Bird by Bird We Come to Know the Earth

Bird by Bird We Come to Know the Earth

by Emma Belanger

As someone who comes from a low-income background and grew up in a semi-urban environment, birds were one of the first aspects of the more-than-human world that I felt truly connected to without having to obtain expensive gear, resources, or and a way to travel to a novel environment. When I looked out my window, I saw birds in the trees outside; when I walked around my neighborhood with my family, I practiced my birding by ear; at home, I would sit for hours combing through my Birds of Michigan field guide and making notes about the birds I had noticed that day. For me, birds were an access point to what would become a lifelong dedication to learning more and being inspired by the natural world.

Photo by Emma Belanger

Now, as an outdoor educator working primarily with 4th-6th grade students, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach about birds. If we want to study ecology, knowing more about the birds in a particular ecosystem can tell us so much about how different actors are playing a role and acting in relation to other beings. If we’re curious about how the world changes over time, we might look to birds to help tell us some of the story. When we want to know more about the beings we share space and time with, we might turn to feathered friends, hear their calls, see their colors, and learn about ways the world brings life together. With birds having relatively easy visibility and accessibility in most locations, even in urban settings, shared stories of conservation successes, and many aspects worthy of awe, birds are a perfect candidate for rich studies in environmental and science education spaces that can connect us to the more-than-human world. Thus, in educational settings, learning about birds allows learners to think about the world around them in finer detail and gives them tools to begin asking questions about stewardship, conservation, and being in right relationship with their local ecosystem.

There is also evidence to suggest that being around and noticing birds can lead to positive mental and emotional wellbeing (Hammoud et al., 2022). Further, practicing birding can invite us to engage with other ways of knowing and being that allow us to reimagine what ecology means, making room to dismantle some colonialism present in academic ecoliteracy. When teaching about birds, we can engage in critical place pedagogy and put intentions towards expanding learners’ socio-ecoliteracy, where Indigenous, Black, and peoples of color history and culture can be valued as legitimate funds of knowledge (Wicks, 2020). There is not one right way of having a relationship with birds, and connections to birds can be profoundly related to culture, family, and personal experiences. Honoring an individual’s unique relationship to place and non-human animals provides learners with relational resources to dene their experiences in their own terms, leading to learning that becomes more personal and grounded in that individual’s reality.

Any outdoor place has birds for us to meet, listen to, and learn from, making bird lessons inherently a place-based topic. When lessons give learners access to ways of knowing that enable them to make more connections to their communities, act for important causes, and find ways to care for themselves and the world around them, knowledge can become a foundation where future worlds of justice take root. Climate change continues to impact human and non-human lives and ways of being, and having access to practices that feel grounding, important, and rooted in place-based knowledge may empower learners to act radically in reciprocity and appreciation for their communities and one another. In this way, engaging in practices of birding and paying close attention to the world can equip students with mindfulness skills, deepened nature-culture relations, and inspiration for future dreaming and activism.

If you feel inspired to try out a bird lesson with your community of learners, you can find a lesson I like to do with “new” birders below. I, for one, hope to make the practice of listening and watching for birds something I do with learners no matter where I am. This practice feels intertwined with relational gratitudes and can help us to reiterate a commitment to paying attention to the natural world. As Mary Oliver says, “attention is the beginning of devotion” (Oliver, 2016). In the time that I’ve spent with others thinking about birds, I’ve seen others experience, and I have myself experienced, feelings of joy, wonder, peacefulness, and excitement. All of these emotions, to me, are essential to humanity’s survival and ability to thrive in our changing world. To change with our world, we must be willing to listen, to take the time to see and feel what our bodies feel, to be present in what the present is calling for.

Birdsong Lesson Plan

Learning Goals: Feel familiar and comfortable being quiet outside, practicing grounding techniques through deep listening, making creative connections to the world around us.

DCI Focus: Biological Evolution; Ecosystems

NGSS Practices: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information; Developing and Using Models

Materials: Paper, writing utensils, any accessibility equipment necessary for your group of learners, bird eld guides (optional), binoculars (optional), Merlin Bird ID App or BirdNET app and device (optional)

Target Audience: 3rd grade and up
Ask a group about birds they may have seen in their lives, recently in a shared context or by connecting students to other ways some may commonly learn about or experience birds.

Use a mix of small group, individual, and large group reflections. Then, prompt the group to think for a moment about birdsong and what they already know about how birds communicate. Introduce the activity by asking learners what it might look like to try to draw a visual representation of a sound. If guidance is needed, provide ideas about pitch, tone, sound length, loudness, etc, and different ways those could be represented.

Pass out/ask learners to get out a blank piece of paper and a writing utensil while you explain that the group will sit silently for some length of time (5-10 mins depending on group interest and motivation), and while we listen for birds, we’ll draw out visual representations of the bird noises we here.

Emphasize that there’s no way to do this wrong and lots of ways to do it right. Students can use whatever symbols, patterns, or even words and colors, as long as it makes sense to them.

Do the activity with the students during the allotted time; draw what you hear! There is an opportunity to use the Sound ID feature of the Merlin Bird ID app, or the BirdNET spectrograms, if that would feel relevant to your learners or if you have learners that are in the Deaf community. Bird eld guides could also be used during this part of the lesson.

At the end of the time, ask students reflective questions. Perhaps, how many different birds did you hear? How did you know? Then, ask students to switch with a partner to try to decode their representations. Ask students to make the sounds they think their partner drew.

At the end, I like to ask students how it felt to be sitting quietly together in nature and if it was easier to hear sounds that they don’t usually notice. At this point, I share that birdsong is one way I feel like I can always tune in to my relationship with the natural world when I need it personally–if I’m sad, overwhelmed, anxious, etc. I encourage learners to think about what it might look like to try this activity in other spaces and contexts.


