Saturday, December 5, 2015

Encouraging an Insect Garden

My son John spreading mulch

My son Ben mulching our raised bed weed garden

We continue to grow and expand the outdoor learning center here at North Shore Elementary School.  Our latest venture is to develop a garden for butterflies and other pollinators and various insects and birds that might be interested in landing.  As some of you may know, I've been raising monarchs at home and in my classroom for the past several years.  Students and I have been enjoying observing and learning about this amazing insect.  We have a small milkweed stand in front of our school that has become a great resource for not only the monarchs and other insects, but for curious students as well.  (I profile this a bit in a previous blog.)  I thought it might be fun to develop a garden devoted to milkweed and native nectar plants and see if we can expand our hospitality.  We have a small field that is not mowed just beyond our trails that seemed like a good location.  Ilse (monarch expert and wife to Russ our bird expert) suggested that we brush hog the area, put down cardboard, cover it with mulch and let it sit for a year.  The goal is to stop the grasses from growing and then plant milkweed and other plants directly into the mulched area.  Thanks to the help of several good people the garden is underway!  The field was brush hogged by Jim (he was the inspiration for two of the eagle scout projects a few years ago as well).  I gathered all the cardboard I needed from the food service at North Shore (thanks to Amy, Girard and Mike).  The city generously donated mulch (thanks to Brian, Don and his crew).  And my two sons, John and Ben, helped spread mulch both on the future garden and on our weed garden.  Ilse came into my class and planted milkweed seeds in pots with my students.  The pots are sitting outside for the winter and will hopefully grow into seedlings that next year's fourth grade class can plant in our new garden.  I hope to add a border next fall and plant a variety of nectar flowers in addition to the milkweed.  At that point I will need additional volunteers and donations.  The amazing thing is... I think I will find the support and we will have started a garden devoted to insects!

It's a small project, this outdoor learning center, but it continues to quietly grow in the backyard of the school and in the marginal spaces on the property.  Thank you so much to everyone who supports and helps with this project!  For me, it is more than a couple of trails, an outdoor classroom and some gardens.  For me, it is a validation that what I believe in and what I try to teach is supported by wonderful, generous people.  Thank you.  

Students in our outdoor classroom

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Holy Earth Revisited

The 100th Anniversary Edition
Foreword by Wendell Berry
Edited by John Linstrom

A little over one hundred years ago, Liberty Hyde Bailey set sail to New Zealand with his wife and two daughters.  He had retired from his professorship at Cornell and his position as Dean of Agriculture.  The first World War was just beginning.  He was on his way to give a lecture at a worldwide science meeting, bringing his wife and daughters along for the adventure.  It was on this voyage that Bailey began writing, The Holy Earth, the first of what he termed "The Background Books."  In these books he explored the more philosophical questions of life.

Bailey was a renowned scientist and beloved professor.  He was innovative for his time, not only writing technical books on specific plant species, but also developing the field of science we now call Horticulture and promoting "Nature-Study" in the primary schools (to name just a few of his many life passions).  In every context and every book he wrote, he added a bit of the poetic and a sense of wonder for the details of his study.  But it is in The Background Books that we are able to take a small glimpse into his philosophy and his wisdom gained from a lifetime devoted to wonder and discovery.

"By lens and prism and balance and line we measure minutely whatever we can sense:  Then with bared heads we look out to the great unknown and we cast our lines beyond the stars.  There are no realms beyond which the prophecy of science would not go.  It resolves the atom and it weighs the planets."   --L.H. Bailey, The Holy Earth

The Holy Earth was in many respects revolutionary for its time and yet it was also deeply connected to its time.  Bailey was doing what all great minds lean into as they learn more about this planet we call home . . . the wonders of the universe and our place within it all.  His love for the earth and all creation was based in the soil beneath his nails and his ability to wonder about the smallest and greatest aspects of the world in which he lived.  I suspect this book will always be a bit revolutionary.  It will always call out to the poet in the scientist and the scientist in the poet.  It will always remind us that, as Bailey reminds us in the book, "Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision."  


Friday, October 16, 2015

Where do we belong?

"I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know:  am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?"
--Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours,12

In search of things that don't belong . . .

This past summer, I helped with an outdoor education class (Bailey's Budding Naturalists) at the Bailey Museum.  One activity was to walk through a trail and look for things that didn't belong.  There were a variety of items that were placed throughout the woods and trail (a pair of pliers, a stuffed iguana, a comb . . . ).  One bright child said, "I know what doesn't belong, we don't belong!"  I hadn't thought of that answer.  I asked him, "Are you sure?"  and then, "If we don't belong here, where do we belong?"  We didn't come up with answers, but what an interesting question.  Where do we belong?  Where is our home?

