Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Teaching A Growth Mindset

I have the above Growth Mindset image posted in the front of my classroom and it reflects the current brain research on best teaching practice and learning.  Successful students need to have what is called a "growth mindset."  There has been a great deal written about growth mindset, but in a nutshell, it's about learning from challenges and mistakes.  It's about figuring out what you don't know and seeing those challenges as an opportunity to learn and discover.  This mindset means that education is not about perfection or IQ; rather it's about working on things that are hard and knowing that there is a great deal that we still don't know and can learn.  A growth mindset is what makes us smarter and more productive.  Most of us have been around long enough to know that we learn from mistakes and that when we overcome challenges we grow.  It's logical that having a growth mindset leads to learning.  The real question is, how do we impart this frame of mind to our students?  We have students who come to school expecting learning to be easy, because they have been told they are brilliant.  And at the other extreme,  we have students who believe that they can't possible learn.  They think that anything that requires thinking is somehow beyond their ability.  They feel stupid even before they know what the challenge or lesson is.  How does a teacher proceed?

I suppose if I am honest, I have been both those types of students myself.  There have been times when I've felt like I knew it all and other times when I was sure I was totally incapable of learning anything about the subject matter at hand.  And I'm pretty sure that in the future, there will be more times such as those.  How do I proceed?  I think that teaching a growth mindset requires having a growth mindset.  Having a growth mindset as a teacher means being vulnerable in front of your students.  It's about sharing your lack of knowledge as well as your knowledge.  It means we are never done learning.  It's about teaching that the process of learning is more important than the product.  The irony is that, when you focus on the process, the product usually improves (although sometimes it takes a lifetime or more).  If I want my students to have a growth mindset, I need to remind myself that I need to have a growth mindset.  I need to always be learning and growing and becoming a better student as well as a better teacher.

I suspect that developing a growth mindset will be a lifetime struggle and adventure for me on this journey called life, but I know that it is worth striving for.  In fact, I think we all started with a growth mindset.  Have you ever seen a baby stop babbling because he/she couldn't pronounce the words properly?  Or have you ever seen a toddler stop trying to walk, because he/she toddled into a fall?  We come into this world already hardwired with a growth mindset. Somewhere along the way, it can slip away from us and I think that's when we start growing old.

Developing a growth mindset is not simply an academic pursuit; it's a life pursuit and it requires action to be meaningful.  Can you image if our culture embraced a growth mindset . . .? What if the criminal justice system operated from a growth mindset?  It would no longer be about punishment; it would be about restorative justice and forgiveness.  We would try to help people become better citizens and to learn from their mistakes so that they could live productive lives.  (If you have ever met a person who has spent time in jail and has had a second chance to redeem his/her life, you know what a gift that person is to the community).  What if politicians embraced a growth mindset?  Can you imagine?!  They would admit mistakes and share areas of growth instead of the negative attack mode that was so rampant this election year.  And more importantly, can you imagine if the Senate and Congress had a growth mindset instead of a partisan mindset?  Discussions and actions wouldn't focus on party lines; rather, they would focus on learning from mistakes and from each other and then getting down to work.

In the end, I think that having a growth mindset is about the positive actions that we take from wherever we are.  It's humility and hard work and a belief that we can make this world a better place.  And isn't it wonderful, that we are born into this quest?  It gives me hope for our future.  In the words of Mohandas Gandhi . . .        

"It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important.  You have to do the right thing.  It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit.  But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing.  You may never know what results come from your action.  But if you do nothing, there will be no result."

Peace and Love.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Politics and Teaching

"The End is Near" Time Magazine Cover

We are in an election year like no other.  It is a year when the sides are so polarized that whichever side you are on, you are pretty much sure the other side is crazy (and maybe criminal).  My students asked me who I was voting for the other day and I gave my usual response, "I don't share who I'm voting for."  But this year I realized that if I told them, about half my students would lose total respect for me (or if not my students, surely their parents who might not hear about the math assignment, but would certainly hear about who Mrs. Linstrom was voting for).  In class, we have talked about the importance of voting. Next week, we will talk more about the democratic process. We have discussed the right to our own opinions and the importance of respecting other people's opinions, but this has been a hard year for adults to set that example.  Politics has become something of a mud slinging circus that we don't really want our children to view (and certainly not to emulate).  It is clear that people on either side find it nearly impossible to image the other point of view (and I will admit, this includes myself).  What has happened to us and how do we move forward?  Next week when the elections are over, how will be respond?  Politics and policies are important.  How should we proceed?