Conradie, N. & Van Zyl, C. (2021). Investigating the Environmental and Avi-Values and Birding Behaviour of Gauteng’s Young. African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure 10(5):1695- 1710. DOI:
Hammoud, R., Tognin, S., Burgess, L., Bergou, N., Smythe, M., Gibbons, J., Davidson, N., A, A.,

Bakolis, I., & Mechelli, A. (2022). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 17589.

Neruda, P., & Schmitt, J. (1989). Art of birds (1st ed). University of Texas Press.

Oliver, M. (2016). Upstream: selected essays. New York, Penguin Press.

White, R. L., Eberstein, K., & Scott, D. M. (2018). Birds in the playground: Evaluating the effectiveness of an urban environmental education project in enhancing school children’s awareness, knowledge and attitudes towards local wildlife. PLOS ONE, 13(3), e0193993.

Wicks, T. (2020). Becoming Birds: Decolonizing Ecoliteracy. Portland Audubon.

Zych, A. (2016). Birding as a Gateway to Environmental Education. New York Audubon. on/

Emma Belanger (she/they) is a graduate student in education, interested in co-creating new worlds with learners. You can visit her website by clicking here.

Asking Questions

Asking Questions

Key Considerations for Asking Questions as a
Field-Based Science Instruction

By Amos Pomp


We do not ask [questions] in a vacuum; what we ask, how, and when are all related.
– Bang et al., 2018

How can field-based science instructors be intentional with the questions we ask students?

As a graduate student and field-based environmental science instructor for 4th-6th graders in Washington State, I ask students questions all the time. Asking questions is an integral part of learning and doing science and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices. I believe that the questions I pose as an instructor have the power to either disengage or engage student groups in their learning processes. Thus, considering which questions I ask, and when, is a significant and nuanced part of my teaching practice.

Instructor-posed questions are an important, multifaceted part of effective pedagogy. Instructors should ask their students various types of questions and celebrate various types of answers. Instructors may ask questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge, check their understanding, help them figure out where there are gaps in their ideas, and help uncover ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed (Reiser et al., 2017). Instructors may also ask questions to “help students figure out and refine their own questions” (ibid.).

The way in which instructors ask questions and elicit answers is also important. If I only encourage spoken answers to my questions, I may send an implicit message that I only value verbal and vocal participation in my learning environments. If I only praise the ways in which one student’s artwork connects to my prompt, I’m implying that I prioritize some sensemaking over others’. If I only accept scientific names of plants as correct, I’m indicating what kinds of knowledge I deem acceptable.

Reflecting on this non-exhaustive list of reasons for asking questions, as well as the potential implications of how I solicit answers, has led me to be more intentional with the questions I do ask and how I ask them. I don’t just think about what I am asking my students; I also think about why I am asking it—for what purpose. I think about whom I am asking it to or for and what kind of responses I am expecting from my group. How can I engage them in their own sensemaking and synthesis, creative thinking, and science and engineering processes? To help plan for each new group of students I teach, I’ve developed a framework for how I consider the pedagogical purpose of my questions.

Reflecting on My Own Experience

At the beginning of the school year, my grad cohort and I had many discussions about what teaching and learning look like. From our conversations, we agreed on two key points. The first is that to us, successful field-based science instruction looks like guiding students in their own thinking, observing, and investigating. Rather than responding to students’ questions with an easy answer of my own, one of the routines I adapted early on was asking them, “What do you think?” Even when posed informally, asking students what they think and encouraging a genuine answer is a pedagogical move to redistribute power and agency by encouraging them to gather evidence and explain their own reasoning and learning.

The second point we agreed on is that masterful instructors learn from and alongside their students in processes of collaborative sensemaking. At first, I found this process came naturally. Being new to field-based science education in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy for me to respond to a student’s pointing at something and asking what it was or what was happening without giving them an easy answer. “I’m not sure, have you seen something like it before?” I would say, or “tell me what you notice about it and what it’s doing. Can we come up with three possible answers to your question?” Asking these questions positioned my students as experts on their own experiences and encouraged us to work together to learn about our environment.

As the school year has progressed and I’ve became more knowledgeable about the ecosystem I’m teaching in, I’ve noticed two things happening. In moments where I am doing new activities or teaching lessons in new ways, my questions have remained open-ended and genuine, like the above examples.

In other cases, however, I have found myself struggling to maintain nuanced intentionality in my question asking. Sometimes I notice myself asking students answer-seeking, or “known-answer,” questions—questions to which I already know the answer I’m looking for—because I want the group to reach a specific understanding about a topic based on my own knowledge or some third-party definition (Bransford et al., 2000). Other times, I’ll ask the group a question about an activity we just did and receive mostly blank stares in response. In these instances, I am probably asking the wrong questions and discouraging the divergent thinking, diverse forms of engagement, and collaborative sensemaking and synthesis I’m looking for.

Upon reflection, I decided to create a tool to help me make sure I ask students pedagogical questions with the intention they deserve.

Instructor-Posed Questions: A Framework

When thinking about how to intentionally ask a question to a group of students, here are some key considerations I take into account.

Assessing the state of the group

Before asking my students a pedagogical question, I assess the state of the group. This assessment can happen during planning or in the moment. I think about where the students are or will be physically, as well as what is or will be going on, when I plan to ask the question. Perhaps they would still be riled up after an activity, or they might need a snack. Perhaps a group discussion would not add any value to what’s already happened or could possibly even detract from the experience. Perhaps the group needs to hear the question then move to another location before answering to have time to think and discuss casually on the way. If I want the group to engage in some sort of collaborative sense-making, I do my best to ensure that the group is in a place where most of the students will be able to engage in the process in some way.

Allowing for different forms of student engagement

When I plan to ask a group of students a question, I then think about how I want them to answer. I can ask them to answer in written/drawn form, whole-group share-out, in small groups or a partner, just in their own heads, or some other way. I make this decision based on patterns of what I’ve seen work best for similar groups in similar situations in the past.