This question has floated through my mind ever since.  Where do we belong?  I would like to believe that I do belong in the woods but if I am honest, I think I mostly consider myself a visitor or an observer, not really a family member.  What if the natural world was how we defined home? What if we saw our houses as shelter, but the environment  (the trees, grass, squirrels, insects, birds etc.) as all part of our home?  What if we really realized that we played a part in the habitat around us --that we are not just bystanders, but really an integral part of the web of life in the natural world of our neighborhoods?  What if we thought about how we fit into our habitat and how we impact our wild home?  Although these notions might not cross our minds, I'm guessing that the many creatures that live with us recognize and respond to us the moment we step foot outside.  As we wander near a pond, frogs stop croaking, rabbits take cover, birds send warning calls, crickets jump. . . As we step outside, we are not invisible bystanders; we are part of the web of life, whether or not we are paying attention.  Our presence changes things and makes a difference.

When I start to think this way, I also begin to realize that I have so much more in common with the trees, squirrels, nuthatches and ferns than the appliances, chairs and tables in my house.  All those things that make our lives convenient are nice --don't get me wrong-- but they are simply part of our shelter.  Our habitat is so much bigger than that, isn't it?  I'm trying to imagine that I belong in nature.  I'm trying to remind myself that we are active members of the natural world.  It draws me into wonder more . . .What lives in that dead tree?  Where do those rabbits go? What bird was that?  And maybe, in the end, it makes me care more.  How am I helping or hurting the habitat I'm a part of?  What can I do to help support those birds through the winter?  What does that butterfly need to survive?  Maybe this is the shift of thinking that will help us each do our small part to save our environment, our home.  

"I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. . ."   I read this poem the other day and it reminded me of that wonderful question, "where do we belong?"  It made me think that we are part of a widening circle that reaches across the world.  We do belong in the great web of life.  When we walk into the woods we are home.  The wild world is, in the deepest sense, home.  Our ancestors knew this.  I would like to believe that I'm beginning to remember it.  Maybe there will be a time when I realize that I am the falcon and the storm and the great song.  And so is everyone else. . .

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Sense of Wonder

Night Sky

"I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.  If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. . . Once the emotions have been aroused -- a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love -- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.  Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate."
                                                                                           --Rachel Carson, 1956

In Rachel Carson's words I hear echos of Liberty Hyde Bailey's writings on nature study. . .

"Knowledge begins  in wonder.  The consciousness of ignorance is the first result of wonder, and it leads the pupil on and on:  it is the spirit of inquiry."  
                                                                                    --L.H.Bailey, Nature-Study Idea, 1909

The fact that these sentiments are voiced throughout the ages is no surprise to me.  I think we were gifted by our ancient ancestors with the natural ability of seeing the world through eyes of wonder.  A sense of wonder is as rooted in our hearts and minds as the desire to be known or the need to belong.  We are born into wonder and it is the beginnings of knowledge.  Wonder is in our DNA.

I can never forget one evening with my son John as a four year old.  We had attended an evening Halloween party at his preschool and as we left the party it was truly dark outside. We walked into the parking lot and the entire night sky was filled with stars.  John stopped dead in his tracks and stared skyward.  I followed suit and we both stood there gazing.  I might have said something, I don't remember.  Perhaps I pointed out the big dipper (pretty much all the star knowledge I know), perhaps I commented on the beauty, I have no memory of conversation.  What is memorable was us simply staring in absolute wonder.  I'm not sure there were words to capture those moments of awe.  I'm guessing if words were shared they were as quiet whispers.  The whole time, parents and children were filing out to their cars leaving us the last two in the parking lot.  It was John's first time seeing a night sky and that night it was my first time seeing the night sky through his eyes.  Lucky me.  Later, he would dream of becoming an astronaut.  Much later, he would take a college course on astronomy.  He has always had a fascination with the vastness of the sky and this universe.  Today, he is a writer and a student.  He continues to be filled with wonder.  I hope his wonder never ends.

