Thursday, December 27, 2012

Three month recap.

Three month recap.

It has been a long long while since I last wrote for this blog.  I have about 6 drafts of posts waiting to be finished but it is tough to do so when I have been busy with buying and packing a house, officiating weddings (yikes), holidays and trying to play outside myself.

It has been quite busy since October when I attended and presented at the Virginia Environmental Education Conference.

The conference went over really well, met some wonderful people and had an impromptu reunion with fellow Grad school Alumni.

The new house has changed my commute and I miss the "creek" that I would ride past and have wonderful Urban Ecology sightings of Snowy Egrets, Canada Geese, Belted Kingfishers and Bald Eagles.  I am constantly amazed at how much wildlife and wild in general is all around me in the city.  During this time of year - really any change of season - I miss living in a more rural environment and question my choice of residence.  Then I have a moment of seeing a red-tailed hawk take down a pigeon or a sparrow on The National Mall and remember that there is a lot of wild here.  I want to share that wild with others.  I want other people to create a new lens and see that even amongst the tall buildings and pavement nature is thriving.  When I have a student beg me to let them pull cat-tails out of the pond at school I know I am on the right track (future post).

I have had other students tell me recently that they want to teach their peers to be a healthy eater so the environment can be more stable.  They explained to me that it is probably more likely to have a combination of poor food choices along with degraded environments and then cited low income communities, fast food and trash everywhere go hand-in-hand from their observations.  They explained if a community has better food options the overall way of life might get better as well as the surrounding environment.  I told them the term they were looking for was Environmental Justice (EJ).  After looking into EJ further they have now added it to their college course list.

These are the conversations and moments that keep me teaching.  And keep me teaching in an Urban setting.  Finding these moments can be like a scavenger hunt at times, but that just adds to the challenge. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Virginia Environmental Education Conference 2012

Looking forward to seeing everyone at the Virginia EE conference!

Come and support me when I present on Thursday October 24, 2012.

EE, the string that weaves the school together


Sponsored by Virginia Naturally and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation:

Odds and Ends

These are are few images and poems that I either have used or would like to use in my classes.

I think I could use this with my Senior Environmental Science course:

There are two poems that I have used to start units: the following Tree poem was at the start of a Deciduous Forest study: 

Let the trees be consulted

before you take any action

every time you breathe in

thank a tree

let tree roots crack parking lot
at the world bank headquarters

let loggers be druids

specially trained and rewarded

to sacrifice trees at auspicious times

let carpenters be master artisans

let lumber be treasured like gold

let chainsaws be played like saxophones

let soldiers on maneuvers plant trees

give police and criminals

a shovel and a thousand seedlings

let businessmen carry pocketfuls of acorns

let newlyweds honeymoon in the woods

walk don't drive

stop reading newspapers

stop writing poetry

squat under a tree and tell stories..
- John Wright

I would like to use this one by e. e. cummings in an Ocean ecology unit:
maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldnt remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

its always ourselves we find in the sea.
- e. e. Cummings
I wonder if I or my students could make this:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kids Nature Journal

I wanted to share a few links - nature journaling is something that can last years for a child (or adult).  The experience of documenting the out-of-doors is one that can traverse generations.  A blog that I follow DIY Del Ray posted a great piece on creating an urban nature journal.

REPOSTED from: DIY Kids: A Tree and Neighborhood Walk Journal


I thought of this blog after reading the first one I posted (even though it is not active anymore).  I used this plan for making journal with my summer camp kids this past summer.  We had fun finding the perfect stick for the binding and pasting in our drawings and observations.

REPOSTED from: Homeschool Hacking Tips: Make your own Nature Journal!

I have mentioned before that I ask/make my students do nature journaling.  All this recent talk on nature journaling has inspired me to add this as a follow up to my last posting: Personal Spots. This next week I am going to assign them the task of mapping out their spot in the school yard.  This will lead to a lab report of documenting what is living in their spot of the school yard.  All of this is written or drawn in their nature journal.  I have them stay in their self chosen spot for a min of 5 minutes twice a month.  Sometimes they sit longer because the assignment asks them to.  I have a mix response, some kids love the time and others feel that the 5 minutes take eternity and by the time I 'let' them come in they will be fully consumed by Mosquitoes and will most likely have Limes disease from the Ticks that are in the school yard.