Here's what I think . . . On Wednesday, I will still have twenty-eight students who need to learn long division.  I will still have students who will walk into my class bearing the burden of a "less than adequate childhood."  I will still have students who think that they can't learn (or they are not smart enough) and some students who think they know it all.  I need to teach them they are both wrong and they are both right.  I will still have students who read at about the first grade level and some who read at about the sixth grade level and they all need to be challenged.  I will have students who are scared to go home and some who are scared to come to school.  My plate is full.  I can't change the world, but I can keep trying.  

On Wednesday I know that the monarchs I raised late summer, will continue their flight to Mexico. The milkweed in our gardens will invest in their roots and rhizomes, and lay dormant through the winter.  When spring arrives, the milkweed we planted (and the milkweed that no one planted) will grow and feed the great-great-great grandchildren of the monarchs we raised (and the monarchs we didn't raise).  If there is a wall between us and Mexico, they will fly over it.  Life will continue.
Mother Teresa was quoted to say, "What takes a lifetime to build could be destroyed in a day . . . build anyway. . ."  I think she is right.  This life is about building.  We build, we plant, we work and all the rest is just . . . all the rest.  We have children to raise and a planet to care for.  On Wednesday, like every day, we have work to do.  Let us keep building.    

Headed to Mexico

Milkweed Planting (saved from the lawn mower)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Outdoor Learning Center Additions

New archways onto our two nature paths!
Weaving into our new butterfly sculpture!


Planting native species into our gardens!
Michael Zillins, Eagle Scout helping with our new Butterfly Garden!

Butterfly Release!
On September 17th, we celebrated the new additions to our Outdoor Learning Center here at North Shore Elementary School!  Thanks to a great many generous people, the vision and support for this project continues to grow.  

Thank you to Lisa Rostar, art teacher who received a grant to have sculptor, Kathy Kreager create the amazing butterfly sculpture that now graces our backyard.  Lisa received the grant from the School Foundation and the Garden Club.  It is beautiful!    

Thank you to Tom Small and the good people from Wild Ones, out of Kalamazoo, for the grant they awarded me to develop a butterfly garden.  I purchased plants from Hidden Savanna, a native species nursery out of Kalamazoo.  The garden is well underway and we couldn't have done this without your support!

Thank you to Michael Zillins, Eagle Scout, who will help develop our butterfly garden!  He and his troop will create a border, a sign and enlarge the mulched area of the garden.  Michael is the fourth Eagle Scout who has helped with components of this outdoor project.  The Eagle Scouts of South Haven have invested in this project from the start and we are grateful!

Thank you to Frank Lawson, South Haven artist and friend, who made beautiful archways to the entrances of our two paths into the woods!  Stepping under those arches is a great way to begin a journey into our outdoor classrooms.  Thanks Frank!

This project began six years ago in honor of Dr. Liberty Hyde Bailey Jr., born and raised on a local farm in South Haven.  He left his home to become a scientist, professor, writer and poet.  Bailey was instrumental in starting what was termed, "The Nature-Study Movement."  In his book, The Nature Study Idea, (1904) Bailey writes to the question; What is Nature Study?  

". . . its purpose is to enable every person to live a richer life, whatever his business or profession may be.  Nature-study is a revolt from the teaching of mere science in the elementary grades. . . Nature-study is not science.  It is not knowledge.  It is not facts.  It is spirit.  It is concerned with the child's outlook on the world."

Bailey wanted to share his love for learning and exploring in the natural world with all students.  I hope that we capture some of that spirit and share some of his joy with the students of North Shore Elementary.  Thank you to everyone who supports this endeavor!    

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Harold, The Wandering Iguana

Harold, after 7 weeks on the lam
Thanks to the kindness of neighbors and the first responders of South Haven, my green iguana Harold is back home.  Harold disappeared on July 2nd.  He was outside for his morning sunshine in his cage and although closed, it wasn't completely secured.  Harold nuzzled his way out and vanished within a span of five minutes while I was inside making his lunch.  My family and I searched the trees and bushes in our yard, the back ravine and our neighbors yards for hours and then days.  I left the cage open and stocked with food, hoping he would find his way back home.  I called the humane society and reported his loss in the hopes someone might see him.  Over a month went by and still sometimes I would go and gaze into the trees and wonder where Harold had gone. . . I finally put the cage away and faced the reality that he was probably eaten by a racoon or hawk.