Student taking a picture of
a monarch just released
Large milkweed bugs

My students are learning about organisms in science this marking period.  Our monarch butterflies have been a perfect introduction to the world of insects.  On Friday, we went out exploring the milkweed patch in search of additional insects that live on this hardy plant.  Students brought out their Chromebooks with the goal of taking pictures of the various insects we hoped to see and that we had learned inhabit milkweed.  The milkweed was filled with beetles and bugs and the students were highly engaged trying to capture photos of the various creatures.  One student at the end of the patch yelled out, "I've found aphids!!!!"  The entire group rushed over to check out the clusters of aphids on a milkweed stalk.  It seems a small wonder, aphids and milkweed bugs, but these students were filled with it.  I would like to take credit for their wonder, but I cannot.  It is in our DNA to be fascinated with the world around us.  It's what makes us human and gives us hope for a future we can't even imagine.

Whether staring at the vastness of a night sky or tiny aphids, we have the potential to be filled with wonder in this world.  It has been written about by poets and scientists alike --painted on cave dwellings and expressed on computer laptops.  To see the world with wonder is why we are here.   Happy wonderings!

"If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."  --Rachel Carson    

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Back to School

Those of us in the education field know that August is more than the dog days of summer, it also marks the end of summer break and the beginning of a new school year.  Nervous energy starts to set in as we try to imagine how to prepare our classrooms and meet the incoming classes of students.  My son Ben is a first year teacher in a Detroit Waldorf school.  I've been teaching for many years and we are both filled with a level of excitement and nervousness that does not seem to diminish over time.  Every year is a new beginning, with a new group of students and new goals that will be set and re-set as we face the challenges and surprises that await us.  It is always a bit thrilling and overwhelming and it never gets old.

If teaching were the "filling of a pail," it would be so much simpler.  We could test, train, re-test and be done and move on.  The information could be filed in an organized hard-drive brain and retrieved as needed.  Those of us who have been in the education field for awhile and those of us who have been students of life for awhile, know that education is much more akin to the "lighting of a fire" than the "filling of a pail" or the filing of data into the brain.   How does one light the fire to think and learn?  This is where education becomes an art.  Each teacher brings his/her unique set of skills and knowledge to this art project we call education.  Each student brings his/her unique set of skills, needs and knowledge to the project.  It is always a work in process and it is always unique to the individuals creating it.  It's never a finished product because we are never done learning.  With any luck, some of us will find a passion for a subject matter and a fire will be lit.  And when a fire is lit (in any educational area) learning becomes an adventure into knowledge that we never lose or forget.  It is knowledge that gets seared into our hearts.  That's the art of it all.

Male monarch raised from egg

This summer, I've been raising monarch butterflies.  I have been finding eggs on milkweed and I've been raising them up through their transformation into butterflies.  I've started a butterfly garden in my backyard and loaded it will baby milkweed.  On the smallest plants I'm finding eggs!  It's exciting.  I've got approximately 16 monarchs in various stages in my house.  A couple of weeks ago, I shared several eggs and caterpillars with friends so that they can also catch the monarch excitement.  It's a wonderful project.  Ilse Gebhard, Russ Schipper, Erik Mollenhauer, Cindy and Paul Wackerbarth and Brian Hayes are all part of the "lightening of my fire" for monarchs.  I will never be the same and I can't thank them enough.  (The previous blog details a bit of this process and story.)  I will bring my monarch lessons into the classroom again this year and share my love of this amazing insect with my students.  We will read, write and examine monarchs and their impact on our society in the context of our fourth grade curriculum and objectives.  I can't wait to share the excitement!

I have also been reading a wonderful book written by acclaimed poet and writer Georgia Heard entitled, Awakening the Heart; Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School.  I hope to set up my writing workshop with a poetic sensibility.  Georgia Heard has lots of great ideas for encouraging students to discover words and images from their own lives and bring them to light in the written word.  Her book speaks to "lightening a fire" for writing that has captivated me and I hope helps me captivate my students as they develop their writing skills.  I will also be bringing in lessons I've learned from the outdoor education workshop, Voices From the Land (detailed in a previous blog). Brian, Erik, Cindy and Paul are masters at "lighting the fires" of learning through listening to the landscape and  through nature study.  I hope to share some of that excitement with my students this year.

I would be remiss, if I did not mention Russ Schipper's gift for sharing his love of birds with me and my students.  For the past several years, Russ has volunteered in my classroom (along with the other fourth grade classrooms) to light some fires for learning about birds.  My students have learned observational skills, non-fiction reading skills, adaptation lessons and many other important thinking skills through the study of birds and Russ' help with the Cornell Backyard Bird Count.  I hope we can continue that tradition in the year ahead and for years to come!

This summer has been a time for rejuvenation, study and the lighting of my fire.  To all the students and teachers out there, here's to the messy art project we call education!  May we light some fires and share the love of learning with those we meet in the days ahead!

