Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Stories in the Land: Acquiring Felt Knowledge
by Nicole J. Greene
A Megamid ("mid" for short) is a four-sided pyramid, a glorified tarp really, with a single aluminum pole holding it up--a tent without a floor. When raindrops thwap down on the nylon, it sounds like the noise made by clicking your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Lightning illuminates my little purple-and-white nylon home and I carefully count the seconds until the sky belches with a grumbling thunder. Twelve. Still safe. But keep track.
Having been out on the trail for sixteen days, I lie here within the confines of my mummy bag watching the mud splatter onto my bivy sack and think of my somewhat more glamorous college education. I'm certainly not attaining the goals that so many of my classmates were striving for: I'm not making much money, and Megamids don't offer much in terms of stability, or, for that matter, staying dry.
And yet, there is nowhere I would rather be. At times, I realize that what I do here high in the Colorado mountains as an Outward Bound instructor has very much to do with what I learned in my years at Middlebury College, in particular with a class that I took the first semester of my sophomore year. The class was called "An Experiment in Environmental Education," and was taught by John Elder. I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up. I had no idea this class would change my life. We set out to read texts about environmental education and then to create our own activities for elementary school students. We were then paired with local teachers so that we could implement our programs in the classroom. Hands-on experiences in the classrooms of Bristol, Vermont, combined with rich discussions among my class members back in Middlebury, revealed to me the value of exposing children to the wonders of the natural world.
Only seven seconds between the lightning and thunder now. I drag my rain-soaked ensolite pad out of my Megamid and rouse my students from beneath their soggy tarps. Into the rain. We spread out into "lightning drill" formation. In their yellow Helly Hansen jackets, my students look like rubber duckies with the paint rubbed off. We count together as the lightning moves closer--until it can't be more than 100 yards away. I squat lower to the ground and hope.
When the wind begins to blow harder, I know that the storm is passing. Four seconds. Then nine. I help my dripping students secure their tarps, get a stove started for dinner, and we quickly debrief the exciting experience. I retreat to my mid.
There is never a lack of excitement in my work as an Outward Bound instructor. But that's not why I love it. That's not why I'm here squeezing the water out of my socks and picking the caked mud off of my legs. I am here because I have come to embrace the concepts of place-based experiential education through the harvest of my own experiences as a student, and as a teacher.
Peak experiences occur not just on the tops of mountains, but also in classrooms, in the field, and in other moments inherent in extraordinary education. It was my experiences in the classrooms of Bristol that led me to the revelatory realization that I am a teacher.
In Elder's class, we based our studies and student teaching on the premise that environmental education should focus on developing a sense of place through direct experience in the natural world--experience that is relational, reciprocal, and holistic. In and through this kind of interaction with their natural environments, young students acquire an appreciation for the sacredness of what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. Spontaneously, children seem to develop this kind of relationship with their own special places. The child who spends hours in a vacant lot watching black beetles sway back and forth on long strands of yellow grass, and the one who always picks the same spot in the same tree in which to play during recess, both exhibit this kind of connection.
As a teacher, it is possible to facilitate the development of the I-Thou relationship. Encouraging students to find "special spots" where they can go for a brief period of time each day to read, write, draw, or observe is an effective way to nurture a child's sense of wonder about place. Edith Cobb, author of The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, believes that a child's experience with place often fosters "an awareness of one's own unique separateness and identity, and also a continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature," and ultimately, with all things.
From my experiences teaching, I know this to be true. I have seen students who never seemed interested in a single classroom subject come alive with curiosity and enthusiasm while sitting and watching birds flying overhead, playing with slimy aquatic insects, or examining the fragility of tree bark. Through the Watershed Partnerships in Bristol, we made time each day for our students to visit their special spots. These various nooks and crannies of the playground became intimately a part of each child's life, and by the end of the semester, the students actually chose to have extra time in their spots rather than participating in playground games.
One day in particular stands out in my mind. My fourth graders and I were walking back to the school building after doing a poetry activity at our special spots. A young girl named Sarah came up to me and nestled her small hand into the curve of my own. "There is so much to look at in nature," she said. "When I go past in a car, it never seems like there's much to see, but when you really look, there's tons." I watched as she turned her face up to the sky. "But it's hard to put the way it makes me feel into words."
"What did you write about?" I asked, gesturing toward the piece of crinkled notebook paper in her other hand.
"It's a poem about the trees."
"How do the trees make you feel?" I asked, bending down so I could look her in the eyes.
"Alive, the trees make me feel alive," she said with a smile.