Harold enjoys his freedom and when he is in my classroom, he spends a great deal of time hanging in the top of my ficus tree or sitting on my desk, keeping me from the distractions of paperwork.  His cage is more of a safe space for him; a place he goes when he wants to eat or escape the busyness in the classroom.  He appreciates his personal space.  Iguanas are not social creatures.  They prefer to observe the world from a distance and yet, he has a funny way of getting close to me without wanting me to pick him up or hold him.  When I'm in the room alone, he will most often wander over to where I'm working and find a place that's just a bit above me to sit.  He will cock his head and watch me.  He seems as fascinated by me as I am of him, and although neither of us could begin to imagine what the other was thinking, we have a working relationship and a certain fondness for each other.

My students think Harold is pretty cool even though I don't let them hold him or even really pet him.  They understand that he is not your average pet.  He is, in fact, a wild animal.  I'm not sure iguanas should even be called "pets."  I'm not sure pet stores should sell them, to be completely honest.  That being said, Harold lives in our classroom and my students and I hope to give him the space he needs and respect his privacy as much as possible.   Maybe there is a lesson in all of this and maybe not.  Either way, Harold makes our life a little bit better and I'm so glad that he is back.

Harold was spotted on August 23rd, about four blocks from home.  By the time the humane society contracted me and I arrived on the scene, there were two fire trucks, four police cars and lots of neighbors staring into a huge maple tree.  It took the tallest fire truck ladder to reach Harold.  By the time he was captured and riding down the ladder in the hands of a firefighter, he looked absolutely terrified and I was in complete shock.  Harold had survived seven weeks on the streets and in the wilds of South Haven.  He was a bit thinner and had a few scrapes and a missing toe but he looked pretty good, all things considered.  I can't imagine how he spent his days and nights or where he traveled.  That will be a writing assignment for my fourth graders.  I look forward to the stories they write.  As for Harold, he is keeping silent, as is his way.  
Harold, back home in his tree

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Gardening of Life and Learning

Zabulon Skipper on Rattlesnake Master
"There are two parts to the common day, --the performance of the day, and the background of the day.  Many of us are so submerged in the work we do and in the pride of life that the real day slips by unnoted and unknown.  But there are some who part the hours now and then and let the background show through.  There are others who keep the sentiments alive as an undertone and who hang all the hours of work on a golden cord, connecting everything and losing none;  theirs is the full life;  their backgrounds are never forgotten;  and the backgrounds are the realities."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey (1928)

The above quote was taken from a book Bailey wrote entitled The Garden Lover.  I first heard this quote when John Stempien (former director of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum) shared it during a lecture (Breakfast at the Bailey's) he led several years ago.  I liked the quote so much I wrote about it in a former blog post entitled "The Background of the Day" (July 2011).  John reminded me of it last week when he gave me a copy of the book from which the quote was taken.  What an unexpected and wonderful gift!  Thank you John!   And here I am again; pulled into writing about this amazing sentiment written by Bailey so long ago. . .  

In that former post, I talked about the background of my days when my family spent time on the south shore of Lake Superior in our cabin surrounded by woods and overlooking that amazing and wild lake.  Those background days have colored and enriched my life and I'm forever grateful to my parents for sharing such natural wonders with me.   

It may seem odd that the above quote is taken from a gardening book, but Bailey draws us into a larger picture of the gardener and of gardens in his writing.  His use of these words is much more expansive than simply taking care of flowers in a yard.  He clearly sees the natural world as a garden and essential to our lives.  And when we let that background show through we are enriched (theirs is the full life; their backgrounds are never forgotten; and the backgrounds are the realities).  What I hear in his words is a metaphor for both learning and living.  I hear the deep calling to grow and learn as a gardener and to tend to the lessons learned in the garden of your life.  This is what I think he means when he writes, "There are others who keep the sentiments alive as an undertone and who hang all the hours of work on a golden cord, connecting everything and losing none. . ."  Imagine learning as the tending of a garden and the lessons learned as the plants and flowers and trees of our life.  It seems the perfect metaphor for teacher and student.  We are always growing and learning.  

