When I graduated from undergrad I had no idea what I was going to be doing with my life. I had just spent four years actively participating in something I loved, environmental studies. College for me was located just outside of Albany and very close to the Adirondacks, so we spent much of our lab periods outside hiking through the woods, wading through streams and interacting with local and state politics. When I learned so much in so many different disciplinarians that are centered on one “Big Idea”, how was I going to decide where my life would take me and what I would be doing? I decided that the easiest thing to do in making a life and career decision would be to do nothing at all. I couldn’t choose how I wanted to use my environmental studies degree, so I would apply for any job that was related to the environment and see where it got me, thinking that the worst that could happen with this plan is I would rule out the jobs I really didn’t picture myself to be an active part. Little did I know that that ‘whatever comes my way’ attitude would have an unimaginable impact on my life. After a couple of months of job searching I was hired at an Environmental Education center in the Catskill Mountains of NY. I had no idea how to setup curriculum or even teach, especially having a classroom that was outdoors and weather dependant. I was extremely nervous to take that job, but I honestly believed that they would not have hired me if they didn’t think that I couldn’t succeed. With this job I found a way to incorporate my passion for the outdoors with being an active member of my community and most importantly helping and caring about others. This is what I wanted to do.
I thought I’d share one of my favorite teaching and learning experiences in environmental education. I always tell this story as one of the lessons that taught me how inspirational it is to work with children, letting them be themselves, explore their world and have fun!- so here it is…
I had never taught winter ecology before and I saw those boys file off their bus. They were so excited, they could not sit still, and they seemed out of control! How was I going to get control of them long enough to teach them anything about winter ecology? But then again I would have tons of energy too if I had just ridden four hours on a Grey Hound bus, transitioning from my natural environment of booming noise and skyscrapers of New York City to the winding roads and mountainous peaks of the Catskills.
After we’d eaten lunch I stood outside in about a foot of snow waiting for my group of boys, it was the dead of winter, February, and the coldest and snowiest we had had in a long time. When the clock hit 1pm the boys came running towards me, twenty 5th graders. I was very nervous! I introduced myself to the boys, as I always had and ran through the list of rules we had about respecting nature and picking up after ourselves when we were finished outside. They didn’t hear a word. They were too busy throwing snowballs at each other. I moved on to my lesson, we started walking to a place I knew there would be awesome animal tracks for identification. When we reached the spot I passed out guide books and told the boys to wander around and find different things on the ground, we could tell what animals had been in the area and were native to winter in the Catskills by identifying their tracks in the snow. I no sooner said break and the boys were running in all different directions through the woods. I felt lost with this lesson. There are so many amazing things to teach about winter in the Catskills. I struggled with how to grab the boys’ attention while still letting them express their excitement with snow, cold and being away from home for three days?
I thought quickly and pulled out my bag of winter ecology lesson plans that I had spent hours gathering together in the days before. I remembered one particular lesson that I thought the boys would really enjoy and would keep them busy in an open field, so that I wouldn’t worry about losing any of them in the woods and would give them the room and flexibility to be as active as they needed. After a few minutes of moving from group to group I managed to gather all of the boys together. From there we headed to the cafeteria where I filled a thermal pitcher with hot water and sweet talked some JELLO powder from the cafeteria staff while the boys warmed up by the fire. Ok, I walked over to the fire; the boys seemed content in this spot, so I explained the activity to them. JELLO Babies is the name of the game, I remember their eyes lightning up and one of the boys asking me what that meant. Well I explained, you are going to be a scientist and tell me what you observe about snow. You’re assignment is to build an igloo that a small paper cup will fit in. We discussed what an igloo was and where the boys would expect to find one. I then explained that the igloo had to be very sturdy and they could use any design that they wanted, but they had to keep in mind that the main goal here wasn’t what the igloo looked like, but how well it supported their JELLO baby. The only igloo design rule I had was that their baby had to be completely covered by the igloo. I then explained to them that I was going to be a bit careless with my baby and just leave it out in the snow with no shelter! They roared and with that we headed outside to a large, open, snow covered field. I had them begin and told them that I would give them their baby once they had an igloo they were proud to call home.
The boys had so much fun. It was complete madness! They ran around building mounds of snow, diving in it, all the while sticking to the task of building. Some had very large igloos, others had ones that were just big enough for the cup, but designed a moat and snow trees around the outside. When I called time I gave each group a cup filled with JELLO and hot water and had them put their baby inside the igloo. I put mine on a path in the snow. They seemed tired out enough after this to play a couple of winter tracking games and work on winter identification, while their snow babies snuggled up in the igloos they had built. After about a half hour or so we went back to check on our snow babies and pick up our garbage. We passed by my baby first, I picked it up, and it was solid JELLO I showed the boys. Before I let them go get theirs we talked about what they would expect to see. Most expected JELLO, just like mine. When they picked up their cups there was still liquid inside, not JELLO! They were amazed and full of questions. This prompted a discussion on how snow is an excellent insulator and the different properties that are associated with snow. I spent the next three days with the same group of boys, teaching and learning different things about my environment and theirs, all the while comparing different lessons back to the first day.
My Snow Babies experience was one that made me question and reflect my ideas about how to be an effective teacher. I learned it wasn’t about control. Teaching is about experience. Experience for the student and experience for the teacher. Guiding children and giving them the tools to experience new and exciting things. Even when it seems completely chaotic, they are learning, they are experiencing and they are viewing the world in a new way that they had not previously known. Teaching is a constantly growing relationship between groups of people. It’s not about having an adult in the front of a classroom; it’s about children rolling around in the snow, building an igloo and understanding through real world experience.