I spent the morning observing a 5-lined skink skitter across the patio in search of breakfast, back and forth, slipping in and out of the stone wall. Overhead, a crystal-sky overlayed the slightest of breezes. In the air, the scream of a pileated woodpecker reverberated as he pounded square holes into a round tree trunk. Monarch butterflies, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and kettles of hawks all poise to leave Virginia this month in their annual fall migrations. In fact, about a week ago I saw my last hummingbird dive bombing garden flowers one last time.
As I walked the hollow’s graveled road under today’s late morning sun, I was reminded of a similar day some time ago when I perched atop a Blue Ridge peak – a day with middle schoolers spent counting hawks , watching them draft ever higher on thermals, until they faded into pinpoints and then, into nothing. Overhead, today’s vultures slid across the sky catching a bit of heated air as they spiraled high above me. Across an overgrown field, a red-tailed hawk soared with the vultures, wings only occasionally beating the air. There are no children with me, but the blue sky reminds me of them.
This time of September happens to be peak hawk migration season in the Blue Ridge. And no matter how far I drift from those days spent gazing skyward, during this time of year, memories of hawks lofting skyward still lift me, too. I almost always carry my phone with me as I walk, an easier camera with which to grab images than either my old Canon SLR, a ‘70s relic, or my newer version which is fully digital. My little phone is my mainstay today as I wander schools, the built world, and natural environments observing ecosystems through which I move.
I was trained to observe closely as a student of field biology when I was in college. Teaching children to be good observers made sense to me when I began teaching middle and high school science in the mid-seventies. Then, when I became a school administrator, observing became a key skill in that work, too. The skill of observing is one that cuts across disciplines and forms a basis for building knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Yet, in a learning world that’s fraught with focus on hurrying children through curricula and educators through teaching so everyone can arrive on schedule for high-stakes standardized test dates, there’s little time left over for children, teachers, or administrators to simply slow down and observe the world around them.
Middle Schoolers Exploring an Estuary Circa 1977
I worry about our young people who seldom are afforded time in school to simply observe. So much of what we ‘70s science educators used to call inquiry learning, exploration, and hands-on experiences has been subtracted from learning time today.
This was brought home to me recently at the grocery store when I ran into a middle-aged man whom I taught in the mid-seventies. We recognized each other immediately despite the fact that he was 12 and I was in my early twenties when we spent time together – teacher and learner. In those days, I was teaching six classes of more than thirty students each, no planning period, and eating lunch with a class of children. My first year of teaching was defined through inquiry science with one class set of texts as a resource for science. Today much is different for today’s learners and teachers than when I was in the classroom. In the middle school where I began teaching science, we used instructional principles that guided our work in the collaborative, somewhat open, learning spaces of the time:
- Engage learners in inquiry and scientific experimentation.
- Make interdisciplinary connections across teams.
- Use the school grounds and beyond to learn about the natural environment.
- Plan, teach, and assess to high levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- Let kids make things – baby jar barometers, plastic cup anemometers, water drop “microscopes.”
- Set up stations for activities in which kids use technologies to experiment – equal arm balances, beakers, hot plates, Celsius thermometers.
- Bring all the senses to bear in learners’ observations.
Along with the children I became an even better observer of the world around me, inside and outside the classroom. We discovered together the power of school ground “field trips.” One day we set up string grids in the grass to observe and quantify flora and fauna inside the strings – and found a lot of creatures crawling there we didn’t anticipate. We walked into nearby woods and plucked sassafras twigs to see if they really tasted like root beer. We learned to identify poison ivy, tulip poplars, and reindeer lichen. We used my college field guides as a resource and began to sketch and describe everything we did. It didn’t matter whether we were blowing through a straw into Bromothymol Blue or digging a small courtyard pond and introducing native plants, fish and turtles into it, we recorded it all.
We spent class time seeking knowledge, building competencies, and pursuing interests. We weren’t without a curriculum, but we weren’t limited by one either. In those days, I didn’t worry about standardized tests even though children were taking those even back then. However, our school’s science goals were about children using what they were learning to become better thinkers, enthusiastic observers, and scientifically literate young people.
My former student, now a middle-aged man who had grown up in a poor rural Virginia family, was accompanied by his son, a middle schooler. The father reminisced about his memories of being in the middle school science club, a group I co-sponsored, taking field trips to distant places such as Wallops Island and the National Radio Observatory in West Virginia. I’m not sure how we paid for everything back then but we made and sold a lot of bird houses. My partner teacher and I threw in what we could, as teachers often do today, and paid for what our kids couldn’t fund raise. The principal chipped in a bit, too.
This former student, now a parent in his own right, asked me why kids in school don’t get to do this kind of learning anymore. It’s a good observation for a parent to make I say to him. I’ve been bothered also by visits to classrooms across the United States where children bend over test-prep curricular worksheets or engage in “drilled into the ground” review work to prepare for standardized tests each spring.
As I talk with this parent, I remember the joy and passion of children jostling their way outside to go on a nature walk, sketchbooks in hand. I almost can hear the sound of them oohing and ahhing the first time they watched pH paper change colors when we tested acid-base properties of “unknown” chemicals. I tell him that I pull out old photographs occasionally and remember kids delighted by the “found” exoskeleton of a deceased horseshoe crab we once stored in one of our curio cabinets.
Children deserve to experience joy and passion in their learning every day. It’s what keeps all of us coming back to press past learning challenges in our youth and our adult lives. Learning in school should push us – educators and children alike – to be curious, to think, to feel stretched, to continue to ask questions after we walk out for the day, and to want to come back for more the next day, and the next. I want that, and more, for all our children and all the educators who serve them, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
It’s hard to fight upstream against the tide of standardized testing that reduces learning down to a least common denominator. I like to think we educators and parents can turn that tide. We know from research and experience that when our children’s hands and minds engage together, learning happens and it sticks. And, that’s stuck with me for a lifetime.
Chatting with this middle-aged man, a former student, at a grocery store checkout, I am reminded that no one much remembers their responses on four-choice, one-right answer tests.
Instead, I was taken back to a long ago field trip, captured still in a binder of old photographs, when he said with a smile, “ Do you remember that field trip we took to the ocean? I’ll never forget finding that horseshoe crab.”
His memory is exactly why I keep pushing upstream against the tide of standardizing everything just so kids can pass a test.