Monday, December 29, 2014



                                                                  Forgive Me
By Mary Oliver

Angels are wonderful but they are so, well, aloof.
It's what I sense in the mud and the roots of the 
trees, or the well, or the barn, or the rock with
its citron map of lichen that halts my feet and
makes my eyes flare, feeling the presence of some
spirit, some small god, who abides there.

If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing 
I'm not, though I pause wherever I feel this
holiness, which is why I'm often so late coming
back from wherever I went.

Forgive me.

Winter Break is a time for the gathering of one's tribe, breaking bread together and giving thanks.  The first two items on that list have been well accomplished and I am left with a deep need to give thanks to those who have helped teach, inspire and support me, my classroom and my students. 

Thank you to the amazing folks that I work with here at North Shore Elementary.  I stopped in today, thinking I'd fill the bird feeders and water my tree along with straightening up my classroom after flying out the door on December 19th.  As it turns out, the bird feeders were full and a retired Christmas tree was placed nearby, giving my birds not only food, but a place to roost between feedings.  Thank you Bob!  And thank you for taking time to fill the feeders during school hours with my students.  Thank you Teresa, for making Gingerbread cookies with my students and I.  Just when I was thinking, "How can I possible roll out cookies, watch the oven and frost cookies with my entire class!?" you stopped by to tell me you had extra time and if I needed help, you'd be there.  You saved the day (and my sanity).  In the scattering of papers left on my desk, I found a Christmas card from a fellow teacher and friend.  She wrote, "Keep on being the awesome teacher you are!"  Thank you Jill!  Your words lit up my day and your support means more than you know!  Walking into my classroom today, the floors had been cleaned, the desks washed, the tree watered and the boards cleaned.  Thank you Girard and Mike!  You make this school shine over and over again.  Girard has even become a faithful caregiver to Harold, my messy, hungry, ornery green iguana.  He and Harold are now on friendly terms (as friendly as Harold can be).  Thank you.  You both go above and beyond to help and support me and North Shore.   I would be remiss, if I did not mention Tech Support.  Listy and Pete have been amazingly supportive as I fumble my way into chromebooks, user names, google accounts, kidblogs, Google Teacher and various apps. . . to name just a few.   And when things go south with my computer, projection camera or other devices . . . Sam is always there to troubleshoot and fix things that I know nothing of. . . Thank you Tech Support!   I can't forget the many students who trust and believe in me, more than I believe in me, and the parents who nurture and support their kids and myself. Over the few years that I've worked in this building, I have been blessed with friendships and kindness I haven't earned.  Many people have not only supported my teaching, but have supported me.  Thank you friends and colleagues, too many to name.  I need to also thank the many folks, again I couldn't begin to name them all, who have helped with the Outdoor Learning Center; Boy Scout troops, Eagle Scouts, Master Gardeners, Sign-builders, trail-blazers, bulb donators, outdoor educators and enthusiasts . . . A special note of thanks to Russ and Ilse who have generously and consistently brought the love of birds and butterflies to hundreds of students here at North Shore Elementary.  It's really amazing to think of the generosity my students and I have received.  Thank you.  Here's what happens when I begin to think of those who have helped me along the way in this amazingly challenging educational career . . . I realize there are too many people to name and I have left many out.  Forgive me.  I am certainly imperfect.  

Perhaps I should have started by thanking my family, who have inspired me to become a teacher and who look through rose colored glasses to see me as better than I am.  I am thankful for their generosity of love.  Finally, I thank the woods and trails, the birds and butterflies that inspire me and all of us everyday.  They are the background of our lives without which our lives would be greatly diminished.  "If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing continuously."  

Many thanks to all and here's wishing you a very Happy New Year!  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Project-Based Learning

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.
                          --Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (a farmer, poet and naturalist) captured my feelings on education in his poem, The Real Work.  "The mind that is not baffled is not employed."  This captures my life as a teacher . . . a constant stream of baffling moments.  It is sort of a balance between the unknown and the heart of a child.  But, as Berry so poetically says, "The impeded steam is the one that sings."  How do we move into this new age of education and find the song?  

