Thursday, April 26, 2012

Birds on the Brain

Here at Dodge Nature Preschool, our mission statement refers to the notion that nature is a "catalyst" for learning, and while I see this in action in the classroom, and out on the trail, each and every day, I've come to think about the "catalyst" in a new way.  Rather, I've come to realize that, while nature is an excellent catalyst for children and adults alike, for the teacher, really, the child herself is the catalyst.  In emergent education, you follow the child's lead.  The child is the spark that lights a fire beneath her teacher.  If the teacher is paying attention, she learns how to squirt some accelerant on burgeoning interest.  "Timing," as they say, is "everything."  Come to the party too late, and the guests have already left, or gone to bed.  Come on too strong, too soon, and you scare your student away.  The trick is to step in with pen and paper just when the kid is twitching her fingers and looking for a place to sit down and get to work.  Teachers are like quiet, sensitive concierges, waiting in the wings, anticipating the needs of the guest, stepping in before the guest even knows that she has a need.

Like hoteliers, teachers stock their rooms and closets with stuff in anticipation of the big "aha moment" when a child is ready to get down to business and investigate.  While the Spruce Room office does not contain stacks of clean towels, carefully folded sheets, aftershave, mouth wash and tiny bottles of shampoo, we do have a wide variety of basic and, frankly, more weird and wonderful esoteric tools at the ready.  If your pencil isn't sharp, if your camera battery isn't charged, you won't catch the moment that you want to expand, record and reflect on.

Two days ago, a child walked into our Art Studio to see what her options were.  There she found a somewhat bedraggled and mouse nibbled stuffed raven.  Over the course of the year, Spruce Room teachers have discovered that one should never underestimate the power of taxidermy.  After reaping the rewards of two questionably stuffed Great Horned Owls (both were cast offs from our naturalist colleagues on campus, who apparently have higher standards in taxidermy-- one was referred to as "Touch Down Owl," due to his NFLish, exuberant wing spread and the other was just, "The One That's Falling Apart," due to his, well, dribbling stuffing), we now know not to look a taxidermy gift horse in the mouth (although taxidermy foxes with questionable dental work may be the exception; more on this later).  So, in the Art Studio, a four-year-old came face to face with a raven.  Without preamble, she found me, took my hand, and said, "Come and see what you can discover about this bird."  My friend pulled out a chair for me and instructed me to "draw what you discover."  She hopped up on a nearby block, serving as step stool at the easel, and clasped her hands to her chest, "Now that I've learned all about birds, we can reflect on ravens...and then worms."

As luck would have it, we were prepared.  Not only had my esteemed colleague set the raven on the art table, as catalyst, but freshly cut paper was close at hand, as were nice new fine point black markers.  I was encouraged again, vociferously,  to "draw what I see."  "Okay," I said, "but first you draw what you see, and tell me the words.  I'll write the words."   It was a narrow escape, but before she could do anything, I helped her down off her soapbox and gave her my own seat.  I popped the pen between her fingers and swept the paper beneath her hand.  "I can't draw a raven!"  she exclaimed, in a Mrs. Thurston Howl voice, as if the notion was preposterous.  "You must draw the raven for me."  Well, at this hotel, we don't cater to every need, so I shrugged and said, "I don't know how.  I'm sure you can do it.  You do it your way.  I can't do it your way."  That did it.  My friend proceeded to sketch the bird quickly as I interviewed her about the components of its body.  Then, in order to edify me, as I was clearly in the dark about the particulars, she pushed the sketch aside and excused herself to retrieve her journal, saying, "we should remember this."  She returned with her journal and broke the bird down into the following components, one sketch for each:  beak, tail feathers and talons.  My job was to dictate her musings on each component, and because my colleagues were managing the rest of the classroom, and because we had all prepared the classroom itself, I could seize the moment and help fan a nice strong flame.

Soon, the most active and vocal boys in the room were tearing themselves away from playing "Ninjago," to enter the No Man's Land (for them) of the Art Studio, drawing ravens, writing the word, "raven," and talking about birds.  And it was their young friend who inspired them.  It was peer interaction, and perhaps a bit of competition, that supplied the real octane.  In fact, without our winter long interest in owls, we never would have acquired our raven.  And we never would have embarked on our Owl Inquiry.  In fact, if not for one boy, who we really wanted to reach, who was crazy about raptors, we never would have had the Owl Party with a Dodge Naturalist and Shakespeare the owl.  If not for that one little boy way back in the fall, we never would have had a year's worth of bird discovery.  It's a "butterfly effect," if you will.  Acting on behalf of one individual often has a way of positively impacting the community as a whole.

It may not be open heart surgery, but what we do here at Dodge is thrilling to us.  Nothing compares to watching a child ignite.  The child is the true catalyst for the teacher.

*And, I must come clean.  I never would have written this post tonight, if not for the glorious "Teacher Appreciation" sushi extravaganza dinner some wonderful parents put on for us this evening.  Gratitude is a powerful catalyst too!  So thanks for your support in our daily endeavor.

Thanks to my colleague, Kristenza, for the great photos.