Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Gardener's Companion and Outdoor Learning

I recently received my copy of The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener's Companion, edited by John Stempien and John Linstrom.  I immediately read the preface because I knew that the Outdoor Learning Center here at North Shore Elementary was featured.  That being said, I thought I'd read some of my already favorite essays and use this book as a reference for inspiration; but here's what really happened . . . I started reading it from the beginning and simply continued reading the book from cover to cover.  Each essay held my attention and was filled with beautiful nuggets of knowledge, inspiration and truth.  Liberty Hyde Bailey was a talented scientist, writer, artist, philosopher and teacher. His curiosity was endless and his ability to share that curiosity with his students was extraordinary.  He wrote over seventy books in his lifetime, including books on specific plant species (ex. The Garden of Gourds) poetry (ex. Wind and Weather) and philosophy (ex. The Holy Earth).  He is consider "the father of modern horticulture," was the founding dean of the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to serve as the chair of the national Commission of Country Life, was a world traveler, a beloved professor, and always, always an avid gardener. He was an amazing person and I'm so glad that his work has found regeneration in this book of Bailey's essential writings.

Here is what I think is really extraordinary about Liberty Hyde Bailey: he was enamored and curious by the most ordinary of things.  This thread weaves throughout his writings.  Here's a beautiful example:
"Every weed has a meaning in the universal plan.  The proper objects of study are the things one oftenest meets. . . the teaching of geography will not begin with a book at all. But it will begin with the earth, and the products of the earth, in the very neighborhood in which the child lives.  And it will include, with a certain sympathy, the weeds. . . .It is often said, that a weed is a plant out of place, but this is not so.  Nothing is more in place than a weed!  Wherever they are, they make themselves at home. . . I would rather see a good pigweed than a poor rose bush . . . The great views, the resplendent objects do not make a man at home in the world and content, not until the trivial and the common have a meaning to him." (pp. 218 - 219 The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener's Companion from the essay, Marvels at Our Feet)
 Liberty Hyde Bailey never ceased to be amazed and curious by that which was nearest at hand.  I think that this perspective is exactly what our world needs right now (as it has always needed). . . this is the perspective that can give us hope.  It's not about the large and overwhelming things we can't fix or change, but those common things around us that can teach us and inspire us and change us and ultimately change the world for the better.
"We are apt to covet the things which we cannot have; but we are happier when we love the things which grow because they must.  A patch of lusty pigweeds, growing and crowding in luxuriant abandon, may be a better and more worthy object of affection than a bed of coleuses in which every spark of life and spirit and individuality has been sheared out and suppressed.  The man who worries morning and night about the dandelions in the lawn will find great relief in loving the dandelions.  Each blossom is worth more than a gold coin, as it shimmers in the exuberant sunlight of the growing spring, and attracts the bees to its bosom.  Little children love the dandelions:  why may not we?  Love the things nearest at hand; and love intensely. . ." (pp. 14-15 The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener's Companion from the essay, General Advice)
If we can learn to love the things nearest at hand, surely we will be better stewards of this earth.  We will care for the habitats that are in our backyards and neighborhoods.  Can you imagine if we all worried more about the insects and the birds that inhabited our backyards than the color and form of our lawns?  As a teacher of young children, I have had the privilege of watching students become excited and inspired by the most common of things. . . a spider, a sprig of clover, a butterfly, a crow.  If I can encourage that curiosity, I know that I am on the right track.  And after over twenty years of teaching I am still learning, through my students, how amazing the most common things in life really are. I hope I never stop being amazed.  I know that when I get excited by a monarch flying overhead, I am in good company.  And maybe somewhere, Liberty Hyde Bailey is smiling.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Spring at North Shore Elementary

"Let nature be your teacher."  --William Wordsworth

This spring my class learned a bit about measurement, multiplication and statistical analysis while studying in our bulb garden.  Each student observed his/her own square foot of daffodils and crocuses as they grew and eventually withered.  The plants were measured, counted and observed over time.  In addition, we calculated the area, perimeter and average number of plants in the garden.  The bonus was we also got outside in the beautiful spring air and learned a bit about the nature of bulbs. 