Peace and Love.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Exploring the Educational Borders Between the Heart and the Mind

"In all things nature there is something of the marvelous."  --Aristotle

"Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth  

Monarch larva pupating

Monarch emerging from chrysalis

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."  --Albert Einstein

The above quotes are written by great thinkers and scientists, renowned in their fields of study (philosophy, horticulture and physics respectively).  All three quotes though are pointing to something more than what might be considered hard and fast logic and/or science.  Philosophy and science are generally based in reason and logic.  They are about making sense of the world through discovery and facts . . . about proving the null hypothesis . . . about finding objective truths (or as close to truths as we can come).  And yet, I have started noticing an interesting paradox with many (if not all) the great thinkers and scientists that I have read.  There is a love of their subject matter that goes beyond the facts.  Science as something that is "marvelous," and "enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision" and is about "widening our circle of compassion," implies a delving into the heart.  These are not factual statements; they are statements of love.

This paradox, this jumping borders between the heart and the mind, makes so much sense to me.  Show me a great scientist and, chances are, they are passionate (and even in love with) their subject matter.  How could they not be?  Who could spend their life work studying the reproductive lives of bees (my entomology professor at U of MN) without some sort of passion and heartfelt love for bees?  These scientists are passionate folks.  If you want to be awed by moss, read Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Gathering Moss.  She will pull you into the story of mosses so that you will never look at moss the same way again.  Moss is an amazingly adaptive species that can survive and reproduce in the most unlikely of spaces.  You will grow to love (if not highly appreciate) moss after reading her book.  If you need a reason to fall in love with trees, read Joan Maloof's book, Teaching the Trees.  I'm in the midst of reading her book now and I'm already seeing trees from a different perspective.  I've always been fond of trees, but now I'm learning just a bit more about the interwoven relationships between trees and the animals and insects that live among them.  The more I learn about trees, the more I appreciate them.  Life simply continues to amaze me.  And the fact is, I know so very little.  I feel a bit like Winnie the Pooh; compared to scientists, "I am a bear of very little brain."

The above monarch pictures show a couple amazing processes that I've had the opportunity (along with some of my students) to witnessing in real life: the monarch caterpillar (larva) turning into a chrysalis and the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.  Both processes are spell-binding and although the processes are scientifically documented, they are still miraculous to observe.  My family knows that if I walk by milkweed (the only thing monarch caterpillars can eat) I look for eggs and caterpillars.  And when I find either one, I take them home and raise them.  About 1% of monarch eggs survive to adulthood, so I like to increase their chances.  I have learned a little bit about the lives of monarchs and all I can say is, "what's not to love?"  These insects have an amazing life story.  Summer monarchs mate and lay eggs, living for about two to five weeks.  Fall monarchs suspend mating and travel to Mexico, living up to nine months!  Monarchs travel from as far away as Canada to their overwintering home in Mexico.  After winter, they mate and begin their journey north.  It's really an incredible story.  But the story doesn't end there.  If you examine a common milkweed plant, you will find many different species of insects and spiders that are also fascinating creatures.  Did you know that when aphids (common pest to many plants) become overcrowded on a plant they will birth a generation of aphids with wings?  Or that aphids are almost entirely female with the sole goal of mass producing genetically identical babies?  Every plant, animal and insect has carved out a place in this world and adapted amazing ways to survive.  I'm not going to claim to love aphids, but I can pretty much bet, there's a scientist out there that does. . . This world is amazing and the more I know, the more amazed I become.

I am not a scientist or an expert of any kind.  In fact, as I grow older I realize more and more how little I know.  I'm a generalist at best.  I've been teaching elementary school for twenty years.  This means I teach all subjects from reading to math to social studies to handwriting (to name just a few).  I'm a "jack of all trades, master of none" (my sons like to say, it took me several years to graduate from kindergarten to first grade).  The few bits of information I shared in this piece of writing are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding and appreciating monarchs or aphids . . . hopefully enough for you to share a bit in my amazement.  There is another lesson here for those of us who are generalists in this world.  We need to remind ourselves that the heart has an important role in education.  Teaching requires at least as much emphasis (some of us would say more) on the love of learning as on any subject matter that we present.  Great scientists are born, out of not just knowledge but a love for their subject matter.  If we want to start a revolution of great thinking, we need to work on the love of it all.  The mind will always follow a great story.  And if we want to really save this world from the myriad of dangers we face, lets teach from our hearts, like there's no tomorrow (so that there will be).

