When A New Year Begins: Reflections on the Past


IMG_5579.JPGIt’s interesting that we mark the beginning of a new year just after the moment in time of the longest day of the year and the beginning of winter. I always think of new as being that which occurs in the spring – dandelions and periwinkle poking color up amidst the brown of dead leaves, the soft green gray hues of the forest that come alive in morning mists still chilled by winter, and water still running cold and fast through the woodlands of my hollow.

Yet, I cannot escape that for many decades the sign of a new year that brings a real focus on new to me begins with the school bus that picked me up and dropped me at the end of my family farm’s half-mile long, sugar-sand road in the Low Country. The buses are still yellow, and the seats are still the basic same shape as they were six decades ago. Technology has eliminated the driver having to manually open and close the bus doors and side stop sign. But, kids still make a lot of noise on the bus, fight over the window, and love drivers who smile and take time with them.

102The school bus year begins and ends in summer light. I’ve ridden buses, driven a bus, supervised buses, and been responsible as a school superintendent for the safety of thousands of students riding almost 15,000 miles every day of the school year. In that role, as I have ridden each year on a bus to pick up children early on their first-day morning rides, I’m reminded in each of my school bus years that each new year’s ride brings a wonder at the lives and dreams of thousands and thousands of children who have traveled with me as learners over all the years that I have been in schools – four-plus decades of learners coming and going from classrooms and schools that I have tended in my own work to nurture spring-time into the lives of children, to help them grow from their hopes and dreams in a new year.

In my years in education, I’ve experienced the amazing freedom to create, early on free from the constraints of accountability testing run amok back in those days in the seventy and eighties when kids mostly read and did math and tests were administered for different purposes. Schools were not perfect then. They never have been. But kids in the school where I worked were the first generation of middle schoolers to read novels, not basal readers.

I remember a group of children, a few dad carpenters, and the teacher constructing a subway platform in a room so the classes could vicariously experience a slight feel of New York in a small rural county in Virginia. The teacher, Lynn, understood that children needed context for what they read and she was committed to recreating her classroom as the novel., Slake’s Limbo. The children painted their own graffiti as they listened to the sounds of the subway she had captured on cassette tapes during a visit to the city. It wasn’t New York but with walls covered with black paper, a raised platform overlooking faux rails, and sounds of trains coming and leaving, it was not a classroom of desks and chairs – hard work for Lynn but she always put in her best effort to create a real learning experience for kids.

albumkidsinestuary-e1514763304625.jpgWe took kids on adventures, some who had never seen the ocean or been more than a few miles from the county seat to explore natural caves and quarries and fossil pits in West Virginia and to the ocean to experience marine biology and earth science wading through the waves and marshes and walking the beaches of coastal Virginia. We came back to the school at night to set up a telescope for kids to look at the moon and visible planets, and once even a lunar eclipse. I don’t even know how we paid for the trips other than through a federal grant received when environmental education became a national focus as the nation began to process the impact of air pollution over LA, nuclear accidents and chemical spills in the northeast, and the degradation of forests and erosion of lands all over fifty states.


We worried less about teaching facts then and there was no teaching to a test because we were living in the inquiry generation of science educators, trained through post-Sputnik era funds to engage learners and create paths for them to solve their way through problems rather than delivering all the answers to them. The goal was to educate all children in science and maybe a few might become physics majors for NASA and a few might even become science educators. In our country school, we were well aware of the differences in circumstances of life and we weren’t that far past segregation in the South and even IDEA  was a newly minted public law (94-142) that brought children to school who had never been in school before. We were very fortunate to be led by administrators who were in the work to support the learning that children would get from us and not simply to manage the school.

In those days, teachers could take time to slow down and have a discussion with kids about topics that were off topic – sometimes because kids just wanted to distract us and sometimes because they simply had great, curious questions and interests worth exploring. I was expected to plan deeply for the units I would teach and in that era worked in a school faculty expected to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework for considering what kids would be able to recall, understand, apply, synthesize, and evaluate in their learning – not just surface but what we label today as deep to transfer learning. We also were expected to design assessments prior to teaching a unit and, in science, those assessments weren’t just paper pencil but also included hands-on responses to physical tasks – after all, it’s hard to demonstrate on paper alone that you can measure, titrate, or use a plant key to evaluate whether a leaf is a sycamore or a tulip poplar.

