When To Let Go And Let Students Lead

One of the joys of teaching about the environment is getting my students outside as much as possible. Usually this means excursions to nearby field sites every month or so, which in itself feels miraculous in the typical pace of a high school day. This past year however, I decided to make nature walks around the school’s neighborhood, a fairly wooded New England suburb, a regular routine. I wanted outdoor observations to be more than just a novelty.

I had many lofty visions of the budding naturalists that my students would become and I drew up extensive field guides for them and developed very specific daily goals: identify eight trees by bark pattern and bud arrangement; discover a vernal pool with three obligate species. In some way I think I felt that because I was taking them out of the classroom walls so frequently, I had to justify our removal from our normal physical setting and give ample evidence of our productivity.

As winter changed to spring, and our loop through the woods became familiar, I realized I didn’t need an agenda or a task. Our action items, and the rest of the week’s classroom time was set.

Those trees over there? Sugar maples, yes people used to tap them, here are the old scars. Could we do that? (Could we?) Yes!

And thus began a four week study of the sugaring process and an analysis of how climate change is affecting local industries and what it could mean for our trees, which we could contemplate while eating the sweet results of study in syrup form.

​​These little pools, are they the vernal pools we read about? We’ll have to keep checking week after week to see if we can find amphibians and fairy shrimp.

The hardest part of this process was not finding resources on new material or connecting the class with local experts to talk to. Then came the biggest challenge for a teacher - letting go of my own ambition for the class. I had to get over my fear of not “getting through” enough material. I had to take a red pen to my syllabus and rearrange the content standards. How did I handle it? I just took a deep breath and put my boots back on and headed out again.

It wasn’t all enchanted forest. Yes, sometimes there were birds and beautiful flowers, soft light filtering through tree leaves illuminating small streams. ​​​​​​

​​One amazing moment there was a baby fox resting on a rock. ​​Another time, a juvenile red tailed hawk stalked us as we bushwhacked and silently following us from tree to tree. When we got back to the school parking lot, it even swooped over our heads in what was perhaps a farewell-gesture.​​

But there were also equal measures of mud, cold snow in our shoes and ticks. ​​ ​​Those cute little macro-invertebrates swimming around in a pool of water? ​​Mosquito larvae. But then again, we did find those fairy shrimp. ​​They seemed to emerge from nowhere one day when we found them, silently swimming in the dust mottled brown water of our little vernal pool.

This was the evidence that we needed to prove that this seemingly insignificant overgrown puddle was a necessary component of the ecosystem providing a key breeding ground for amphibians and bugs alike. The students worked with a local wetland scientist to compile the paperwork we needed to have it officially recognized and protected by the state. We even found a salamander.​​

The big question is, was it worth it? Did the students learn what I needed them to? Do they have a strong enough foundation to move on to upper level classes? Also, importantly, when they are adults and making decisions in their towns and cities about how to protect and preserve open space, will they remember our little empty seeming patch of woods and the richness we found? As teachers, we never know what lessons our students take with them; we can only plant seeds.​​

At the end of the year, one of the senior’s surprised me by decorating her graduation cap a la The Lorax, which we had read on the last day of class. ​​Another student wrote “Thank you for helping me develop a compassion for our earth that I didn’t even know was inside of me” in a note that she left on my desk on the last day of school. Included in her note was a slip indicating she had made a donation in my name to the Yosemite Conservancy.

I was stunned. They had got to the heart of the matter. These two messages from my students have become my most treasured mementos of my teaching career. Without me telling them explicitly that I wanted them to learn to love this land, not to mention every wild place on earth, they did.

Sometimes, when you write detailed lesson plans, you should stick with them. Sometimes you just need to go for a walk aimlessly in the woods and let students be the guide.

Learn more about the author Katharine Hinkle here.

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