Posts Tagged ‘campus conservation’

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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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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