Later this spring, each student planted a milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca) into our new Certified Monarch Waystation.  We flagged them so that we could check on their progress.  We learned that rabbits love to eat baby milkweed but that many of the roots survived and sprouts came up despite the hungry bunnies.   The milkweed was donated by Ilse Gebbard.  She has donated hundreds of milkweed plants to classes in Kalamazoo and to us at North Shore Elementary.  She has also shared hundreds of monarch caterpillars with thousands of students throughout West Michigan.  Ilse, along with her husband Russ, have been transformative in the lives of many students both young and old.  They have enriched my life and my students' lives.  Students come back every year to share stories of birds they have seen or monarchs they have found.  That enthusiasm was certainly planted by Russ and Ilse and hopefully will continue to grow in them as it has in me.  Thank you Ilse and Russ!

Monarch Eggs on Milkweed
"If you plant it, they will come."  --Erik Mollenhauer (founder of The Monarch Teacher Network)
The last few weeks of school, we found monarch eggs on milkweed plants in our school gardens!  The first days of school last fall we reared several monarchs from eggs and sent them on their way to Mexico.  This spring the monarchs returned and the cycle continues...  On the last day of school those who wanted one took a caterpillar or chrysalis of their choosing to rear at home.  I have eighteen more at my house that will become butterflies in the days ahead.  I can't wait!  

"Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours,
Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man. There is something very gratifying in sharing a love for the plants and animals in our backyard." 
-- Henry David Thoreau 

It was a wonderful year full of outdoor learning!  I hope that my students learned to appreciate this amazing natural world that is all around us when we take a little time to look and listen closely.  I hope those observation skills continue through the summer as monarchs drift through backyards and milkweed-rich gardens, laying eggs and flying north.  I hope that they spot the birds that we learned about and looked for on our various outdoor adventures.  I hope that they notice the milkweed and other plants that grow, both voluntarily and those that were planted, and that they appreciate them both.  But most of all, I hope that they have developed a love and respect for this "howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty and such affection . . . "   

Peace and love to all of us creatures both great and small!

Bonus find in the field


Monday, March 4, 2019

The Great Backyard Bird Count Tradition Continues at North Shore Elementary

This past February my class, with the help of Russ Schipper, participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count through Cornell University.  Russ has generously led this adventure for the past several years.  This year was especially cold and windy.  The smaller winter birds that frequent our bird feeders were all undercover keeping warm.  It was bitter cold but we did see a red-tailed hawk, several mourning doves, a seagull and some American crows.  We recorded our findings (along with thousands of other citizen scientists) on the Cornell Ornithology website.  We watched in real time as results came in from all over the world.  We cheered when a spot that looked like South Haven lit up on the map.  Our finds were submitted!  Thank you Russ!

This year, after our outdoor adventure, we had another guest, Bob Linderman, who came in and shared his trip with National Geographic to Antarctica.  He brought in a video of his adventure and told stories of this amazing place.  It was fun to see the penguins and other sea creatures (they would have been at home with our cold temperatures that day).  Thank you Bob!  Bob is a retired teacher.  I worked with Bob a couple of years and he was generous to my students and me.  He kept an eye out on our bird feeders and at random times he would stop into our classroom and in a gruff voice say, "Mrs. Linstrom, it looks like you need to fill those bird feeders!  Do you think you can spare a couple of students to help me fill them?"  This was always a welcomed interruption and a couple of lucky students would go out with Mr. Linderman and fill the feeders.  Bob is also known for his dedication to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.  He is well loved by many, many students in our district.  Thank you Bob!

This past Saturday, I had the wonderful pleasure of sitting down with a friend.  She has worked as a substitute teacher for many years in the South Haven Public Schools.  She was my long-term sub when I needed that support.  She is not subbing this year, as she is struggling with a cancer diagnosis and is too weak to work.  On Friday, at the very end of the day, the students and I were sharing our weekend plans.  I told them that I was going to visit Mrs. Gruber.  All of my students started buzzing . . . "I haven't seen her in a long time . . . Where is she?  I miss her . . . She was so nice. . . "  I shared with them that she was too sick to sub and that she was dealing with lung cancer.  There was a collective sigh and one student piped up, "My mom had cancer five years ago and she's doing great!"  My students asked that I say hello to her from them.  They all know her from various days that she had stepped into their classrooms and they remembered her for her fairness, kindness and ability to be stern without being mean.  Thank you Patty!

