Get Out!–and Find Four Things

Someone on the radio said research had shown that the typical American kid spends an average of just 7 minutes each day outside. “Yikes!” I thought later, as I walked under oak woods and tall white pines, past a beach still covered with snow. I couldn’t have heard that right.

What happened to the outdoor recess that should be every schoolchild’s right? Even in winter, it had to be really cold and windy to keep us inside. Kids conducted unscheduled experiments with snow and rocks and mud, learned how to approach a group and join it, invented complicated variations on gym games and argued about the rules; shouted each others’ names under the sky, and learned how to run in a long chain, or backwards–or how to conduct a complicated conversation while walking at full speed.

We could read the importance of this outdoor time, in experiments conducted by nature. Even a few days of pouring rain took their toll on kids’ patience, stamina, confidence and social skills.

get out playground-sprinkler-runMy father died a few weeks ago, a long, slow, mostly peaceful death. I kept seeing him, in my mind, in one of his boats, following the bends of a creek in no hurry to reach open water.

The mortality curriculum, I used to call it–something we would never go hunting for, or plan into the life of a class–something that would find us, one way or another–not an experiment of nature, exactly, but a reality.

Reading and writing can give us ways to think about endings, and the place they have in stories. That’s part of why we send our students there. Taking a break from blog posts, I gave myself the kind of assignment I used to give my students, and wrote a version of my dad’s story, going back to think again about the impact of his war on his life.

Beyond that, spending a lot of time outdoors was always the most important way we held onto huge, hard-to-manage realities–and it remains that for me now. Because my father always spent as much time as possible outside–gardening, shooting baskets, working on boats–it’s a way to think about him even without thinking. I’m walking a lot these days.

Richard working on boatAs I watch the spring melt (finally) pouring over the steps of the channel downhill, I keep worrying about all those kids indoors too much. What about sitting outdoors at dismissal? Walking or bicycling home from school?

garden studying compostFor that matter, what about outdoor learning? At Touchstone, we deliberately encouraged curriculum that could be carried outdoors, or actually required the outdoors– outdoor sketching, perched on stools in the gardens; outdoor biology directly related to the school grounds, for example, studies of the macroinvertebrates to be found in our compost.

What about quick unaccompanied runs around the school, and the invaluable discussions of the ground rules needed to guard against people hitting the ground?

Finally, what about outdoor homework? We asked kids to follow the run-off water from their back yards, or pace off the distance from the front door to the nearest rock bigger than a loaf of bread (rarely a long distance, where I live, in the glacial debris field of New England.)

But maybe the most important thing we did, to preserve kids’ free time outdoors–emphasis on the word free–was our homework policy, limiting homework strictly, faithfully, including a generous amount of reading time within the limit. (Almost every year, at some point, my class had a conversation about kids’ favorite places to read outdoors.)

Minn Holling Clancy HollingHere’s a game, or an assignment, or a meditative practice–take your pick. It’s based on something Holling C. Holling says in the feast of marginal notes in his rich, sprawling, problematic and wonderful classic of American geography, Minn of the Mississippi. 

As he’s following a snapping turtle down the river, Holling says that a miniature natural history museum could consist of just four things–a pebble, a leaf, a feather, and a button. Something mineral, for geology / from a plant, for biology / from an animal, for zoology / made by a human, for anthropology.

Minn was published in 1951. We might organize those sciences differently, now–and I was always tickled by the kids who said, “But humans are animals, too. Why are they made separate here?” Still, I come back again and again to the task of finding Holling’s four things, when I’m walking,

Here’s a collection from a recent walk at  Hopkinton State Park.

find four things with feather and shard croppedEarly on, in my career of using this exercise, I swore that I wouldn’t pick up cigarette butts, although they are almost always the easiest human artifact to find. That day, I found two human-made things that intrigued me: a piece of crockery, and a tiny woven cord. For my final collection, I chose the crockery.

That day, as almost always, the hardest thing to find was the animal thing. The melting snowbanks were strewn with dog poop, but I wasn’t going to pick that up and carry it away.

mole wine cellar croppedRodent tunnels disappeared into the remaining snow, and I thought of the mole’s wine cellar I found at the family farm in Maine, crabapples crammed and fermenting in a tunnel beneath the snow, revealed when the snow melted away. I’m just guessing that the critter was a mole. In any case, that too defied being carried anywhere.