I have the privilege of teaching elementary school.  I spent several years in kindergarten, first grade and now fourth grade.  Through these many years, I've learned perhaps more from my students than I have taught.  Young students (kindergarteners and first graders especially) learn by play, observation and experimentation.  Learning is as natural as breathing to them.  It is who they are.  They don't categorize and separate the different fields of knowledge; they are simply filled with wonder and that wonder is the basis of their education.  When they are engaged in this way, it is amazing the amount of learning that they are able to acquire.  My job was simply to reveal the joy of learning and present the material.  The children took it from there.  It really was like preparing a garden with rich soil and a few seeds and watching the real miracle of growth take place.  It was always a wonder to participate in this process, like a gardener delighting in the plants that grow.  And every day it was surprising and full.  I was never sure what amazing discovery a child might obtain or what might blossom in the sunlight.  As students mature, they lose some of that natural wonder, but I believe that my job is to remind them of that instinct (we should never lose) and to continue to be a gardener. . . to give them the opportunities to find joy in learning and to remind them that learning is foundationally about joy and discovery.  It is who we are and what we are called to do in this life.  If I can share that, it seems that they too can hang all the hours of work on a golden cord, connecting everything and losing none . . .  Happy learning to those students and teachers out there in the world preparing to head back to school to blossom and grow!    

The following photos are from some of the gardening I've been doing in my life this summer . . . planting native species, looking for butterflies and enjoying the beauty of the day.                

Eastern Swallowtail
Cabbage White

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Monarch Teacher Network Comes to South Haven!

Lisa releasing a butterfly
"In the end, we will preserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."  --Baba Dioum

Watching a monarch come out of its chrysalis 

Cindy, hard at work!
Becoming one with the monarch

Tagging a monarch

Last week teachers from Mattawan, Paw Paw, Detroit and South Haven gathered at North Shore Elementary School in South Haven to participate in a two-day workshop devoted to incorporating the monarch butterfly into the educational setting.  It was a hands-on workshop that left teachers with everything they need to raise monarchs and integrate monarch lessons into their classrooms.  Teachers learned how to construct rearing cages and butterfly houses.  They learned how to find, raise and care for monarchs throughout their life stages; they learned about milkweed and the other insects that live in the milkweed patch; they learned the science and story behind the life cycle and the migration routes of this amazing insect and lessons and games that incorporate the monarch into math, science, reading, writing and social studies.  (A guide and DVD with details on both the science of monarchs and monarch activities for students of all ages was also included in the workshop.)   A huge thank you to Brian Hayes, director of the Monarch Teacher Network who makes these workshops happen!  And a huge thank you to Erik Mollenhauer (founder and former director of the MTN) and Cindy and Paul Wackerbarth who were the lead volunteers.  They volunteered both their travel expenses and their time to join us in South Haven and teach us something that they are passionate about --- the care of monarchs and their love of this amazing planet we call home.  Thank you Brian, Erik, Cindy and Paul!  We are richer for this wonderful experience!

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature . . . he finds it attached to the rest of the world."  --John Muir

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reconnecting with Nature in a Digital World

Erik Mollenhauer

On Tuesday, June 28th, at 7:30 P.M., Erik Mollenhauer will be presenting a thought-provoking lecture at Lake Michigan College in South Haven, Michigan.  He is both a scientist and a storyteller.  He will bring his knowledge of science and his love of storytelling together in this powerful lecture, sure to inspire.  Erik is a nationally recognized teacher and has done presentations and led tours around the world on monarch butterflies, birds, trees and other wonders in nature.  This presentation will focus on the challenges we face in a world of technological distractions and environmental crises.  There is an admission fee of $10 which includes a pre-presentation reception with refreshments starting at 6:45.  I hope you can join us!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Graceland in the Milkweed

"I've reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland, in Graceland ...
I'm going to Graceland" 
--Paul Simon, Graceland

Searching for monarch eggs and larva

This past week, was our last week in school and we spent time in a nearby milkweed patch.  A few days earlier (May 28th), several students (and I) reported seeing adult monarchs.  We knew that if there were adults, there would be eggs. We carefully turned over leaves looking for signs of monarchs.  Even without finding signs of monarchs, it was a success.  Throughout the year we have been learning about the common insects, plants and birds of our neighborhood.  Walking to this patch we were able to use the lessons we had learned to enjoy the walk and the wandering.  Earlier that week, we spent time digging up baby milkweed in the school lawn and transplanting it into our new butterfly garden.  My students felt like heroes saving the plants from the lawn mower.  What a wonderful way to be a hero and what a perfect way to close the school year.  

