Edith Bowen third graders recently had the opportunity to visit the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Brigham City. The day was chock full of exciting activities meant to engage students’ senses and ground their understanding of core curriculum within the context of the place we were visiting. It was awareness we were after, using the semi-wild freshwater wetlands as a wellspring of imagination and thought.
Place-based and experiential education are relatively new terms for old human evolutionary qualities. Basically, we humans learn better when we’re immersed in the context of the thing we study. Being in a place, engaging each of our senses in its character, and learning how that character and our own are interdependent builds powerful context. When educators can insert their core curriculum into that context each strand of understanding becomes deeper and richer.
So we had people like my friend Isa, who you heard at the beginning of the segment, racing with students through the grasslands, imitating the flight patterns of raptors to drive home an understanding of adaptive specificity in different bird species.
Our art teacher, Lisa Saunderson, sat with students to observe and ponder the landscape before teaching them to expertly render their horizons in watercolors. For my small part, I sat with students - six or seven at a time - and introduced them to Aldo Leopold.
As it was the final day of November, I read from the Chapter of A Sand County Almanac honoring the month.
“The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on. In the marsh, long windy waves surge across grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind. On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marshhawk, or gull but has sought refuge from wind.”
In reading Leopold’s words, I wanted to model for my students how close, careful observation can deepen our experience of a place and even transcend time through the words we write down- fleeting thoughts becoming immediately eternal with the stroke of a pen. When I gave them time of their own to sit, observe, and write, what they came up with gave me goosebumps.
Awareness of a place produces powerful perspectives of it, especially among the tiny human sponges we call children. The day went on and on like this, students building deep contextual understandings of their place. What were once the far hinterlands of their home range became an intimate, familiar setting they knew and spoke of fondly. Eyes lifted to goose music and the whistle of flight feathers thereafter.
To finish our visit, we heard a welcome interpretation of the natural history of the bird refuge - a bit of geographical orienting for the kids to digest and incorporate into their understanding of the place.
"Hey,” Johnny cried suddenly, catching the ranger off guard. He pointed 20 yards beyond her as a raptor cut quick and low across our field of vision. “Look! Flap, flap, glide! It’s an accipiter!”
If awareness was what we were after, we had gotten it in spades!