Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Great Backyard Bird Count With Russ Schipper!

Pointing out the Rock Pigeon on the roof
Russ answering questions in the field
On Monday, February 19th, my class had the good fortune of having Russ Schipper take us birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count, through Cornell University.  We walked, looked and listened on the school grounds for signs of birds.  It's pretty amazing the number of birds you can hear when you are quiet and listening for them!  Russ is an avid birder and educator of all things bird related.  He is a leader in the Kalamazoo Audubon Society, no doubt sharing his knowledge and love of birds with its members as well as the young students he teaches.  This has become an annual tradition with Russ and I (every year for the past 6 years) and it is an honor be a part of it.  Each year, it is a new adventure.  This year was very wet (we had just had a huge snow melt) and so we kept to paved surfaces.  The forecast called for rain but thankfully the rain held off.  We spotted and recorded lots of birds in our fifty minutes outside.  We sent our results into the Cornell site after we reviewed our findings in the classroom.  (If you go to:  you can see our findings along with millions of others.)

Russ comes to North Shore Elementary every fall and gives a presentation to each classroom on birds (4th graders) and owls (5th graders).  He is a gift to our school and to the many other schools that he visits.  He has actually visited hundreds of classrooms and never tires of a student or a question.  Russ has spread this love of birds to thousands of people both young and old. 

All of Russ' work educating us on birds is really rather incredible, but he shares more than his bird knowledge with us-- he shares a model of good living.  We have a lot of programs trying to tell students how live . . . how to be kind or how to do the right thing or how to treat people right. . . Here's what I think. . . It's people like Russ that show us how to live.  And it is people like Russ that change the world for the better. . . one child, one bird, one teacher at a time.   Russ exemplifies  the notion that no question is too small, no child is unimportant and that everyone has a place and can learn.  And he exemplifies the art of generosity, both with time and birdseed (I have a huge stash of sunflower seeds from him for our schoolyard birdfeeders).   Many years ago a wonderful mentor of mine (Marianne Hueston) told me, "You teach who you are."  As an seasoned (some might even say old) teacher, I have learned over and over again that this is true and very wise.  If we genuinely want to teach children curiosity, kindness and generosity we need to model those traits.  Teaching doesn't happen from talking (or testing) it happens from being.  A huge thank you to Russ for his many teaching gifts!  I'm looking forward to next year!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


My Parents with Lena
"There are many great deeds done in the small struggles of life."  --Victor Hugo

The above photo is of my parents; a couple of heros of mine.  They have both spent their lives in service to others and they continue to model that lifestyle.  My parents continue to teach who they are by their actions and the way they live every day of their lives.  I will share just one story that captures a bit of who my mom is. . . My mom lives with Parkinson's disease.  It has made it hard to communicate and perform some of the basic tasks in daily living.  My dad is her constant companion, helper and caregiver.  He is pretty amazing and I could write a great deal on his accomplishments, but that is not the story for today. . . My story for today is about a recent hospital visit I took to see my mom and a bit about her story.  My mom was in the hospital suffering from pneumonia.  She has weak lungs and the Parkinson's disease makes this complicated and dangerous.   At any rate, my mom was in the hospital and very frail.  The nurse was trying to bring her into conversation.  My brother and I started telling stories about her years as a junior high school home economics teacher.  She taught in an inner-city school in an American Indian community on the southside of Minneapolis.  There was a great deal of poverty, alcohol abuse and broken families in that community. . . issues often associated with a culture that has been displaced and so often disrespected in our wider society.  On that day in her hospital room, we recounted a story about one of her students that spent most of the afternoon in her classroom.  He was technically not assigned to all her afternoon classes but he was such a distraction and discipline issue, spending the afternoon in home economics seemed the least harmful.  He was a handful.  One day my mom was out sick and a substitute teacher was in her room.  The notes very specifically said that this student was not allowed in the hallways without supervision.  The substitute however, allowed him a bathroom break thinking no great harm could possibly happen.  Within a few minutes, he had started a fire in the bathroom and there was smoke everywhere.  The entire school had to be evacuated.  The principal later told my mom to give him a heads-up next time she would be gone, so that he could made sure that student also took the day off.  The nurse in the room said, "Boy, I bet you were glad to retire!"  My mom, who struggled to get out every word, said, "I felt privileged to be a part of his life."  And then she said, "I was talking to a student once and he said (with junior high angst) "Why should I listen to you?!""  My mom responded, "Because I care about you."  The student looked at her and said, "No one has ever said that to me before."  My mom's class became a refuge for those who needed a safe place and genuinely needed someone who cared about them.  They were lucky to have her as a teacher and no doubt they were better people because of her.  And my mom really was privileged to be a part of their lives.