The new buzz word these days in education is "project-based learning."   When the term project-based learning came out, I was under the impression that it required additional knowledge, skills and equipment . . . a place to build robots and do those things that are the great new mysteries to me . . . How does this computer work?  What is the "cloud?"  Who needs Twitter?  And maybe more importantly, where do I fit in?  I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and those are just a few that come to mind.  How do I proceed?

As a teacher of 20 years or so, it is hard to know where to begin and how to make this new age of teaching my own.  How does outdoor learning fit in?  Last year, a couple of business people, interested in curriculum and alternative education, came and visited the outdoor learning center here at North Shore Elementary.  I tried to explain my vision and goals.  I talked about tying math into our garden of bulbs, writing poetry outside (for our poetry night at a local theater), various science studies (outdoor bird count, monarch tagging etc) and basic explorations that happen when you walk a trail . . . simple, easy outdoor learning.  They both responded by saying something like, "This is a great example of project-based learning!  How can we capture this in the curriculum market?"   I have no idea how to answer that question, but their first response caught me.  I had never thought of this work as project-based.  I thought a new buzz word meant a new concept.  But I think they are right:  this new project-based learning is really a very old concept.  Liberty Hyde Bailey talked about getting out into the fields and woods, exploratory education, bringing learning and knowledge out onto the farm and into the everyday.  It's about building learning around stories and life.  It's about taking life experience into the classroom.  It's taking the little "making it real" moments and building around them.  I've started looking at the project based learning concept in this simple and practical way.  

The video I posted above is an example of an easy project we did yesterday.  My kids love LEGOs and (if I'm honest) mostly dislike writing, so I thought I'd blend the two and see what happens.  I had them build settings and characters out of LEGOs.  After they finished their creations, I gave them time to talk about ideas and form problems and story lines based on their creations.  And then (the tricky and potentially unpleasant part) I had them individually sit down and write stories.  It was interesting to watch.  After a good hour of building, creating and discussing, they all seemed to have a story to write.  This project was simple and will be done by next week.  We will publish the stories on their new "KidBlogs" and call it good.  It was easy and engaging, but I'm going to call it project-based.

I think that in elementary school, project-based learning can be this simple.  And I don't think that learning or teaching has changed dramatically in this new age of technology.  It's always been baffling as we try to make it real for each unique human that is in our classrooms.  I think we are simply asked to continue to teach with mindfulness, engaging our students with learning that's connected to their lives.  And isn't that what learning has always been about?

I take heart in knowing that to be baffled in this life and to wonder what to do is simply facing the real journey that is before us.  We are called to be baffled and continue on, knowing that it really is the "impeded stream that sings."  Happy teaching and learning in this new/old age of project-based learning!

Monday, September 22, 2014

New Beginnings . . .

"What the caterpillar calls the end, the master calls a butterfly."       --Richard Bach

A new friend
A new school year has begun and we are again in the company of monarch butterflies!  We have had the good fortune of having four caterpillars (one actually started as an egg in our class) turn into chrysalises and so far, three have become butterflies!  These first three are all females and they seem healthy and anxious to cross the borders into Mexico.  We have tagged one and already sent it on it's way.   We are waiting for a sunny, breezy day (perhaps Tuesday) to set the next two free.  We hope the last one comes out of his/her chrysalis during class.  We are also participating in "Project North," a symbolic migration.  We will be sending butterflies we have made, a letter translated into Spanish and information about our town (along with photos and postcards).  With any luck, our butterflies will find a class of students in Mexico somewhere and we will make friends and cross borders of our own.  We are also learning a little bit about the culture in Mexico.  This week we are reading and learning about the Mexican festival, Day of the Dead.  This celebration is a time to honor and celebrate those who have died with parades, good foods and fun.  The Day of the Dead is celebrated around the same time as the monarchs' arrival in great masses to their overwintering homes in the trees of Mexico.  Many say that the butterflies carry on their wings the souls of their ancestors.  I would like to believe that four butterflies will also carry with them good will from the hearts of students in classroom 104 to the people in Mexico who will be seeing them soon.   
Our class set of butterflies headed on a "Symbolic Migration"
Our Class, "Being the Butterfly"
One of our caterpillars becoming a chrysalis

