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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Birding, Planting and Enjoying the Last Days of School

Russ helping us identify a bird in the yard
Planting Milkweed in our Butterfly Garden

Planting milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Today we had the wonderful pleasure of going on another birding expedition with Russ Schipper in our backyard!  What fun!  We saw lots and lots of birds and heard even more!  It's amazing how many birds inhabit our forests, wetlands and grasslands at North Shore!  In addition, Russ brought with him a flat of Asclepias tuberosa (a form of milkweed) from his lovely wife, Ilse.  My students and I planted it around the edges of our new Butterfly Garden.  With a bit of rain, sunshine and good luck we will have even more great looking milkweed growing this summer!  Earlier this fall we planted lots of native plants thanks to a grant from The Wild Ones.  The monarchs will have great nectar sources, along with a variety of milkweed options to lay their eggs.  Two of our raised beds now have hearty stands of Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed).  Hopefully, we are developing a grand smososbord for butterflies and other nectar feeders.   Thank you Russ, Ilse and everyone who has been helping us with our new garden!

Writing on the trial

Recess with friends!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Spring Education

Study in our bulb garden

"Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision.  To feel that one is a useful and co-operating part in nature is to give one kinship, and to open the mind to the great resources and the high enthusiasms.  Here arise the fundamental common relations.  Here arise also the great emotions and conceptions of sublimity and grandeur, of majesty and awe, the uplift of vast desires,--when one contemplates the earth and the universe and desires to take them into the soul and to express oneself in their terms; and here also the responsible practices of life take root."  

--Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth

Running on the trail

Writing in Writer's Notebook

It's spring and we are back to running every morning on the trail!  Our bulb garden is up!  The spring peepers and the red-winged blackbirds are singing!  The bird feeders are emptying at an incredible pace.  There are signs of life everywhere!  My class and I are turning our minds toward the season of spring and looking toward that amazing summer break that promises barefeet in the warm sand and lazy bike rides down the Kal-Haven trail.  It makes it a bit hard to stay inside.  

This past week, we celebrated Earth Day.  We picked up garbage on our campus and wandered over to the middle school to clean up their campus as well.  We learned how to make recycled paper (paper we will use for a special writing project in May).  We picked daffodils in the "hidden garden" (a huge patch in the woods) and we studied our own bulb garden.  I shared some of my favorite Earth inspired books (Dear Children of the Earth, The Other Way to Listen, Just a Dream, and Whisper from the Woods).  
Mother to Mother image found in Dear Children of the Earth
Written and Illustrated by Schim Schimmel
The above picture is from one of my favorite pages in Dear Children of the Earth.  The book is written as a letter from Mother Earth to us.  On this page, Mother Earth says,
 " . . . I need your help.  And the animals need your help, too.  "But Mother Earth," you ask, "how can I help you and all my sister and brother animals when you are so big, and I am so small?"  Well, my children, let me tell you something, I am not so big.  As a matter of fact, I am quite small.  When you go outside at night and look up at all the millions and millions of stars, you will see how small I really am.  Compared to the night sky, I am no bigger than you!"
What a powerful image.  The story continues by asking the children what they think is the most important thing they can do to help her (at this point students have all kinds of ideas).  The response is simple . . .
"I need you to love me.  That's all.  Just love me as much as I love you.  Because when you love me, you will care for me.  And when you care for me, you will protect me.  And when you care for me and protect me, you will save your Home, and the homes of your sister and brother animals."
 My students wrote letters back to Mother Earth after this inspiring and beautiful book.   They did a wonderful job and the letters were filled with love.  I was so pleased.

Cover and letter written to Mother Earth

"...when one contemplates the earth and the universe and desires to take them into the soul and to express oneself in their terms . . . the responsible practices of life take root."
I am reminded that education is more than facts, it's an emotional relationship.  Happy spring everyone!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Spring and the Irony of Education

By Mary Oliver
     a black bear 
          has just risen from sleep
               and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
          in the brisk and shallow restlessness
               of early spring

I think of her,
     her four black fists
          ficking the gravel,
               her tongue

like a red fire
     touching the grass,
          the cold water.
               There is only one question:

how to love this world.
     I think of her
              like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
     the silence
          of the trees.
               Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
          and its music
              and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
          down the mountain,
                breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her---
     her white teeth, 
          her wordlessness,
               her perfect love. 

There is a great irony in education these days . . . maybe its always been this way and I've just started noticing it more . . . . maybe it's my years of listening to children or my own personal love of learning. I'm finding that the process of  learning is less and less respected and harder and harder to come by lately as we focus more and more on the product . . . I don't know. . . my imagination is falling short in the face of this national educational crisis.  We are not getting smarter and there is something we are losing . . . 

It has become really easy and slick to test students on details and facts.  We can give an online test and have it scored in minutes and know the percentage of students who missed question number 8 and discuss why they missed it and how we can better teach that answer next year . . . but we often don't bother to question the question or what we are actually testing.  It is a genuinely a good question?  And don't we realize that every computer generated question, has a computer generated answer and that those questions and answers can be done by computers?  What's the point?   Isn't it all obsolete with A.I. (Artificial  Intelligence)?  Why does anyone in this day and age think facts are more important than thinking?

Where is the poetry?  Where is the music?  Why aren't we learning to love the quest for knowledge over facts?  When will we embrace the wisdom of Albert Einstein, when he said, Imagination is more important than knowledge?  Doesn't he know something about learning?  When will professionals, that step everyday into a classroom, get heard when we say, enough is enough with all these tests?!  

There is only one question:
    How to love this world.

I often turn to Mary Oliver for wisdom.  It's not the kind that is generated by Siri or some other AI (I use AI to figure out how to make my way to some destination or to give me some random fact).  AI is very handy, but Mary Oliver reminds us that spring is here and there are bears that wake up and remind us who they are . . .

. . . this dazzling darkness 
down the mountain, 
breathing and tasting;  

all day I think of her--
her white teeth, 
her wordlessness, 
her perfect love. 

I don't know how to express how much we need to listen to the poets and artists of our time.  I don't know how to express that we need to encourage imagination in our students in a world that seems so lacking in vision.  And maybe even more, we need to listen to the bear that wakes in spring and the birds that build their nests and the snails and the plants and the songs that persist in our hearts.  There is only one question:  How to love this world.  This is where learning and exploring begins and ends. . . all the rest is just. . .all the rest.   

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Great Backyard Bird Count With Russ Schipper!

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

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

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