Thursday, December 8, 2016

Getting our Hands on Nature

Emma Marris's recent TED Summit talk has me dipping back into Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods. I remember reading and connecting with Richard Louv as part of my summer institute experience with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. His book, asking how we can foster our future environmental stewards, remains vivid for me. Examples shared in his book of running through the woods as youngsters, imagination hand-in-hand with a do-it-yourself creativity, creating forts and capturing frogs, perfectly capture my childhood.

Back in June, I had the good fortunate of sitting just nine rows from the front of the stage to see Emma Marris share her talk in Banff, Alberta, at the TED Summit. I scribbled furiously in my notebook as she presented.  And there was this moment toward the close of her speech in which she mentioned the wild space growing on an abandoned rail trestle above the streets of north Philadelphia when it all clicked together.

I know this space.  I have driven by it without thinking of it many times.  You can see it when you are riding the Media - West Trenton train (although I still think of it as the R3 line). What Marris highlighted in her speech was the juxtaposition of all the life found in this abandoned space as compared to the concrete school playground that abuts the trestle.  And this got me thinking about my own students in rural mid-Michigan.

My students have a different awareness of nature compared to those students I taught in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  And yet, it is not quite as different as you might imagine.  Yes, the winters here are much more harsh.  My Michigan students are quite used to temperatures that dip below freezing and wind gusts that make it nearly impossible to see the road as a result of drifting snow.  Some of my students live on farms. In fact, there is a small farm on the campus of my school.  Students learn to cut the hooves of their goats, care for piglets, and even castrate the animals.  Many of my students are hunters or have family members that are. A good number of my students, boys and girls, know how to field dress a deer.  Teaching in the suburbs of Philadelphia for thirteen years, I know that I can count on one hand the number of students that had even heard of the term "field-dress".

But here's the thing. When I started my second unit with my current tenth grade students just a few weeks back, a unit focused on our relationship to nature, very few of my students reported spending a regular amount of time in nature on a weekly basis.  I asked students to think about how much time each week they spent in nature.  The response was overwhelmingly, "Each week? I'm not in nature each week."  But here's the thing. They are.  For as much time as my students report spending on homework, sports, video games, binge watching Netflix, they are also outside.  They are hunting on the weekends, waiting for the bus, practicing on the soccer field, running each afternoon on the country roads near their home.  My students defined spending time in nature as time that a person went hiking or visited the state recreational area near our school.  Nature was something that a person went to visit, not something found in our backyards. And my guess is that this is also true for how my previous students in the Philadelphia area would define nature.

This is the point that Emma Marris made in her TED Talk!

So as we started our second unit of study, we needed to get hands on with the nature around us.  And that started with a number of trips outside.  We walked through the milkweed meadow across from our school.  We played with the goats in the barn. We grabbed our writer's notebooks and went outside, exploring the impact our school structures made on the local environment.  Rather than focusing on dissecting the literary elements of the texts included in our unit's study, we opted to use our readings as mentor texts meant to help us explore our driving question: what is a local environmental issue that I can address? We turned our unit on the nature around us into a project-based learning opportunity that culminated in authentic research and local action.

It's research week for us, and we've been getting hands on with our research!  On Wednesday, our tenth graders used a Google Hangout to learn from Ms. Ondrea Spychalski, the Water Projects Coordinator at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. Then on Thursday, we used a Hangout to learn from Ms. Emma Marris (check out the videos below). Students also interviewed staff and volunteers at Ionia's animal shelter on Thursday as they volunteered their time. On Friday, we have a crew of students cleaning the vacant lot in town across from our McDonalds, teaching Rather Elementary students about trees and bees, and we have a group canvasing local businesses about their recycling habits. We are learning hands-on!

Connecting with Ms. Ondrea Spychalski from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Connecting with Emma Marris

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