My co-teaching partner and I ran learning stations in our connected classrooms and the students we served rotated through stations working together and individually on a variety of centers designed to provide different ways to process what they were learning. We thought we were pretty cool because we used a small film loop media station, listening centers, lab activities, and reading areas. One center might involve looking at blood circulation under a microscope in the tail of a goldfish wrapped in soft very wet cotton (for a very few seconds) while another could be a simple lab to extract chlorophyll from leaves. Sometimes, kids had to go somewhere in the building or outdoors to accomplish learning that involved observations and journal writing. Or, perhaps to count how many kids didn’t eat cooked carrots served on the cafeteria line and ask them and record why not.

There was method in our teaching madness and most of the time kids were doing active learning work while my partner and I circulated, sometimes running a demo or teacher-assisted mini-lab that had safety risks or going over important concepts with small groups of kids. Kids were often learning to apply math including early algebra and to read for meaning and write for understanding. Cross-curricular connections were considered important and grade level team meetings focused on how to make more of those happen.

Inquiry meant asking questions, making predictions, testing, experimenting, discussing, and reporting on what was learned. It wasn’t always easy to have kids land in the learning zone we had targeted but we tracked their progress as they tracked their own, recording progress, questions, and their notes in daily learning logs. We actually had time to talk with individual kids as we circulated, to see their excitement when they exhaled into a BTB solution and observed the beaker of liquid turn from blue to yellow. And, then to hear them ask why and begin to make suggestions to each other.

In those minutes of watching and observing learners, I saw kids in those days of inquiry learning who were curious, interested, engaged, and empowered – not about everything, or in every class, but kids just weren’t sitting motionless at desks in our classes in that school listening all the time to teachers, or filling out work sheets, or taking practice tests, or reading from textbooks. It’s not that those things didn’t happen but they weren’t the dominant form of work that kids did in our science classes. We also didn’t sort and select kids or group them for work or even assign seats since we expected them to be independent and interdependent as they accomplished work together and moved routinely around two rooms.

I didn’t master this kind of teaching alone my first year but with the help of three other partner teachers, all with experience and all who were NSF trained in teaching through science inquiry. However, within three years of working (with no planning period and lunch daily with a class of kids in my room due to severe overcapacity enrollment kind of like walking uphill to school in the snow), I felt far more confident in my capability to move kids to think, ask good questions, manipulate variables, solve for unknowns, use lab equipment appropriately, and to hold their own in discussions with each other.

These great kids who also helped teach me how to be a teacher are in their fifties today with grandchildren who are in or already graduated from high school. When I occasionally run into one of them, they remember the field trips, the active work they did, and even reference the content, sometimes with a question about something they had done. But the most satisfying, even poignant comment I’ve heard was from a for profit package delivery supervisor who I ran into at the grocery store one day, “We had fun in school, I wish my own kid had that kind of fun in school.”

Cale library.jpgWhen I walk away from my role as superintendent at the end of this school year for family reasons, I don’t expect to leave the profession behind in totality. I’ve never imagined that I could be happier doing anything other than being an educator – although some free time to garden, read on demand, and not spend so many evenings in night activities does have its curb appeal. However, I can’t imagine life without a first day of school or time in a library or classroom reading to children or helping out as an extra pair of hands in the cafeteria. I expect I’ll volunteer a bit.

I’ve spent time over this winter holiday taking stock of a career filled with life’s lessons. I have learned across decades from educators, parents, and children that relationships matter more than anything else in our learning communities. Our voices have the power to hurt or heal and when we focus on finding common ground to solutions, we are more likely to walk away from our time together seeing the strengths of others, not their deficits.

I’ve also learned that no matter what standards or lessons we are expected to teach, whether as in my first years of teaching with inquiry as the end in mind or in the more mass standardized model of today’s test-objectified classrooms, it’s often the unintended opportunities that become the most influential learning experiences our children will get because of us. That’s why when a teacher said to me a few years ago, “Pam, I get frustrated when kids want to stop and talk about what really caused the American Civil War and not just take down notes – and I feel compelled to reply that we don’t have time.”

The time to pause and explore big ideas through the questions and curiosities of kids may be the greatest loss to learning that resulted from the reform movement that began in the 1980s and continues still today. The data are in and our kids today are less creative and less critical in their thinking than they were decades ago. Some think entertainment technologies are to blame and, yes, kids have been pulled away from play and active experiences by devices. But, as an educator who has lived through decades of mass standardization of rote learning, I, along with these empirical researchers, have to put that at the top of the list because the reform accountability movement began long before smart devices became common in the hands of children.

