Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Power of Knowing Our Place

Written for Northern Woodlands magazine

We have a love of wild places.  We understand the vital role that intact, uninterrupted ecosystems have in sustaining the health of our planet and in sustaining each of us as individuals.  We know the beauty of a sky full of stars on a crisp winter’s eve, and of a ray of sunlight refracted through a raindrop after an overnight downpour.  We appreciate the intricacies of nature- the caddis fly hatches, the first blooming Indian Pipe of the summer, the first fluttering snowflakes that bring fall to a close.  Above all, we are fortunate.

We are fortunate because we have these experiences that provide the foundation for our desire and commitment to care for something greater than ourselves.  Fortunate, even more so, for the understanding that we are only a small part of something magnificent and unexplainable.  Without these memories, would we care as much for the wild areas that we now find ourselves drawn towards?  Would we be stewards of our lands- learning and growing and changing in order to make sure that we do no unnecessary harm?

The answer is likely no; for without a strong connection rooted deeply in person experience, it is difficult to develop an appreciation, let alone a love, for something as fleeting as nature.  In a world where technology threatens to disconnect us completely, as a human race, from our natural world, we have these memories that we are able to draw upon to continue bringing us back to the wild places that sustain us.

Unfortunately for many people growing up in today’s world, this is not the case.  For many of my students, my classes are the first time they are truly immersed in wilderness simply for the purpose of being immersed in wilderness.  For them, it is uncomfortable, scary, and intimidating, amongst so many other emotions.  When pulled away from TV and computer screens and removed to a place where their cell phones no longer have service, they often experience an anxiety arising from their “disconnection”.  This is exactly the feeling that so many of us seek when we wander into the woods.

The trick then becomes to teach students how to appreciate this “disconnection” and to begin creating another “connection”- one with the natural world. This takes time.  A true sense of connection cannot be obtained by heading outside once a month, but only through consistent and committed exposure to the natural world.  For our students, it can take months of weekly expeditions around our school forest and into the heart of the Green Mountains, for them to really begin to feel at home outside.  But once they reach that personal connection- once they embrace the wildness around them- it is truly something magical to experience.  That is the beauty of place-based education.

Place-based education originates from the belief that, if students can know one place, they can know all places.  By understanding the complexities and minutiae of a particular ecosystem or community, students will develop the critical skills necessary to understand any place or community in which they find themselves in the future.  In a day and age when children are becoming more disengaged from their local communities and the natural world, it is a vitally important form of education that challenges students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the communities of which they are a part, human or otherwise.

So how do we use “place” to educate our students?  First, we go outside often; we are in the forest at least one day per week and in our community for another.  We often return to the same places, again and again, so that our students can see the slight changes that each new day brings.  My program has an outdoor classroom in our school forest.  In this place, my students each have an “Ndakinna”- the Abenaki word for “homeland” (many other traditions refer to this as a sit-spot).  In this little space of their own, they sketch drawings of nature in all seasons, they write poetry and prose, they reflect upon their personal journeys.  Over the course of a year, they develop a strong connection to this place and each week’s assignment looks for a way for them to communicate what their “Ndakinna” means to them.

In our outdoor classroom, we also use activities to build their knowledge of academic subjects.  We have played a game that our students have since dubbed the “Consumer Game”, which meets at the confluence of the economic concept of ‘supply and demand’ and the ecological concept of ‘carrying capacity’.  Beyond learning both concepts more thoroughly than in a classroom setting, it is a lot of fun to watch students creeping through the woods, pretending to be deer, or coyotes, or hunters- all searching for their next meal.  This lesson provides a great example of why an integrated curriculum can be so important.  In most academic settings, these two concepts are taught independently and students might never see the connection between them.  By tearing down traditional subject areas and using real world scenarios to teach, we help students see the interrelatedness of different subjects.

We have also taken on a significant project, which we call the “Layer Map”, to better understand the complex relationships and dependencies within an ecosystem.  Imagine a series of layered maps, working up from bedrock all the way to the canopy.  Think about how topography effects soil composition, soil pH, and water retention.  Then, look at the relationship between soil and moisture, and the types of understory vegetation and arboreal life that the soil would support.  Now, based upon the tree and plant species, what animals, fungi, bacteria, and insect life, might you expect?  Clearly, all of these factors are related.  In the process of creating these maps and conducting these tests, students begin to see the elaborate and exquisite web of life that we all appreciate so much.

While learning about our forests is important, it is the process, which happens next, that is so vital to the future of our planet.  With time and exposure, our students come to appreciate, respect, and love our outdoor classroom area.  They want to take care of it; they want to know it better; they want to share it with others.  Each semester ends with our students taking on projects meant to enhance the experience of our forests, not only for students in our schools, but in our community as well.

Over the past three years, we have been hard at work creating, researching, and developing projects that reflect student interest and environmental needs.  These projects have ranged from designing and maintaining extensive trail networks; to milling, designing and constructing outdoor classrooms; to teaching primitive skills classes to younger students.  Several of our students have even designed a longitudinal study on climate change based upon various environmental indicators of the changing of seasons.  Data for this study will be collected over the course of the next twenty or so years (or however long I teach) and will be compiled to see how our forests are being impacted by climate change.  Talk about a legacy that reaches far beyond a student’s four years of high school.

And these types of projects, learning experiences, and opportunities for personal growth are exactly the type of education that we need in the 21st century.  If we want our children to be citizens of our communities and stewards of our forests, then we need to create opportunities for them to develop personal relationships with these places.  Our future depends upon it.