A few weeks ago when my (retired) dad was ranting about how miserable it is for a person to have to go to work, thus interrupting their enjoyment of Life, I responded cheerfully that I actually really love both of my jobs and enjoy going to them. He paused, just barely, and with hints of both mock horror and admiration tucked into his smirk, he exclaimed, “Well, you must not be doing it right!” I beamed at him. It’s true. Woods and Wetlands continues to evolve and I learn ways to improve it with every single program, but the senses of purpose, joy, and meaning it gives to me are full and shining. Even in moments when I notice that I am being too hard on myself, wishing I had said or done something different, I catch those harsh thoughts and reframe them. Now I know this. I did not know it before. I will try again. I return home feeling like what I do matters, and it’s getting better all the time.
I also try to remember to ask the students at the end of their program, “What do you know today that you did not know yesterday?” (I frequently do forget to ask this, or I run out of time because time management is evidently something I will have to work on for the rest of my life.) Last week I got to take two classes, each, of kindergarten, first grade, and second grade out into the beautiful, hilly woods behind Cannonsburg Elementary for an hour and a half per class. It is a lovely little space, though it would be much better if it wasn’t split off from the creek in the wilds of Townsend Park by a loud and somewhat busy road.
Before today I did not know that nature could be peaceful.
I did not know that there are tiny things that eat dead stuff and turn it into soil, and that new things can grow in that soil.
I did not know that we should get our hands dirty to protect frogs and toads if we hold them.
I did not know there was this bad plant we should pull out because it is pushing out plants that are supposed to be here.
Now I know what poison ivy looks like.
Now I know it’s okay to get my hands dirty.
I did not know that some bees live underground.
I did not know there are flowers people can eat.
As for me, now I know that if I want the students to really explore and get curious about the diverse array of nature, I should wait until later in the program to show them how bizarrely satisfying it can be to pull out garlic mustard plants! Because once they knew, it was all they wanted to do! I also now know that just a few classes of children can fill massive bags with this terribly invasive and aggressive plant in a short amount of time! Of course, I was pleased on behalf of native plants and animals, but somewhat aghast that I had inadvertently short-circuited my own program plans. Oh well. Now I know.
The kindergarten classes chose to keep their scheduled day and time despite the rain, and I allowed the kids to pick (not pull) just one May Apple leaf to use as an umbrella, just as I loved to do in our lane when I was their age. We had a grand time playing in the rain.
One boy accidentally pulled out a plant that was not garlic mustard, nor did it resemble it in the slightest, but as I began saying so, it hit me that I must remember that to one who has no experience, one plant may very well look very like another. I also recalled that pointing out what has been done wrong should be done kindly, with credit given for good intentions. This was a chance to teach and learn. So we found a spot of soft soil and used our hands to dig a little hole. I showed him how to gently set the plants roots down into the hole and we tucked them all back in again, patting the soil tightly at the base of the plant. Now he knows how to plant something. A day later, another student did the same thing, and I was ready for it. Now I know exactly how I want to handle this in the future. We should all get such do-overs whenever we can.
I adored every single one of those K-2 class programs. The kids were enthusiastic, respectful, engaged, and brave. If I could have stayed there with them all day, I would have. I will never tire of seeing kids transformed by the magic of our beautiful, one-and-only, Earth.
“I want to do EXACTLY what you do when I grow up! I want to teach OUTSIDE!” -Lakes Elementary Kindergartener
“This is just SO much fun! I wish we could do this all the time!” -Cannonsburg Elementary 3rd grader
“I know so much more about nature than I ever did before!” -Roguewood 4th grader
“It’s EARTH DAY today! (Please can it be every day?)” -Me
In the spring of 2021 I was thrilled to begin offering whole-class Woods and Wetlands programs for schools. It made sense to begin with the district where I taught (indoors, mostly) for 17 years. With each hour-and-a-half program I learn more and the format continues to evolve. It began with Valley View Elementary inviting me to wrap up their One School, One Book program by taking every single one of their (many) classrooms out to the woods behind the school where we explored, learned, played, and made connections to the book, Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Back in September and October I met Roguewood’s 4th graders at Camp Rockford and made connections to their science units while adventuring in the woods along the Rogue River and Stegman Creek. My “home base” of Lakes Elementary brought Woods and Wetlands programs to their 2nd graders as we learned about local plants and their seeds.
In March of this year I got to return to Lakes and work with the same 2nd graders I met in the fall. With ice still covering much of the swamp, we learned a little bit about the diversity of wildlife there, how the land has been changed by humans over time, and how to test the ice before stepping on it… (and so much more!)
