Plein Air PD (Walking Through Our Learning Microclimates)


The leadership team of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District goes on an overnight retreat each August. This summer we decided to convene on the rippled slopes we look up to every day – Mount Tamalpais. Rather than meet in the hushed confines of a conference room, we took our conversation to the alternately misty and sun-dappled (depending on elevation, on microclimate) trails – first heading out from Pan Toll ranger station on Coastal Trail and descending Matt Davis Trail to Stinson Beach. After lunch, heading 1,800 feet back up Dipsea, Steep Ravine and Matt Davis (eastbound) trails to the historic West Point Inn.

I highly recommend this as ideal lodging for groups of up to 30 – the state park closes at dusk and you and your team are on the mountain, all alone, looking out over the glittering expanse of the Bay Area (dark fingers of fog most likely enshrouding San Francisco in the summer months) and up to the Milky Way above (when is the last time you stared at the Milky Way from where you slept?).


I’m a UC Santa Cruz alum – ergo, my obligatory banana slug picture. You’re unlikely to see one in a conference room!


Michelle Walker, Valerie Pitts, Yancy Hawkins, Aaron Eisberg, Tom Utic, Daniel Norbutas, Patty Eliott, Megan Dunn.

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PBL coach Aaron Eisberg facilitated the day around the frameworks for Gold Standard PBL. He scrapped his digital presentation when he heard we were hiking. The walk itself became the session, and his protocol ensured we interacted with each person in the group with frequent debriefs as a whole team. He gave walking pairs one question to consider (small bites) and after 5-10 minutes of walking, we would gather to debrief our thoughts, consider a new question, and form new pairs.

I appreciated this learning framework as a means of ensuring that the facilitator stayed nimble with his plan. How would you define key knowledge? We can’t take the next step as a team – and he can’t ask his next question – until we all share our answers. Our learning outcomes for the PD session/class help focus the conversation, but they do not control how the conversation evolves. A skilled facilitator is always watching, feeling and listening to the human dynamic; “How are we feeling? What questions are emerging?” guide him through the fog of this particular group’s microclimate.

Rather than staff meetings and professional development and conferences and tweets and blog posts full of statements and answers, what about upping our volume of questions?


What are the microclimates of professional learning in your organization?



What if you and your walking partner wander off topic? Wander off trail?


What if wandering off topic is an intended outcome? How does that change the role of the facilitator?


How do we feel about people in our group (organization) following different paths? Running ahead – or falling behind a bit? Can we agree on a meet-up spot further along?


Our students have divergent rates of learning – and those that lag behind in some domains may accelerate in others – but do we recognize them for those places of strength?


How is a student’s perspective on the world enriched (or clouded) after a day at school?





Trees from a distance intermingle and (to our eyes) form one large mass; what is their unique persona up close? What is the texture of each individual learner (adult, student) that forms a part of our community?


What if we spent the early morning at school in quiet, individual reflection, sketching and doodling our thoughts on the learning and creating we want to accomplish for the day, our words and actions gathering collective momentum in tandem with the sunlight?




Old photos in the lodge: John Muir sits on the left, William Kent in the middle. Kent saved what is now Muir Woods  from becoming a reservoir for San Francisco. He also refused to have the woods named after him, deferring rather to Muir for his pioneering work in nature conservation.

Which of our current practices and philosophies will enrich students 100 years from now?


View from the West Point Inn at sunrise.


Are we attentive to how a landscape shifts around us – even in the span of two minutes?

How do we change as a team after a day together?

What does it mean for you to step beyond your particular microclimate to experience another one, albeit unfamiliar and uncomfortable?

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