While my students were searching for signs of monarch, Paul Simon's song, Graceland started rolling through my head.  "I'm going to Graceland; For reasons I cannot explain there's some part of me want to see Graceland; And I may be obliged to defend, every love, every ending;  Or maybe there's no obligations now;  Maybe I've a reason to believe;  We all will be received, In Graceland. . . "  There seemed something very much like grace in the milkweed patch this week.  Watching us all intent on finding monarch eggs or larva amidst the weeds, hoping to give them a bit of a better chance in our rearing cage. . . It felt like we were all in this web of life together . . . the students, the butterflies, the weeds . . . and we all needed each other.

One day this past January, a student came up to me during math.  He looked at the table that our monarch rearing cage use to sit and said, "I miss our monarchs."  I stopped and looked into his deep brown eyes and said, "So do I . . . they will be back."  It was one of those small moments that stuck with me and I know that I will never forget.  This student has what could be called a less than adequate childhood.  As a result, he has an anger and a hopelessness that seems to reflect something like PTSD.  Schoolwork is hard, relationships are hard, life is hard.  I won't share the details, to preserve his privacy, but this is not uncommon.  There are so many children who suffer from a less that adequate childhood, he is just one example.  When he said, "I miss our monarchs," it felt like for a moment he had shed his skin a bit and he shared his battered heart with me.  That moment felt like grace.

This is what I think. . . there is something grace-filled in the very ordinary things in life . . .  When we realize that common insects and weeds are amazing, we realize that everything is amazing.  I'd love to believe that studying monarchs and milkweed helps my students understand this idea.  It felt as if this one student did understand and he did know that the monarchs help remind us that we too are good enough. . .We are all, in some sense, like the common insects and weeds in this life and we are all amazing.  Although so many of us struggle, feeling a bit like failures or less than good enough in a world where we are often reduced to numbers and scores, the milkweed patch reminds us that we are more than that.  We are not failures, we all will be received in Graceland. . .  and we are all amazing.  I would like to believe that this student learned there is hope and a bit of grace in this life by studying the common insects and weeds in the field.  If you wonder if you are good enough . . . here is what I suggest. . . walk through a patch of milkweed in search of monarch eggs and feel how amazing this web of life we inhabit really is and you too will have reason to believe;  We all will be received, In Graceland. . . 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mentoring for Monarchs

Planting Milkweed with the Kindergarteners
Community Circle in our Outdoor Classroom

Reading with our Kindergarten Friends

Last Friday, my class and I had the great pleasure of mentoring Kindergarteners.  Anna DeVries' class, from Lincoln Elementary came over to our school to learn about monarchs and help us plant milkweed (donated by Ilse Gebhard).  We had a lovely time!  After planting milkweed, my students led a tour of our paths (pointing out trees and birds as they walked).  We took a few moments to share our favorite plants and animals as we sat in a community circle in our outdoor classroom.  Later, we were treated to a wonderful snack from the Kindergarteners, while my students read the nonfiction book that we wrote earlier this year.

We learn by teaching.  One of my students came up to me, after reading to a friend, and said, "Mrs Linstrom, did you know that most monarchs only live for three to five weeks and there's just this one generation that can live for up to nine months?!"  (I actually did know that and I thought he did also.)  This fact should not have been a surprise for him.  I thought this was common knowledge to my students.  I had told them, we watched a video that included this fact, they had written about the monarch migration, and this fact was included in the book that we published together in class.  How could he not know this?  Here's what I have learned after years of teaching. . .  Students need to learn through teaching each other and they need to learn through hands-on and meaningful experiences.  This student hadn't really understood or comprehended this information until he read and taught it to someone else.  I responded to him, "Yes, isn't that amazing?!"  And I was again reminded that learning and teaching are two sides of a coin and that I am fortunate to be on both sides of that coin on a daily basis.  I also thought back to a wonderful experience I wrote about several years ago in this blog, entitled, About Learning A Lesson I Already Knew  (5/19/12)   http://lhbitrail.blogspot.com/2012/05/about-learning-lesson-i-already-knew.html.  In that post, I described how sometimes seeing something actually happen before our eyes will cause us to remember it so that we'll never forget.