Once I’ve decided how I want students to answer my question, I find it’s best to give instructions before asking the question. For example, I might say, “You’re going to answer this question in your journal, and you can write, draw, write a poem or song, or even create a dance or found-material sculpture.” Then I ask the question and repeat the ways that students can answer.

Clarifying the goal or purpose of my question

For this section I’ll use an example wherein my goal is for students to think and learn about the role of photosynthesis in a plant’s life and the role plants play in ecosystems.

With my goal in mind, I could ask, “What does photosynthesis mean?” However, I would likely hear one student’s regurgitating a definition from a textbook, which does not necessarily indicate true learning or understanding. Also, if I ask such didactic questions multiple times to the same group, I often end up calling on the same students repeatedly—missing out on quieter voices—because they are the ones comfortable with sharing in such a way.

I would also refrain from asking, “Who can tell me what photosynthesis means?” This wording implies that it’s time for someone to win favor by being the one who can. It’s a challenge to see who can show off their knowledge, and it doesn’t help a group of students explain how photosynthesis works or why it matters.

Additionally, I don’t want to ask my question if I’m looking for a specific answer. I have to be open to students’ explaining photosynthesis in new ways or talking about other ways that plants get energy and contribute to ecosystems.

Asking a question

Instead of the examples above, I could ask my students, “How do plants get energy?” or “How can we describe a plant’s relationship to the sun?” These explanatory questions engage students in more diverse scientific practices than just naming and defining a chemical reaction (Reiser et al., 2017). If I’m having trouble getting students to move toward photosynthesis, I could ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word photosynthesis?” which I still find to elicit more open-ended responses than the original example.

Something else to consider is that if, for example, I’m teaching a group of students who have never been to a harbor like the one I bring them to for a lesson, any questions I ask the group about what role plants might have in the harbor ecosystem will not carry as much meaning for them if they do not first have a shared, relational experience with plants at the harbor (Reiser et al., 2017). If I can first facilitate a time for them to explore and observe plants at the harbor, then asking them about their own thoughts and questions about plants at the harbor will have much more success. I can also ask questions in ways that allow students to bring in past experiences with other beaches or plants in other ecosystems.

I am also aware while teaching that common lines of questioning in schools are rooted in the discursive patterns of white, middle-class, European Americans. One way that I can expand my question-asking practice is encouraging learners to investigate the “likeness between things” to draw in students who engage in more metaphorical learning by exploring analogies with the question, “What is photosynthesis like?”  (Bransford et al., 2000). Robin Wall Kimmerer agrees: “asking questions about relations illuminates answers that true-false questions may not” (Bang et al., 2018).

Finally, I could also ask questions that help students evaluate their own learning or the learning process, like “how did you contribute to the group in the photosynthesis investigation?” or “how did that activity go for you?” rather than ones that assess what they learned (Rogoff et al., 2018). I would ask these latter questions to prioritize my goal of exciting students about science learning over ensuring that they learn any specific “facts” or “knowledge.”

Deciding not to ask a question

Sometimes, I move through my framework and decide I don’t need to ask the group a question. Instead, I’ll tell the group some of my own thoughts on the matter, or I might just transition to something else entirely. An example of the latter is that if I’m more interested in having my students explore something other than how photosynthesis works, rather than asking them what they know about photosynthesis, I could simply say, “Photosynthesis, which, for those who might not remember, is how plants create their own energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.”


Asking questions in field-based science education is a nuanced practice. The way instructors ask questions reveals to students both explicitly and implicitly what forms of participation they value, whose knowledge they prioritize, and what kinds of learning they deem acceptable. With a bit of intentionality, however, instructor-posed questions are the key to engaging students in collaborative sensemaking and synthesis, divergent thinking, and science and engineering processes of their own.



My mentors, Renée Comesotti and Dr. Priya Pugh

Bang, M., Marin, A., & Medin, D. (2018). If Indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Daedalus, 147(2), 148-159.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.

Reiser, B. J., Brody, L., Novak, M., Tipton, K., & Adams, L. (2017). Asking questions. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 87-108). NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association.

Rogoff, B., Callanan, M., Gutiérrez, K. D., & Erickson, F. (2016). The organization of informal learning. Review of Research in Education40(1), 356-401.


ADHD in the Outdoors

ADHD in the Outdoors

Five 5th-grade students sit or stand facing a sunny pond surrounded by lush greenery, working on a writing task or exploring quietly. Photographed by Greyson Lee

Background Music and Birdsong: ADHD in the Outdoors

by Greyson Lee

After several hours of watching my dad bounce around his home auto shop, channeling restless energy into relentless productivity, he finally pauses to look up car parts long enough for me to catch a conversation with him.

I know by this point that my brother, diagnosed with ADHD before either of us can remember, was not the only one in the family with it. My dad hadn’t said the words before then, but when I bring up my own recent diagnosis, he seems to connect the dots to his own vague learning disability diagnosis from before the language was as common as it is today.

He reflects on a story I’d heard before: he’d been failing a math class in high school, so he and his mom fought for, and won, permission to snake earbuds through his hoodie. He could listen to music in one ear while the teacher lectured, and with this background stimulation humming below the teacher’s lectures, he suddenly felt like he could focus on and understand the content of the class.

Even today, my dad always has music on when he’s doing anything: I hear it in the morning when he’s getting ready for work, it’s always on in his car, it’s on when he gets home from work until he goes to bed, and he keeps it playing over the speakers at his station during his entire work day as well. For him, the background noise seems to be an essential tool in allowing him to function day-to-day with ADHD.

The one place my dad doesn’t seem to need his music, however, is outdoors.

It seems that any time students with ADHD come up in outdoor education, there’s a common refrain: “they do much better here”, and even, “you wouldn’t know they had ADHD if nobody told you”. Struggles in the classroom melt away in the outdoors. Some even note that their students with ADHD tend to thrive in an outdoor learning environment, often finding it even easier to engage than their peers do.

