For years I’ve lamented the fact that my students, of all ages, don’t spend any time outside. They are over-scheduled, overworked, and over-parented (sometimes); there is no time to play outside. During my first year of teaching we went on a field trip to the local nature center and I can still picture a group of students standing on the bus steps exclaiming, “But there’s mud here! I can’t walk in mud!”. They promptly pulled out their phones, tablets, and video games. My current students have asked me to ban cell phones in our classroom because the temptation to Snapchat, play Clash of Clans, or send a text is just too much. And now there is Pokémon Go.
I somehow missed the Pokémon craze as a kid. I think I was a little too old for it the first time around (or I was just too busy reading) so considered me shocked to find clumps of players wandering my local park. My husband has downloaded the game and we’ve walked the dogs all over town in order to help him catch and hatch more monsters. Last night we took a group dog walk at a county park, a county park that would normally be close to empty at 8pm, and stumbled upon dozens of people of all ages playing the game. I could not believe it! There were shouts of “I missed the Jigglypuff!” followed by “No! The park is red now!”. They may not have been identifying local species, but they were spending a lot of time outside playing.
Then my SAT students started talking about the game. Today, during a heatwave when it felt like it was over 100 degrees outside, half of my students took a walk during our break. A walk! Usually they just whip out their phones and put their headphones in their ears, shutting out the world. But today there were no headphones! No sitting at their desks! One teen told me, “I walked 5 miles yesterday. I don’t think I’ve ever walked 5 miles in my LIFE”. I had to laugh at his exaggeration, but I understand what he was trying to say. Suddenly these teens are walking around their neighborhoods and visiting local parks and landmarks. They are meeting people in these places, friends and acquaintances, and walking together trading tips. It’s beautiful to watch.
So this teacher will probably still ban phones in the classroom next year, especially because students requested it, but I will also encourage them to play Pokémon Go during lunch. And after school. Maybe even before school. And we will talk about the parks they visit and what else they notice in those parks. I may not love the fact that they are still glued to a screen, but any time spent in nature is time well-spent. Time outside can help reduce stress and help kids and teens feel more connected to the environment. I’m loving that! Pokémon Go might be the lure we need to get students outside and involved with the ecosystems in their own neighborhood. Because they may start out with their faces looking at a screen but I hope that they will also start to pay attention to the landscape around them. Maybe the next time they go outside they’ll leave the phone at home and go wade in that cool creek they found or climb that really weird looking tree.
Erik Mollenhauer is one of my teacher heroes. I was first introduced to him during my student teaching when my incredible mentor teacher was raising monarch butterflies. She had attended a Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies workshop earlier in the year and encouraged me to take the workshop the next summer. (Tangent- the summer workshops are going on now. If you are in NJ, NH, IL, or MD you should go to the workshop!). The workshop, which uses the monarch butterfly to encourage teachers and students to become stewards of the environment, is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular. It was life-changing PD for me and resulted in a fellowship to the monarch overwintering grounds in Mexico.
Today Erik is retired but still works to combat nature deficit disorder in children and adults. The embedded video shows “The Mad Hatters Tree Party”, a celebration of trees and Alice in Wonderland, that he helped bring to life. What a fantastic mash-up of science and English class! I could see teachers and students creating their own version of a Mad Hatter’s Tree Party, maybe even matching up older students with younger students.
The Children & Nature Network posted this video earlier today on Facebook and said, “Retired educator Erik Mollenhauer says we face an “extinction of experience” sitting indoors all day, online and playing with our mobile phones. He thinks we’re losing a critical connection to the natural world”.
The Mad Hatters Tree Party from Ed Waters on Vimeo.
Science and English- Perfect Together! STEManities is real, people!
I’m always on the lookout for”science-y YA books” as I call them. In my experience, there are lots of middle grade realistic fiction books with a science focus or angle but they seem to disappear once kids are out of middle school. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Kate Messner mentioned Karen Rivers’ Before We Go Extinct on Facebook last week. I quickly ordered a copy and I read it in one sitting over the holiday weekend.