Today, my mom struggles with many of the things most of us take for granted.  She has a hard time telling her elbow to bend so that she can bring the spoon to her mouth to eat.  She has a hard time putting thoughts into words and speaking what is on her mind.  She struggles with balance and all sorts of daily activities we take for granted.  But here is what I notice now more than ever . . . she is strong.  She struggles through each day and still smiles when she sees someone she knows.  She continues to care about other people, when it may seem that her own struggle is more than enough to care about.  She continues to teach us how to live and she continues to be a hero to those of us who know her.  I know that I speak for my whole family when I say, we are lucky to have her in our lives.  She and my dad have taught us over and over again that caring for others is a way of life and a privilege.  This is an amazing gift and lesson that my brothers and I were fortunate enough to receive.  Teaching is so much more than what we say.  Teaching is about how we live our lives.  Thanks Mom and Dad!    

Friday, October 6, 2017

Outdoor Learning and Common Core Curriculum

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength. 
--Rachel Carlson, The Sense of Wonder

Every morning (weather permitting) I take my students on a short run around the lower loop trail.  We are outside for maybe five minutes. . . just enough time to get our blood flowing and prepare for the day.  It's also just enough time for students to catch up with each other and with me.  I hear about their latest soccer games, a favorite book or the reason homework isn't quite done.  Sometimes we are graced by a large flock of geese that like to graze on the soccer fields nearby and then take flight over our heads.  Sometimes the moon is an amazing crescent and we watch it wax or wane over the next few days.  Sometimes we find strange fungus growing out of the ground after a rain that seems to have appeared overnight out of nowhere.  Sometimes we see a monarch and wonder if it was one we released a few days earlier.  Those moments outside in the morning often offer something to amaze us and our days are brighter for it.

Earlier this year, my students helped plant our butterfly garden.  They learned about parts of the plant and what plants need to survive.  They learned a bit about producers and their place in ecosystems.  We have had hot and dry weather since our plantings so during recess, volunteers have been helping me care for the plants.  We carry gallon jugs of water out to them and check on their progress.  As we walk, again, we have time to talk and catch up on what is going on in their lives.  When we get to the garden, they examine the plants that they planted and others that they did not plant.  I hear them call to each other, "Make sure we get them all, don't leave anyone out!"  We empty our jugs and students run to catch the last few minutes of recess.  Maybe the words, "don't leave anyone out" are still ringing in their ears (I hope so).

In past posts, I have examined a variety of ways to teach in our outdoor learning center.  The most obvious connections are in math and science, but we also go outside to inspire our poetry writing.  These lessons connect with our Common Core Curriculum.  If I am teaching perimeter and area, we will go out and measure our raised beds.  The bonus is, we will also measure the height of the plants and estimate the total number of plants in the garden.  Maybe students will even learn the name of a plant or two.  These are extra teaching points that I can slide in (also most likely in the Common Core Standards).  It's not hard to connect our curriculum to the outdoors.