What is it about the outdoors that allows people with ADHD to focus so much better? And how can educators- formal and informal- lean into this phenomena?

Tired of Paying Attention

Environmental Psychologist Stephen Kaplan has proposed the theory of “directed attention”: the kind of attention we have to pay in certain situations, like listening to a lecture, in order to consciously control our focus. Directed attention is a choice and a skill, and it might look like tuning out distracting noises, or ignoring the impulse to check social media. The implication is that this conscious effort will eventually cause “attention fatigue”, making it more and more difficult to continue controlling one’s focus. (Clay, 2001)

In a 2004 study, survey results indicated that time spent outdoors led to reduced ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Their results suggest that green spaces are rich in fascination, the other side of Kaplan’s “attention fatigue” coin: a more natural and undirected form of attention that allows the mind to rest.

“Just-Right” Stimulation

In an article for ADDitude Magazine, Dr. Ellen Littman dives into the complex battle between too much and too little stimulation that is often taking place in ADHD brains. Littman explains that in order for brains to be “alert, receptive, and ready to attend and learn”, they need to be stimulated just the right amount; a balance that most brains tend to be able to figure out on their own. (Littman, 2022)

ADHD brains, on the other hand, lack the “reliable coordination of neurotransmitters” that would otherwise allow them to control their own focus. Too little stimulation leads to a kind of boredom often described as “painful” by people with ADHD, and an intense motivation to find some kind of stimulation- often a spike in dopamine- to compensate. Too much stimulation, on the other hand, results in “over-arousal”: feeling overwhelmed, often suddenly, and reacting with irritability, restlessness, or even aggression until able to get away from the commotion and recuperate. (Littman, 2022)

ADHD brains are left either overreacting or under-reacting to stimuli, rarely anywhere in a more “moderate” area that might allow for some control over one’s ability to focus, be receptive, or to engage in learning.

Five 5th-grade students perched on small rocks lean over to watch their classmate pick a shore crab out of the water. Photographed by Greyson Lee


“Chill Lo-Fi Beats”: Regulating Input

A few years ago, a series of YouTube playlists and livestreams by the “Lofi Girl” channel garnered widespread popularity; I remember a few professors using them to fill the silence in the classroom while we worked on some assignment or project.

The appeal is similar to that of white noise machines, water features, and the fan you might leave on in your bedroom at night, even if it’s not too hot: silence can be just as distracting as too much noise. In a casual survey conducted by ADDitude Magazine, one respondent shared that background music helps them maintain focus on a particular thing; “when my environment is quiet,” they said, “my mind wanders to various things and not on what I need to be doing.” (ADDitude Editors, 2022)

Background noise can also be a way of drowning out too much stimulation; another respondent shared that soft, familiar background music “helps [them] focus by removing any background noise (dishwasher, washing machine, people outside or around [them]).”  (ADDitude Editors, 2022) Other respondents reported that their need for background noise could vary depending on their task and situation; activities that require high focus might be better paired with silence or very soft music, and “tedious” activities that require less mental focus might be easier with something that distracts the brain.

Of course, everyone’s “ideal” balance of stimulation looks different- but background noise can be a helpful tool in finding it.

A student cradles a rough skinned newt in their hand, and several others reach toward the newt in shared fascination. Photographed by Greyson Lee

Zoning In

It isn’t revolutionary to note the lack of stimulation present in classrooms; in fact, this is openly a design goal. The idea is to lower distractions so students can focus on the only source of stimulation in the room: their teacher.

As a student with ADHD, I had few ways to regulate my balance of stimulation in the classroom. If I needed more stimulation, I could fidget or draw; if I needed less, I could try to go to the bathroom for a break. Oftentimes I just found myself staring glassy-eyed at a wall, my thoughts racing in directions I had no control over, while my teacher droned on pointlessly in the background.

Students are not “cured” of their ADHD when they walk outside, and I still find that certain students need longer transition times, more breaks, more responsive planning, or something to fidget with in order to engage as much as other students can.

But I rarely see those glassy-eyed stares when teaching outdoors, and why would I? There’s so much to look at outdoors, and hardly any walls to zone out onto. Students often fidget, wander, and move their bodies in ways I wouldn’t see in a classroom, but when I finish giving instructions and turn them loose, it’s clear they heard everything they needed to. And I hardly ever see a student need a break from our setting– there are no long bathroom breaks, walking laps elsewhere, or sitting in a hallway to soak in a bit of silence.

There are so many more opportunities for self-regulation outdoors, and the impact on students with ADHD is noticeable. How would their learning experiences be different, and their “academic success” impacted, if their teachers leaned into that?





  • ADDitude Editors. (2022, May 20). Background Noise vs. Silence: ADHD Adults on Music & Focus. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from
  • Clay, R. A. (2001, April). Green is good for you. American Psychological Association, 32(4), 40.
  • Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004, September). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Am J Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586.
  • Littman, E. (2022, May 18). Brain Stimulation and ADHD / ADD: Cravings and Regulation. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from



Greyson Lee is an art and outdoor educator finishing his M.Ed at the University of Washington.

River Newe: Creating New Narratives

River Newe: Creating New Narratives

River Newe: Creating
New Narratives On Historic Landscapes

In this article we present our work that directly addresses Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) for our tribal youth of the Shoshone-Bannock people. We have reimagined what JEDI means for us through environmental education activities as they relate to our efforts to reinhabit the traditional homelands where our people lived, gathered, hunted, and thrived since time immemorial.

by Jessica Matsaw, M.Ed,
Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D,
and Brant G. Miller, Ph.D

The landscapes of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River watershed and other usual and accustomed places of the Shoshone-Bannock are imbued with meaning and wisdom that we are actively seeking to connect our tribal youth with. The corridor is the heart of the largest wilderness segment in the lower 48 states with intact cultural sites and vast untouched lands with no cell service. The perfect place to disconnect youth and get them into a sense of what our ancestors knew about living without modern technologies and at the same time sharing in a true sense of unfragmented and connected riverscapes. The experience has been one where the students begin by wanting to go home to the final days of not wanting to leave and have real connection to place. We cannot stress how important this has been to our youth and tribal members.

