Why We Send Students Into Nature to Spot Hawks and Coyotes on Class Time
Teachers need to learn more about nature in order to share knowledge with children. It's even better if adults and kids learn about nature together.
When folks argue over how best to solve our national public education crisis, we often hear about what schools lack. And yet if we simply look beyond the school walls, we can discover that kids need a reconnection with nature to help them care about learning in the first place.
Recently I turned to one of the gurus on nature education, Richard Louv, as I prepared to lead groups of students to their second of three seasonal field trips at a forest preserve just outside of Chicago. Grabbing my dog-eared copy of Louv’s seminal book Last Child In The Woods, I randomly flipped to one of the many pages marked as noteworthy. The following quote was underlined:
"If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It's a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it's even better if the adult and child learn about nature together."\n
Louv's words resonated with me throughout the following week. As anyone who works with children can likely attest, perfection is often a fleeting concept that is best attempted in sterile teaching environments with predictable outcomes and measurable gains. By contrast, the forest offers these budding naturalists a rare opportunity to experience a kind of messy, elemental synchronicity that is at once beautiful and menacing.
I boarded the yellow school bus with the chattering 8 through 10-year-olds armed with activities in case they became restless, yet fully prepared to leave those plans in my bag if the kids found their own paths to learning. Fortunately the activities stayed neatly folded in my backpack.
As seasons tend to play out in the Midwest, winter could not have looked any more extreme compared to the sun-drenched days that we experienced on our fall trip just a few months prior. As they descended the bus stairs, the children ooh'd at the transformed patch of nature now blanketed in several inches of fresh powdered snow that sat there like a newly opened tub of whipped cream. The bus pulled away and its clattering engine receded, leaving our ears to perceive the aural softness that thick snow can achieve—a natural sound that was like audio therapy after weeks teaching within the institutional, cinder-blocked halls of school.
Before we could break them into groups, the kids instinctively busied themselves by spotting animal tracks in the snow just as they had practiced in our school cafeteria the week prior. In that simulated experience they searched for "tracks" printed on small pieces of photocopied paper taped to the stained linoleum floor while I played a soundtrack to inspire their pursuit. Outside the school building, the only real tracks were those of neighborhood dogs now frozen in the dirty patches of snow, and the occasional ruts of car tires that had taken joy rides across the hardpacked yellow grass of our playground.
In our school's tough Chicago neighborhood, wildlife is a term that invokes indirect experiences with animals via the ubiquitous glow of video projectors streaming pixelated Youtube videos. All the more reason for this teacher to sit back in utter amazement as the kids jittered with excitement, huddling around tiny paper tracks—their imaginations filling the sterile room with winding trails and tangled brambles of natural growth.
With these new skills under their belts, these budding naturalists correctly identified real tracks belonging to rabbits, white-tailed deer, and coyote in the natural oasis of the forest preserve. Picking up on their excitement, our partner and guide Lisa from the Mighty Acorns organization told the children they were lucky to be at the preserve on this day because a coyote had just been spotted prowling the edge of the pond in the hopes that it might catch one of the ducks that huddled on its frozen surface.
By the next day, news of the coyote had spread like folklore to the next batch of students and it was the first high-pitched question they had for Lisa upon exiting the bus. Her answer: No coyote sighting today but she had found fresh tracks, a trail of blood, and one less duck than the day before. Stunned silence among a group of fifth graders. Improbable perfection as far as I could see.
By the time the last group of students visited the preserve, the weather had turned more formidable, transfiguring the grounds from charming winter wonderland to a tundra of muddy semi-frozen slush. I had nearly called off the trip when morning rain turned to sleet, but the kids were too excited to allow any decreased momentum.
On the bus ride I frantically cut arm holes into black trash bags which would serve as ponchos for any kids that needed a little extra protection from the elements. Our brave parent chaperones smiled somewhat uneasily in their cramped seats as the frozen rain clattered off the bus windows. "Some districts call off school for this kind of weather," I shouted above the noisy engine to our driver. "At AGC we take a field trip to the woods."
She forced a polite smile that did little to reassure me that I had made the right decision. Nevertheless, over the next few hours in the sloppy frigid weather, the kids almost never complained. When grumbles did eventually surface, they refused my offer to get back on the bus early to warm up, too joyful to let a little discomfort spoil the day.
They played and explored, making observations and inferences about the natural wonders around them. They tested the thin layer of icy crust that had formed over a small stream. They fastidiously cut down thick brambles of invasive buckthorn that choked native oak trees of their resources. They dug through the snow to reveal a muskrat den. Best of all they made connections between their prior learning and the countless discoveries that were revealed to them in the forest. Their adopted forest.
Back at school, warm and dry. I asked the students to draft a thank-you note to Lisa that would also serve as a reflection on their field trip. Fifth grader Lexie wrote:
"We get to discover new things and see animals that we have never seen before. My favorite part was when we were cutting buckthorn. My group got to see a coyote across the lake! My other one was when we went and saw some animal footprints that we followed in the forest. Then when we were in the last group with Lisa, she said 'a hawk!' (And then) a real hawk flew in the sky!"\n
And Jemarie, also in fifth grade, wrote, "I am happy to be a Mighty Acorn because you guys help me get close to the earth."
Perfection might not be attainable, but these young environmentalists caught a glimpse of it, buried in the snow, ready to spring to life.
Joe Phillips is a teacher at the Academy of Global Citizenship. See more photos and read Chris Bentley's report of the Mighty Acorn adventure on Chicago's NPR station WBEZ.
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Photos courtesy of Joe Phillips