"Nature-study is not science.  It is not knowledge.  It is not fact.  It is spirit.  It is concerned with the child's outlook on the world."  --L.H.Bailey  


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer Workshop; Voices From the Land

"Miracles rest simply upon our perception being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what there is about us always."  --Willa Cather

Snail on stem
On June 18th and 19th, a group of teachers had the privilege of attending the "Voices From the Land" workshop at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum.  The goal of this workshop is to integrate outdoor learning with classroom curriculum and technology.  It was led by Brian Hayes (director of the Monarch Teacher Network out of New Jersey) and volunteers Cindy and Paul Wackerbarth (from Washington D.C.).  South Haven teachers representing Lincoln Elementary, Maple Grove Elementary, North Shore Elementary, Baseline Middle School and L.C. Mohr High School attended.  We explored the trails and landscape surrounding the museum.  We created art, took photographs, wrote and performed poetry and learned some tricks for publishing posters and books based on children's writing and art.  Through the workshop we experienced many concrete activities to connect outdoor learning to our present curriculum in a hands-on and exciting format.  Included with the workshop, each participant received a book and a CD with many more creative and fun activities for students of all ages.  On Thursday night, Brian gave a free lecture on nature study at the museum that was opened to the public.  His energy, generosity and knowledge made for a fun and informative event. I know that my teaching will be enhanced after experiencing this dynamic workshop and I am forever grateful to Brian, Cindy and Paul.  It was truly a wonderful experience.

Brian and Sarah during a performance poem
Reflecting on those two days of intense learning and sharing, I also know that it was much more than the gathering of ideas and activities.  Brian, Cindy and Paul came sharing something bigger than the study of plants or insects or poetry or technology or even science.  They spread the joy of learning, the joy of teaching and the joy of community.  It reminds me of a favorite Liberty Hyde Bailey quote.  He was answering the question, why nature study?

"Its legitimate result is education -- the developing of mental power, the opening of the eyes and the mind. the civilizing of the individual.  As with all education it's central purpose is to make the individual happy; for happiness is nothing more or less than pleasant and efficient thinking.  It is often said that the ignorant man may be as happy as the educated man.  Relatively, this is true; absolutely, it is not.  A ten-foot well is not so deep as a twenty-foot well; and although the ten-foot well may be filled to the brim,  it holds only half as much water as the other." --Liberty Hyde Bailey

Those of us lucky enough to have attended this workshop were reminded that teaching and learning are really about "pleasant and efficient thinking" and ultimately, that brings happiness.  Thank you Brain, Cindy and Paul for deepening our wells of knowledge and strengthening our community of nature-study enthusiasts!  We are looking forward to a new school year filled with the joy of  outdoor learning!

A special thank you to the South Haven Public Schools Foundation for their donation of five scholarships and the Monarch Teacher Network for their donation of two scholarships.  Thanks also to the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum for providing a lovely space, catered lunch and housing for the presenters.  We could not have done this without a great deal of support from many good people.  Thank you!  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

South Haven; Voices From the Land Workshop

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
By Walt Whitman

When I hear the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figure, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wonder'd off by myself,
in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

June 18th and 19th there will be a Voices From the Land Workshop held in South Haven, Michigan at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum.  I can't wait!  The folks from the Monarch Teacher's Network are coming to lead this workshop and it is sure to please those of us who believe that learning is about inspiration, creativity and making connections with the world around us to foster a lifelong love for learning and for this amazing planet earth that we call home.  

Those who attend will be taught specifics on generating and inspiring writing, working in collaboration, embedding math and science skills and using internet publishing applications.  Ultimately, the workshop's goal is to not only foster listening to the land, but also to the voice and gifts of each individual through a hands-on, integrated outdoor learning experience.  And what could be better than that?

If you are interested in joining us on this adventure into nature and learning, contact Brian Hayes at or check it out on the Monarch Teacher's Network ( )  This conference not only includes inspiration and joy, it also includes a catered lunch on Thursday and continuing education credits!  

"How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick [of high stakes testing]
Till rising and gliding out I wonder'd off [to the Voices Workshop!]..."

Consider joining us for two days of educational joy and great fun!  It takes a village to raise our children.  Let's make sure that village includes Voices from the Land!    

Peace and Love

Saturday, April 11, 2015


By Rainer Maria Rilke

Spring!  And Earth is like a child
who has learned many poems by heart.
For the trouble of that long learning
she wins the prize.

Her teacher was strict.  We loved the white
of the old man's beard.  Now we can ask her
the many names of green, of blue,
and she knows them, she knows them!

