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a simple vision

Another day, another film trailer . . .

In the Keynote slideshow he sent out to all of us before tomorrow’s first faculty meetings of the new school year, my Principal asked “How can we use campus for PBL [project-based-learning]?” And our simple assignment for tomorrow afternoon is to come with a few ideas in mind.

I wrote last fall about how we might undertake restoration of a little stream valley on our campus to benefit native plant species, and about how this watershed restoration project would organically support and ignite learning and growth across disciplinary boundaries. Check out this inspiring trailer for a film about kids doing similar work in California:

So that’s my idea.

By the way, we have a copy of the full DVD in our JH Library.

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Well, we’re days away from the start of a new school year, and I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, having just come across the trailer to the film Mother Nature’s Child:

I just finished six-days worth of Apple training to build up my digital teaching skills in preparation for our one-to-one MacBook rollout next week, and I had been positively salivating at the thought of what my English students will be able to do with iMovie. So this little clip hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.

The quote in the trailer from Stephen Kellert of Yale University says it all:

Children, in a space of a generation or two, have had a profound change in their experiential contact with the natural world. Children today spend on average over 44 hours a week in front of a monitor of one sort or another . . . children just don’t go out in nature.

And we’re about to give every student in the Junior High a new laptop and markedly increase their screen time as a result?

I’ve written before on my divided mind when it comes to the 21st Century education movement’s fetishizing of technology, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d admit that this boosterism is supercharged by the desire to market and sell product. I’m struck by the astonishing rapidity with which we moved to go one-to-one. If only we had devoted a small fraction of comparable energy and resources to the kind of experiential learning we have spent years talking about.

My Principal and friend, Bo Adams, likes to advocate “both/and” over “either/or” thinking when it comes to balancing outdoor, experiential learning and digital roaming, and last October he commented on my earlier rant by saying “I hope that our school’s push for 1:1 laptops (or other mobile devices) is at least partly for the purpose of facilitating such place-based learning.” I share that hope, and I appreciate that one of his first questions to the faculty this year is as follows:

In the often confusing world of educational acronyms, “PBL” here means “problem-based-learning,” not “place-based-learning,” but Bo is spot-on that the two are an excellent fit. Given the degree to which we’re about to increase our students’ screen time, taking intentional and sustained steps to give them a sense of balance and connect them with the real world isn’t just a cool idea. I think it’s a moral imperative.

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Here’s a fact seemingly forgotten in our wired-wimpy-shopping-mall world: kids are natural little outdoor people.  It is we, the adults, that turn them into indoor people.  If you don’t get off the computer, why should they?

—Mark Jenkins, from Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors

On Friday evening I watched a fascinating online TED Talk by Richard Preston about climbing the Coast Redwoods of California.  While I was suitably wowed by his explanation of the intricate structure and ecology of these amazing trees, I was also inspired by his story of how learning to climb trees with his kids had led him to this particular writing project.  A quick internet search led me to Atlanta-based Tree Climbers International, and yesterday the boys and I joined them at a local park for one of their bimonthly Beginners Climbs.

Will gets the basics down under the watchful eye of TCI founder Peter “Treeman” Jenkins.

As a kid, I knew and loved a number of climbable neighborhood trees—two mature Magnolias in particular—but TCI sets much loftier targets, using roped climbing techniques to ascend trees that would be otherwise impossible, to access a world otherwise off-limits. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, they had a towering Willow Oak already rigged with a dozen or so lines reaching up into the various levels of its crown. After listening to a short orientation and getting fitted with harnesses and helmets, we were off.

Andrew, in particular, is totally unfazed by heights.

Will had more of an “invisible ceiling.”  Still, that picnic table is a long way down.

Looking down past my feet. The “architecture” up here was fascinating.

What the pictures can’t show is the wind on this particular afternoon, enough to keep the canopy in nearly constant motion yet not enough (evidently) to put dangerous strain on the tree.  The more muscular gusts allowed us to experience “tree surfing,” and I was reminded more than once of John Muir’s joyful account of ascending a tall tree in the Sierras to better experience a windstorm.

Andrew, tree surfing.

The climbing itself was pretty straightforward and didn’t require any particular skill—as beginners, we were ascending pre-rigged top-ropes, after all—but I was proud of how quickly the boys got the rhythm down and mastered the simple safety knot they needed to tie periodically as they ascended.  They had an absolute blast and felt very accomplished and cool afterwards.  We would definitely do this again.