My advice to the social studies teacher that day and to others with similar concerns, knowing that I bear a different level of responsibility for test scores as superintendent than a classroom teacher does, “Take the time. There’s more to educating kids for life than just passing a state test. Learning to question, discuss, debate, defend, and listen to others’ perspectives is worth it’s weight in gold long after kids have forgotten the starting date of the Battle of Gettysburg. And, no state multiple choice test is going to measure those critical thinking skill sets.”

Reductions in state testing in Virginia has occurred because parents, teachers, and politicians have realized that the over-emphasis on testing has removed much of life from learning in our schools.  There’s a renewed interest in learning that has a stickiness beyond the temporary effect of test-prepping for the multiple choice tests that have permeated the lives of our young millennial teachers when they were students in school. I hope this younger generation of educators rejects the quick test to learn model and invests in using practices that build deep learning; project-focus, inquiry, labs, case studies, seminar discussions, observation and journal writing and so much more that can be done today to help kids become researchers and owners of their own learning. With Internet access today, we can take kids so much farther than the primitive technologies of my first years of teaching did and as a resource tool it expands the repertoire of excellent teaching possibilities far beyond what I had available to me in my teaching years.

Finally, in my reflective wanderings over this break, I also find I hold firm to a belief that restoring slow time to the learning process can lead us to …

school as an inspiring space for learning that promotes curiosity, questions, interests, and passions about everything from humanities to STEM to arts to wellness to languages of all kinds and,

to helping kids learn what they want to learn not just what we want them to learn and,

to finding positive relationships grounded in the strengths of a diverse community and,

to facilitating and coaching kids to work and learn together rather than mostly in isolation of each other.

Perhaps if we do these things, we have a shot at hooking kids on learning for life, not just to pass tests.

In the Garden: Seeking and Finding Connections to Land, Air and Water

I spent some time yesterday reflecting upon a Connected Educators Month EdTechtalk: Teachers Teaching Teachers in which I participated last week with a diverse group of educational thinkers. Our conversation centered for me upon the critical importance of the interconnecting edu-ecosystems that we are building, one educator at a time. However, beyond the virtual connectivity that’s so essential to increasing the learning power of today’s youth, there’s another area of their connectivity I believe we’re neglecting.

a brown speckled buckeye butterfly on a pink coneflower

Fritillary butterfly on coneflower

Young people will face complex challenges in their adult futures- economically, politically, environmentally, and socially. Those challenges increasingly relate to the earth beneath our feet, the winds that blow across our continents and oceans, the temperatures that drive climate changes, and waters that sustain life. The Butterfly Effect governs the interactivity of seemingly chaotic systems across our world, far more than we ever thought when we first learned of Conrad Lorenz’s concept.

Connectivity is a given in the lives of our young people; allowing them to search, connect, communicate and create with others beyond the boundaries of physical communities, states – and nations. However, as we build virtual connectivity into learning spaces for all the right reasons,  in my opinion we must also reestablish a deep connectivity between children and the natural world so they can understand and process the deep environmental challenges of the coming decades. Indeed, their future may depend upon connectivity with each other and connectivity with the natural world- not either/or, but both.

The Earth’s natural spaces were the first learning spaces of humans, but our children are increasingly disconnected to those spaces. I first wrote the post below a couple of years ago while reflecting upon the importance of the natural world to learning. It feels even more relevant today. After a bit of editing, I decided to finally post it here.

Learning from the Garden

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

The early morning work I do in the garden reminded me on this morning what challenge really means when your survival depends upon providing your own food. Each season on earth marks time in months, years, and centuries of peoples’ intensity of effort to simply eat. We middle-class Americans who can so easily pop down to a grocery or convenience store to pick up the most basic items of sustenance – milk, bread, meat, potatoes- or to a farmers’ market to select heirloom tomatoes grown locally, are mostly out of touch with the struggle of humankind to simply eat.  This morning I confronted the loss of summer food supply; damage from deer gone wild because of one forgotten disconnect of the electric fence – peppers and cucumbers eaten down to the stems; tomatoes showing the first sign of blossom rot; and squash bug eggs on the underside of my crookneck leaves. Kneeling in red clay, simmering in summer humidity, I reconnected with my grandfather- me as learner, him as teacher- and the important lessons to be taken from the land.

a white sand road leading to a white frame farmhouse

the road to home

I grew up on a farm and understand the agrarian calendar well. My suburban-raised son does not. I have continued, throughout the ever-increasing number of seasons of my life, the habit of planting each year what has become a smaller and less tidy garden space than those of my childhood.