To begin, we share a vignette that begins to capture the intentional and oftentimes dynamic approach we are taking to engage our Tribal youth deeply and meaningfully with experiences that give them grounding in the present, hope for the future, and a foundation for explorations using Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western scientific methods to inquire about their curiosities.

Shoshone-Bannock young ladies, Abrianna (7) and River (15), gathering wild berries, and enjoying one another’s company in the homelands of their ancestors. Photo by Popp Photography 2021.

“We wake from many stressful days of preparation to get here. We arrived at Dagger Falls campground the evening before. Yesterday was so much work finalizing all the things, loading ice, food, and organizing the coolers and dry boxes by meals, days, and how to access them the best. The trailer is mostly organized to get out things we need for a short breakfast and some coffee. Not sure what we forgot but at this point we will just make do. Coming from the Rez, our lives are mostly about making do, so we’re good at it. No worries, as we enjoy coffee and visiting with new and old friends and family. The kids and some of the adults are checking out the falls, picking raspberries, journaling, taking in the scenes of a river carved valley. Taking down the tents, stuffing sleeping bags, some hair braiding, and another cup of coffee. It’s starting to feel like we should move over to the boat launch – ‘Alright, let’s load up and head on over!’

“After mounting the frames, we begin rigging the rafts with heavy coolers, dry boxes, groover and tanks, camp chairs, tables, and dry bags filled with our hygiene kits, tents, sleeping bags, and dry clothes. We leave space for future dreams and incoming memories made with new faces and ones we haven’t seen in a bit.

“As each raft gets fully rigged you can hear, ‘Hey everyone, can we get a hand over here?’ It takes a team to load our rafts onto the boat launch ramp and walking it down together.

“At the same time our youth were creating prayer bundles to mount on the front of our rafts made up of tobacco ties, sage, and lots of good thoughts and laughter.

“Before we begin our journey down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, our women will ask the river for permission to travel with her. Once we make our offerings and give to the river a gift of our first foods and prayer, we can then open the circle. We acknowledge the land, water, rafts, and guides who will be working tirelessly to keep their hands on their oars, ears to their neighbors, and reading the water. She will tell us how to get down the river.

“The first two days will be rough as they are supposed to be. We are getting reacquainted with her again and she has lessons to teach us all. Mostly what is on our minds is the running of rapids like Sulfur Slide, and the big one for the day is Velvet Falls. We will arrive at our usual camp and enjoy a soak for the weary, just to relax, and some play for the young and old alike.”

The vignette above is a window into how we are approaching our ideas about place, homelands, and resituating Shoshone-Bannock culture into the 21st century, and reconnecting our youth with our memory traces left by our ancestors. We have a long history in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River watershed and to hear and see our young people couple Traditional Ecological knowledge with science, technology, engineering and mathematics through their own research, journaling, and artistic ways of capturing not only what they’re learning in mind, but also in heart and spirit, is to begin to see the future, and what is possible in this new, envisioned future. Each season and our planned activities can be thought of in this manner: traditional teachings, customs and protocols, tools, places across spatiotemporal distributions by elevation, weather, and climate, etc.

Intergenerational traumas such as the boarding school era interact with living in desperate times of survival between two entirely different cultures through the onslaught of threats to our literal and cultural existence. In a contemporary setting we are still orally in our collective thought about how our knowledge already knew the recent findings in Western science, that we have unwritten theoretical frameworks. Indigenous storytelling is a rich metaphor for the bold and creative space of curious Indigenous minds, hearts, and souls for the betterment of our Sogope Bia (Mother Earth) and to support our nation-building. Our connection in thought, verb-based languages, and action is complex and adheres to the so-called messiness of ecology, and the nature of science. The broader issue affecting our communities’ reflexive abilities are daily conflicts from a racialized society upholding asymmetrical forms of reasoning and assumptions about human entitlement to, and extractions from, the natural world, that continues to separate humans from nature (i.e., the nature-culture divide, Bang & Marin, 2015). A more localized related problem begins at K-12 schools where we are losing our children to the norms of the education system, that continues into college and in the workplace where our voices are dead before arrival (Matsaw et al. 2020). As professionals, the expectation is exceptional fluency in scientific comprehension and writing, coding, statistical analysis, and Western scientific theory, principles, methodology, and methods. The social and environmental justice of our times is to rise above racist microaggressions to on-the-fly cultural competency affording cultural relevancy so that we can broker space, and time for sustainable pedagogies and methodologies to the benefit of our Indigenous Knowledge. Sadly, we are outnumbered, and our children are being left behind, the gap in between is continually ever widening, so our loss deepens and the attainability for our youth to replace us in the workforce is further out of reach.

Prayer ties created by our youth in respect of elements, directions, sky and earth, and medicines we use to keep us safe and healthy for attaching to our rafts. Photo by Popp Photography 2021.

To combat these issues, we are using traditional ecological-thinking through a Shoshone-Bannock seasonal round in our homelands doing STEM learning activities. Activities through protocols of consent asking our land and waterways permission to test the ideas of our frameworks with tools of Western science such as river trips down the Middle Fork Salmon River; hunting/gathering of our wild foods; interacting with places of the stories/knowledge/theories of our ancestors. Along the way we will collect data, observation, journaling, using tools from our digging sticks to iPads, spear poles to DNA and otolith (ear bone) collections from salmon. These activities will be used to evaluate pedagogies and methodologies rooted in Shoshone-Bannock Traditional Knowledge by building theories, study plans, experimental designs, methods, and technologies as a way of creating new/old pedagogies. Our old pedagogies have been interrupted by colonialism and now we are adapting using state standards to quantify our learning and transfer of knowledge in the form of new pedagogies so that our knowledge persists. Concurrently, working to vacate racist structures in our tribal institutions, situating our own tribal organization and leadership to support making effective and meaningful changes in policy and reframing thoughts of becoming teachers and STEM professionals that cross with traumas associated with boarding schools and objects of research.

