Creating the Need to Pay Attention
Field trips and adventures in the woods are tremendously important experiences for children, especially those students that don’t often get to spend time in a natural setting. Some of the most important, lasting results of good Environmental Education are the heartfelt connections that young people make with nature. They value the natural world because they have experienced first hand the beauty and magic of living ecological systems. To really feel this in a personal way, the kids have to go outside and experience it.
by Chris Laliberte
he excitement of exploring outside with friends and classmates can turn a well behaved class into a pretty raucous crowd, and in all the commotion, it’s very easy for students to pay more attention to each other than to the woods around them. And while they might huddle up at each interpretive spot for a brief lesson or activity, what teacher or educator could possibly be there with each student for the whole walk, helping them learn from each moment as they explore the landscape with all their senses? The trick to making the entire outing an intense learning experience is to find ways to ensure that the students are invested in paying close attention the whole time.
“Tree Tag” is the classic example of creating a need to pay attention. Kids love to play tag, and they NEED a base, some place to avoid the tagger. So when base is whatever kind of tree the teacher calls out, the kids suddenly have a very real need to be able to identify trees correctly, so they can get to base. I love to watch what happens when kids disagree about correctly identifying trees, and they have to prove to each other what kind of tree it is. Tree Tag, however, illustrates a deeper point around creating need. A game of tag is a boisterous, wild, hectic thing. But remarkably, within this game is a fantastic heightening of awareness. The danger, the risk of being tagged, or the need to tag someone, is visceral. It creates physical and chemical responses in the body that affect awareness and the learning process. Adrenalated states provide a powerful opportunity for learning. Notice that this suggests an interesting point: in Tree Tag, the key dynamic for learning is the creation of a certain amount of anxiety, or a state of discomfort. This creates a very strong need to pay attention, and then the game focuses the heightened awareness onto something very detailed and specific — in this case, the differences in bark, leaf, branching pattern and color of different trees. By paying careful attention, the student can resolve the anxiety and get to someplace “safe.”
It’s a testament to the power of the adrenalated state that, more often than not, kids will leave base and venture back out into the fray on their own for another dose. Of course, some students will be reluctant to leave base, so the teacher can keep the game active by announcing that base is now a different kind of tree, and it starts again: more adrenaline, more awareness, more attention to details of different kinds of trees, more good learning about nature.
So how can this dynamic be harnessed so that it is present throughout the whole field trip? Here’s one method that has proved enormously powerful at Wilderness Awareness School. It’s called “Bird Language.”
The basic principle behind Bird Language is that birds love to gossip. They are constantly announcing to each other and the world around them just how they are feeling about their lives at that moment. It’s almost like a town crier who likes the job so much that s/he uses any excuse to make another public announcement. “The forest is calm and happy!” “The forest is still calm and happy!” But what birds love to talk about most of all is danger and peril. Anything that might possibly be a threat is immediately announced and pointed out. Jim Corbett, a famous tracker from India, once mentioned how puzzled he was that anyone could ever get eaten by a tiger. The birds and monkeys are so loud and aggressive in announcing the presence of any tiger, and even following along above it in the treetops, screaming out their warnings, that it seemed inconceivable to him that anyone could be taken unaware by a tiger in the jungle. By coming to understand Bird Language, students can learn to recognize all the movement and activity going on in the forest around them. They’ll know when raptors or other predators are moving through, or when animals like deer or raccoons are sneaking away.