I hope that everyone has the opportunity to live on both sides of the education coin as we all continue our journey through this amazing life of learning and teaching!      

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Birding with an Old Friend

Checking out the wren nest

Listening for birds on the trail

Last Friday, my class and I had the good pleasure of going birding with our friend, Russ Schipper.  He visited our class (and all of the fourth grade classes at North Shore) earlier this fall and shared his knowledge of birds and several bird specimens.  He lit the fires of several of my students and we continued to study the common birds of Michigan throughout the year.  Russ came back in February to help us with the Backyard Bird Count through Cornell University.   It was a cold, windy day and most birds were smart enough to take cover, so we only saw a handful and Russ promised to come back in the spring when the weather was nicer.  What a lovely time we had!  We saw and heard many, many birds.  I was amazed at how many birds my students were able to identify with the help of Mr. Schipper.  A big thank you to Russ for his generous dedication to spreading the love of birds with my students and hundreds of others throughout West Michigan!

This Friday, we will be planting milkweed and other plants donated by Ilse Gebhard (Russ Schipper's wife) for our future butterfly gardens.  We will be getting together with Ms. DeVries' kindergarten class from Lincoln Elementary.  My students will teach the kindergarteners some of the interesting facts they have learned about monarchs this year before we all go out and plant!  My students will also read to the kindergarteners the nonfiction book on monarchs we wrote collaboratively earlier this year and give them each a copy to take home.  We are looking forward to this fun opportunity to mentor, teach and plant!  Thank you Ilse Gebhard!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Monarch Education

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.  
--William Blake

Male Monarch on Milkweed

My students will have the rare opportunity to speak on the house floor of our State Capitol in support of making the monarch (Danaus plexippus) our state insect.  It's bill SB812.  Aric Nesbitt, our state representative, presented the bill to the floor last week after receiving letters and signed petitions from interested people like us.  The bill will go to committee and my students will testify in favor of it.  The opportunity for my students to participate in the democratic process in this way is amazing and I'm so excited for them!

We raised 20 some monarchs in our classroom this fall.  The eggs and caterpillars were all wild natives of South Haven.  After taking a workshop on monarchs and raising them at home, I'm pretty good at spotting eggs and caterpillars on the milkweed that they inhabit.  Studying the monarch has not only taught us about insects, habitat, adaptation and migration; it has also brought joy into our educational setting.  We had the rare opportunity to watch a caterpillar (larva) move into its chrysalis (pupa) stage and watch a butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.  Those moments were spellbinding for all of us.  We studied their milkweed habitat and the other animals that inhabit the milkweed patch.  We learned about their life-cycle and their amazing 2,000 mile migration crossing the borders of Canada, the United States and Mexico.  We studied their population growth over time.  This spring we cheered when the population grew from the previous years' numbers and we worried when we heard of the ice storms that hit Mexico shortly after the monarchs started heading north.  We wrote a class non-fiction book and poetry in honor of this amazing insect.  In short, I think we grew to love it, as one does when one studies and cares for anything in nature.

I remember a few summers ago, I was getting ready for a new school year and a family asked if they could stop by and meet me before open house and classes started.  The student was labeled autistic and he struggled in social situations.  I was happy to meet him and his family before the craziness of the school year began.  The student's dad spoke very little English and the student was extremely quiet.  Although my classroom wasn't all set up, I did have a chrysalis in a rearing cage and a map of the monarch migration route posted nearby.  As I was showing the family the classroom the dad became more and more interested in the rearing cage and map.  He finally pointed to the map and more specifically to Michoacan, the monarch overwintering site in Mexico, and he said that was his home.  I was in awe.  I asked him, "I have heard it said, that the monarchs carry the souls of those who have passed and they are part of the Day of the Dead celebrations in those parts, is that true?"  He smiled really big and nodded his head yes.  It was a wonderful moment.  My new student also started to study the map and then he started talking about animals he liked and pets that they had. . . That little chrysalis had become the perfect ice breaker.  Who would have thought?  The monarch not only crosses geographical borders, but it also has the potential to cross relational borders.  On that day, the monarch was a wonderful ambassador building connections between me and my student and his family.  I share this story, but I have many other examples of  how this amazing insect has enriched my life and others in a variety of ways.  What a perfect insect to represent our great state of Michigan!