Saturday, August 2, 2014

New Beginnings and Transformations

Tagging my butterfly
This past week I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a Monarch Teacher Network workshop entitled Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies!  It was sponsored by October Hill Foundation and Hope College. The presenter was Erik Mollenhauer with additional help from Cindy and Paul Wackerbarth.  I have raised Monarch butterflies in my classroom before and it is always a thrill. This workshop brought new depth of appreciation, knowledge and joy of this amazing insect and I am forever grateful.  I learned how to spot an egg on the milkweed leaf, how to identify several of the other insects that live on milkweed, how to handle and feed both the larva (caterpillar) and the butterfly, how to breed butterflies, how to tag them and how to release them. All of that was amazing, but the real treasures in this workshop and Erik's presentations were the connections that he made between this amazing insect and the critical issues that we face today, including migration across borders, global warming, monoculture cultivation, and deforestation.  It's a story of an annual migration that spans three nations from Canada through the United States and into Mexico.  The workshop included many resources for bringing these issues and topics into the classroom setting and beyond. I look forward to incorporating this amazing story into language arts, social studies, math and science lessons. Erik, Cindy, Paul and all the participants (including monarchs in various stages) reminded me again of this amazing planet we inhabit and the great fortune we have to be a part of it.  This workshop was not simply about the transformation and travels of the monarch; it was about a transformation in the hearts of those of us lucky enough to participate.  As Erik writes, "If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps it takes a butterfly to bring that village together."  Thank you to everyone who is making a difference in the lives of the butterflies and the heart of the village!

Releasing my new found friend!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Math Connections

Observing changes and growth in our Bulb Garden
The crocuses have died back and the daffodils are blooming
This project has been a fun adventure in planting, tending, measuring and observing.  In addition to measuring the growth of plants we have also learned about perimeter and area.  I divided this plot into 96 small sections so that we could keep track of the bulbs we planted.  Not only did it help us keep track of where we planted, it was also the perfect hands-on link to teach perimeter and area.  Our garden is divided into 6 X 16 squares.  Each square is roughly one foot by one foot, and the total area is roughly 96 square feet.  The perimeter is roughly 44 feet.  In the classroom, we used one inch squares to replicate this bed.  I gave students the task of using those 96 squares and finding all the rectangles they could make.  They made rectangles that were 1 X 96, 2 X 48, 4 X 24, 6 X 16 (like our own bed) and 8 X 12  (all factors of 96).  They were also instructed to measure the perimeters of those rectangles.  When the area is the same but the shape is different, does the perimeter change?  After finding the answer to that question, we looked for a pattern.  We found that the closer the rectangle resembled a square, the smaller the perimeter.  How cool is that!  Teaching math in a garden can be fun and beautiful!     

Monday, April 21, 2014

Our Garden of Bulbs

"The garden made by ones own hands is always the best garden, because it is a part of oneself.  A garden made by another may interest, but it is another person's individuality.  A poor garden of one's own is better than a good garden in which one may not dig."  L.H.Bailey, 1900

Measuring crocus
Taking Field Notes
What fun we had checking out the bulbs we planted this fall!  Today we went out with our Bulb Journal and examined our plots.  Each pair of students worked in an assigned square of ground.  We recorded what we planted and in what area of the raised bed so that today we could have the good pleasure of checking out our plantings!  The crocuses were blooming and the daffodils were up and not yet blooming.  It was the perfect time to examine the leaf differences and observe the crocus flowers.  Students charted the date, weather (air temperature, wind direction and speed and cloud cover), the height of their plants and noted color, leaf and flower form.  What fun!  We can't wait to come back in a week or so and see what has become of the daffodil plants! 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Poetry Night

On the evening of February 13th, my class read original poetry on stage at our local theater, Foundry Hall.  Sometimes, when the stars align, nature study becomes poetry.  Below are a few photos and some of the poems that were shared.  Twenty-seven of our twenty-eight students attended the event with slightly over 200 people encouraging us!  After the readings, students were on hand to autograph their published poems.  It was a lovely evening.  A big thanks to the wonderful people at Foundry Hall for sponsoring this event!