There is a lot of debate over Common Core Curriculum.  For those of you who are not in education, Common Core Curriculum has the goal of making educational standards that are nationwide.  They are the lists of things that we should be teaching at each grade level.  The concept is that students are roughly getting the same knowledge or information at each level no matter where they live in the country.  That's not a bad concept.  In our culture, families are pretty mobile and it would be great to know that you could move anywhere in the United States and the educational expectations are about the same.  I don't have a problem with this concept and the ongoing development of a Common Core Curriculum.  It isn't the evil (in my mind) some make it out to be in our new centralized and politicized educational system.  We have always had standards and benchmarks, now they are a bit more specific and we are encouraged to make note of them in our lesson plans (something tedious but not too hard with computerized lesson plans).  It's not the Common Core Standards that weigh us down. . . it's how we have decided we use them that have made them a burden.  The standards are a tool and a guide; they are not how we teach and they aren't even what we teach.  We teach children.  We teach children.  I say this twice because it bears repeating.  The Common Core is a framework for professional teachers to use as a guide in their classroom.  It's nothing more than that.

It is when we use standardized tests to measure achievements of the Common Core Curriculum and then we set point goals for students that we have taken a step down a rabbit hole that leads us off course.  And that is when the tools of Common Core become a burden that seems to take over our classrooms and our lives.  We now require our students to take online, high stakes tests throughout the year.  In the fall, the tests (in math and reading) determine where a student is academically and an algorithm will project where that student should be by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, measuring and projecting growth for children is a bit difficult and the algorithms are flawed.  I have lots of examples of this, but I will share just one.  A couple of years ago, I had a really good math student.  His fall scores were high and his expectations (via the computerized algorithm) were high.  At the end of the school year, this student scored in the 99th percentile in math (in the country)!  Amazing.  You can't score higher than 99 percent, however, he was somehow one point away from his goal.  I received an email from his mom later that night.  She said that he had cried himself to sleep because he hadn't made his math goal.  I called her and reassured her that her son was amazing and could not have scored better.  When the student came to class the next day, I explained to him that he was well within the margin of error (something that isn't taken into consideration by our administration, although is proper statistical analysis) and he could not have done better.  His score caused unnecessary grief and his score was actually amazingly good.  There are similar issues with students who have low test scores, as their projected growth requires more than the average point gain.  This is because the algorithm expects teachers to "close the gap" with our low students.  Students who may have taken five years to make perhaps three years growth are expected to make more than a year's growth to help "close the gap" (this projection is often naive and without logical basis).  In addition to unrealistic goals, there are emotional issues, test taking fears, and wasted educational time (we spend hours and hours every year testing).  However, when we see the bar graphs as full-color, glossy, and well formatted printouts, they look so good that we are often lulled into thinking they must be right.  They are all wrong.    To return to Carson again, they are "the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength."       

The other morning when we were out on our daily run, we noticed a loud flock of geese in the yard.  They were landing in groups of six and eight and they were squawking and carrying on as if there was some sort of family disagreement going on.  Later that morning, while I was in the midst of teaching reading (I can't recall the lesson) that flock of geese starting walking toward our classroom windows.  We stopped and watched. . . "What are they eating? . . . How can you tell the females from the males?"  We watched carefully (my lesson not nearly exciting enough to compete) and we decided they were eating the grass, not really digging up insects.  I got on my phone and asked Siri how to tell the difference between male and female Canada geese.  Apparently, the males are slightly larger but the color patterns are the same.  Moments later, the flock took flight and we resumed our lessons.  I don't remember the language arts lesson, but I remember what I learned about geese.  I'm guessing it was about the same for my students.  Moments like that are joyful and full of wonder and excitement.  That is what I want to encourage and that is what I needed to teach in those few moments.  Isn't that what we want for our children. . .?

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. . .