Earth, school is out now.  You're free
to play with the children.  We'll catch you,
joyous Earth.  The happiest will catch you!

All that the teacher taught her --the many thoughts
pressed now into roots and long
tough stems:  she sings!  She sings!

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 21
Translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

After a long winter and a solid week of rain, the earth teaches us again of new life.  Winter always holds the spirit and the potential for joy.  For those of us who have been schooled by the darkness of winter, let us be reminded that it holds in its roots the many names of green and blue.  

This poem I send out especially to Erik (my son John's roommate) who has been schooled by winter this past year, more than his young life should have had to bear.  Every winter, holds the potential of spring!  I wish you warmth and happiness.   

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Sounds

I went out into our school backyard one evening last week looking for signs of spring.  The path and woods were alive with all sorts of things --there were mushrooms and mosses and fragile (actually probably very sturdy) sprouts here and there.  Buds were just beginning to appear on the trees and shrubs.  I scared up a rabbit that was perhaps the very one who left prints in the snow this past winter for my class and I to find with great delight.  But the most remarkable thing to me on that walk were the sounds.  I felt a bit like I was in the midst of hundreds of conversations that I couldn't quite decipher.  A foreigner in a foreign land.  Instinct (and spring) told me the conversations were mating and territorial calls . . . everyone finding their purpose and place.  I walked with the generalized feeling of being in the midst of many demanding voices after a long winter wait.  I recorded the above songs coming out of the wetlands.  It was the sound of two individuals calling in the early evening.  When you hear a whole chorus of these, you know what they are . . . but that evening, I wasn't sure if these impressive first soloists were bird or frog.  Thankfully, I emailed Russ Schipper, who graciously identified the sounds . . . spring peepers!!!!  A couple days later, the whole wetland area was screaming these sounds and spring seems in a full, all out ruckus.  Thank God!  It has been a long winter!  Happy spring to the peepers, and all those of us who have waited patiently (and not so patiently) for a sign of new life!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dragons and Princesses

I have been reading poetry.  It's either due to a shortening attention span or a need for some deeper meaning to this increasing temporal life.  Perhaps it is a mixture of both. Rainer Maria Rilke is a favorite.  He reminds us of deeper truths that resonate in the backgrounds of our minds.  There is a light that seems to flow through this writing.   Princesses on the other side of dragons and love on the other side of fear, gives us hope in the face of darkness.  Rilke has a way of tapping into a deeper truth, a truth I often do not recognize until I see it written on the page.   We face dragons in this life, but that is not the end of the story, that is the beginning of an adventure calling us to beauty and courage.

One dragon, for those of us in the public schools, is the insatiable amount of testing and paperwork.  We have unit tests that need to be passed and completed by certain days.  We have new state tests that we will spend time preparing students to take and then spend more time taking (several hours, I am told) and than more time reviewing.  We have standardized tests to see if students are making gains relative to themselves and the nation (or maybe it's to see if we teachers are doing our job).  We work hard to prove ourselves worthy and to make sure our students pass the tests.

Excessive testing is a dragon in education right now. It seems to fly in the face of brain research and common sense.  We know that kids need to feel safe to be fully productive students.  This means we need to give time to developing and encouraging a positive learning community.  We know students need to connect learning with prior knowledge, and so integrated and meaningful curriculum is essential.  We know that students must be engaged and motivated in hands-on and creative ways.  We know that students need to prepare for a culture that cares less about facts and more about higher order thinking.  We know that grades are less meaningful than how we process knowledge and  how we use knowledge.  Ultimately, we want to develop life-long learners, creative thinkers and happy contributors to society.  And much of what we know is important can't be measured in a computerized test. All of this we know from either experience or current brain research.  And yet, all of what we know is important becomes harder and harder to navigate with the addition of so many tests and so many timetables.   We can't have it both ways.  We can't focus solely on test scores and timetables while developing enriched, creative, open-ended, flexible and nurturing learning communities.  They are two opposing forces.

This is not to say that we don't need to set high standards.  In fact, I think we need to set higher standards than ever before.  But setting high standards does not mean more computerized assessments.  And it certainly does not mean every student will be on the same page on the same day or will be able to pass the same test on the same day.  Developing exciting and dynamic educational experiences should be about human connection and integration.  It's about building on and connecting to an individual's prior knowledge.  This should be our focus.  And when that is our focus, we will rarely be on the same page but our students will blossom and grow in amazing ways that we can't even imagine.