The study of an insect may seem less important than the many issues of our day, but I firmly believe that it is in the studying of things close at hand that we truly learn and grow in this world.  I am thankful for the lessons this amazing insect has taught me and my students.  I am also thankful to Ilse Gebbard (Kalamazoo) and the good people at Monarch Teacher Network (New Jersey).  Their work and dedication to the monarch is making this world a better place, one insect and one human at a time.

"One should pay attention to even the smallest of crawling creatures, for these too may have a valuable lesson to teach us, and even the smallest ant may wish to communicate to man."  
--Black Elk, Lakota Nation



Monday, March 14, 2016

Letter Writing, Politics and Monarchs

Representative Aric Nesbitt teaching

Last Friday we had a surprise visitor in our classroom, Representative Aric Nesbitt.  Earlier that week, we wrote letters to him encouraging him to vote in favor of making the monarch the official state insect for Michigan.  He stopped by to thank us and teach us how a bill becomes a law in our state.  It was exciting.  My students were thrilled that he would take the time to visit and that they could talk to him in person and remind him why they believe the monarch would be the perfect state insect for Michigan.  We will be touring the capitol after spring break, so it was also good timing for a lesson in government.  In addition, some students solicited autographs for a petition in support of this worthy cause.  We will be excited to see how the vote for this bill turns out.  A special thank you to Ilse Gebbard, the leader of this movement and a great supporter for monarchs in our state and beyond!  And a big thank you to Aric Nesbitt, who took the time to listen to us and to teach us!  In a time when politics seems to be divisive and even downright unkind, it's nice to meet someone who seems to genuinely care for students and maybe now even an amazing insect!

Some of my class posing with Aric

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Poetry Night at the Scott's Club!

Poetry Night 2016!

On the evening of  February 18th, my students read original poems at the Scott's Club!  Students have been writing poems over the course of the year.  They each chose their two favorite poems to share.  Together we further edited the poems and printed them into our program booklet.  Students autographed their poems after the readings.  We had a wonderful showing and a really nice time.  Thank you to everyone who joined us!   The following poems are a couple examples . . .

by Johvanie

You are the sparkling plate drying on the rack.
You are the Einstein thinking of the answers.
You are the teacher looking to help.
You are the beautiful stars shining in the dark sky at night.
You are the ruby-throated hummingbird.
But you are not the hopping grasshopper 
and you are not the rat getting into trouble.
I am the sun making the beach warm and
I am the numbers on the page.
But don't worry, you are still the shining stars in the night sky.

I Am Mourning Dove
by Anijah

I like eating the seeds outside Mrs. Linstrom's window.
I see a big green lizard in her room.
I love going to her bird feeder.
I see the kids looking at me when they line up for a run.
I see the kids everyday.
I wonder what they are thinking.
I am in the bird book they have in their desks.
I wish I could learn long division too.
I am Mourning Dove.

Of course there are many more great poems where those came from!  I am surrounded by poets!  Thank goodness!  Our next writing objective is to convince our state representatives to make the monarch the official state insect.  We will study some of the latest findings on monarchs and work on our persuasion techniques prior to writing our letters in the next few days.  Students may also be armed with clipboard and petition forms at local events . . . please sign your name and help us with this worthy cause!     

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Great Backyard Bird Count with Russ

My class had the good pleasure of going birding with Russ Schipper on Friday for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count!  For the past several years, Russ Schipper, of the Kalamazoo Audubon Society, has generously volunteered his time and expertise to take my class out birding.  He comes each fall to our classroom and teaches us about birds.  Throughout the year we further study Michigan birds using the Cornell bird site.  In February, Russ comes back and takes us out into the field to look for and to record bird sightings.  We submit our findings online as citizen scientists in the Great Backyard Bird Count through Cornell University.  This year was cold and windy.  Although we were only able to find three species of birds out and about (3 chickadees, 2 crows and a cardinal) we had a great time.  Walking quietly through the trails on that cold winter day was an adventure.  We even had the bonus of seeing a couple deer wander past.  I think it is safe to say, we all had a good time on this short winter trip through our backyard.  It is always a pleasure and privilege to work with Russ.  He has brought his love of birds to over 500 classrooms and thousands of children and adults have had the opportunity to learn from him about his favorite subject, birds.  And there is something else he shares I've noticed it each time I listen to him talk with my students and with me.  He shares a sense of wonder and an openness to learning that inspires the natural scientist in all of us.   There is no question Russ will not entertain.  If he doesn't know the answer, he researches it and writes us back with a detailed explanation.  He models the joy of learning as a lifetime persuit and my students and I count him as a wonderful friend.  Thank you Russ!