My family farm became a learning tool as I traced my grandfather’s steps across sugar-sand fields in the low country, not too far inland from Charleston, along the slash of a river named the Edisto.

the Edisto river is a black water river with cypress trees on its banks

The Edisto

Those fields held lost riches of natives from the Woodland Culture and we often would pause, eyes caught by birdpoint, scribed pottery shard, or flint chip, slipping such treasure into a pocket to keep it safe. Near our river and fields, live oaks stood, relics of centuries past, their limbs spread to ground; drips of Spanish moss sheltering acid-rain etched marble, chiseled with names of those who followed the natives onto this land. Through his stories and observations, my grandfather taught me to appreciate the role of the water, the land, and the air in supporting the lives of people who had lived and continued to live on and off of that land.

All of these generations past depended upon the skills of those who understood the give and take of living off of the land. Each successive wave who inherited the soil, the water, and forests discovered how tenuous survival can be. I learned that from my grandfather. The seasons of my own gardens have been, I hope, a learning gift passed from my grandfather to me to my own son.

Unfortunately, droughts and hard rains come to the land these days in chaotic cycles that leave humans confounded by the patterns of nature. But, I know this. My tomato plants depend upon a steady state of water or they will develop blossom end-rot, falling from the vines slightly ripened, blackened, and unfit to eat. I learned from my grandfather how to avoid tomato rot– there are rules to follow if you know to do so. It’s such a simple thing in Virginia to increase water supply or add a bit of calcium to the diet of my tomatoes.

When I see the rot of tomatoes as I did this morning, I also think of my mother’s Irish Catholic ancestors who came to this country during the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Today, we gardeners plant potatoes hybridized and resistant to the same killing blight that starved the Irish into an agonizing history of emigration and death. They had no such choice. When we pick up a bag of store-bought potatoes, we forget how close the relationship of land and people must be to those who depend upon it for survival. Today, we expect the potatoes to just be there.

abandoned stone hut in ireland in the mist

hut abandoned in Ireland mist

Although, like me, many Americans descend from ancestors who lived close to the land, and some who died because of the vagaries of nature and food supply, our industrial and technological relationship with food has removed us from understanding the role of the land in human ecology. Michael Pollan says that we don’t shop much around the edges of the supermarket- we shop on the inside lanes where the processed food is stacked. Whether it’s at home or school, our young people learn little about the connectivity of the natural environment to their lives. School lunches are an example of that.

4 red tomatoes on the vine

vine ripened

Today, these few rotten tomatoes, several pepper and cucumber plants damaged by the deer that plague my world, and droplets of golden eggs hidden under squash leaves led me to question what’s worthy to learn in a day and age of hyper-changing technologies in our world.How important is it for our young people to understand the relationships of land and food to their own survival; the patterns of weather, the food chains in which we figure, the shaping of cultures, politics and even religions, the ages through which civilizations pass, the migrations of peoples, and even the rise and fall of nations caused by our relationships with the natural world?

What do young people really need to know about stripped-down corn, packaged on Styrofoam and kept cool in the fresh vegetable bins? Or, the gulf shrimp on ice about which I overhead someone recently comment, “I’d rather not know where they came from”? What’s important to understand about the origins of sliced and diced tomatoes stacked neatly in cans on a grocery aisle? How do we communicate the value of good stewardship to relieve man-made stresses upon our environment? Why should we teach the connectedness and dependency of humanity upon the natural world for our very life’s breath and next meal? What’s worthy of learning when our children are often far removed from working the land? Why should we care about our children’s relationship to the land, air, and water around them?

High School Ecological studies of the pond

With global access we can find today’s media version of the Starving Times that decimated the 17th century Jamestown Settlement and 19th century Ireland. Far away from us, but perhaps closer than we think, humans live in starvation on the edge of death in the drought-weary world of West Africa. There, the peoples of Chad and Niger and six other countries eat leaves from trees and grain from ant hills to stave off death. Maybe as many as 15 million people face starvation in that region alone.The world’s population grows, the planet warms, and water shortages persist. And, our children take standardized tests that have little to do with learning how to find solutions to those critical problems.