Unless you’re at the beach, it takes very careful observation to find a feather, or a shell, or a bone, or a bit of hair or fur snagged on a thorn. Mostly, animal remains get hauled off to be eaten, or processed by beetles and bacteria pretty quickly. They disappear. But this day, I found that tiny feather where the snow had just melted.

get out four things collectionsFind Four Things made a wonderful assignment for homework outdoors. (Here, to the left, are most of the collections of a recent class.) We said that kids could do this in their backyards, or in other outdoor places, but should skip things found indoors–so, for example, no shells from Florida, sent north by cousins.

We took plenty of time sharing these collections, hearing about where they came from. Then we left them set up on the table–a museum of miniature museums.

What’s learning without arguments? If you can’t find any animal remains at all, can you count a souvenir of animal activity, for example an acorn bearing obvious toothmarks, or those channels of tiny micro-arthropod travel inscribed on the inner surface of tree bark? Is it a human artifact, or a plant thing, if it’s something humans made out of wood? But isn’t everything mineral in origin?

I’ll let you imagine all the productive channels those discussions could follow.

Sometimes I bring home the set of four things I settle on. But I’m here mostly to practice gathering and letting go. I stand outside, under an enormous sky, and hold enormous things in my small and always aging heart. All the living beings of the natural world–not just we humans–dwell in the compost pile of what has been, and in the seeds and (often invisible) eggs of what will be.

As I lay down my collection, gathered from that dear rubble the melting snow reveals, I think of all those children trapped indoors. I really don’t believe that thing about seven minutes. Still, just in case, I mutter to the air at large: Let my people go.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt

I get a huge kick out of a Facebook group called I Homeschool and I Teach the Science of Evolution. In their posts, members ask each other, “How do you approach concepts like evolution? What about the Big Bang?” They trade recommendations for resources, including, for example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s incredibly rich BioInteractive resources, or the Big History Project.

When I started exploring evolution with ten to twelve-year-old students in 1991, the resources available to me were few, but fabulous. Our experience as students and teachers of evolution began with The Voyage of the Mimi. Published by the Bank Street College Project in Science and Mathematics in 1984, this sequence of video story episodes and documentaries engaged students with fundamental biological concepts by focusing on the evolution, physiology and behavior of whales–and kids ate it up. Aspects of the series feel a little dated now, thirty years on–but the Mimi remains an excellent platform for evolution studies, for children even as young as five or six.

Below, in a photograph from the student book published to accompany the series, Ben Affleck, one of the actors, meets with a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution:

evolution ben and whale fossils

The right books and videos can be such a boon–especially if children and adults are able to explore them together, working at a pace that allows for plenty of mulling and questioning. Still, if you stop with just reading and watching, talking and writing, you’ll miss the benefit of more active, hands-on learning. In order to construct their own real understanding of challenging topics, kids need chances to build, create, arrange–or jump up and pretend to be a jellyfish. If you’re going to tackle understanding our strange and wonderful universe, you need some serious playfulness.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt took a hands-on approach to the history of life on earth. Working together, we created and set up a series of stations–some in our own classroom, some in other classrooms (by teachers’ consent) or in public areas of the school. (I imagine a network of homeschoolers going from house to house.) Weather permitting, we located some stations outdoors. As they moved from station to station, students followed a series of innovations affecting body-plan, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior, over the past 3.5 billion years.

Here are four kids in the Common Room, learning from the Land Arthropods station, about the radical innovations of breathing air, and flying.

evolution treasure hunt learnersThe power of this experience lay largely in the kids’ role in its preparation. I did put together some of the stations, often using materials generated by students in previous classes. As many stations as possible, though, were researched, designed, and created anew, by groups of students in each class.

Here’s the sequence from one year:

evolution treasure hunt chart 1

evolution treasure hunt chart 2

If you’ve read much of my blog–or if you were there!–you can guess that we worked on the station displays in projects time. The chart also shows that we ignored plants that year, which is sad–but teachers and students are always having to leave things out, in order to explore other things in satisfying depth.

What could work as a display? Even at the beginning, we tried to do more than just point to some target classification of plants or animals and say, here, this came next. (In fact, that could be a misleading thing to say.)