As for me, I’m at least mildly tempted by the thought of learning enough to do it independently, tree climbing being a far more “local” technical pursuit than kayaking or rock climbing—and I’ve got a massive Water Oak in the thicket behind my house that suddenly looks very different to my two little tree frogs!

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In my last post, I entertained a grand vision for how we might reorient segments of our curriculum around getting to know and assuming stewardship of the natural history and ecology of our campus.  This week, I thought I’d share an idea I’ve had fermenting for a while that might be a manageable place to start.

Let’s return to that little pocket of woodland I told you about, the watershed that (evidently) is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species.  Late last spring, while walking through a parking lot that defines one of its edges, I caught the song of a Wood Thrush floating out of the trees.  I don’t see Wood Thrushes very often, as they tend to skulk in heavy forest cover, but their song is unmistakable and unforgettable, an ethereal ee-oh-lay-oh-leeee, the most musical of the haunting family of thrush songs (do yourself a favor and listen to these).

Drawing practice—Wood Thrush. (But, alas! I notice an error . . . the spots on its breast should be labeled black, not brown.)

I was surprised to hear a Wood Thrush singing in that location.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it as “a bird of the interior forest, seldom seen outside the deep woods,” and yet here, presumably, was at least one male trying to establish breeding territory in a decidedly isolated fragment.  I wonder if it was successful. According to Cornell, “a Wood Thrush often returns to the same breeding territory in successive years,” so listening for this same bird in the same location next spring might give me something of an answer.

This is the sort of sustained attention to our campus’ natural community I’d like to see our students get involved in.

But if wandering around campus and listening for birds seems overly romantic and non-academic, we could design a more scientific and academically rigorous study by adapting protocols from the USGS North American Breeding Bird Survey program.  Here, in a nutshell, is a description of how a Breeding Bird Survey works:

Each year during the height of the avian breeding season, June for most of the U.S. and Canada, participants skilled in avian identification collect bird population data along roadside survey routes. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at 0.5-mile intervals. At each stop, a 3-minute point count is conducted. During the count, every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius or heard is recorded. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and take about 5 hours to complete.

Obviously, we’d have to make some significant changes—we definitely don’t have 24.5 miles of road on campus!—but we can use the basic concept of setting up a repeatable framework for making bird counts at designated points. Instead of 50 stops on a linear, roadside route, we could designate, say, six or ten sampling points on a grid to cover the range of campus environments. In each of these locations, then, we would follow BBS protocols for data gathering. This framework could then be repeated yearly to track campus bird diversity over time, a multi-year data set being particularly useful for learning about ecological cause-and-effect as our campus changes.

I had the opportunity to conduct a mock BBS with students several years back, and I was impressed with how quickly they got the hang of it.  Accompanied by an ornithologist, we drove half of an established survey route, stopping at half-mile intervals and gathering data as prescribed.  I would have thought that teenagers would have little use for birding by ear, that they’d find the whole BBS routine monotonous, but I could not have been more wrong. With each stop, they became more proficient at recognizing bird song, and we came to rely on our expert accompaniment less and less.  I reveled in their excitement at discovering a whole new world, their pride in their new proficiencies, their growing connection to the landscape.  And this experience provided the spine for a whole body of in-depth learning and discussion, ranging from further specifics about bird biology and behavior to larger questions of ecology and ethics.

It’s a place to start.

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As a part of a committee exploring the topic of “sustainability” for our current re-accreditation self-study, I helped to deliver a workshop on sustainability education during our Faculty Forum in-service days at the beginning of this school year. While other committee members gave tours of our new greenhouse and organic garden and introduced the solar photovoltaic array we installed last spring, I (re)introduced my peers to a little pocket of campus woodland and, in doing so, offered some thoughts about best practices in environmental education.  What follows, the first of an occasional series about “reinhabiting campus,” is both a distillation and an expansion of the thoughts I had to offer my colleagues on that sweltering day in August.