I don't know if we can see the princess through the smoke of dragon breath in this age of excessive assessments.  It is a hard time to be a teacher and it is a hard time to be a student.  But here is what I think -- it will get better.  There will be a time when we look back on all this emphasis on test scores and evaluations and realize how painful it was to everyone who suffered through.  And we will not go back.  We will slay this dragon.  And we will be in a time when students and teachers will be the individuals that they were meant to be. We will remind ourselves what is really important in education.  We will find our princess through all that smoke and fire.  Sometimes, the only route is to face the dragon with all our beauty and courage and know that there is something beyond the fire.  And sometimes -- that something is us.

Peace, Beauty, Courage and Love!


Friday, February 20, 2015

Differentiation in Green

Thinking back on 20+ years of teaching, one afternoon stands out as a favorite. I was asked to cover for the special Ed teacher who needed to go home. I was teaching first grade at the time and I had a student teacher that was more than capable of leading my class without me. I said "yes," grabbed a favorite storybook (in case I needed to fill time) and was off.

I worked in a K-3 building at the time and the students came from various regular Ed classrooms to receive extra help in this small group setting.  The students were 5, 6, and 7 years old.  They wandered in and took their seats, opened their desks, got out their folders and began working, hardly even noticing me.  Each student had worksheets designed especially for him/her and it was somewhat amazing to watch how well-behaved and quiet they entered the room and set to work. I wanted to know them and I wanted to introduce myself, so I asked if they wouldn't mind coming to the floor and introducing themselves and listening to a story before they got to their seat work. They all smiled and agreed. After introductions I read to them, Dear Children of the Earth, by Schim Schimmel.  It happened to be Earth Day and I couldn't help but share this beautiful story with them. The students were so drawn into both the message and the pictures that even I saw details and animals I had never noticed before. We discussed the differences between a tiger and a lion and identified all sorts of other animals and images.

By the end of the book, it didn't seem right to simply send the students back to their seats and return to the prescribed worksheets.  I asked them if they had ever gone out on the back trails behind the school (I took my first graders on walks there all the time and it was actually my inspiration for the LHB trails when I transferred to North Shore Elementary). These students had never been out on the trails and were very excited about the prospect.  We decided to go out and look for anything that was green.  It was so fun to see them running and pointing and talking about everything green. We identified all sorts of green things that day and they became something like 'green experts.' We returned to the classroom and I wrote, "green" on the board and we made a huge word web of all things green. When someone said that the trees were green, I asked, "Was the whole tree green?"  And of course, they let me know it was really the leaves that were green.  This little lesson on green had become a vocabulary lesson as well.  Next, I gave them each paper and asked them to get out their crayons and draw, like scientists, what they saw and label each green item in their pictures. One student immediately took out a red crayon and held it in his tiny fingers like a knife. I stopped them all and said, "Silly me!  I forgot one instruction . . . you need to mostly use your green crayon, so get out your green crayon."  That student redirected himself and he and I worked a bit on his pencil grip. Others needed help writing or finding the word on the board that matched their picture as they labeled each item.  One student was clearly a bit more advanced and I asked him to write me a complete sentence to go with his picture.

I was kept busy with the various levels of ability and needs but everyone worked so hard, we just had to share our work with each other. We came back down to the rug and one by one shared our pictures. By this time, there was only half an hour or so left of school and we continued (we were already well off course without any hope of getting to those worksheets).  I brought the book back out and said, "This story is really a letter; it's a letter from Mother Earth to us...what if we wrote a letter back to her?" The students' eyes grew big, "Can we really do that?!"  "Sure!" I said.  "We'll write a letter and it will be from all of us!"  They were so excited!  We looked back into the book for the details of letter writing and we wrote a beautiful heartfelt letter to Mother Earth.

What fun we had that day! The whole afternoon was like the unfolding of a beautiful flower. From then on, if I saw one of those students in the hall or lunchroom, he/she would smile real big and wave or whisper to a friend and point to me and smile and I would do the same. We shared smiles and waves the rest of that year and remembered our quest for green on a beautiful afternoon.  I for one, will never forget it.

Here's what I reminded myself of on that day . . . differentiated instruction doesn't have to mean, every child is working on a small set of prescribed skills.  It doesn't require stacks of individualized worksheets.  It doesn't require detailed assessments to figure out what students know and don't know.  It requires listening to students and it requires instruction that is open-ended enough to let them work and explore and find joy in learning at their own level.  When we do this, students learn something bigger than the color green or the first letter in grass is g.  They learn the joy and wonder of life and learning.

In his 1905 book The Nature-Study Idea, Liberty Hyde Bailey answered the question, "What may be the results of nature-study?"

