Friday, April 19, 2019

The Greatest Thing I've Ever Heard

On Monday, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the amazing Kit Rich, naturalist at Harris Nature Center in Okemos, one of the first sites of Annie's BIG Nature Lesson. We're sitting in her office at the nature center, a smallish room stacked with books and papers, buzzing with activity and life, while people pop in and out (my car's battery just died, I'm grabbing supplies for the next class), the sounds of children learning and exploring in the rooms behind us. I can hear the voices of my own tiny children as they ask questions about the many turtles that call Harris home. Despite all the activity, Kit is totally present, animated, and welcoming.

You seem like you have the dream job, as a naturalist at the Harris Nature Center in Okemos, Michigan. How did you get here?

When I went to school it was in the 70s and we had just had the first Earth Day and I was very moved by that. I was ripe to join something. And you know, when you're that age, 16 17 18 19 20, you really want to do something for the world. So for me, it became the environment. I had grown up nurturing this love of nature and then here was my opportunity.

I got a college degree in a program called "interpretation" which is another word we use for naturalist. It's, you know, interpreting nature, all the interactions and those kinds of things, for the general population.

I've been at this a long time. I started in 1979 at a nature center in Ohio. I had this opportunity to teach people, inspire them, and that really spoke to me. I thought, if you loved it, why wouldn't you want to protect it? It's such a blessing in my life, because now for all these years I've been able to work a job that also feeds my soul. It's what I feel I was meant to do, so it's very fulfilling.

You say you grew up nurturing a love of nature. What kinds of experiences do you remember out in nature as a child?

Like so many people that end up in this kind of work I grew up having access to woods and meadows. My family went to the UP for vacation to the same location near Munising, and there were some log cabins where we went fishing on the lakes. We'd be catching the perch: you got the worm, you put it on your own hook and you had to take the fish off yourself, clean it, you had to learn how to do it by yourself. And then my dad would show us the egg sacks, and my mom actually cooked the fish eggs. That's a thing, people actually think that's a delicacy!

There were all these groundhogs and groundhog babies up there. And my mom always made puffed wheat cereal and we'd have these half gallon milk cartons. My siblings and I used to open them up and put the puffed wheat in there and lay them on their sides. And the baby groundhogs would go in there and go get it and then their little legs would be -- (gestures kicking, laughs) We're so lucky we didn't get bit!

I wouldn't let my kid do that anymore, times have changed! But my mom was just glad we were out of the house and exploring.

What have you learned about nature and yourself from your own children?

I remember this one time with my son, he was listening to this bird. And he's like, What bird is that? I couldn't see it and I'm really bad at bird calls and I didn't want to tell him wrong. So I was just quiet...and I was listening to it...and he got so angry with me for not answering his question. So I just said, I think that's a cardinal. And then he was okay with it. But I just realized that A: Already, through himself or his experiences, he already wanted to know more and he was looking to me for the answers, and that B: I didn't want to be wrong, but that it's okay to be wrong. To say, this is what I know, and then the next step is okay how do we find out more? That it's okay not to always have the answers. Especially with kids, we always think we have to give them the answers. Instead, we should be giving them the tools to figure things out for themselves.

That's a great lesson learned. Any other favorite kid memories?

My daughter, my middle child, her big goal was to touch a bird. I know, isn't that funny? That's what she wanted! And she would stalk the birds. I'd be doing the dishes, looking out in the backyard, and there she is. And finally she did! One poor robin had its back to her for too long or she got quiet enough and she touched it on its tail and it flew away.

(Wiping away tears of laughter) What kinds of things have the children from Donley Elementary School been up to this week as they're participating in Annie's BIG Nature Lesson at Harris?

Well, I'm starting to think that Donley School is the school of Imagination. Today, I was showing Kelsie Rourke and Julie Maloney's 2nd graders the horse tails (snake grass). It's a plant that doesn't have leaves, it just has a stalk. And I ask the kids, What would you call it? And a kid says, I'd call it alien grass, because it looks like aliens! I thought, Oh my gosh I've never heard that before! I've heard a lot of answers but I've never heard that before. This class, they were so good and interested. We were watching this red-breasted nut hatch and it was banging on the tree and the kids just got really quiet and it was so cool.

Then, I start talking about woodpeckers and this little boy just asks me the best question: he asks, Is that nut hatch bird and the woodpecker...are they in the same group or family or something? And I'm just like DING! He's seeing that they're the same, that you could put them in a group together. The grouping was designed differently, but what if the grouping was designed about how they got their food? He's taking information from here, and taking it from there, and putting it together.

That's what we want, we want people to see the connections and interrelatedness of it. Because tomorrow we talk about man, the biggest predator of them all. Now how does that change the story?

Speaking of stories, where does the story of Annie's BIG Nature Lesson begin for you?

I remember when Margaret started this whole thing. We were within that first group of nature centers, and having her come in here and she was just talking about it and I was thinking what a wonderful idea. The BIG Lesson, that idea of being immersed for five days, that this, all of this is their school. I thought that was the greatest thing I've ever heard.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Ty's Tips for Helping Students Form a Relationship with Nature

Seeing what Annie's kids were up to today was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. This week, while so many students around our state were sitting in airless rooms taking this or that standardized test, and while their teacher/proctor was not permitted to "grade papers, use electronics, read, read ahead in test materials..." (direct quotes from the manual...ugh!), 13 classes in the Lansing area were participating in BIG lessons at four (count them, FOUR!) different nature centers and the Potter Park Zoo

Pop quiz! Where in Michigan was the learning happening this week? 

