My Left-Field Lesson - Finding a sense of belonging

29th November 2013 at 00:00
An outdoor treasure hunt helps kids to connect with the world

It's not often that English classes leave the confines of the classroom and journey into the countryside. But for some topics, I have found that doing exactly that can have a big impact.

I am currently teaching a group of 16- and 17-year-olds who are studying for their Higher School Certificate in English. One of the topics on the curriculum is the concept of belonging.

Thinking, reading, discussing and writing about what it means to belong can be effective, especially with these students - they are at the perfect age to consider the factors that affect an individual's success or failure to be part of a group or community.

However, when aligned with an essay-based assessment task and end-of-year external exams, the true nature of belonging can be lost. I want my students to really engage with their world and develop a meaningful response to the question "What does it mean to belong?" Merely paying lip service to it in an exam can dehumanise the whole concept.

So, what do I do? I take students outside for some geocaching.

Geocaching is essentially a technology-assisted treasure hunt. GPS coordinates posted online or passed between individuals pinpoint "treasure chests" left by other geocachers. These contain visitor books in which students can sign their names, or prizes and mementos they can take away. Geocaching is an opportunity for students to develop their creative writing while connecting with each other and with the natural world.

The weekend before class, I establish four caches in a natural setting within walking distance of the school. Each cache contains a logbook, pen and laminated card offering creative-writing activities, which range from simple descriptive tasks to more difficult research and personal writing challenges.

On the day, I choose students to control each team's GPS (we use free GPS apps downloaded to smartphones) and give them the coordinates for their team's cache. After finding their cache, each team sets about tackling the tasks. Most complete them with pen and paper, but ideally 3G-enabled mobile devices are used to record responses to tasks and upload them to a blog.

Once the tasks are completed, the class regroups for a post-activity debrief. Students often tell funny stories about scrambling over rocks and crawling under bushes in the search for their cache. Finally, we return to school, where students upload their personal and team responses to their individual blogs.

Geocaching is always an amazing experience for us all. We get to know one another and where we live in a completely different context, and students get a sense of what it means to belong to a team and to their local community.

Plenty of information about geocaching can be found online - a good place to start is The hunts are easy to set up and are hugely effective at engaging students. The added bonus is that, whereas technology is often seen as an individualistic medium, geocaching shows how it is possible to create a team dynamic.

Bianca Hewes is an English teacher at Davidson High School in New South Wales, Australia. She blogs at


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