The simplest display consisted of representations of the target group of plants or animals, and the approximate time of that group’s first appearance, along with a brief written summary about particularly important innovations for surviving and thriving.

Here’s a group of students at the reptiles station, with Bili the dinosaur, one of the class mascots, reading along.

evolution kids at reptiles

This version of the text for the reptiles station came from a year when I was responsible for it. (I’m mixing and matching evidence from different years, because that’s what I can find!)

evolution treasure hunt reptiles0001

Sarah Stein’s Evolution Book served as a spirited and comprehensive reference for all this history of life on earth. At first, I assigned full sections of the book as background reading. Then, in a year with a somewhat younger class, I created simplified versions of the text by copying, cutting and pasting–a lot of work, but worth it, to make this excellent resource usable for my students.

Each group, in turn, created their own very simple version, with their sense of the high points, for their station in the treasure hunt. Below, one of those cards I kept reusing for later classes.

evolution treasure hunt bac card(Yesterday, when I exchanged messages with Addie Kemp, one of the writers of that card, she was holed up in a cafe in Austin, Texas, writing the proposal for her thesis in anthropology and evolutionary biology. I’m not kidding. She actually can’t remember doing the evolution treasure hunt–but maybe it had some kind of subconscious influence?)

Each student read several pages of challenging text very carefully, with small group support. Then they worked as a group with that chunk of information, to summarize it on behalf of the full class. During the treasure hunt, each student observed and interacted with the displays, read a summary for each group of animals, took some notes on a specially designed chart, and also collected, station by station, a set of summary cards to keep.

Here’s one group’s poster about some crucial characteristics of sea arthropods.

evolution posters bThis might have been the year we had a live lobster present, thanks to parent volunteer Carol Liasson. A favorite memory, from a projects time sharing: drafting enough other students to make it work, the sea arthropods group embodied the jointed appendages of a lobster, bending and swaying in articulated splendor.

Another group showed fish in a tank, along with drawings of important characteristics of fish such as the swim bladder. Beyond that, though, they had made a model with wooden blocks and pipe-cleaners, and invited treasure hunt participants to play with the model and feel for themselves how a jointed spine could help a fish maneuver more quickly and flexibly in search of prey, or avoid becoming prey. This might be their fact card:

evolution treasure hunt fish carIn order to create an effective display, a group had to understand the payoff for the evolutionary development they were representing–and they had to figure out how to make that evident to other students.

evolution jelly fish jelloAlmost always, groups came up with displays that provided for active viewer participation: a model to manipulate, or a microscope view of water from Julie Olsen’s swamp tank, full of protozoans; or jello to touch, as evidence of the state of matter, somewhere between solid and liquid, of jellyfish.

Early in the evolution of the Evolution Treasure Hunt, students convinced me that I couldn’t call it a treasure hunt without some kind of treasure at the end. So we munched on animal crackers from individual boxes, while holding the invaluable end-of-treasure-hunt debrief. I asked, “What new ideas stood out for you? (In other words, in your new-formed opinion, what are some surprising moments in the history of life on earth?) What were some things you especially admired in other groups’ displays?” To make sure everyone got to be evolution critic for a day, I usually went around the room, kid by kid. As always, their synthesizing comments were the very best part of the whole shebang.

Other experiences helped students think about other aspects of evolution, including the mechanisms and processes by which it happens. Other books and videos helped them, and me, arrive at clearer and clearer understanding. Maybe I’ll come back to that?

A last photograph for now. One year, after the treasure hunt was over, we compressed simplified versions of all the stations onto the largest available bulletin board. So here’s a partial view of that colorful grand parade of life, for sure and certain a cause for celebration.

evolution posters all together

The Alhambra Banquet

The Touchstone Common Room has been transformed into a palace courtyard, with twinkling lights, a mylar fountain, and carefully painted scenery.

Alhambra new scenery 4Wearing the loose, richly decorated clothing of long-ago centuries and far away places, kids stand tall and proud, representing people whose achievements still shape our lives, even though their names have been forgotten.  Alhambra Caroline and IsyAfter the presentations, gathering around low tables with their families, kids try foods they wouldn’t usually touch with ten foot poles–because in this case, after all, they helped with the cooking.