Because I have this response I send them out longer, with a more specific task to encourage those uncomfortable students to focus on something other than their comfort.  By the end of the school year, most students enjoy seeing the season change and enjoy their spot. 

I wonder if I had them make an actual Journal from their experiences (like the ones above) if they would think differently?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Personal Spots

The start of the school year has me looking at my whole years curriculum.  Asking am I being inclusive enough, do I allow enough project and self exploration?  Do I get sucked into the trap of going outside is something you 'earn'? 

I ask my Ecology students to have a "Personal Spot" in the school yard that they will observe throughout the school year.  It is similar to the "reflections spot" from my earlier post Reunion.  Some students really enjoy the time in their "spot" and return to class excited about what they saw, felt, experienced.  Others hate it. They don't understand why I make them go outside let alone stay still in one place without their phones or ipods or any technology.  I become evil. 

We spend at minium 10 minutes a month in our Personal Spots. 

This week I sent my students out to find what spot they would like to "have" for the year.  I set it up like a speed dating experience.  I explained that they were to find a place in the school yard that was not in or on anything human made with a few exceptions.  The dock and pathways were okay, but the swing, road, parking lot, benches, pick-nick tables were not okay.  The students can not be close to another person to be able to talk to them in a normal voice - they are to spread out.  They were to go to a place and document what they observed, it was okay if they did not know names of plants or animals, but they were to observe who was there.  Then when I said switch - about 3 or 5 minutes later - they were to find a new place to observe.  At the end of the period they needed to visit 3 different places in the school yard. 

We ended the class in a discussion about what they saw in general, what spots they did not enjoy, why and what spots they did enjoy and what about it was enjoyable.  I always find it interesting that most students are very aware of crickets and grasshoppers and that can make or break a good Personal Spot. 

When we have Personal Spot days all students will always document the Date, Time and Weather with every entry in their journal.  The weather report is to be self determined, and not looked up on their smart phone or computer.  This is designed to be field notes.  Later in the year they will conduct labs on biodiversity in their spots as well as draw maps and small field guides to the plants and animals around their spot.

I greatly enjoy Personal Spot day, even if I become evil for making them go outside unplugged.  I can handle that responsibility. 

Friday, September 07, 2012


Reunions are often a little anxiety driven.  How have people changed, will they remember you, will they remember the dumb things you have done.  Will you remember them, and so on.  Reunions with a place are a bit different.

I found this past weekend that even after 13 years I can still walk pathways in the woods in the dark without a light.  I attended a reunion for a summer camp I attended as a child and then worked at for my teens and early 20s.  This camp in West Virginia, Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies, commonly known as Coopers Cove was my first introduction to both Environmental Education and Sense of Place learning - though I did not know this at the time.  I have not been back to the camp since 2000.  That year was a huge transition year, and my life started to take me in other directions and some of the people I affiliated with the camp were also taking paths away from me and the camp.  Between those two, my motivation for returning was quite low.

Over time, I realized that most of what I have learned about education, and appreciation for the natural world was sprouted from my time at Coopers Cove.  I had been asked to draw a map of my backyard for one of my education classes in college.  I drew Coopers Cove though I had not been there in many years at that point.

I have other appreciations from that time as well, like being asked why do I enjoy listening to the Thrushes in the summer - their song was taught to me as a 10 year old in West Virginia to mean summer is here.  I find comfort in listening to rain and the wind on tin roofs.  I am able to talk with Bard Owls and know many mushrooms, trees, ferns and flowers by sight.  These are things that I learned while at this camp.

I take to heart the quote from Wendell Berry:

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings."

I had once compared the camp to The Eagles song Hotel California with the concept that you can check out but you can never leave.  I meant that people's attachment to the physical place of Coopers Cove would never leave them.  They may not return but they had a great sense of place in that little spot of West Virginia.

While I was in Graduate school I started to realize that the founders of the program (which is still run today 50 years later) had it right.  The campers were there for 2 week sessions from ages 11-15.  They would spend their mornings eating breakfast family style, cleaning the communal spaces such as the Loo, dorms and bunk beds and then head off to workshops.  These workshops were involving learning the natural world, wheather it be tree study, flower study or a stream study the campers would cycle through all the options by the end of the first week.  After lunch there would be rest, where you would listen to leaves and twigs falling on the roof of the dorms and it sounded like you were under attack with grenades!  From Rest there was free time / swim.

