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Teach Like A Ranger V - The Campfire SWAG Method

In 2009, I had embarked on a solo road trip through Northern California and into Southern Oregon. One of the places I stopped with Lava Beds National Monument, a small park in the northeastern corner of California that is home to a devils playground of craggy lava fields and stories of an epic struggle between the indigenous people who called it home and the US government soldiers sent it to dislodge them.

My first day in the park saw me getting in late, and by the time I set up my tent it was dark enough to see that a campfire had been lit at the central amphitheater. I wandered over and sat down just in time to hear one of the rangers conducting a program focused on some of the myths the parks original residents, the Modoc, used to explain the creation their homeland. The ranger started out by sharing the story with all of us, and at the end began telling us a little about the Modoc people, their history, and how they were eventually hunted down and dislodged from their homes by the military. She then asked that as we explored the lava beds we keep in mind how important this area was to them and respect the rules and regulations the park put in place to preserve it. She then invited anybody who had further questions or comments to join her by the fire and bid the rest of us a good night.

Even 15 years later I still remember this program and the woman who presented it. She wasn’t just good. LeBron James is good, this woman was a national treasure. Apparently I have a very bad poker face, because the man sitting next to me saw my expression as she used her words to weave tapestries and said to me, “Is this your first time at one of her programs?” When I nodded yes, he pointed at her and said, “Yeah, she’s got Campfire Swag.”

It was only a few years later that I realized that the effectiveness of that program she presented was the result of a well known interpretive framework used for educational programs at parks across the country. This formula which I am attributing to the ranger at Lava Beds, is the same one employed when you attend an animal talk about elephants at the zoo or if you watch a TED talk. Heck when I bought my last car it was what the dealers did when he tried to close the deal. This same formula has been re-purposed and reused in almost every imaginable circumstance where somebody is trying to use knowledge as a form of persuasion, and you can use it as a way to reoganize your lessons to make them more engaging and effective.

I’ve heard it called affective persuasion, the SAWP technique, but in honor of that ranger at Lava Beds, I’m go call it Campfire SWAG. Let's go through the major components.

  • Story - the hook that gets learners engaged intellectually with the subject. It gives them something to chew on and gets them primed to ask questions. It also provides foundational knowledge as a means to go deeper later on.

What this looks like in the classroom;

While this could take the form of a lecture, not all students find that intellectually engaging. The story component is important. Videos are a good example. A guest speaker is a good one as well. You can also make it more learner-centered by making it an activity that helps students create their own story, like exploring a website or participating in a simulation activity.

  • Why - give people a reason to care. Emotionally engage them with the topic. Help them to place the knowledge fro, the story into a context that is meaningful to them.

What this looks like in the classroom;

Clarify how the knowledge is helpful or how it is going to be useful. Give them an opportunity to ask their own questions and establish their own why. This is the point where knowledge becomes understanding as they seek to relate it to what they are doing in class to previous knowledge or their own world. Providing them guiding questions or facilitating a discussion about the relevance of the Story activity is particularly helpful here.

  • Action - provocation. Gives the audience an outlet for what they have learned. Connects them with other resources or experiences that will expand their knowledge.

What this looks like in the classroom;

This is where you challenge the learners to apply what they have learned. It could be in the form of project work, another experience, or creating something that they will then use to further the knowledge in class like a presentation or an organizer for use in a discussion. Providing choice here when possible is also highly useful.

  • Gauge - measure the effectiveness of what you’ve just shared. Allows you to understand and reflect on how good your program was. Things like contextual clues are critical and helping you were fine tune and improve upon the program the next time you present it or when creating your next one.

What this looks like in the classroom;

Here’s is where you use formative assessments. Did your students understand? Were they engaged? Is there anything you could have made better or clearer based on the questions they’re asking at the end or your chosen formative technique? This step can take many forms, such as an exit ticket or something as simple as the amount of on-task behavior you observe associated with the action step.


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