It’s all magic, magic we made together.

Audrey ShabbasIn designing our version of the Alhambra Banquet, I found both inspiration and practical help in resources assembled by Audrey Shabbas at AWAIR, Arab World and Islamic Resources. As part of a workshop I attended at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Shabbas described a new approach to the study of medieval Europe, which would include the vital role of Arab Spain, often omitted. To engage students with this hidden history, she had conceived of a banquet in the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

I’m going to quote from a letter I wrote to parents:

[From the Alhambra] we look back to the 700 years of Muslim Spain, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative peace and prosperity; and in which all three religions co-existed comfortably with advances in science, technology, and culture that were largely unknown in the rest of Europe during the same period.

We look out to the world of the Mediterranean, where trade and the common language of Arabic created connections between many cultures; and where the Arab enthusiasm for paper,  an invention brought from China, resulted in an explosion of publishing and translating and an unprecedented exchange of ideas.

Shabbas asked classes like ours to imagine travel through space–the entire Islamic world of the time, around much of the Mediterranean, but also beyond, including the rest of Europe. We also imagined travel through time. Students represented artists, architects, rulers, Sufi mystics, rabbis, Christian nuns, Muslim philosophers, librarians, book collectors, poets, physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers, from across seven centuries of the medieval world.

In our imaginations, in a grand triumph of serious playfulness, all these ancient people came together for a glittering, century-transcending, multicultural, multi-generational dinner party.

Alhambra new wide view of Common Room

When I set out to design the way the AWAIR curriculum would unfold for us, I found inspiration also in the creativity and intellectual ambition of Touchstone students, and in the generosity of their parents’ involvement in the classroom. I knew that we could handle these rich, challenging, unfamiliar worlds and concepts in hands-on ways that would make them real for us.

First, we set our sights high. Literally. Up above the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, I posted Essential Questions for this study:

  • If we could hold an imaginary banquet in about 1400 in Spain, and invite people from past centuries and the whole world known at that time, who could come? What could they talk about?

  • How did life in Al Andalus look and feel and taste?

  • How are we still influenced by the religions and cultures represented at this banquet?

  • What can Al Andalus teach us about the ingredients of successful multicultural societies?

In the light of those questions, we got down to work. During the four or five weeks leading up to the banquet, each student became involved in five different efforts:

Alhambra Nate pointing#1   As a whole group, we learned about the background history and geography. We arranged big file cards into time lines by rearranging our own bodies in a line. We created a giant map of the Mediterranean world in the gym, each person representing an important city. I vividly remember Kate Keller describing the evolution of the mathematical idea of zero, and how that idea found its way from India to northern Europe, by way of Arab Spain. In their classes, our Spanish teachers helped us think about the history of Spain as part of a larger Mediterranean history, and as a hinge between worlds. Taking it slowly and carefully, I found ways to explore Ibn Rushd’s sense of the relationship between revelation and reason–and marveled at the ideas with which these young students could engage.

Alhambra new Don on floor#2   Through a process of choosing from among various professions and roles, each student took on a historical figure to represent. (Adults sometimes filled in gaps. I’m not sure who was being represented by Don Grace in the year of most of these photographs, but the kids did a great job on his clothing!)

Alhambra honored guest listWorking hard to understand challenging sources, students found it exhilarating to take on the identities of people such as Ibn Sinna, known in the West as Avicenna, who brought scientific methods to the study of medicine and healing; or Zubaidah, a queen of Baghdad who set new standards for public works, particularly a series of wells, reservoirs and artificial pools that provided water for Muslim pilgrims along the route from Baghdad to Mecca. It’s driving me crazy not to describe all the people we called back to life. But you can click to enlarge this fairly representative list from 2011.

Alhambra new luke and deanIf a student represented someone well-documented in resources available to us, he or she had to set priorities for what would be included in a two minute presentation. For figures about whom we could find very little, even making careful use of resources on the internet, students branched out to include more information about the person’s areas of work or interest, using resources that would explain monastic life, or Islamic architecture, or the history of mathematics.

Each student checked in with one or two partners, with whom they could share and compare, and stand together in front of the banquet’s assembled audience.