The doorway we are intentionally and mindfully creating is one for our youth to begin to envision a renewed path through an ecosystem of opportunities that will lead to their own success. In many ways we are just beginning to reimagine how to rebuild our presence of the Shoshone-Bannock people back into the cultural riverscapes of our ancestors and how we still see the land, as our Sogope Bia. Our river trips along ancestral homelands are to facilitate observations of where we once lived, how the landscape once appeared, and how our people interacted, honored, and were sustainable co-inhabitants with our more-than human relatives.

Back to the river…we stop at cultural sites where there are pit house depressions, and/or pictographs. We exercise our imaginations of what we know today with how it must have been then. For instance, looking at the villages and how they are arranged and imagining the proximity of families amongst the larger community. We can imagine this because our community back home on the reservation still reflects a similar state, preserved by our natural, innate need to arrange as we always have. Families in family areas closer to relatives of similar clans, bands and where we were when we came to the reservation life. Each site is not a far-off imaginary. To open the imagination of our youth is to then see the STEM, the Indigenous Ecosystem builders we always have been and still are today.

We are also wanting to be respectful of those who inherited the wrongful displacement of our Tukadeka relatives over a century ago. We believe they are there in the most loving way they can be, and we want to reciprocate the relationship they have with our home. In that we are wanting to share with them how this place is not only special, but also largely intact from the way our ancestors left it when they were forcibly removed. For the most part what we have gathered is that the guides on the river are happy to see us back.

Jessica Matsaw, M. Ed., is the Art, Civics & Tribal Government Teacher at the Shoshone-Bannock Jr/Sr High School. She combats educational systems of exclusion and cultural erasures by focusing culturally centered, equitable learning spaces of engagement to celebrate Indigenous ingenuity, intellect and inquiry.



Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D., is a grandfather, father, husband & extended family member amongst the Shoshone-Bannock and Oglala Lakota with a PhD in Water Resources. As co-founders, he and his wife are creating an intercultural STEAM pedagogy more agreeable with Indigenous peoples through a non-profit called River Newe.



Brant G. Miller, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Idaho. His research interests include Adventure Learning, culturally responsive approaches to STEM education, science teacher education, and technology integration within educational contexts.



The Judgment of the Barnacles

The Judgment of the Barnacles

There’s a song in the sea for those who listen, and messages in the sand for those with far reaching eyes.


By Dr. Gloria Snively and Doug Wonnacott

The morning silently creeps in upon the gray, green waves. Smooth flat rocks that tumbled together for a thousand years moan and groan against the shore. The pale sea is without character of its own — it reflects the sky, follow the moon, and is driven by the wind. On the rocks high above the tide land, the gulls preen their feathers and wait for the tide to drop

Eventually the unmerciful tide ebbs, exposing soggy, wet seaweed covered rocks. The moaning cobbles crowding the beach are littered with the debris of life. Along the tide land that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. Among the debris are empty snail shells, torn pieces of golden sponge, tattered seaweed holdfasts, decaying crab molts, and nude hermit crabs fumbling for a new home. The tangled masses of up-rooted seaweeds: browns, greens, reds and purples lie strewn like shredded confetti. Shore crabs scramble sideways to hide under rocks, starfish hang with stretched tube feet from boulders, and barnacles withdraw into cone-shaped shell houses. An octopus with glaring yellow eyes lies stranded in a shallow pool of water with its long suction-cup covered arms thrashing in vain to return the victim to the mother sea.

The gulls that earlier sat half asleep on the rocks noisily pick and probe at crabs, worms and fish along the tide line using their long sharp bills. Opportunists, they squabble and fight and harass one another to regurgitate their finds. The hungry gulls scavenge over the wreckage of the beach to clean it of whatever they can find; the living, the dead and the dying. The vulnerable sea creatures cry soundlessly for life — and nothing screams but the gulls.

During such times, on the ebb of tide, I have observed another swarm of vulturine activity. Upon the morn’s fog-blanketed shore, electric flashlights bob along like fireflies to join the gulls. This is the sign of the clam diggers. They stumb‑le along in the fog, over-turning cobbles, digging mercilessly with long handled forks and shovels, and leaving piles of cobbles beside gaping holes in the sand. Tens of hundreds have passed by me, many leading wide-eyed children with wooden spades and plastic pails. Butter clams, horse clams and littlenecks are gathered into overflowing buckets, the smallest and the largest tossed aside. Mothers and children gather into pails brightly colored starfish. They collect bags of beautifully ornamented living shells whose occupants will be carted home and dried in the sun, boiled alive for their shells, or left to suffocate in buckets overnight. Eventually, the unsleeping tide follows the moon and drives both gulls and humans from the tide land.

On one such occasion, I carefully picked my way along a slippery boulder strewn beach. Ahead of me the humans with long wooden spades amused themselves by smashing barnacles with rocks. I hastened through the seaweed jungle, past the slippery cobble stones, to the barnacle bed above the high tide line.

“Don’t harm the barnacles,” I ventured breathlessly. “Please leave them alone.”

The humans pretended not to hear, and continued smashing the barnacle cities.

The barnacles are alive,” I pleaded.

“What?” replied the surprised humans. “Barnacles aren’t alive.”

“The barnacles are very much alive. They simply retreat into their shell houses when the tide is out.”

“You’re crazy,” laughed the humans.

