Giving Place a Voice: Teaching Students to
Wake Up to Nature
By ROB HANSON
Rob Hanson is a 6th grade teacher at Pomfret School near Woodstock, Vermont.
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up.
Smell the sweetness of ferns
Hear water rushing over rocks
Feel the stinging bite of a mosquito
Taste the fresh wind blowing on your face
Learn the art of seeing
Pomfret School Speak Chorus
A hypocrite, that’s what I was. After years as an elementary teacher extolling the necessity of outdoor education, my students were rarely feeling the wind on their cheeks under my watch. Earlier, while teaching in northern California, I regularly led classes on explorations of California’s plants and animals in the Sierra foothills, the Pacific Coast, as well as coordinating a school-wide gardening project which became a model of science education in the region. I knew these lessons were the most powerful experiences I gave my students. So when I moved to the Green Mountains of Vermont in 1990's, I was confident that a good dose of my teaching would happen outside. But, ten years later, it wasn’t true.
To be sure, there were good excuses. Responding to the demands of teaching a combined classroom in a new state, I was busy devising and implementing a host of math, science, history, and language units. Learning the natural history of New England would take time. My wife and I had a toddler and infant to raise. Besides, unlike the fair weather in California, Vermont’s winters made opting out easy. But, after ten years in Vermont with the nagging guilt that I was not teaching about place, a flyer advertising A Forest For Every Classroom came my way. I knew it was time to relearn, and teach, the values of wind, water, soil, and sun.
On a steamy September afternoon I tumble out of the classroom clutching my field journal and pencil with clammy hands. I jog across the playground to the brook’s bank, then wade through a sea of ferns. Carefully, I pick my way down, anticipating the wonderful feeling of clear, cold water. I dive in, resurface, and float on my back.
Mary Griffin, Pomfret School Sixth Grade Student
As with many students, I wasn’t sure I was up to the demands placed on me by my teachers. The primary assignment of A Forest For Every Classroom was to create a quality place-based unit connecting students to their natural and human communities. After immersing myself in place-based literature, two readings quickly set my course. The first came from John Tallmadge’s Into the Field essay describing field journaling and power spots. Yet, the piece offered only a general bearing: my students would select an outdoor spot and write. A second work, that of Joseph Cornell’s Journey to the Heart of Nature, was more precise. As I read Journey with its detailed “power spot” activities, I knew I had in my hands a map of the very territory I wished my students to explore. More than this, it was a map created by the preeminent cartographer of environmental education.
Using Cornell’s lessons as a guide, I began setting aside an hour each week for power spots. During the first days of school, when the summer sun makes the classroom a sauna, students are eager to pull on bathing suits and old sneakers for our first walk in Barnard Brook behind the classroom. Although it feels more like an extension of summer vacation than “real school”, we slosh through the brook with Alan Graham, a parent and biologist, who helps us find and understand dragonfly nymphs, caddis fly larva, crane flies, and a host off other macro invertebrates.
After this introduction to the personalities of the brook community, we take the much-anticipated “choosing” brook walk in which each student selects a place along the bank that calls to them. This becomes their personal power spot: an isolated island of riffle, stone, mixed deciduous trees, insects, and traces of mammals. Over a course of ten months, students stay put and “journey” through their spot. For most, embarking on a journey implies moving through a landscape in search of something or someone of import: understanding river and mountain, farm and farmer. Yet, as Thoreau clearly expressed in his “I have traveled extensively in Concord,” this knowledge may be obtained just as well by staying put and letting rivers and mountains come to you.
Central to the students’ journey is the discovery of the pieces, patterns, and processes of their power spot through such activities as writing field journal observations; mapping their site; sketching the landscape; tracking; writing poetry; creating their personal tree field guide; trapping and studying insects; and creating natural sculptures using stone and wood. In their spot, summer, autumn, winter, and spring come to each in turn, allowing them to directly experience and observe the continuity and change inherent in the cycle of the seasons.
As I hoped, implementing the power spot unit put my students outside, engaged in substantial, fun, and meaningful learning. In the coming months and years, I planned to tweak Cornell’s activities here and there, add a few others, and so finally rid myself of my dark “outdoor education hypocrisy” cloud. So far, so good. But, unknown to me, the best was yet to come, and it came from a totally unexpected direction.
I look around my power spot and see
What does all this mean?
Are these things begging me to take a closer look?
I heard once that everything in nature has a lesson. . . .