On my school’s campus, a paved walkway through the trees connects an older structure known as the “Gym in the Woods” to our state-of-the-art elementary school building. Every day, scores of youngsters and their teachers walk this path on their way to P.E. class, descending a forested slope and crossing a tiny tributary of Nancy Creek on a footbridge at the bottom.  I wonder what our students see as they traverse this space.  Do they know and love these woods as part of “a community to which we belong,” to borrow Aldo Leopold’s famous phrase, or does this leafy corridor pass by as a green blur, mere backdrop to their transit?  Students and faculty alike, we are proud of our 180-acre campus, but how well do we know its stories?  For most of us, this little cove forest is a forgotten corner, one among many.  But if we really took the time to get to know our campus, what might it have to teach us, and how might it change us?

Several years ago, as our school planned for construction of a new Junior High building, this particular hillside was considered as a possible site. However, the tract was eventually rejected because it is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species, I’ve been told.  I don’t know any details about the plant in question, and neither, so far, does anyone else that I’ve asked. And yet here’s a real opportunity to make learning about endangered species, which is (I presume) a part of our curriculum, more experiential and less abstract for our students.  First-hand experience in an increasingly virtual world—here’s an opening not to be missed.  In an age when kids can easily research far-flung examples like pandas and tigers and seas turtles on the internet, we run a high risk of making important ecological concepts too abstract and disconnected from their everyday lives and surroundings.  At its heart, good environmental education should be experiential, should work to reverse this tendency toward abstraction and disconnection (which lies at the heart of all of our environmental problems), not perpetuate it.

Even though I don’t know any specifics about the plant in question (being in need of some experiential learning, myself), I’d speculate that this particular population’s future is cloudy at best.  Even if this pocket of woodland remains safe from future development, it (like many of the forested areas on campus) is being steadily overrun by invasive species—English ivy and Chinese privet and some sort of teeming bamboo.  Left unchecked, these alien invaders will steadily crowd out native species, both rare and common alike—that’s what invasive species do.  And yet here’s another opportunity—with hard work and commitment and the right expertise, invasive species can be controlled and even removed. Forests can be restored to health, as Trees Atlanta does around the city with impressive results. Given the flood of bad news regarding the environment faced by youth today, good environmental education includes service learning to encourage a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal. Our students could work to research, design, and implement a restoration plan for this little watershed.  In doing so, they would personally take part in the protection of an endangered species and develop both the connection and the commitment to the natural world that effective environmental education should foster.

And from there?  Lately I’ve become a regular reader of the blog Blue Jay Barrens, a daily chronicle of a property in Southern Ohio that is “managed to improve the integrity of the special ecosystems found here.” Author Steve Wilson shares a wealth of information on local human and natural history and ecology, the result of careful and sustained attention to his natural neighborhood. In Steve’s blog I see a possible model which our students might emulate, providing the impetus for their own careful and sustained observations as well as an opportunity to write for and connect with an authentic audience. Sharing their experiences of getting to know this place, documenting its richness in words and images, they’d be both reinforcing their own connections and helping to educate the wider school community. Moreover, such a project moves environmental education beyond it’s Science Department beachhead, and good environmental education is transdisciplinary. The current educational paradigm of rigid disciplinary separation is one that denies the basic ecological principle of interconnection, one that inhibits our students’ ability to productively participate in a rapidly changing world beset with challenges that are transdisciplinary by nature.

Update: Middlewood Journal is another blog (featuring beautifully illustrated nature journal entries) that I follow.  It’s also a great model for the kind of transdisciplinary work our students could do.

Ultimately, we have much to learn about this community to which we belong, and I entertain a vision that we might reorient segments of our curriculum around becoming informed and engaged community members. We can start by learning about our campus’ history, both natural and human. We can gather scientific data to document and monitor its biodiversity. We can conduct meaningful restoration work and track the results. Networking with audiences near and far, we can share our story of learning to meaningfully and responsibly reinhabit campus.

Exactly how this all happens—well, I don’t know exactly.  For starters, the metronomic fracturing of the standard school day presents an obvious barrier, as does the reality of well-entrenched departmental curricular aims.

But those are topics for other posts . . . I don’t want to give up the vision just yet.

Want to hear more?  The thread continues with reinhabiting campus: a starting point.

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Of all the reading I’ve done in the field of teaching and tree-hugging, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia is one of two or three titles that I return to regularly, one that has profoundly influenced my thinking.  It’s a slim little volume, all of 45 pages, that asks some important questions about environmental education. Here’s an excerpt from a magazine article/summary where he outlines his concerns:

What really happens when we lay the weight of the world’s environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?