We can write standards that cause us to learn the facts of the Potato Famine of the past and West Africa of today. We can measure that Virginia’s young people have learned what the Starving Times were in the first Anglo colony of America. That’s easy- 4 responses- choose one of the above.

However, this morning’s reflections cause me to ask if we want the kind of citizenry who can pose informed questions and craft informed perspectives about what went wrong in the recent mostly forgotten Gulf environmental disaster?* If so, what do we need to do to ensure we don’t create a future that looks like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Perhaps we simply begin, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, by connecting our children “back into the garden.” **

gardening with preschoolers

(*see @jasonflom on Edutopia for discussion group of educators on learning from Gulf Oil Spill)

(**see @paulallison for more about East-West School for International Studies Gardening Project in NYC)

(**see@timlauer for more about Lewis Elementary Gardening Project in Portland, Or)

(**see grow veggies for Quick Start– Albemarle school grow local projects)

(**see @traceysaxon for more about Sutherland Middle School’s garden to food to compost project)

(**see @cwd4H for more about Yancey Elementary School’s Veggie Village in Esmont, Va)

Meanderings on Sunday After …

After a week of earth science drama in Virginia, this morning’s dawn slipped into a blue-sky day, another kind of earth science phenomena that like clockwork follows behind the path of a hurricane.

Instead of flooding the earth with more rain, the sky was flooded with the perfect blue of a high-pressure system. Light breezes rocked tulip poplars, white oaks, and sycamores in the nearby woods. It was a day for meandering deep into the hollow, and through a field of thigh-high broom sage, now August-worn.

I am reminded of the Last Child in the Woods when I wander. This summer, an owner of an “ice cream” van who wandered neighborhoods in search of children shared with me there were no longer children at play in yards, or tree houses, or on the sidewalks.  She found that her ringtone horn brought no one clamoring for a rocket pop to the sidewalk unless pre-arranged for a birthday party.  “Where are the children?” she asked.

When I walked the fields, woods, unpaved roads, and backyard today, I was reminded why I still love the seeking of undiscovered possibilities of the natural environment, and why there never should be a last child in the woods.

water's edge

It seems as if just yesterday, I was such a child wandering the fields, woods, and swamps of the low country, caught by the sun filtering through Spanish moss and the scream of the Pileated Woodpecker flitting from Cypress tree to live oak. Such meandering uncovered an afternoon of I-Search moments for me in my childhood yesterdays, and for me again today. What was the raccoon – if it was a raccoon – hunting last night at the water’s edge?

Terrapene carolina

Or, why did the Eastern box turtle, a study in slow locomotion, get motivated to cross a gravel road?

In the garden, a Snowberry Clearwing moth allowed me to slide close enough to capture its image while it hovered a whisper above the blooms of a butterfly bush.

How could I not wonder what secrets its evolution holds, this moth that so closely mimics the hummingbird?

Snowberry Clearwing

This perfection of a blue-sky day led me up a well-washed gravel road, one once traveled by natives, colonials, revolutionists, presidents, citizen-soldiers in blue and grey, farmers’ families, country doctors, hunters, and now the occasional mountain biker.  I imagined what it would be like to stream together the generations of inhabitants and wanderers who have traveled into this hollow and over the sagging mountain for which the road is named. What questions would we have for each other? We might ask, what led us here? What do we share?

the gap road

There’s patience to be learned in the natural world that I inhabited today. I stood in a roadbed with a bank that extends 10 feet over my head. How long did it take to wear the soil down until a vein of quartz now lies exposed? And, what about the rounded chain of mountains through which I walk? How much time needed to pass for them to become great-grandfather mountains, unlike the mere youth of today’s spiked Rockies?

Virginia Day Flower

I’ve been led outdoors over a lifetime to find things that I otherwise would not know. I am drawn to a palette of watchet-blue of Virginia Day Flowers and the purple of thistles to which tiger swallowtails cling. On this day, amidst a brushing together of leaves in the slight breeze and an occasional cacophony of cicadas, there is much that remains silent- no planes overhead, their flights grounded by the hurricane.

Thistle Bank

In remembering the conversation with the ice-cream van entrepreneur, I am reminded today of silent children who spend their moments mostly inside the built environment, removed from the wonders of backyards, sidewalks, fields, woods, and ponds – and I consider what they’ve lost.