End of the Year Reflection - Forest News
From Middle Level Teacher Mr. Will Hudson: As we’re all sitting down for end of the year conferences to reflect and celebrate our students’ growth and accomplishments, I wanted to take a moment to likewise reflect on my experiences with students this year and some of the things, I hope, I have been able to impart to the young people I have been so fortunate to work with.
Knowing where to start this post has been difficult as this has been the first year at TCS where I haven’t had my own classroom. Rather, I feel like I’ve been all over the place! It’s been great, but where to start?
For example, this past Tuesday I spent the day at Lake Michigan with first and second graders releasing the rainbow trout they’ve cared for and watched grow throughout the year. I began the year with several Middle Level students who helped me build the stand robust enough to hold our 70 gallon trout tank. Throughout the year, they also helped me complete water quality tests and maintain both the trout tank and our saltwater aquarium in Ms. Coria’s classroom.
Based on input from our current 8th graders, I taught a yearlong overview of biology, chemistry, and physics. Amongst other things, we dissected (and cooked) a beef heart, explored endothermic and exothermic reactions, and created a hands-on Physics Exploratorium for the whole school.
I have visited Ms. Angela’s classroom on several occasions to help with project construction, demonstrate different techniques for fire making, and later explored the characteristics of light as part of their bee project. I’ve helped build stuff for projects, worked with students to design and set up a dedicated and functional tinkering space, and have been gifted several dead birds, insects, a duck egg, and stories of individual student adventures and experiences in nature on camping trips and around their home.
With all of the experiences I’ve been able to share with students within the school building, the most rewarding and, at times challenging, have been those we’ve had outside and in the forest preserves. I wish I could say that, after 20 years of standing in front of skeptical young people, I am impervious to the fear and anxiety induced by just thinking about wrangling 40 middle schoolers in the woods, but this would be an untruth. However, one of the things I most appreciate about working at TCS is the opportunity for challenge and growth, and I feel like through the support of the rest of the Middle Level team, and the generous spirit of our ML students, we were all able to grow and learn, not just about science and nature, but also about ourselves.
None of us need be reminded of the environmental, social, political, and economic struggles impacting our communities, society, and world. And I think we also understand that our young people feel these challenges acutely. For many, the future is grim, and the widespread mental health crisis that is affecting our youth is further testament to this fact. I believe that, during the months of quarantine, the days students spent together at the park, in our backyards, and in the woods saved many the deep despair and isolation that others were unable to escape.
The research is pretty conclusive that time spent in nature is good for us, and it is good for our children. Our ongoing commitment at TCS to cultivate experiences and build relationships with nature makes for happier, self-confident, and caring children today, and is an investment that will pay dividends as they grow into their future.
So, what have these experiences and relationship building looked like this year?
Expressions of gratitude and land acknowledgement - every Friday began with an acknowledgement of the indigenous history of the land and the natural community, followed by our expressions of gratitude.
Sensory Awareness - students routinely played games and participated in activities that required them to make full use of, or bring attention to less dominant senses, such as hearing or their sense of smell.
Self-Reliance and Self-Care - each season presents different difficulties and challenges; students learned how to prepare for a day in the woods, take care of themselves when they were there, and manage the inevitable discomfort of challenging days.
Stewardship and Community Building - students removed invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle and participated in a wider initiative to improve the quality of our natural habitats. Stewardship days also consistently result in opportunities for classroom community building, creating new games, and open-ended play.
Principles of Ecology - from predator/prey relationships, to the impact of invasive species, the water cycle, to changes of animal’s habits and the overall landscape throughout the shifting of the seasons, either through lessons and activities, or direct experience, students were exposed to the interrelationships that form the foundation for ecology and nature connection.
Literacy, literature, and poetry - students wrote in journals, composed poems and other short pieces of writing, and listened to poetry read aloud at the close of each session. A collection of some of the poems read this year can be found here.
Cultural Awareness and Appreciation - students participated in a Cross-Quarter Day celebration in February to acknowledge the many cultural celebrations that mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In April students celebrated the Iranian holiday of Nouruz (fire jumping!) and the colorful Holi Celebration from India.
Field Investigations - students learned to differentiate between and generate descriptive and comparative questions and carried out a series of field investigations using different methods of data collection, averaged and compared results, discussed outcomes, and made suggestions for how to improve methods and procedures.
Open Ended Play and Exploration - students were afforded opportunities to explore the woods, observe a variety of wildlife, catch minnows in the Des Plaines, put up tarps, build forts, and play a wide variety of games on the field and in the woods.
I look forward to building on our successes and experiences from this year, and continuing to explore the edges of our knowledge and understanding of the natural systems in our own communities. In addition to continuing to visit Evan’s Field, I am excited about taking field trips to other interesting and ecologically important locations such as Indiana Dunes, Volo Bog, and different preserves in Palos. Additionally, students will continue to build on their knowledge of how to design and carry out field investigations so as to pursue their own independent, original, research and inquiry.
I often reflect on how, early in her studies, botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer wanted to understand why yellow goldenrod and purple asters look beautiful together, a question that emerged from her deep and lifelong experiences with and connection to plants (a question that was dismissed by her advisor at the time). Or how one of the late E.O. Wilson’s earliest memories was of watching a jellyfish undulating in the surf in the Gulf of Mexico and all the questions this experience spurred in his young mind.
Both of these individuals have made significant contributions to our understanding of the natural world through a life committed to paying attention, asking questions, and application of the scientific method. However, none of this would have been possible if they had not had the opportunity, as children, to build the deep connections that fed their interests and later scientific inquiries. These are just two names off a list that goes on and on of scientists who made their mark on the world because, as children, they had opportunities to think, ask questions, and explore.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share these experiences with these young people.