“But you mustn’t kills the barnacles,” I persisted. “They follow the rise and fall of the tide and the revolutions of the moon.”

“Who cares?” came the angry rebuff. “What does it matter, there are millions of these things everywhere.”

And they continued smashing the barnacle cities, prying loose the mussel beds with those long wooden spades, and filling their pockets with beautiful living shells.

I turned and slowly began the treacherous journey back along the slippery beach. Who invented those spades of wood? Who was it that cut them from a tree? High overhead a snow-white gull circled the bay, a large blue mussel dangling from its bill. The gull let the mussel drop to smash the shell open on the hard cobbles, exposing the orange colored flesh. Instantly, the other gulls filled the air with their chorus of frenzied screams. Void of pity, I watched that snow white gull swoop down, rip the soft orange flesh from the mussel shell, and hurriedly fly away.

The tide rises, the tide falls. The mother sea follows the moon. The mob of cobbles crawled the shore; rubbing shoulders — shifting, grinding and moaning their way through centuries. I stroll along the tide line and ponder the many moods of the mother sea; wondering why she moans ever more. “We are not dumb,” whisper the cobbles. “We will be the last ones.”


Song of the Barnacles

I venture to say, though a teacher myself, that I have learned little of consequence from books or from any other extra paraphernalia that we associate with formal education. What I have learned that has meaning or significance in life comes not from books, but from an endless journey along a surf-swept shore.

If there is any truth to what I say, it began for me on the protected rocky shores of Ucluelet, a little village on the exposed western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. As an elementary teacher, that memorable trip to the sea beach with a class of wide-eyed youngsters was among the first of many such adventures to unknown shores.

It was one of those magnificent sunny days in June, the kind that we on the west coast appreciate deeply after the cold grey days of a long winter. The trip to the beach was a fifteen-minute hike along a wooded trail from the local school.. On the outer shore the view was spectacular. The roaring sea rhythmically sent booming white waves crashing upon the rocky reef. But in the cove, protected by the reef and the bay, the wave action was less fierce. Sleeping haystack rocks and needle-shaped basalt boulders crowded the graceful curvature of the bay.

On the shore, the tide was going out, leaving glistening seaweed covered rocks and glassy blue pools of water in holes and crevices. Various belts of life appeared on the rock faces in colored layers, one above the other. Bare rock at the top, then a stained layer of black lichens, a wide band of gray-white barnacle cities, a bed of blue mussels, then bright green sea lettuce, a layer of luxuriant brown kelp, then graceful pale, pink coralline seaweed at the low tide line. Attached to rocks, among the protective curtains of seaweeds, and in the tide pools lived hoards of rocky shore animals.

Many so exquisitely colored and of such fantastic shapes they seemed unreal — orange starfish, purple urchins, giant green anemones, richly ornamented snails and variously decorated crabs.

As we explored the shore, I could hardly keep pace with the activities of the children. Nor could I answer their incessant questions: What’s inside a barnacle? How does the starfish eat the mussel? Why do crabs crawl sideways? Why is the ocean blue? What’s that called? Is that a plant or an animal? Those children, who asked me so many questions, never seemed to hear the ones I asked them. Nonetheless, I did the best I could — carted tons of field guides down to the beach, hauled out microscopes, and had them describe, measure, sort, map and sketch everything in sight.

Several days later, around mid-day, we returned to that very same beach. The intense noon-day sun cast drying rays upon every living creature along the shore. And we humans were no exception. Hot and sticky from our journey and having to wait for the noontide to drop, we sought protection in the shade of those high basalt pillars. We settled down to a bag-lunch of bologna sandwiches and apples and — being full and tired — decided to nap while waiting for the tide to go out. Like the nearby gulls lazily preening their features, we waited patiently for the sea to allow us entry into the tide lands.

It was one of those rare moments in teaching when every child was quiet, every body still. Thus, you can imagine our surprise at being awakened by the sound of gently resonating voices.

They whispered “sssssssh…” Carried by the wind, those tiny, tiny voices grew and grew into a soft, melodious symphony.

One by one, astonished children and a very unbelieving adult rose, and with eyes and ears staring out of our heads, we began searching for the source. Where did those mysterious little voices ring from? We looked all around where we stood, then searched the boulder canyons, but to our great disappointment, we could not find a single clue. All the while those tiny melodic voices continued echoing with magnificent simplicity throughout the canyon walls.

Suddenly, from behind a giant boulder, a very excited Scott shouted, “It’s the barnacles! It’s the barnacles singing!”

“Awe… come on. How could the barnacles sing?” quipped the skeptical Mark. “They don’t even move.”

“But listen!” persisted Scott. “Listen to them sing!”

So we put our ears to the barnacle cities and what do you think…?

We clearly heard the barnacles sing.

Imagine…barnacles singing! It was the most remarkable sound I believe I have ever heard.

“What makes the barnacles sing?” asked one child.

Crystal Cove Conservancy

“What do you think they’re saying?”  added anotherOur curiosities aroused, we instantly set about the find the answers. With intense concentration, we observed those barnacle cities for the rest of the day. Watched the six-cover plates move as the animal inside sealed its shell house shut. “Sssssh.” Watched the seawater evaporate over the boulders and over every living surface. Listened intently as the barnacle song swelled to a crescendo, then just as magically as the seawater vanished, listened as the music faded to silence. Later that day, when the tide returned, we watched those barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacles were submerged, the barnacles thrust their six long feather legs, like a fisherman’s net, in and out, in and out. We watched those industrious little barnacles sweep the water for microscopic food and kick it down into their mouths. You can be sure we were an exhausted, but jolly band that tripped back to Ucluelet late that afternoon. But we had whistled and sung to the moon and stars, and vowed to remember that lesson.