Linus reading his poem

I Am Autumn
By Jada
I feel colder air coming.
I smell pumpkin pie people are making.
I wonder why children jump in my leaves.
I see geese flying south.
I feel the grass dying.
I am Autumn.

I Am Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
By Kalin
I am small
I suck the nectar from flowers.
I spend my winter in Mexico.
I love the sweet smell of woodlands.
I love the summer days.
I am the bright color of roses.
I have greens of all kinds.
I am Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Donyea Reading
Ruben Autographing

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winter Fun!

Dan Keto, Kalamazoo Nature Center, and my class

Off to check out the trails in winter
This winter has included lots of outdoor fun and exploration at North Shore Elementary School!  Every fourth grade class went out snowshoeing with Dan Keto from the Kalamazoo Nature Center (funded by our local Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum).  He gave us a quick lesson on the relative size of the earth compared to the sun (upper photo) and the reason for the seasons.  He also taught us several animal and plant adaptations for survival in the depth of winter.  Students had the added fun of learning how to walk in snowshoes while checking out the backyard woods in the winter!

The following week, my class had the great privilege of birding with Russ Schipper, from the Kalamazoo Audubon Society.  Russ came to our class earlier this year and taught us all sort of cool facts about birds.  We have been studying them on and off all year in preparation for the annual Backyard Bird Count through Cornell University.  Students went out in small groups and listened and identified birds with Russ.  We submitted our findings online to Cornell University.  Learning about birds has included nonfiction reading, charting and math skills and it has sparked a great deal of interest in our fine feathered friends!

A big thank you to Russ, Dan and the Museum!  No doubt Liberty Hyde Bailey is smiling down on these fun and educational projects!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Snow Day on the Trail

"The winter is the best season of the four because there is more mystery in it.  Things are hidden; yet there is a new and strange spirit in the air.  There are strange bird-calls in the depths of the still, white woods.  There are strange marks in the new fallen snow.  There are soft noises when the snow drops from the trees. . . We speak of winter as bare, but this is only a contrast with summer.  In the summer all things are familiar and close; the depths are covered.  The view restricted.  We see things near by.  In the winter things are uncovered.  Old objects have new forms. . . Even when the snow lies deep on the earth the ground-line carries the eye into strange distances.  You look far down into the heart of the woods.  You feel the strength and resoluteness of the framework of the trees.  You see the corners and angles of the rocks.  You discover the trail that was lost in the summer.  You look clear through the weedy tangle.  You find new knot-holes in the tree-trunks.  You penetrate to the very depths.  You analyze, and gain insight."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Nature Study Idea, 1904

Outdoor Classroom
Fur Tree Standing Strong
Fern Garden Under Snow

Today, we have a reprieve from the classroom.  A Snow Day!  The temperature outside is 7 degrees, with a wind chill of -9 degrees.  I went out to fill the bird feeders and poke around the trails in snowshoes.  It was beautiful and quiet.  The form and feel of winter is a study in angles and stillness.  The bare branches of trees, bushes and plants show their structural anatomy as they brace against the wind and snow.  All living things no doubt are seeking shelter from the cold.  The only signs of moving life were animal prints in the snow.  Surviving winter in West Michigan requires some amazing adaptations for plants and animals.  Even us humans need to be hearty and willing to preserve to appreciate this winter wonderland.  In a couple of weeks (weather permitting) the fourth grade students at North Shore Elementary will be spending an hour with outdoor expert and enthusiast, Dan Keto, from Kalamazoo Nature Center.  The Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum is sponsoring this educational and fun event.  We will be walking in snowshoes through our backyard nature trails looking for signs of life and learning about animal survival skills and winter habitats.  It's our winter nature-study!  I look forward to sharing the beauty of winter with Dan and our students and updating this blog with photos of this outdoor winter adventure in the near future!

  "The lesson is that our interest in the out-of-doors should be a perennial current that overflows from the fountain that lies deep within us.  This interest is colored and modified by every passing season, but fundamentally it is beyond time and place.  Winter or no winter, it matter not; the fields lie beyond."   --Liberty Hyde Bailey,  The Nature-Study Idea, 1904