Here is what I know . . . teaching is much more than what we say.  We teach who we are.  Students need adults like Russ, Bob and Patty who teach them that they are genuinely cared about and respected as individuals.  They are not there to grade them, they are there to share their knowledge with them and to care for them.  Teaching is relational.  I am forever grateful for their gifts to my students. They receive much more than a lesson on birds or Antarctica or some generalized sub plans when they are with Russ, Bob or Patty . . . they are learning that they are important and that they are worthy and that they are loved.  This is what matters and what is transformative in the lives of others.

Thank you Russ, Bob and Patty! 


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Gratitude and Lessons Learned . . .

Russ and students examining leaves

The Outdoor Learning Center at North Shore Elementary School continues thanks to the many individuals that support this project.  The South Haven Garden Club gave us a grant this fall to purchase seven very nice binoculars for our birding expeditions.  Russ Schipper has continued to support this project by being our resident expert in all things birds and nature (my students are looking forward to the Backyard Bird Count (through Cornell University) with Russ this February).  His wife, Ilse continues to be our monarch butterfly expert and donator of milkweed for our new butterfly garden.  I am most grateful for this ongoing support.  I can't imagine my life as an educator without the amazing people who support this outdoor learning adventure.

Although many individuals have supported this project over the years (too many to mention here although if you read through the many previous entries it is a long list of generous folks) I have yet to get the full support of South Haven Public Schools.  This may seem odd, because the one group that you would think would be most supportive of this project (if only because they are most directly benefiting), South Haven Public Schools, has not donated or helped in any way (besides giving the initial school board okay several years ago).  In fact, the head of maintenance has reminded me several times (usually while I'm out working in the gardens on my own time) how it takes more time to mow around the four trees that we planted (a generous donation from Ann Frost) than if there were no trees.  He has also implied on numerous occasions how the project will simply become another mess that he will eventually have to clean up.  And, while under his instruction the garden crew mulches the trees around the school, they leave those donated trees for me to mulch.  Thankfully, the city donates mulch to me every year and I faithfully mulch the raised beds and the trees.  Our new butterfly garden (an Eagle Scout Project) was strategically placed in an unmowed field, which is now not only being mowed around, but the border to the garden is sprayed with Round-Up!  I've suggested that they stop mowing the field and to please stop spraying poisons (think of the time and money they could save).  I was told that I should put signs out in the garden (preferable in Spanish) that say not to spray.  Apparently, the message to not mulch specific trees can be relayed, but to not mow or spray poisons around a Certified Monarch Waystation, is too difficult an instruction for the garden crew to understand.  I know this lack of support is not about time or energy, it's about power and making sure that I realize this project is not important.  I understand their perspective, but I completely disagree and I will continue with or without this support.  It is worth my time because I know it is a gift to the students in my class.  I know that it benefits their education.  Thankfully, there are many others outside of the school that agree with me and have faithfully and generously supported me.

Several years ago, I was telling my mom my frustrations regarding the lack of school support for this project.  I told her that I felt like I didn't belong; like I had been working on this project for years and I seemed to be the only one at school that seemed at all interested in it.  Although I've shared teaching ideas and encouraged other teachers, even they seem to have no time for it.  My mom smiled and said, "They need you and you are exactly where you belong.  If they had a strong outdoor learning program, they wouldn't need you.  You are doing something that you know is good for students and without you, it wouldn't be there.  Don't stop because of lack of support from others.  Keep doing this for your students and for you."

My mom died a few weeks ago, but I can still hear her voice and I'm trying to find her strength.  She was a powerhouse.  She was famous for standing up for people on the margins in this life and she did so fiercely.  I know that there were many times her own feelings were hurt, but what made her special was that she stood up for what she believed even when she felt personally insulted.  Even when she felt alone, she found her voice and she stood up.  She knew what it was like to be less than popular, but she also knew that being popular was not as important as taking care of her students, or the mentally ill, or the homeless or whatever marginally group needed  her help. And she made a difference in this life for many, many people.