The crux of the issue is the developmental appropriateness of environmental curricula. One problem we have in schools is premature abstraction – we teach too abstractly, too early. Mathematics educators have recently realized that premature abstraction was one of the major causes of math phobia among children in the primary grades. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Mathematics instruction has been reinvigorated in the last two decades through the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life. The result has been the turning of the tide against math phobia.

Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength.

In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.

I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia –supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world.

And then, right at the end, this single sentence that has resonated with me  for years:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.

I thought about all of this at the end of last week when Will came home from school talking about the problem of plastics accumulating in our oceans, sharing details about how plastic debris can be found in seafood or how, in the vast mid-ocean eddy currents, smaller fragments outnumber plankton.

Is this an important topic?  Well, yes, of course.  If I could, I’d make every adult in the world watch this eye-opening TED Talk video.  But would I show it to 8-year-old kids?  I know what David Sobel would say.  To his credit, Will has biophilia strong enough that this little bit of grim news isn’t going to snuff it.  His response has been one of earnest concern, not distancing and disengagement. (Perhaps he’ll help me lean on Belinda to stop buying bottled water for the kids to drink in our backyard.)  And I give credit to his teacher (she’s just generally awesome) for taking the class down to Whetstone Creek to do a little clean-up, hands-on service learning encouraging a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal.  Nonetheless, I agree with Sobel that a steady diet of this kind of environmental awareness, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be developmentally appropriate for kids his age.  For my own part, I don’t breathe a word to the boys of my profound disquiet and worry about environmental trends.

Instead, I just keep taking them outside, doing what I can to instill a biophilia durable enough to encourage and sustain engagement in the future.  Over Labor Day weekend we made a visit to the Newman Wetlands Center, one of my favorite nature getaways in the Atlanta metro area.

Walking the half-mile boardwalk trail, we saw fish, turtles, snakes, and a pair of whitetail deer at surprisingly close quarters.  Preserved in the mud, there were all sorts of intriguing animal tracks to speculate about.  But the big attraction at mid-afternoon in late summer has to be the dragonflies, a bewildering and bewitching diversity of Odonata.  We came equipped with binoculars and a good field guide and learned to identify Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk (male and female), Common Whitetail (male and female), and Common Green Darner.  All three of us brought our journals to record our findings and impressions.  And all three of us came away feeling the love.  At my boys’ ages, that’s the most important outcome for environmental education.  Even if it can’t be easily assessed by standardized tests.

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Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we live, the landscape that for better or for worse we call our home.   —William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness”

I came downstairs this morning to find the kids already up and getting ready to settle in for a round of cartoon watching, but I managed to lure them away from the screen and out into the yard by offering to let them use my good camera on a bug hunt, taking an idea I first saw on Rick Van Noy’s Dirt World blog.  “Find me a Praying Mantis,” I said, and they were off (after a brief care-and-feeding-of-camera lesson).  I had never let them use my Olympus unsupervised before, and that opportunity proved more seductive than Phineas and Ferb.  (Truth be told, they weren’t entirely unsupervised this morning, either; I just let them feel that way.)

In the end, they didn’t find a Praying Mantis (neither did Van Noy’s daughter), but they came back with eighty-nine snapshots after thirty minutes or so, a few of which turned out to be keepers.  Over the years, I’ve put in a lot of plants to attract butterflies, and this made the hunting easy on a warm summer’s morning.

Gulf Fritillary—worth clicking on to get the full-sized view

But the fun didn’t end there.  When we came inside and loaded the pictures on the computer, it was time to turn to my butterfly field guide and figure out just what they had come up with.  We won’t stake our reputation on all of our identifications, but we’re pretty sure we’ve come close—the boys can at least tell a Sulphur from a Fritillary from a Skipper.  And viewing the good shots at full size was a revelation: “Whoa, look at its eyes!” shouted Andrew when we magnified a Gulf Fritillary, the camera recording detail that we certainly would have missed otherwise.

Gulf Fritillary—also particularly impressive at full size

Cloudless Sulphur

Pearl Crescent

Hummingbird Moth (looks enough like a bumblebee to give Andrew a fright when it buzzed him)

Bumblebee “hugging” the business end of a flower

After our summer of wandering the continent, I was glad to see them so engaged with the natural world right at our doorstep.  I’ll be curious to see how this activity lingers with them—when they finally do find a Praying Mantis, I bet they come running for my camera.

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