That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I have yet learned along an unknown shore. How many times had I walked along a seashore and never noticed the barnacles, never pondered or questioned them at all? But I have drawn this true story to your attention, so that should you venture along a rocky shore and come upon the barnacle cities, do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly at the ebb of tide. And be very quiet and still. Then, should the sun be burning bright, you will hear the barnacles sing.


At the time of publishing, Gloria Snively was a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria in Victoria BC. Doug Wonnocott was a principal at Quadra Island Elementary School in Quadra Island BC. This article originally appeared in Current, the publication of the National Marine Educators Association


Activities related to this article

The purpose of the following activities is to encourage the reader to interact with the article through the language arts (reading, writing, listening and speaking); and through field trip experiences; and to use the knowledge, concepts and attitudes developed through the activities to compare the article with the real world of the barnacle. Above all else, the activities are designed to keep bringing the reader back to the article, to not only gain knowledge, concepts, and positive attitudes; but to experience the author’s style and message.

Some Thoughts About the Language Arts Activities:
1. Be selective in choosing the activities. Decide what you want the reader to gain from the literature. Don’t overdo the activities and don’t hesitate to adjust them to meet your needs.
2. Consider using cooperative learning techniques, including the use of heterogeneous groups (3-5 members). The use of these groups encourages discussion, sharing of skills, peer-to-peer tutoring and expansion of ideas.
3. If you are using the article as motivation for a science-oriented theme, don’t leave it after one reading. Bring the readers back to the text, especially after they have gained new knowledge, concepts and attitudes.

Pre-Reading Activities
1. In order to evaluate the student’s knowledge, do a pre- and post-reading cluster. Before reading the article have the students cluster (brainstorm) all they know about barnacles. Following the teaching of the unit, have the students do another cluster. Compare the pre- and post-results.
2. To encourage the sharing of prior knowledge and to encourage the making of predictions about the meaning of what is to be read, use an anticipation guide. An anticipation guide helps guide the students in acquiring the major concepts to be learned in the article. It activities background knowledge prior to reading and provides useful, diagnostic information for the teacher. Also, it provides students with a purpose for reading the text, provokes thoughtful discussion, and serves as a useful tool for refocusing on the major concepts of the article. Keep the following guidelines in mind when constructing and using an anticipation guide:

      • a. Identify the major concepts to be learned.
        b. Decide how many concepts support or challenge the student’s beliefs.
        c. Create 5-10 statements. Write them well and somewhat conentiously.
        d. Arrange the statements in an appropriate order.
        e. Present the guide to the students before introducing the article.
        f. Students fill in individually, agree or disagree, a reaction to each statement.
        g. Students defend their reactions in discussion. Teacher leads the discussion, but does not volunteer a personal opinion.
        h. After reading the article, students react to statements from the author’s point of view.
        i. Discuss differences in reaction.
        j. Writing: choose one statement and then prove the author’s point.

    You                     Author
    (agree/can’t decide/disagree)
    • Barnacles are living animals.
    ª Barnacles are very delicate creatures and may be easily damaged.
    • Barnacles are important members of a seashore community.
    • Clam diggers should not be allowed to take as many clams as they want.
    • Barnacles sing.

    3. Use guided imagery to help develop the setting of the article prior to the reading. Through imagery the teacher can take the students on an “imaginary trip” to the beach. By generating discussion about colors, sounds, textures, sights, patterns, feelings, etc., the teacher can help the students connect when they “see” to what they will read.

    Reading and Writing Activities
    4. Consider orally reading the article to the students, especially Part 1. Help to set the mood and the flow of the language — then allow the students to read the rest.
    5. Encourage the students to identify their favorite passages and to orally read to each other in pairs or small group. By practicing reading passages over and over again until fluent within these groups, weaker students may improve their reading comprehension.
    6. From the article, have the students identify those factors that help the barnacles survive in its environment. Once they have their lists, allow the students to refer to additional learning resources to confirm their lists and to add to them.
    7. Again, use the guided imagery strategy to help the students write a piece from the point of view of the barnacle. The piece may focus on one aspect of the life of the barnacle — feeding, survival, the effect of human intervention, etc., and should be creative, while conveying factual information. Students may share these pieces in small group.
    8. Write a true story telling about life at the seashore: what barnacles eat, what they do at high tide and at low tide (or when covered or uncovered with seawater), how they protect themselves from predators, how they keep from drying out when the tide goes out to sea.
    9. From the article, have the students identify the author’s writing style and message. For example, in small groups discuss the statement “That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I haveyet learned along an unknown shore.”
    10. Have students complete each of these ideas with material growing out of the article and discussion. This article made me wish that…, realize that…, describe that…, wonder about…, see that…, believe that…, feel that…, and hope that… (Good for small cooperative groups to generate discussion and expand on ideas.
    11. Design a poster which celebrates our caring for all life on this watery planet, and inspires action, leading to the healing of our planet and ourselves. For example, a poster might encourage “prevention of cruelty to barnacles.”

    Field Trip Activities
    For students to understand the concept of preservation at the seashore, they must have understanding, at least in part, of the related concepts of habitat, tidal cycle, desiccation, predator-prey, protection, interdependence and survival. The best way of attempting to sensitize children to such complex abstract concepts is through field trip experiences. For example, you can lead the students to understand why barnacles should be protected by observing how barnacles survive at the seashore.

    Have the students separate and find a comfortable sitting position as close to the “barnacle cities” as possible. Have them close their eyes and be very quiest and still. Tell them to concentrate on hearing and identifying the sounds around them.

    Then, have fun watching live acorn barnacles under water. Find a small rock covered with barnacles and drop it into a jar of seawater. What happens? What kid of food does the barnacle eat? How does the barnacle get its food? Draw a picture of a barnacle out of seawater. Draw a picture of a barnacle under seawater.
    After the field trip, compare the article to the reality of the field trip. Have students identify those aspects of the article that are true for the environment being studied. Include specific aspects that could be added to the article given the specific environment.

  • —G.S and D.W.