Using Bird Language with your students starts with creating the need to pay attention to what the birds are saying. For some younger students, the possibility of seeing fairies or unicorns works wonders at getting them to listen for the announcements of the birds. This is especially good if students are already uncomfortable with being outside in the woods and need a little assurance. Our favorite strategy at Wilderness Awareness School is to set up the day so that students are hiking or exploring in small groups, and might at any time be ambushed by another group sneaking up on them. If you don’t have the ability to set up the ambush dynamic, or if the group is older and more callous to the woods, the classic anxiety here in the Pacific Northwest is the threat of the cougar. Wilderness Awareness School is very careful in using this particular set-up for bird language. We let students know that cougars are sneaky but cowardly hunters, who like to attack unseen and avoid a fight or struggle. To really help students feel the anxiety in a visceral way (like the threat of being tagged), you can describe the nerve endings in the canine teeth of the cougar that help it to feel just where to bite on your neck to cleanly sever the spinal column like scissors through a banana . Now, we are careful to point out that cougars don’t normally attack people. But they sometimes can’t help themselves when a really loud, obviously unaware, small, tasty looking person hurries by without paying any attention to the woods at all. But if you notice a cougar, and make yourself look tough, maybe yell at it, then the cougar won’t bother you. They’re really pretty timid once they’ve been found out.
Regardless of what strategy you use to create a need to pay attention, listening to Bird Language can provide the focus for your students’ heightened awareness, and will allow them to resolve their tension and anxiety appropriately. For if they are listening carefully to Bird Language, no cougar or group of kids will be able to sneak up on them without alarming the birds and giving itself away. Really accurate interpretation is a fine art, and requires a lot of practice sitting outside and investigating bird alarms, but mastery is not required for Bird Language to be a remarkably effective learning tool. Here are the basic details your students will need to know to be able to get started successfully:
Bird Language: A Quick Summary
Pay closest attention to the small ground-feeding birds: Robins, Sparrows, Juncos, Wrens, Towhees, etc. They are the best sentries.
Learn to distinguish the Five Voices of the Birds. The first four Baseline Voices indicate that the forest is relatively comfortable, and therefore “in baseline.” The last voice, the alarm, indicates a threat, usually a predator, often a human.
1. The Song: Birds singing their characteristic celebration, they are often loud but the feeling is very comfortable.
2. Companion Calling: Birds in pairs or groups call back and forth to each other regularly, either with their voice or with body movements, just to let each other know that they are alright. Usually this is soft, quiet language. It can occasionally sound scolding if one bird gets out of sight from another and fails to respond quickly enough.
3. Juvenile Begging: Young hatchlings can make quite a racket demanding to be fed. This repetitive whining may sound obnoxious, but don’t mistake it for distress.
4. Territorial Aggression: Generally made by males, this is loud, aggressive language that can sound like alarms, but you’ll notice that it doesn’t bother other birds (females, or birds of other species).
5. The Alarm is dramatically different from the four baseline voices. While the baseline voices sound like someone happily whistling, the alarm sounds like someone yelling for help. Different species sound different, but they all sound terribly upset, worried and nervous, and you’ll find yourself feeling that way too, when you open yourself up to really listening receptively to birds.
Watch the body language of alarming birds:
1. Where does it go when it alarms?
Does it fly up higher into the branches, or down low to the ground? Ground-feeding birds are typically brown, so they like to be down low where they are camouflaged and hidden. The only reason they fly UP is if there’s a threat on the ground. They will fly just high enough to avoid the danger, so how high up they fly is a good indicator of how high the danger can reach. If they go down, it’s because they’ll be safer down low in the thick brush, so it’s either a raptor or a threat that can’t get into the bushes (like a human).
2. Does the bird fly up and then look back to where it came from as it alarms?
If so, it was scared out of its place by something close by on the ground. Does it fly up and look forward, or out and around? If so, it was probably startled by a sound or another bird’s alarm and it is looking for the danger. It usually looks towards the source of the alarm (remember, these birds often look sideways).
3. Does it just fly madly away alarming as it goes? If so, it has been “plowed” out of the area, quite likely by a human.
Those are the very basics of Bird Language; however, the most important aspect of all is the “Secret Lesson” that you don’t even talk about. By attending to bird alarms, students soon realize that they themselves are disturbing the “baseline” of the forest. One of the old sayings from Kenya that young kids heard constantly was “Never disturb a singing bird.” Once they notice that they are scaring all the birds away, they begin to work at not alarming birds, and the transformation that this causes is remarkable. Once oblivious, boisterous and unconnected kids turn into quiet, observant, and respectful participants in the ecological community. Listening to birds now becomes a fabulous tool to encourage heightened awareness and a phenomenal source for amazing close encounters with animals that they want to see, like elk, deer, foxes, and raccoons, because now the birds aren’t warning these animals of the approaching students five minutes before they arrive.