The glimmer in Sarah's eyes lit up that gray Vermont day. This is why I am here, I thought to myself as I squeezed her hand.
To this day, the look in Sarah's eyes lingers in my mind as an inspiration. In order to facilitate these kinds of experiences, we should nourish our children not merely with facts and figures but with opportunities to acquire "felt knowledge." Through direct interaction and healthy relationships with people and nature, children learn the value of respect, compassion, and strong relationships. When nurtured, a child's desire to learn matures into an adult's sense of place, sense of community, and sense of self.
Through the process of examining environmental education curricula in preparation for the classes I would teach in Bristol, I realized that too often elementary schools create programs to teach students about environmental degradation and global issues such as ozone depletion, global warming, and rainforest destruction. The goal is to produce educated environmental citizens who can contribute to society through their voting and purchasing power. But the effect is proving to be just the opposite, as David Sobel suggests in Beyond Ecophobia. By inundating young students with information about environmental destruction, we may in fact "be engendering a subtle form of dissociation," somewhat similar to the kind of detachment from pain that children experience when they watch gratuitous violence on TV, or in more extreme instances, are victims of physical or sexual abuse. If we only teach children about the terrible ways humans have treated the earth, we may in effect only foster fear--fear of being anywhere near nature.
In my work with the students in Bristol, I came to realize that place-based study can be the connective tissue of a truly interdisciplinary curriculum. We were not teaching environmental education but instead were educating the young students about their homes. We examined local plants, did animal tracking projects, mapped our backyards, traced our water from precipitation to tap, and looked at local sources of food. Through writing, painting, dancing, singing, and creating music we wove our studies together with an artistic thread. In this rich confluence of disciplines and ideas, the students of Bristol developed an understanding of and appreciation for their place.
Wholeness in learning is vital. In his essay "The Land Ethic," Aldo Leopold writes that it is impossible "that an ethical relation to the land can exist without love, respect and admiration for the land, and a high regard for its value." Or, as Paul Knoop put it, "nothing will suffice, short of teaching people to love." Direct experience in nature provides the context for this kind of learning--in which it is affection that binds the student to his or her subject matter.
This is where the most fundamental change in education must take place. Through my experiences in the classrooms of Bristol, Vermont, I realized that effective education is not defined by just being able to answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Instead, education should be relevant, experience-based, hands on, and participatory. I believe fundamentally in the power of this kind of education to enkindle a sense of wonder, a desire to learn, and a respect for place. This belief has inspired me to make it my life. In my work for the Colorado Outward Bound School, and in my current position as the Watershed Education Coordinator for the Telluride Institute in southwestern Colorado, I facilitate these kinds of experiences--where nature is the true teacher.
Back in the Colorado Rockies, the pot that I placed at the base of my Megamid to catch the raindrops cascading off the nylon is almost full. I marvel at my ingenuity as I fill yet another water bottle with fresh rain water. As I reach to return my pot for another fill, I notice two rain-soaked leather hiking boots outside my mid.
"Nicole, it's Katherine. I'm really wet, but do you think I could come in?" ask the feet.
"Of course," I unzip the long zipper and hold the wet nylon aside for the dripping ducky to waddle her way into my home.
"What's up?" I ask as I pull her yellow hood back far enough so that I can see her pooling eyes.
"You know, for the last sixteen days that we've been out here, I've watched you and wondered--wondered why you are here, why you would choose this for your lifestyle," Katherine said intently, as if there were nothing I could say or do to disrupt her train of thought. The same girl who refused to sit on the ground the first three days of the course didn't seem to notice the drops of water that were falling on her forehead from a leak in the seam of my mid, or that when she put her hand down on the ground it sunk two inches into the dark mud.
"And after tonight's storm, do you think it's even more crazy?" I asked, expecting giggling agreement.
"No, that's just the thing. That's how I should feel, that's how I thought I would feel, but I don't." She paused to wipe her eyebrows with her muddy hand, smearing dirt across her wet forehead.
"For the first time, I think I understand," and she looked up at me as if to take in my presence for the first time.
Nicole Greene is Watershed Education Coordinator for the Telluride Institute in Colorado, and a past recipient of an Orion Society Stories in the Land teaching fellowship. She lives in Ophir, Colorado.
This essay is a chapter from Stories in the Land: A Place-Based Environmental Education Anthology, Volume Two in The Orion Society's Nature Literacy Series. Stories in the Land features essays and place-based education activities created by former Stories in the Land fellows. To order a copy of this monograph, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.