are provided with a collection of documents and artifacts related to a specific topic. They are then given focus questions and proceed to scour the items looking for information that answers the question and providing evidence to support their answer. The competitive nature and fast pace of this activity make it highly engaging.  

Example - A Mojave Nat’l Preserve ranger brings a collection of photographs, documents, and realia for students to explore. The ranger shares the focus question, “How have plants and animals survived in the Mojave Desert environment?” to help them learn about adaptations. The students search the research materials and create posters to share their findings with their classmates.  


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