2001 Pomfret School Speak Chorus
Among the lessons in Cornell’s Journey to the Heart of Nature is one entitled “Learning From Nature.” It is a rather simple writing activity based on the following prompt: “Look around your site and see if there are any lessons you can learn from nature. A rock might teach you about patience or firmness. Ants might demonstrate cooperation or determination. Choose two things you feel particularly drawn to. Look at each one carefully and try to see what quality it represents for you. Write one or more paragraphs about each of these lessons.”
After writing several pages on this prompt in their field journals, I brought the class back to the classroom in a writing circle and I asked each to read their favorite paragraph or two. The results were stunning. While the twelve-year-old writers before me were not in the same league as Henry Thoreau or Annie Dillard, their work was fresh and perceptive. It was too good to simply display and file. It had to be celebrated—but how?
I didn’t have to look far to find the answer. In the mid-1990s a group of Woodstock, Vermont high school students, under the masterful direction of dramatic arts teacher Harriet Worrell, performed a “speak chorus”—a form reminiscent of an ancient Greek chorus. I had never experienced such simplicity and power of the spoken word—and from “mere” high school students! The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that translating my students’ “What Nature Teaches Us” pieces into speak chorus form would be a powerful combination.
Everything is different in nature.
Wouldn’t life be boring if everything was the same?
Nothing would work.
Trees and shrubs, predator and prey
Each with its own living space
Each with a different life style helping to maintain balance
All life on earth depends on diversity.
We humans are unique, too.
Be thankful that we are different from each other.
Have the courage to distinguish yourself from the rest of the crowd.
2002 Pomfret School Speak Chorus
For the past three years each succeeding sixth grade class has written, rehearsed, and performed a “What Nature Teaches Us” speak chorus. Performances have been given at a teachers’ workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, a community forum for place-based education at Billings Farm and Museum, at graduation ceremonies, school assemblies, and as personal “thank yous” to individuals like Harriet Worrell and Alan Graham. The impact upon my students, their peers, parents, and the community is telling. Certainly, there are many reasons for this, but three appear obvious and quite distinct from the status quo of public education.
First, the authorship and the passion of each speak chorus belongs entirely to the students. They, not the teacher, carry the entire intellectual and moral authority of the chorus. Each student—no matter their cognitive, social, or emotional level—authors, rehearses, and performs the chorus with confidence and pride. After intense rehearsals, their message is internalized, then delivered by the unparalleled means of the chorus. This results in students taking a passionate ownership of their work, both about what they say and, as importantly, how the say it. Apathy and speak choruses don’t mix.
Secondly, although rehearsing and performing the chorus is a team effort, writing it is an intensely solitary, outdoor experience. Allowing students consistent times of solitude for outdoor reflective writing is rare—in schools or elsewhere. This is striking given that many of our icons of science and religion stress just this element in their teachings. Thoreau at Walden Pond is an obvious example, but so are Einstein on his sailboat, Jesus wandering the desert, Newton in his mother’s apple orchard, Siddhartha beneath the bodhi tree, or Lao Tzu’s retreat from the gates of the civilized world. Our emphasis in schools on socialization is no doubt warranted, but students often crave, and need, times of solitude and quiet with soil beneath their feet and sky above.
Finally, complimenting the need for solitude, the speak chorus requires each student to be a supportive member of a community of writers. After their power spot writing, students “circle up” and share what they consider to be the best of their work. This writing circle emphasizes both taking risks (all students must share) and emotional safety. Because of this, students make connections and feed off the ideas of each other in the same way as a well-run reading circle. They learn the elements of good writing—purpose, detail, voice, mechanics, organization—from both their teacher and each other without fear of humiliation.
Learning from nature has been a preoccupation of humans for thousands of years. Understanding the natural world and our place in it is crucial for our individual and collective health. In the past century, however, the deafening noise of popular culture and the technology that feeds it has all but drowned out the voices of place. The combined elements of power spots and speak chorus offer students and their teachers potent tools to hear what nature teaches us. In the words of the 2002 Pomfret School Speak Chorus:
Quietly we wait
Water sparkles with afternoon sun
A dragonfly appears over the water, twisting and turning
then is gone
Water striders are everywhere, moving in a funny pattern
float, stroke, float, stroke
I lay back and close my eyes.
Take a chance
Alive! Alive! Alive!
T h a t ’ s the point!
Written during a Reflection Writing Retreat co-sponsored by Community Works Institute's partner Shelburne Farms.
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