"Its legitimate result is education-- the developing of mental power, the opening of the eyes and the mind, the civilizing of the individual.  As with all education, its central purpose is to make the individual happy; for happiness in nothing more nor less than pleasant and efficient thinking.  It is often said that an ignorant man may be as happy as the educated man.  Relatively, this is true; absolutely, it is not.  A ten-foot well is not so deep as a twenty-foot well; and although the ten-foot well may be full to the brim, it holds only half as much water as the other."

We are called as educators to help students dig their wells deep, to find joy in learning and to remember that happiness is the real root of education.  When we do that, our joy is also deepened --how could it not be?  Happy learning and living!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Transformational Education

Bat Stars
"Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves.  I spoke once briefly, "I understand," I said. "Call me another thrower."  Only then I allowed myself to think, he is not alone any longer.  After us there will be others. . .  I picked and flung another star.  Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung.  I could feel the movement in my body.  It was like a sowing -- the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale.  I looked back across my shoulder.  Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more.  I never looked again.  The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing.  I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death." 
-- excerpts from Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley

A friend of mine, Erik Mollenhauer, (from the Monarch Teacher Network) shared the story Star Thrower with me last summer, the above quote is a small section of that story.  I've read this story in its entirety a few times since and pondered on the message and the beauty in Eiseley's words.  It is a story of transformation.  The main character transforms, not by logic or through formal education . . . he transforms by walking a beach and observing a man throwing starfish into the sea.  He begins his journey "inhumanly stripped . . .without voice, without hope, wandering alone upon the shores of the world. . . devoid of pity, because pity implies hope. . ."  The story ends with a renewed love for life, . . "I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe.  I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicable, in nature something above the role men give her.  I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel."

As teachers, we are called to be transformational.  It is a new buzz word with its own "Instructional Matrix."  I love this 'new' emphasis and perspective and maybe it's because I've always thought our vocation called us to be transformative in the lives of students and in the world.  What a privileged and noble calling. However, saying it and even trying to define transformation, doesn't make it happen. After years of struggle and often failure, here is what I think . . . transformation is really hard to capture in a definition or a pedagogy or a style. Transformation is emotional. It is taking knowledge and learning into the recesses of our emotions; into our hearts. Sometimes, it is as simple as kind words of encouragement or a smile shared with a student that can actually transform that student's outlook on school and learning.  Maybe, it is a teacher who sets high expectations for a student who never had anyone believe in him/her before. Perhaps it's a shared love for equations or books or science.  Sometimes it happens when you least expect it, like requiring a student to write a poem and transforming a reluctant writer into a poet.  I think that sometimes I was transformed by a teacher and didn't know it until years later. Transformation is, by definition, very personal and specific to the individual learner. It is illusive and yet so life-giving. I'm glad we are talking about transformational education, it really is a noble calling, but I hope we never package it up into a quantifiable and measurable object. That will never do.  We cannot strip it of its most important qualities...the human, subjective and emotional ties that pull us into a love for learning and a quest "too immense for gazing."

The Star Thrower story holds the beauty of transformation.  It is not about the science of it all, it's about "the discontinuities of an unexpected universe" and the love of it all.  "Call me another thrower...  [We are] not alone anymore.  After us there will be others."

Peace, Love and Transformation.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bird Study

We are in the midst of studying the common birds of Michigan, and we look forward to the North American Bird Count in February!  Kent Martin, from the Kalamazoo Audubon Society, will join us for this fun adventure!  We will head out into our backyard and identify and count all the birds we see and hear, and then we will post our findings online with thousands of other citizen scientists.  It's a fun nonfiction reading and writing activity with the bonus of learning about common backyard birds!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Poem For The Day


The Sonnets To Orpheus: XIX
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Though the world keeps changing its form
as fast as a cloud, still
what is accomplished falls home
to the Primeval.
Over the change and the passing,
larger and freer,
soars your eternal song,
god with the lyre.
Never has grief been possesed,
never has love been learned,
and what removes us in death
is not revealed.
Only the song through the land
hallows and heals.
(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
In this ever changing world, there is forever a constant mystery that perhaps is best captured in the "primeval" because the "primeval" captures nothing... We hear it in the songs of birds and in the whispering of the wind.  We glimpse it in the snowfall and the woods. We feel it in our hearts.   It is a beautiful mystery that is beyond us and yet it is the very thing that grounds us.  It is what "hallows and heals."  If this sounds foreign, it is only because I lack the words. If you venture out into the woods today, breathe in and listen.