My hope for the future of education, is that we turn away from high stakes testing so we can fully focus on the amazing children that enter our classroom.  Let's remember that curriculum is just a list of things to teach and that we are here to inspire our students and help them to hold onto the wonder that is childhood.  And perhaps it's the little moments that make the day joyful . . a flock of geese, a walk to the garden or a view of the moon and those little moments are what can inspire us to learn and grow.  Happy teaching and learning!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Planting a Butterfly Garden

My class in front of our new Butterfly Garden
Ilse Gebhard, Monarch and Plant Expert
Student Planting
Student watering
Helping hands
One of the butterflies that hatched in our classroom

Today, my students had the wonderful opportunity of planting indigenous nectar plants into our new Butterfly Garden!  What fun!  Ilse Gebhard (see above) donated several flats of plants for this project.  Ilse is famous for her care of monarchs and for encouraging Monarch WayStations around the nation.  She has helped me throughout the years with her generous donations of caterpillars to my classroom.  I am now able to find monarch eggs and raise butterflies myself and so now Ilse is helping me make our school grounds pollinator friendly.  We are now an official Monarch WayStation that will continue to grow as we continue to plant and sow seeds.  I still have funds from the WildOnes grant I received last year so we will add additional plants before the snow flies.  Our hope is to see a blossoming garden in the years to come.  And maybe even more importantly, we are sowing seeds of love in our students for the environment and for the common butterflies and plants that make our world a better place to live.  Thank you Ilse for taking care of the monarchs and for teaching people like me and my students.  You make the world a more beautiful place, one butterfly and one student at a time.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Adventures in Ithaca; Following the Liberty Hyde Bailey Trail

John at Bailiwick (Bailey's Summer farm home)

This past week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my son John in Ithaca, New York.  He is doing research on Liberty Hyde Bailey while working on his dissertation at a small cabin on one of the many finger lakes near Cornell University.  Cornell is where Liberty Hyde Bailey founded the New York State College of Agriculture and served as its Dean for many years.  He was a well loved professor, researcher and writer.   He wrote both scientific books and books with a more philosophical  and educational bend.  Ithaca is steeped in the life and work of Liberty Hyde Bailey and John was a wonderful tour guide.  John has visited Ithaca several times and has been walking in the path of Bailey for several years now, making friends and discovering details of Bailey's life and work that seemed destined for him to find and to share with others.  The following photos highlight a few of the places John and I explored on my two day adventure.

Elevator to the Hortorium

One of the many thousands of plant samples

Our first stop was The Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium.  It was here we met Peter Fraissinet, assistant curator.  Peter showed us around the many vaults with layers and layers of plant samples, all filed and sorted and consisting of over 869,000 specimens.  The Hortorium houses the largest palm collection in North America, consisting of 30,000 specimens.  When Bailey started his hortorium collection they were housed in a building next to his family home (Sage Place).  Now the collection is in a beautiful, well lit library at Cornell with Peter and staff who continue to care for and add to this amazing collection.  Peter was both generous and helpful.  It's wonderful to know that the hundreds of thousands of plants are in good hands!



Titan Arums (Amorphophallus titanum)
Our second stop was the Bailey Conservatory.  The Conservatory includes a greenhouse with a collection of plants from around the world.  It is home to the world-famous and endangered Titan Arums, which produces the largest inflorescences in the world.  The conservatory also includes many species of palm plants.  Bailey's last major work was researching and recording palm plant samples from around the world.  

Bailey Standing in doorway

Here I stand in roughly the same spot Bailey stood on the campus in front of the College of Forestry building.  (If you look closely at the bricks you will recognize the building in both.)  (If I had known I was going to be posing, I would have worn my Johnny Cash outfit.)

Botanic Gardens

Cabbage White on Lavender 
One of Bailey's field journals, book and gloves 

Our next stop on campus was the Botanic Gardens.  These are amazing outdoor gardens with a lovely indoor display devoted to Liberty Hyde Bailey.  Throughout the campus there are deliberate plantings (many planned and designed by L. H. Bailey) that include trees and wandering nature paths.  It's a lush and beautiful "plantation," as Bailey called it.