Alhambra new sewing# 3   To help students enter the spirit of these representations, parents worked with them to create special clothing, decorated with magic marker “embroidery” using the motifs and styles of medieval Islamic design.

alhambra matt

#4   Students also prepared scenery and decorations for the Common Room. In our own microcosm of cultural evolution and preservation, we saved some of these murals and columns and window-top decorations from year to year, so any particular class knew that aspects of their work would last, and be built on by future classes.Alhambra new old scenery reused#5  Finally, what’s a banquet without a feast? Some typical foods of Arab Spain could be prepared ahead by the students during projects time, and frozen in home freezers. Other things–vegetarian kufti, chickens roasted with dried fruit, flan–were cooked at home and brought in by parents the night of the banquet–along with pillows to make it easier for all of us to sit on the floor at low tables, and potted plants to help us simulate the lush gardens of the Alhambra.

Alhambra new scenery 2 Alhambra new onion overdoseThrough the weeks before the banquet, kids rotated through projects time groups working with wonderful parent helpers along with teachers and aides, to create clothing, scenery, and food. They read background text related to the clothing, food, and design of medieval Arab Spain. They practiced taking notes, shared what they had understood–and then chopped up tremendous quantities of onion or garlic, or crawled all over the floor collaborating on complex designs.

Alhambra painting sceneryThroughout this entire process, and by the end of the banquet, all the adults involved were captivated and stunned–by the students’ hard work and accomplishments, and by the content they worked to share with us.

What did students get out of it all? I wanted to document this with excerpts from their own reflective writing as we went along, and afterwards–but I’m writing out of a blizzard zone, and can’t find those right now. So I have to try to summarize.

Because these students were so young, almost everything we learned in this study was new. Thinking back, I see faces scrunched up with the effort to grasp strangeness, and glowing with the satisfaction of making sense. Conceptually, they reached far, reached deep, and felt the strength of that reaching.

They also shared my satisfaction in their nitty-gritty skills growth: in note-taking, in handling unfamiliar words and other aspects of challenging texts, in interpreting maps and timelines and other charts, in oral presentation, in giving each other useful feedback.

Alhambra max croppedAbove all, students loved the way most of the learning we shared at the banquet was new to their families–so that their sharing had real focus and purpose. Students felt important, and powerful. I have memories of kids putting on the special clothing they had made (from recycled bed sheets transformed with love and patience)–then straightening up with an amazing light in their eyes.

All of us remember with wonder the physical world of the banquet, so much a product of grand collective effort–but all of us, both students and adults, remember even more the passion in student presentations, the miracles of stepping up, the deeply personal pride.

And, of course, the wild exultation when they were done.

Alhambra cheerI’d be thrilled to hear from past Alhambra Banquet participants, or to help others create their own Alhambra Banquet experience. You can write one of the usual comments, for others to see, or send something directly to me using the contact form below.

Finding the right game

My father, 93 this year, barely speaks now. During the three days my sisters and I recently spent with him, he said little more than yes or no. Even for that he mostly nodded or shook his head.

The exceptions touched us deeply. When our father’s wife asked me to play their small organ, and we three daughters sang together, our father joined in for parts of “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” smiling broadly.

Before every meal, as we held hands around the table, our stepmother prompted our father to say grace. Sometimes he used words we’d heard throughout our childhood (until he and our mom separated and then divorced, and we saw him much less often.) Sometimes he used different words to request the same blessings, ‟living kindly in each others’ lives,” where the original grace asked that we be kept ‟mindful of the needs of others.”

Mostly, though, he listened to us. Sometimes he raised his head at a name, or to watch when one of us grew animated telling a story.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough our childhood, and for many years after, our father was the most powerful talker we knew. A church deacon who sometimes filled in for the minister on Sunday, he helped to broker peace in a fractured congregation more than once. He sat on the school board in our town, helped build support for a new school, became a leader in his professional organization.

Later on, farm boy turned Green Revolution advocate and diplomat, he spoke persuasively to ministers of agriculture and heads of state all over the world.