Yesterday, I was going through my emails deleting the hundreds of pieces of junk mail that come my way.  As I was getting to about the end of the summer (I was very behind in my emails) I came across an email that wasn't junk, but that I had failed to read.  It was from a former student.  At the beginning of the year, I had received a generous gift as a "Favorite Teacher Award" from Meijer (our local supermarket).  I had no idea how I had gotten it, but I received a huge donation of arts supplies and a gift certificate to spend on my classroom.  I felt unusually lucky that somehow someone must have randomly put my name in a box and I actually won (I am famous for never winning anything).  At any rate, I found this old email and the mystery was solved.  It was from a student who wrote, "I don't know if you remember me . . . I am in 7th grade now and you are still my favorite teacher and still I love butterflies and still I learn all I can about them.  I nominated you for favorite teacher award and they actually picked us for winning . .  I just wanted to say thank you for making learning fun and being a nice teacher, and I'm sad you are not my teacher because all the other ones are not like you. . . I got my school supplies paid for me and all I had to do was talk about how nice you were. . . "   I immediately responded to him (very late) and thanked him for his kind words.   And of course I remembered him!  This kind student reminded me why I continue to do what I do. . . And my students continue to teach me each and every day about what is really important in this life and what really matters.

Photo from the year this generous student was in my class.  It's a picture of our class and a class of kindergarteners we invited to help plant milkweed in our garden and to teach them what we had learned about butterflies and birds.  They brought us a snack to share.  A wonderful afternoon was had by all!
Thank you to everyone out there that supports outdoor learning and to all those who have supported me over the years.  It's a real joy to have an outdoor teaching and learning space for students.  This blog has had over 35,000 page views to date and although perhaps most of those views were from folks looking for something else, I hope that maybe it has encourage or inspired a few of you out there that are working in a similar environment.  Outdoor learning is a powerful and worthy pursuit. Let's keep bringing students outdoors! 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nature Study on the Trail

Learning how to use binoculars
Using a Field Guide
"Nature may be studied with either of two objects:  to discover new truth for the purpose of increasing the sum of human knowledge; or to put the pupil in a sympathetic attitude toward nature for the purpose of increasing the joy of living. . . The second object is a nature-study movement, and 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."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Nature-Study Idea, 1904

Thanks to the generosity of the School Foundation and Garden Club, we have a set of very nice student binoculars to use in our Outdoor Learning Center!  Thank you to the many people who support these organizations!  You enrich our education on a daily basis!

This month, Russ Schipper joined us and we went out in small groups to study nature.  Russ, as many of you know, is a bird expert who comes every year to all twelve of our classrooms at North Shore Elementary and shares his love of birds with our students.  The fourth graders get a generalized bird presentation and the fifth graders get a presentation on owls.  After two years at North Shore, most every student has had two classes with Russ and knows a bit more about the birds that he/she may hear or see in their own neighborhood.  It's an amazing gift of time and joy that Russ has given to us for the past several years.

Although Russ is known for his expertise in birding, he also studies nature and specifically the native plants of our area.  This is a new passion for Russ as he has lost some of his hearing due to a rare form of cancer.  Birding requires a great deal of listening but plants are a bit easier to study and Russ is now sharing his new passion with us!  Russ and I took small groups of students out onto the trails with our new binoculars and no agenda but exploration.  We had great fun and every group saw or heard different things that we shared with each other after all the groups had been outside.  As we discussed what we had discovered, I recorded them on our dry erase board in the front of the classroom and that board was covered although I know we could have added more. . .  It is amazing what there is to discover in such a small area of nature.

Russ was a wonderful guide.  The first thing most groups heard, was chirping.  Russ asked us what was making that chirping sound.  Everyone thought it was a bird but in fact, it was a spring peeper (frog)!  Russ told us to look around and see what we can see.  We compared leaves and hunted down the trees they fell from.  "You'll have to use your binoculars to find the tree that this leaf came from," Russ said as they looked for the leaves in the tree.  The excitement was palpable when someone yelled, "I found it, I found the tree!" and we all looked with our binoculars way beyond the other tree branches into the sky at the tulip tree branches and leaves.  Another very exciting find was in an old log on the side of the trail.  There were two rectangular holes and a student asked Russ, "What are these holes from?"  Russ asked them to think what could have made them . . . they guessed termites and several other ideas before one student guessed a bird.  Russ said, "You're right!  But what kind of bird?"  Another student guessed a woodpecker and Russ said, "You're right!  But what kind of woodpecker?"  And at that point he told us that those holes were made by a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in Michigan.  We were all amazed that a pileated woodpecker had once been pecking away at one of the trees in this woods.  There were so many common and yet amazing things we saw on our short expeditions out on the trails that I could go on and on. . .