JC earned his nickname, Sharky, after watching the documentary Sharkwater. But this isn’t just a story about sharks; this is a grief story with a solid side of science. Sharky recently witnessed the death of his best friend, The King, and is struggling with moving forward. When the third member of their threesome begins to gain notoriety due to her relationship with The King, Sharky is pushed to the edge. He shuts down and stops talking. As a result, his mother decides he needs t get out of the city and away from the tragedy consuming his days. She sends him to the Pacific Northwest to spend the summer with his absent father who is the caretaker on a small island. Sharky and his hippie-esque father have always been distant from one another and he doesn’t expect that to change when he arrives on the almost-abandoned island off the coast of Vancouver. And then he meets some of the other residents of the small island and he explores the island and the surrounding waters.
This is a story packed with ecology and conservation but it’s not preachy. Rivers’ descriptions of the plant and animal life on the island and in the water are stunning and breathtaking. I found myself rereading passages because they were so beautiful. The shark behavior and other animals introduced are realistic and intriguing- I know that I went on to look up the area and the biodiversity located there after I finished the book. This would be a fantastic book to pair with an environmental science class. I’m already imagining opportunities to get students outside looking at the plants and animals in their own backyards through Sharky’s eyes.
Sy Montgomery is one of the best science writers today and I love her work so much. If you haven’t added the Scientists in the Field series to your class library you must do so ASAP. Her titles (and all of them, honestly) are must-reads! In addition, her adult books appeal to many of my YA readers.
Because I’m a huge fan I love learning about the research behind Montgomery’s books. A few weeks ago I stumbled on an interview posted on a blog, Notes From Kenya, run by the students in the Holekamp Lab at Michigan State University, College of Natural Science. Sy Montgomery spent time at the Holekamp Lab for a new Scientists in the Field book! I know I can’t wait to get a copy of the book (The Hyena Scientist) and look forward to sharing it with my students.
The interview posted on the MSU blog is fantastic and highly recommended!
I have a new favorite picture book. Finding Wild, written by Megan Wagner Lloyd and illustrated by Abigail Halpin, is the perfect book to introduce children of all ages to nature. I plan to share it with my high schoolers and can’t wait to do so!
Filled with gorgeous illustrations, Finding Wild is about the wonders of nature that surround us, whether we are in a city or the country. Even if it looks like we are surrounded by concrete and steel we can find nature if we look hard enough. Megan Wagner Lloyd’s text encourages the reader to spend time outside appreciating the wonder of nature, whether that is a forest or a vacant lot.
I plan to use Finding Wild as an entrance into our nature writing unit of study because the text is rich with imagery. The illustrations are magical, with branches turning into snakes that feel like they might crawl off the page and greens and blues and yellows and reds poking out of sidewalks and forests. It’s a must-have book for any teacher who wants to inspire students to “find wild” in their own lives.
A recent post on The New York Times Well blog focused on the benefits of nature and greenery for children and adolescents. Spending time outside can make teens less stressed, help them better retain information, and improve their mood.
Now look around your classroom. When I look around mine I see cinder block walls, fluorescent lighting, and tiny windows (I’m in a basement classroom). Teachers frequently lament how students struggle to pay attention in class but their environment, despite our best decorating efforts, is often dull and boring. What if we took students outside to read? To journal? To work on collaborative projects? I have a cart of Chromebooks in my classroom and the wifi reaches our courtyard. My new goal, now that spring has finally arrived in NJ, is to bring my students outside more often.
Scientists may not know all the answers yet- how long should we spend in nature to reap the benefits? Is there a difference between urban, suburban, and rural areas? What are the implications of doing schoolwork outside? But there is enough evidence at this point to push us out of our comfort zone. Bring those students outside!
In addition, spending time in nature can help kids with attention-deficit problems. According to a recent study, spending time in “green” areas can help students cut their attention-deficit symptom. While the sample size was small, the results are astounding. A “dose” of nature may help almost at much as a dose of medication for students who struggle with ADHD! Yet those students spend hours everyday inside. They are also the students most likely to have recess taken away as a punishment. We need to do better.
A few of the op-eds, stories, and articles that have caught my attention this week.