We were immensely proud of him, and lucky ever to get a word in edgewise. In fact, the last five years we’ve been glad to have him dominate the conversation less, glad to have him listen more effectively and more appreciatively.

napkin foldingNear total silence felt different, awkward, heart-breaking. That talented, challenging, proud man sat at his dining table, folding a paper napkin along the diagonal and then throwing it into the waste basket. Then he started with another, and folded that one in half the other way, midpoint to midpoint, and then half again. He lined up his knife with the pattern of the tablecloth. He adjusted the position of a box of tissues, making it align precisely with the table’s corner. Looking at a stack of photographs, he positioned a smaller photo under the lower border of a larger one. Then he picked up another napkin and used it to measure the place mat, putting down a pointed finger to hold his place. All in silence.

Without meaning to, I watched my father through a math teacher’s eyes. I thought, ‟He’s practicing spatial reasoning.” Practicing, doing the same thing again and again, to do it well.

I thought back. Our father’s professional and community roles depended heavily on his verbal persuasiveness, but strong kinesthetic and spatial intelligence has also shaped his life. Before I was born, he played basketball, and sometimes refereed. (Years later, reading John McPhee helped me appreciate the way a really good basketball player knows where every other player is, and where the ball is, moment by moment.) All of us had watched our father build boats, plan and create gardens, play pool, dance.

As I watched him now, adjusting objects edge to edge, experimenting with fit, I thought about pattern blocks, math manipulatives beloved by many of my students, which they used occasionally in math, and often during rainy-day recess.

pattern blocks and kidsWhere could we get some? On an errand at a nearby mall, my sisters and I saw a toy store. No pattern blocks, but we found something called Imaginets, from MindWare. Small flat wooden shapes painted in five brilliant colors, with magnets on the back, filled a wooden suitcase lined with shiny white magnetic surfaces.


The set offered cards with designs to reproduce. By unanimous consent, we hid those right away, sensing in them an invitation to fail. That afternoon we just took out the box, and opened it on the table where the four of us sat together. After some fuss opening the plastic packages of shapes, one daughter set a purple rectangle in the middle of the white space. Another added to that shape a blue semicircle, lining them up the way our father had been lining up place mats. The third daughter added a green shape that became one of my favorites, an irregular pentagon.

We all held our breath. Would our wordless father join in?

With the exquisite care of a ferry pilot approaching a dock, he steered the piece he’d chosen into the position he had chosen for it. When we oooohed and ahhhhed with appreciation, he beamed.

imaginets and rGradually, as we kept playing, our father joined in with increasing confidence. He had his own sense of fit and appropriateness, in this completely non-competitive, non-verbal, intuitive game we were all inventing together. Until recently, we realized, he might not have been able to do anything this loose, this unconcerned with winning. Here he is, to the right, with one of our completed designs, which fulfilled our goal of using every piece in the set.

When we started letting the curved shapes be tangent instead of fitting closely, he went along for the ride. We grew more and more relaxed about taking turns, particularly after our father added seven shapes one after another, in a run of brilliant yellow, and looked up, pleased with his own sophistication.

I turned away, not wanting him to see tears. Transcending everything that made it hard for us to communicate, we were having a kind of conversation. A man in hand-to-hand combat with dementia, losing one capacity after another, our father was learning.

I wrote the first draft of this post riding north again on the train (a happy little link to the previous post about riding trains with my students.) As I watched the eastern seaboard slide by, creek by creek and cove by cove, I kept mulling it over. My daughter, by phone, suggested the string of words I might use for an online search about spatial / kinesthetic / sensory experience for the elderly. (And I’d welcome leads from any of my readers.)

R using imaginetsAlready, I can say this much. Unlike the students I observed and fell in love with and learned to support both verbally and non-verbally, my father does not have years of growing and learning ahead. He’s in his last chapter, no matter what right games we find. But he, too, needs and can savor the experience of learning. He is still one of us, a human, seriously playing.

In today’s email, I found a photograph our stepmother had taken, shown above, in which our father builds designs with the Imaginets on his own.

hands and imaginetsThis photograph, taken by one of my sisters, captures the image in my heart. I wanted to focus this post on my father, but I come to the end of it needing to thank not only my father but also my funny, creative, wise sisters, and my brave and patient stepmother–all the hands in this photograph. Also our mother, blessing this visit from her distance, and our families, giving whatever they can to the dispersed village we are together.

I think also of my students, from whom I learned so much that is still with me, about all the ways to be alive and aware–and learning–in this world.