This week I began a set of programs for Lakes kindergarten as well as Cannonsburg Elementary’s entire school! Each program is a little different and always tailored to the features of the specific space, season, and the age/grade level of the students. Beyond that, there are numerous other differences which I feel uniquely prepared to meet after years of being a classroom teacher myself. I know all too well that the energy and dynamics of each class and their teacher will vary, and I love the chance to connect with all of them in the way that works best for them. There is no exact template for Woods and Wetlands programs, though I spend many hours preparing in the weeks ahead of time. I get to be flexible and fluid each time. I do get incredibly nervous before the first of any set of programs in a new place with new students, but the moment the kids show up I find myself centered and deeply joyful to be doing this work. (It hardly feels like work!)
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I brought kindergarten classes out to a wetland that at one time was connected to Bostwick Lake. As I pulled my classroom-on-wheels (a.k.a. wagon) out to the exploration space before meeting the kids, I caught in my peripheral vision something large, dark, airborne, and incredibly fast, swooping silently toward me from the ground to my right. Almost as quickly as I sensed it, it was past me, and my eyes and brain caught up with each other to realize it was a great-horned owl with prey of some kind in its talons! I have no idea why she was hunting at 1:30 in the afternoon, but she was breathtakingly beautiful. She landed on a low “island” of decomposing log about 100 feet away and proceeded to blend in almost perfectly despite the fact that I knew exactly where she was. We stared at each other for a while before I slowly began to move; after all, I had a class arriving soon and needed to get ready. But what a wonder it was to have that wild creature so near! I was only sorry that the kids wouldn’t get to see her. I love all of the owl encounters I seem to have these days!
The first group of any series of programs always seems to be the roughest. Both kindergarten programs were great fun and all’s well that ends well, but it is undeniable that I always learn at least a few things the hard way with group number one. In this case, my assessment of the space did not take into account the additional rain we have had recently in conjunction with how recently the ground thawed. In past years this space has never once been “mucky,” or sticky. Never once has a child lost their boot or gotten “stuck in the muck,” as we did so many times when my own classroom of first graders explored the area directly behind the school. In fact, that was precisely why I chose this other space; it was open enough to easily see all of the kids at once AND it didn’t have any deep, foot-immobilizing muck! How wrong I was! Regardless, the kids had a ton of fun and they definitely did some learning! (As did I.) Our second group fared better now that I knew what to prepare for.
I loved seeing and hearing the kids out there, balancing on mossy logs, using sticks to help test and balance, shrieking with laughter, and searching earnestly for the things I had photographed and put on a laminated card for them each to wear on a lanyard. One boy came up and triumphantly informed me that he found the duckweed! A few girls showed me the tiny, spiral-patterned snails they discovered, while other explorers turned over decomposing logs and discovered roly-poly bugs/pillbugs/sowbugs underneath. (Why do they have so many names?) I wanted to be everywhere at once! I am always so curious about what the kids find because I almost always learn something new from them. Some years ago my students discovered fairy shrimp out there. I had never seen nor heard of them before, but they are an important early food source for spring creatures just waking up from their winter hibernation.
Today I was especially nervous to be conducting 2 programs at Cannonsburg. Though I know the principal and some of the teachers, I have little familiarity with the school and only introduced myself to its woods just over a week ago when I went to take photos of interesting features for the kids to find. (There is little point in taking photos until right before the program week since nature changes so drastically here in Michigan from month to month!) The Conversation and Exploration cards I made from those photos turned out beautifully! And just as with every new program, my nerves were instantly calmed by the arrival of excited children. Both programs were with 3rd graders and both classrooms were led by teachers I knew already. Yet the two classes were so very different from each other, as most are. I was so lucky that both were fantastic in their own ways. I loved that the first group already had some experience in this space and so their familiarity with the area allowed them a deeper encounter with it this time, yet their comfort level also meant they didn’t need my guidance as much as most do. I could have probably done less talking, less cautioning. They have a teacher who is comfortable doing quite a bit of what I was brought in to do. The second class had no experience yet in this space, but they were eager to learn and were consistently respectful listeners. Their teacher seemed completely comfortable out there and was just as open to learning and exploring as the kids were! She helpfully managed the few who needed a little extra support and circulated widely, checking in and guiding as needed. It flowed just beautifully! The kids with more nature-adventure experience were still happy to take in new information and add it to their growing repertoire of nature knowledge. It rained during the last half hour or so, but the kids were troopers and many were even more delighted to be out in the rain.
Next week I head back to Lakes for the other two kindergarten classrooms and also to Parkside for one of two first-grade programs! Cannonsburg programs pick up again in May.
Below: The laminated Exploration and Conversation cards I created for Cannonsburg kids featured 6 general categories which were color-coded by their lanyard: Trees and tree seeds, plants, fungi and lichen, signs of animals, logs and soil, and patterns in nature. Each card is double-sided with a photo on each side, accompanied by a few facts and usually a thinking question. These are just a few of the photos I took for the cards.