A partial view of Cornell from the Bell Tower

After lunch, we headed to Bailiwick.  Bailey summered at Bailiwick while he was a professor at Cornell.  He gave this property to Anna Botsford Comstock (a colleague of Bailey's) who in turn, donated the property to the Girl Scouts for a summer camp, which continues to this day.   

L.H. Bailey sitting outside at Bailiwick

Sage Place
After our Bailiwick stop we went to the campus and the former home of L. H. Bailey and his family.  Sage Place is now a resident hall for students.  Right next door is the site where Bailey's hortorium was housed before it was given to Cornell in 1935.  It's a beautiful home with lush trees and plantings around the buildings.  In the backyard, the garden plots that Liberty Hyde Bailey worked and experimented in are still maintained as garden plots today.

Our next stop was dinner with Bob Dirig, a former assistant curator of the horitorim, entomologist, natural history educator, illustrator, writer and editor of Solidago (a newsletter of the Finger Lakes Native Plant Society).  Bob was a delight to meet and a wealth of knowledge.  He shared stories of the moths he has studied, frogs he has captured and his life as a child growing up in the Catskill area.  He also shared articles he has written for teachers to use with students.  I look forward to using many of the resources he shared with me.  One of his latest pieces he wrote is entitled, The Sassafras Path.  It is found in the recent (March 2017) issue of Solidago (  In this article, Bob shares his story growing up in the Catskill area of New York.  It is clear that he has been a naturalist ever since his early days in the beautiful upstate New York landscape.  Near the end of our meeting, he reminded us that there is a weed garden at Cornell and so that became our next stop in the journey.

Spotted Knapweed
Sensitive Fern, Weed Garden
"Little Children love the dandelions, why may not we."  -- Liberty Hyde Bailey  

The above photos were taken at the Muenscher Laboratory and Weed Science Teaching Garden.  Although all the plantings throughout Cornell are beautiful, this weed garden was especially interesting to me.  Our very first planting, during the groundbreaking ceremony at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Outdoor Learning Center in South Haven, was a weed garden.  Students were invited to bring in dandelions collected from their own yards and plant them in our first raised bed.  Although we have since dedicated that bed to native plants and pollinators, I still refrain from pulling any dandelions in honor of that groundbreaking day. 

Lakeview Cemetery sky 
Liberty Hyde Bailey's final resting place

Our final stop was the Community Mausoleum at the Lakeview Cemetery.  It is here that Liberty Hyde Bailey (alongside his wife and daughter) was laid to rest.  We went into the building at dusk.  The Mausoleum is in disrepair and the smell of crumbling cement and bird droppings filled the stale air.  We needed our cell phones to light the way to Bailey's simple marker and tomb (it was dark and creepy).  John and I placed a dandelion on the rim below his name.  As we left the decaying building we pondered the choice of Bailey's final resting spot.  Why didn't he choose an outdoor site on the hill (like Carl Sagan, who is also buried at Lakeview) overlooking the lake?  Why didn't he choose a family mausoleum (like the Cornell family, who have a small more ornate site)?  Why such a simple, obscure place that is now growing trees out of the roof, and slowly crumbling apart?  It seemed like a sad place; surely he could have found a more public and scenic resting spot.  We will never know the answer to these questions, but to me this place seems strangely fitting.  Liberty Hyde Bailey clearly did not rest much in his lifetime and he is certainly not resting here.  Bailey lives on in the work that he did and the lives that he touched.  If you want to remember him, you can hear his voice in his many writings, see his vision in the many paths and plantings throughout Cornell and feel his spirit in the winds and the wilds of this holy earth.  He lives in all of us who take the time to appreciate the wonders of this world.  The following is a short video from the bell tower at Cornell and of John Linstrom, one of the many people keeping the spirit of Liberty Hyde Bailey alive and well.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Summer School

Monarchs #4 & #5, female and male on common milkweed
By Mary Oliver

Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience?  Isn't it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking:  if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I'm alive.  And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky -- as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.  

