Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Day in Kelvin's Team

A small team of children come running toward their instructor as a response to his coyote call, and once they all reach him, they lift their heads to the sky to deliver a group howl. 

Kelvin is leading a team of seven elementary school students to the Creaky Tree Meadow this cloudy October morning.  The team is smiling and responsive to his varied forms of attention grabbers, and as Kelvin puts his finger on the tip of his nose, they copy him and wait for the rules of the game.

“Where’s my baby?” Kelvin introduces the activity.  The team can only move when his back is towards them, and they must freeze once he turns to face them.  The task is for every person on the team to have touched the “baby” before returning to the starting position without being caught holding the stuffed animal.  

The team was unsuccessful in accomplishing the task the first time since only one person touched the stuffed animal.  Under the mediation of their instructor, the team circled up without Kelvin to discuss a strategy for success, and they had as much time as they needed to construct a solution.  The students were acquiring valuable skills for strategizing, compromising, communicating, and learning to figure out the answer for themselves.  After the third attempt, there were cheers of excitement from the team as they gathered their gear to move to the next location.  Kelvin ran off ahead of them, “Last one’s a rotten egg!”

The team hiked through their classroom, along a trail covered in big leaf maple tree leaves that crunched under their boots.  Their class was full of abundant sword ferns, lichen covered red alders, moss covered nurse logs, fruitless evergreen huckleberries, umbrella-like redcedars, drooping western hemlocks, short stinging nettles, and so much more.

This was the classroom Kelvin had transitioned to during graduate school.  He kept the students, but traded the desks for trees, the ESL books for field guides, the predictable schedule for adventure, the boxed classroom for 255 acres of forest, the direct instruction for mediation, and the passing period for hikes along trails full of teachable moments.  He was helping students reach their potential on their own terms and in their own time while in a setting they could truly engage in.
Kelvin has a strong conviction that educators can have the most impact when they see the world through the student’s eyes, and one of the most effective ways to meet them on the same level is to build a community around them.  He strongly believes that a community is the ideal environment to cultivate leadership skills, preserve culture, and foster valuable relationships.  This is what we do at Islandwood, we are a community of educators seeking to improve the lives of the children who visit us rather than simply impart knowledge unto them.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The holidays are upon us ....

Living in the woods, it is easy to forget about rampant consumerism that takes hold of our country this time of year. There are no TVs, strip malls, or huge chain stores plastered with ads and bright lights.  Instead, I know that November is upon us because of the chill in the air, the early sunset, the apple cider and the piles of leaves that I shuffle through on my daily walk to class.

So, I suppose it is my lack of awareness which made this Toys “R” Us advertisement especially infuriating to me. The ad features an elementary school class piling onto a bus labeled “Save the Trees.” The guide, dressed up as a forest ranger, tells the students that they are about to embark on “the best field trip ever!” But as he teaches about leaves and trees, kids start to yawn and fall asleep. The guide then suddenly rips off his ranger costume and reveals a Toys “ R” Us uniform. Psych! Instead of going on a field trip to the woods, the kids get dropped off at the massive chain toy store. Celebration and chaos ensues as the kids rampage the store buying everything that they want.

After watching it, my immediate reaction was that it had to be a joke. It disgusted me on so many levels. But, it is not a joke. It is a very real advertisement with a very skewed, tragic view on our nations’ young people.  It assumes that nature is boring and that children hate science. Which, in my experience, is a very misinformed view. 

 Every week, I am blessed with the opportunity to get outside and teach experientially about science and nature. For many of my students, IslandWood is their first experience with the outdoors. The mysterious call of an owl, the bright light of the moon, the sweet taste of a foraged blackberry or the sudden sight of a deer inspires wonder and magic, it sparks curiosity and excitement. Many of them leave IslandWood saying that they will never forget what they learned here.

 I am so proud of the work that my colleagues and I do here at IslandWood.We work incredibly hard to inspire a love of nature and stewardship in our students. And across the country, there are thousands of other dedicated educators working to empower their students with critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, inquiry, and imagination through the sciences. It is incredibly important work that deserves far more respect than the Toys “R” Us marketing team is giving us.

 So this holiday season starts, I urge you to share gifts that are made responsibly, with love and care. Challenge the ads, move past plastics and take your loved ones on an adventure outside. I promise the experience will last longer than the toy they get from Toys “R” Us. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nature Sense

Think about chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven.  What immediately filled your senses when you read the previous statement?  I thought of warm cookies full of delicious gooey chocolate chips flavoring the house with the scent of sweet brown sugar.  Now, imagine you’re at a crowded party with dozens of people talking around you.  The noise is loud enough to require a raised voice when speaking to the person next to you.  Would you be able to hear the voice of a close relative or spouse from across the room?  Our senses are powerful tools used daily as we journey through life.

We experience the world through our senses, and we find meaning through the connection between the environment and our senses.  This is why Islandwood is such a powerful educational program for young students.  We go beyond the Googled images of flora and fauna they see on PowerPoints in desk lined classrooms.  We adventure through surroundings full of rich sensory moments.

During the blindfolded portion of the night hike through the forest, students enter a realm of complete darkness without the security of a flashlight.  Students feel the trail with their feet, listen to the sounds of nocturnal creatures, hold the shoulders of the person in front of them, and navigate an unfamiliar world by truly experiencing it in a way that a video game, movie, or song can’t provide.  This challenge forces students to face difficult emotions around fear, trust, curiosity, and accomplishment, but it would not be effective without the full immersion through the senses. 

While the night hike is a strong favorite for a lot of students, it isn't the only means by which we connect the student to the outdoors through senses.  While walking on the many trails of Islandwood there is a variety of edible plants available to entice the students’ palates.  Excitement is evident as students anxiously taste stinging nettle, pickle weed, licorice fern, huckleberry, and blackberry.

Solo walks through the woods often result in students touching the surprisingly warm soil, hugging a sturdy tree, feeling the carpet-like moss, listening to a pileated woodpecker drumming, smelling the pungent Stinky Bob, sound mapping the chatty song birds, and admiring the many shades of green that really do exist in nature. 

Would you rather learn about the environment by adventuring through the forest with all your senses alerted to the potentially changing world around you, or would you rather do a Google search for beautifully crafted yet forgettable images that have no significant meaning?  We begin our life exploring the world almost exclusively through sensory motor skills, and during that time, we learn a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge.  Embrace the world through your eyes, but don’t forget to stimulate your ears, tongue, skin, and nose because it is only when you fully immerse yourself that you make meaningful connections.