I drove to Woldumar Nature Center through the thundering rain in hopes of seeing kids and adults doing what they naturally do: exploring, being creative, moving their bodies, and engaging in authentic learning.

I couldn't have found a better class than Ty Cotter's 4th grade class from Dimondale Elementary, in the Village of Dimondale and the Holt school district. 

I found Savannah, sitting quietly on her stool taking some extra moments after observation time to finish up describing something soft, something squishy, something dead, and an animal home. 

I found this child, who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear soon enough: after Ty told his class to keep their volume during observation time at a "0", this child would only make *the most expressive* faces at me as I asked him questions about the wood chip he was examining: 

Why do you think it's two colors? ... What do you notice about the texture? ... (And finally) Ok kid, do your thing! 

I found Julian, who was crushing it during the Web of Life discussion with naturalist Emma Campbell, and when I asked him if he liked it out here or in the classroom better, responded by enthusiastically gesturing to his environment. And when I asked him what he liked best, he took a deep breath and sighed,  "A gentle breeze, the feeling of the earth beneath my feet, the sunshine that's finally coming out..." I kid you not, he spoke to me in verse. 

And finally, I found Bridget, a parent, who had come to each day of this ABNL week from start to finish, and came to the last day even though she wasn't originally scheduled, because she wanted to see to its conclusion the transformation the kids made in their appreciation for and confidence in being out in nature. 

What I found today was the end result of a week of transformation. That transformation didn't come on accident, or by simple proximity to nature. It came from the deliberate, principled, and passionate work of their teacher, Ty Cotter. 

I learned so many lessons from Ty today about how to help students start and build a relationship with nature. They're boiled down in the list below:

#1: Allay the Fear

One of his earliest memories of ABNL from the last five years was when a student refused to participate and go outside. When Ty asked her why, she said, "Because I'm afraid of the bears!" Ty takes this fear seriously, and makes a deliberate effort to make his kids understand that first and foremost, his job is to keep them safe. He explains that he would never take them into a situation in which they would be in danger and which they have to fear. Once that trust is instilled, it's easier for students to absorb lessons about where fearsome predators like bears often live (hint: not here) and what their behaviors are like (hint: not going to jump out of the bushes and devour adorable children). 

#2: Let them Play

As adults, we often want to create these elaborate plans and sophisticated activities to get kids engaged in the activity we think is good for them. Instead, Ty lets his kids play and experience the natural world on their terms. "I think it's so important for kids to just go outside and doesn't really matter what they do because they're having an experience. I don't buy it when kids say there's nothing to do. There's anything, and everything to do outside."

#3: Set Expectations

While it's important that kids get to play outside, they often want to know what the rules are. How far can they go? How loud can they talk? Can they climb? Can they go off the path? Providing clear guidelines for behavior outside helps kids feel more comfortable, confident, and safe. When they're on nature walks, Ty expects students to exhibit patience and self-control. When they rise to his expectations, these behaviors have concrete payoffs: kids can observe all the surprising creaking, oozing, trickling, wheezing sounds of the natural world. 

#4: Embrace the Teachable Moments

"Have a concrete start and end in mind, but everything in between is flexible," says Ty. He's talking about what we in the education field call teachable moments. These are unplanned situations within the natural course of an exploration, conversation, or activity that offer the opportunity to learn something. Kids are so much more open to learning when it happens in this natural, immediate way. Teachable moments are all around us, especially out in nature. 

For example, when students were doing their nature hike after the Web of Life conversation with Emma, they walked right by a dead log covered in lichen. 

They walked by the pond where a dead fish or two were floating. 

They dodged a toad, frozen still in the middle of the path so as to blend in with its surroundings. "Is this toad keeping still because it is prey?" asked one student. 

#5: Prepare, Practice, and Anticipate
For kids who are unaccustomed to spending time out in nature, we can't just head out for an epic afternoon and expect it to go well. It might, but that'd be the exception, not the rule. Instead, Ty has integrated exercises like Observation Time (one hour spent in quiet reflection and writing in nature) into his daily routines since the beginning of the school year. He introduced the concept in baby steps: 10 minutes, then 15, then 25, all the while warning kids that eventually they'd be able to do this for a whole hour. Many didn't believe him, but when I observed their observation time, it was a most lovely sight: students scattered Woldumar's Walnut Glen, sharing this collective experience of pondering the wonder of nature individually, together. It was kind of wonderful. 

One of the fundamental goals of Annie's BIG Nature Lesson is to stimulate care and concern for the natural world in our young people, so that they will embody a conservation mindset throughout their lives. This mindset is a long-haul effort; it's not adopted in a day spent in nature, or even a week. It's formed by having a lifelong relationship with the natural world. Ty's work with his students shows how this relationship can begin to form. 

The natural world right now is in a period of transition. Snow has melted and mud remains. The wind is blowing through freshly budded trees and shrubs. Grass, insects, and other living things are warily embracing the warming temperatures. And Annie's kids are out there witnessing it all, undergoing their own transformation. What a time to be alive!