Next week we will be reading poetry at the Scott's Club, here is South Haven.  Each student will read two original poems on stage and will autograph their poems after the readings.  Many of the poems were inspired by the birds we study or our trips outdoors.  The following poem is one example.

Ode to Birds
By Brad

I love the brilliant colors of the American Goldfinch.
and the crowds of house finches at the feeders.
I love the red belly of the American Robin.
and the hum of the hummingbirds' wings.
I love to watch the black-capped chickadee zoom in and out as it flies,
and the pounding sound of woodpeckers on trees.
I love the shriek of the screech owl,
and watching the wading of sandpipers.

Whether it is studying birds in the field or writing poetry in the classroom, learning that connects with the students' lives and the world around them makes learning meaningful and hopefully encourages a lifetime of wonder that is clearly modeled by our friend Russ.  Happy bird watching and poetry writing to all those who are so inclined.  

Our next adventure will be to write our representatives and try to convince them that Michigan needs to make the monarch butterfly our state insect!  We are currently without a state insect and my class is convinced that the monarch should hold that position!  I certainly agree!  Thanks to Ilse Gebbard for encouraging us on this mission!  We hope to welcome the monarchs back this spring with a new title!  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Living the Questions

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."  --Rainer Maria Rilke

I went back into my previous blog post titles and realized that there are several posts that I never finished and that still linger as Drafts in my blogger account.  Often they are more like unsolved questions that are lived but that I'm not quite able to articulate.  Here's a really big title and theme left unwritten: Dr. King; The Tradition of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and Nature Study.  I know that there is a connection between Dr. King, the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience and Nature Study and maybe even an answer or two to some of the big questions of our day buried between that interface, I'm just not sure what.  This title and many others live as drafts in cyberspace and in my mind as unresolved questions.   Rilke captured this human dilemma in the above quote, and I know that he is right.  We need to live with our questions.  Answers don't drive us and move us forward, questions are what drive us and move us forward.  They make us who we are. . . To be human, is to be living with questions.  The details and answers in life have a place, but only a place.  We need to make room for more than answers.  The facts and details of our lives are embedded and framed by the bigger unanswerable questions that we hold.  It makes us who we are.

There are lots of seemingly large unanswerable questions we need to hold onto. . . How do we love our enemy?  Can we end poverty and hunger?  What would world peace look like?  How do we save our planet?  These questions have a place, even if they have no clear apparent answers.  Holding onto these big questions gives us hope for a future we cannot see.  Letting go of these big questions is to fall into despair and hopelessness.  We may not be able to bring about world peace, but maybe we can bring a bit more peace to a student or a friend through a generous act or a few kind words.  Maybe we can share our own resources a bit more generously and help a family or two with a heating bill or a food basket.   Maybe taking care of an outdoor learning center and bringing students outside to learn is a kind of small nonviolent civil disobedience that is needed in an age of excessive data and test taking.  It seems like the big questions give us a path to both wander and wonder, if we opened enough to listen.  

Computers are made for answers, but humans are the ones who hold onto the questions.  And we are the holders of hope and transformation or the bearers of despair and hopelessness.  In previous blogs I have talked about wonder, passion and love for the subject matter as important attributes for learning.  All of those things are hard to evaluate in a standardized test.  Holding onto big questions without apparent answers is another critical skills (or perhaps human attribute) we need to give time and voice to in education.  And again, it is nothing we can evaluate on a standardized test, but it is worthy nonetheless.

I think the future of great thought and of education will be in the hands of poets like Rilke and you and I, who are willing to hold onto big questions without needing immediate answers.  And this is good news, because we are born into wonder and we are born into poetry.  Rilke and others only reminds us that this is so.

I wish for all of you, big questions that fill you with wonder and hope for a world yet to be.  Perhaps just living with them, "gradually, without noticing it, [we will] live along some distant day into the answer[s]."