"Isn't it plain the sheets of moss . . . could lecture all day if they wanted . . . "  School is out and it is time to listen and learn from moss, insects, birds, trees and the flowers in the field.  They may not be able to formally lecture to us, but they are there to teach us nonetheless, if we care to listen.  I suspect one lesson is simply that they are amazing.  Anything that has evolved and found a niche in nature has an amazing quality and something to teach to those who listen.  

A couple of months ago, I had the good pleasure of sharing my green iguana, Harold, with an after-school science class.  The students ranged from six to nine years old and my little presentation was on reptiles.  I need to say that had you asked me ten years ago if I could imagine myself having an iguana, I would have said, "never!"  Never say never.  It's a long story, but I find myself in the unusual position of caring for and opening my heart up to a cold-blooded reptile named Harold.  Iguanas are amazing creatures, and Harold is no exception.  As I was sharing my reptile with this group of students, I was mentioning that anytime you spend time with anything in nature, you should be prepared to be amazed.  This little girl started bopping up and down in her seat and pumping her hand in the air . . . "I love snails!" she exclaimed.  "Aren't they amazing?!" I replied.  We talked a few minutes about the wonders of snails.  How fun!  Snails and the children who delight in them make me happy.   

Insects on wildflower
The more I explore the natural world, the more amazing it becomes to me.  I suspect I could spend the rest of my life wandering the trails and wild places in my small neighborhood and be amazed and delighted every time, and "if the doors of my heart ever close, I'm as good as dead."  

The monarchs above were found as eggs in our schoolyard.  I have fifteen more chrysalises that will open in the next few days, and I will release them all into the wilds of my backyard.  I'm hoping that I'll find more eggs to take in and raise in the days and weeks ahead.  Each monarch I have had the pleasure of raising is unique, and every time I watch one grow and transform it is amazing.  Aren't insects amazing?!  I don't yet know the flower and insect above by proper names but hope to learn more about them in the days ahead.  For now, I just enjoyed spending a moment with them and taking their picture on a lovely summer day.  

Here's what I think . . . when we take time to appreciate the small wonders in this world, we are reminded that we are all small wonders in this world.  Let us imagine and remember who we are.

. . . the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky -- as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.  

A wonderful summer to everyone!

Monday, June 12, 2017

School Year's Close

Spring Monarch Eggs found in School Yard

Russ and Students Birding!

Outside in the field

This spring we have had the good pleasure of going birding again with Russ Schipper!  We saw and identified several more birds this May than during our February outing and we heard the calls of even more species.  Thank you Russ for your ongoing support!

The monarchs are back!  We have been finding monarch eggs on our school property!  It's very exciting to take my students outside for their daily run around the trail and then take a few moments to hunt and find eggs in our front yard!  We have about a dozen caterpillars in various stages of development.  They are eating milkweed voraciously and pooping at an incredible rate.  (I'm hoping I can send a few caterpillars home with eager students.)

Thank you to everyone who has supported my students and the outdoor learning center this year!  We continue to grow.  The large garden in the back will be getting a beautiful sign in the days ahead and we will be doing additional planting at that site next fall (I still have grant money from the Wild Ones organization).  In addition, I'm scheming a new trail down to a small pond on the corner of Blue Star Highway and North Shore Drive.  It would be a pretty small undertaking, but would add a wonderful view of a small hidden pond.  If you are interested in helping, let me know.

We are down to our last two days of school and it is always a bittersweet time.  I have enjoyed watching this amazing group of students grow and learn over the past several months and I will miss them.  It was a privilege to be a part of their lives for a short time.  I hope that they learned to love the process and challenge of  learning just a bit more and perhaps they also learned a bit more about this amazing planet that we call home from looking right in our own backyard.

Happy summer everyone!