Although we learned a great deal, there was something much more than knowledge we received during our short nature studies.  We were reminded how to look and listen and even smell (we found wild onions) with a bit more curiosity.   In addition, Russ brought his own joy for exploration and shared it with all of us. What a privilege and joy it was for me to spend time with Russ and the students!

   "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."    

Russ brought the spirit of nature-study to us and I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to see students catching that joy and that spirit!  Thanks Russ, from all my students and from me!  You have enriched our lives.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Fall 2018!

Our Class
A new school year has begun!  With two weeks under our belts, we are becoming a community of learners.  Every day, weather permitting, we run on our lower nature trail loop before starting our formal school day.  This past week we took a few minutes to be inspired by the woods and write outside in our new writer's notebooks.  We have also been learning about and releasing monarchs on a regular basis.  This coming Monday we have four monarch butterflies to release, four still in chrysalis form and two caterpillars.  We will learn more about food chains and food webs while studying the milkweed plants in our butterfly garden in the days ahead. 

We were fortunate to receive a grant from our School Foundation for seven student binoculars and they have arrived!  Russ Schipper will be joining us in the days ahead and taking small groups out into the field to learn how to use our new binoculars and how to use field guides to help us identify what we find in our outdoor learning center.  I look forward to another great year in forth grade! 
Releasing a monarch
Writing outdoors

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A New School Year

Student with unidentified insect
The 2018-2019 school year begins soon!  Every August I look forward to meeting my new group of students.  It is always exciting and a bit intimidating.  Although I've been teaching for over twenty years, each class holds the promise of new adventures and new struggles.  Each year I meet a new group of students with their own unique hopes and dreams for fourth grade.  I hope I don't let them down and that I can help them along their educational path.  Each year we have new curriculum and new learning targets.  All of these unknowns leave me a bit anxious during my last days of summer break.  That being said, there are also some deep truths about teaching and learning that don't change much over time.  Great thinkers have been sharing their knowledge about learning throughout the ages and they continue to inspire us with their truths.  Here are a few that come to mind. . .
"Tell me I forget, teach me I remember, involve me and I learn."  --Benjamin Franklin

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."  --Albert Einstein 

"Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent."  --Billy Graham

"Some things are true in spite of statistics and philosophy and tabulations.  Some things we know because we know them."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, Universal Service, 1918

"There is no way to help a learner to be disciplined, active, and thoroughly engaged unless he perceives a problem to be a problem or whatever is to-be-learned as worth learning, and unless he plays an active role in determining the process of solution.  That is the plain, unvarnished truth, and if it sounds like warmed-over "progressive education," it is not any less true for it."   --Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1969

"Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail." --WB Yeats 
There are many more quotes like these and they all point to truths about teaching.  None of them talk about curriculum, content or delivery.  They all point to something bigger and more universal.  Teaching is more than what we learned in graduate school or a trick or a performance or a chromebook.  It is more than the latest formulated curriculum or set of goals and objectives.  Teaching is an art.  And like art, it is always unique and takes many forms and shapes based on the students and the teacher and even the moment.  Sometimes I fail miserably.  Sometimes I'm amazed by what students are able to learn and discover.  But always it is a new adventure.

In these last days of August, there are many small projects that occupy me. . . setting up my classroom, gathering supplies, reacquainting myself with curriculum and planning the first few weeks of school.  The outdoor learning center needs attention.  There are weeds to pull and beds to mulch.  In addition, I'm raising about twenty monarchs (I will bring to school) that all need fresh milkweed on a daily basis.  And Harold, our class pet, needs to readjust and return to the classroom.  There are lots of things on my mind.  But mostly, I realize that in a few weeks my new students and I will embark on a new adventure.  Hopefully, it will be a year full of discovery, inspiration and joy.

To everyone returning to school, I hope that your next year is a great adventure!

Peace and Love