Swimming was done in a small dredged pond that was spring fed.  The bottom of the pond is muddy, there is Chara growing and many fish and turtles.  If you sat in an inner tube you would experience fish nibbling your toes or behind.  This period was also the only easy time to take a 3 minute shower.  This is where you learn if your soap or shampoo is "smelly" all the insects will swarm around you to see if you are a flower.  I learned to love Castile Soap during that time.

The campers then were able to chose an afternoon activity.  These activities ranged from hikes, walks, different art projects, deep conversations and whatever else the counselors would think up.  We would end the day in a reflections time before dinner, where we sat alone in the woods, fields, pond and unplugged.  People would write letters, read books, journal or just watch.  I had the chance once to watch a faun learn to walk while I sat still in my reflections spot.  That spot I got to know very well over my tenure at Coopers Cove.  I became attached to it.  I would go there to think on my own time.  It was "mine".

Evening program would range from games, to square dancing to listening to folklore to night hikes without lights to dusk studies.  Some nights we were told to grab our sleeping bags, water and rain gear and were hiked to the top of the Cove "The Bald" where we slept under the stars as a big group.  Waking with the sun to be back down at camp in time for breakfast.

We learned to see both the forest through the trees and the trees through the forest.  This whole concept of creating an attachment or sense of place was snuck in.  We did not realize that we were learning, that the natural world was connected, that humans were a part of the natural world.  We did not realize it because we were living it.  We were having positive experiences in nature with friends and adults that we trusted.  Louise Chawla writes that the positive attachments children make to nature involve experiences that they enjoy with their friends and adults in natural areas.

Most people who worked at Coopers Cove became teachers or scientists in their "real job".  Not everyone is in the environmental field, but it seems that all have a strong appreciation for the environment and live their life keeping the environment in mind.  To me that can be even more important.  We need more professionals who make environmental changes without being a "sustainability coordinator" or any other role in that vein.     

I have never felt so relaxed after a reunion before, I think because this time it was a reunion to a place not just the people I may or may not remember. 

Monday, August 13, 2012



Sometimes I get some great feedback from students.  The best is when they do not intend to give me feedback.  As some of you know teaching is not about immediate gratification, you have to find your successes in small moments. Here is one I would like to share:

A student called me recently and said "Hey, I have a quick question.  I was walking past a field and suddenly it got humid and it smelled like water.  There was not any sprinkler on, whats that called when plants give off water?  I think that is what they do..."  
I answered, "traspiration".
"Oh ya!" they said. "Thanks! I forgot that word!  Bye!"
And hung up.

How cool that they were thinking of that!  

Monday, August 06, 2012

Summer camp

Summer camp and Environmental Education.

The break down of a two week summer camp in ecological exploration, urban environmental education and an article by David Sobel


I started my two one-week camps with a great in-depth itinerary; broken down hour by hour with projects for exploring ecology.  We were going to be outside for all of it, but most of it could be done inside if the weather got stormy.  I spent two days finding and buying materials for all of these projects we were going to do. We were going to have at least one art project each day and we were going to make and fill out nature journals.  We were going to create examples of what we saw or could see outside to look at bigger issues of water flow and habitats and niches.  Lunch, snack, bathroom breaks were all planned in - okay not bathroom breaks, but transitions were planned.

The reality was nothing close to what I had planned.  Each week went differently, even though both had the same plan, and both weeks did not follow the plan at all.  They became authentic.

I had a theme for each day and correlating activities for those themes, water ecology, habitats, sensory awareness, etc.  I still started each day with those intentions, but would really only keep to the theme specifically for the first hour if I was “lucky”. 

What did happen was organic play. Free play.  We played!  We explored.  We were able to be kids outside on hot summer days in the woods.  These kids were rising 5th to 8th graders, very interested in socializing and in figuring out where one stands in a social group, while at the same time not wanting to let go of imaginary play.  True play.  Stuck somewhere between the ages of 8 and 18.  What a tough period of life!

We would go for walks in the meadow at school looking to match paint chip colors with natural objects.  Tough when you get “paradise blue” - but look that blue dragon fly is almost the same color!  In order to find these colors you have to go off the path, you have to walk and explore in the tall grasses and bushes on the perimeter of the meadow.  Everyone was surprised when they could find these colors AND how many different colors and shades are out there.  Its not just green and brown, plants, birds and insects truly make a rainbow.  Later in the week the kids would show me more colors, even though we weren’t playing that game any more.  They saw the out-of-doors with a new colorful lens.

From that activity we head off into the woods to explore without our eyes.  We had to get on the bus to go to a local park for the woods, but there we went on blindfold walks, using a rope as a guide.  Or we would lead each other to trees that we then had to find again with our eyes open.  We explored the dips and crevices with our feet, we noticed how a slight decline can feel scary and unnerving when walking on it without sight.  With sight we might not have noticed that the decline even existed.  Again, this entire process can only happen if you leave the trail.  You have to walk through the low branches of the Beech trees and look out for the hairy arms of Poison Ivy.  You still have to navigate some poop mines from the local dog walkers that don’t pick up after their dogs.  The kids laugh and stretch their comfort zones and explore!

We will create art in the manor of Andy Goldsworthy. A sculpture built without tools that will stay where it was built.  We will take pictures to show that we made it to those who are not with us, to show our parents, but the only other people who will see them are those who are willing to leave the trail.  In the case of both groups we built in the stream.  We could use rocks and mud and leaves and they could get their feet wet.  They wanted to go in the stream to build, they wanted to come back the next day to see if their art was still standing or if anyone had moved into the structures.  They wanted to explore and think critically, they problem solved, they used the scenery awareness from earlier in the day to create.  They wanted and did these without knowing it!
The rest of the week continued in this fashion, we would go to a local park and explore.  We made shelters, we walked and talked about what they observed, we explored off the trail when we could.  I would sometimes not let them off some parts of trail because of sensitive plants or habitats.  But I would explain it and show them how to identify what I was talking about.  Later on one of our walks inevitably a camper would point out another vernal pool that was dried out and say we can’t walk there, but lets look at its edges.  The campers would identify Poison Ivy and say that is a bad place to hide or make a fort and continue down the trail to a better place.  They would not pick the flowers but would sit and watch the pollinators at work.  I would give them colored pencils and water color to paint what they saw.  These kids, who were so wrapped up in each other, were able to sit for 45 minutes and draw / paint and watch all the action around them.  I had only planned 15-20 minutes.

Each day we ended with a species list.  I only would give them the names of a few trees, flowers, and birds.  I did not care if they retained them or not, but some people need names to form a connection.  I wanted them to have an appreciation.  By making the list it was a way to process the day's activities and adventures.  By the end of the week they could see even though we live in the city we have much nature around us.  They also started to process that while they were playing they were learning.

I have been processing how I felt about my itinerary falling to the wayside and decided that I am quite okay with that.  I feel that these kids got much more out of the organic days. 

I have often thought about what Environmental Education actually is.  I spent two years hyper-focussing on it as a student at Antioch University New England, I think that different age groups need different experiences in and with nature.  David Sobel - one of my professors in college - wrote a recent piece in Orion Magazine about how Environmental Educators might have it wrong.  We preach preservationism and have given our younger generations heart burn with the stress of saving the world - a world they have not been allowed to explore.  This last sentence is my version of his article.

I feel like what I initially planned for camp is more like the Environmental Education that is popular in nature centers and the like, but what I ended up teaching is a hybrid.  The kids explored with their whole bodies but there were some limits.  Those limits were mostly based on safety for them and the habitats, but the limits were explained and like one would do with a baby crying I gave them another option to explore than the one I found invasive or unsafe.  I have two examples of this: first, a student wanted to walk across a log that had fallen over the creek.  Both sides of the creek were really undercut and eroded, the log was also small and decaying quickly.  I showed him how soft the log was and suggested he play on the one further down that was much larger and more solid.  When he did move to that log I spotted him, but never told him it was unsafe just showed him how to pick a better log.  Second, when the kids were looking for colors I asked them not to pick the objects, but bring me to them, we didn’t want to pick because the insects, plants and animals needed them.  The bees needed the flowers that were there.  If we really needed to pull things up, we could pull up the non-native invasives.  There presented the opportunity to teach about invasives, as well as explore the different habitats and the kids could have the action of pulling things out.  In the urban environment we are in no shortage of invasive species. 

Sobel’s article was timely, I had already been processing my two weeks, and then his article was brought to my attention.  I feel even better now about the outcome of camp.  In fact I would say it was a success!