In Wilderness Awareness School’s experience, Bird Language works best initially as the focal point for new students who have been “set up” to pay attention by the cultivation of a state of discomfort, and quite literally gives students the awareness they need to be safe, aware and feel comfortable in the woods. Remember, it will take some time to establish this as a routine for your students. They’ll need plenty of reminders early on. The most effective one is simply “Ssshhh! What was that? Did you hear that alarm?” Above all, have fun with it! You’ll be amazed at the transformation Bird Language can work in your students if you just stick with it.
Chris Laliberte is the Program Director for Wilderness Awareness School, a national not-for-profit environmental education organization based in Duvall, WA which is “dedicated to caring for the earth and our children by fostering appreciation and understanding of nature, community and self,” on the web at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Resources for Bird Language Study
The Language of the Birds and Advanced Bird Language: Reading the Concentric Rings of Nature, beginning and advanced audio series by Jon Young. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Backyard Bird Walk and Marshland Bird Walk, and other recordings by Lang Elliott. Available at http://www.naturesound.com
Kamana One: Exploring Natural Mysteries, by Jon Young, part one of Wilderness Awareness School’s four-level independent study Kamana Naturalist Training Program. Includes bird language, tracking, wilderness living skills, traditional herbalism, and naturalist mentoring. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Jungle Lore, by Jim Corbett. A powerful narrative from the Indian jungle which includes Bird Language lore.
Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species, a unique new resource for studying birds by Mark Elbroch , Eleanor Marks, and Diane C. Boreto.
A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vols. I,II, and III, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Peterson Field Guides: Western Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson.
A Birds World, permanent exhibit on Bird Language at the Boston Museum of Science. http://www.mos.org
No Fooling: Exploring the Nature of Responsibility, Progress, Success, and Good Work
How we answer a challenge raised over half a century ago regarding the way we handle the blessings of nature will go a long way towards determining our future.
by Peter Hayes
In the roughly 10,000 years since members of our species first began to call the Pacific Northwest home, many good questions have been asked. Of all that have been posed, one continues to stand out as the most important. In 1938 during a noontime luncheon address to a group of prosperous citizens in Portland, Oregon, the thoughtful, worldly generalist, Lewis Mumford asked this question: “I have seen a lot of scenery in my life, but I have seen nothing so tempting as a home for man than this Oregon country… You have the basis here for civilization on its highest scale and I am going to ask you a question which you may not like… Have you enough intelligence, imagination, and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities?”
Though he spoke to one group of people in reference to the future of one region, the question applies equally well to our entire species and our total habitat — this planet — “do we have the qualities necessary to successfully live here for the long haul?” That is the most important question in the world. The only answers which matter are those expressed through actions, not words. And what do the consequences of actions taken since Mumford’s 1938 question say about our success? There is certainly good news in the form of the development of a more crash resistant economy, a country and world which may have made progress toward the challenge of judging people by the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin, and the imagination, endorsement, and enforcement of laws which help the powers of care, cooperation, and foresightfulness get the upper hand on the powers of selfish, shortsighted greed trying to turn our commonwealth into their personal wealth.
But overall the evidence of actions taken, and not taken, since 1938 indicate that our answer to Mumford’s question is: “no, we don’t yet have the qualities necessary to successfully live here. Our perceptive abilities, values, and ethics have not yet evolved in the ways that they must in order to develop and use those qualities”.
If meeting the challenge is a matter of fundamental survival, why haven’t we done it? If we are clever enough to pull off such feats as walking on the moon, splitting atoms, and cloning creatures, why not attend to our most basic survival? The answer is that we choose to fool ourselves. Fueled by the powerful forces, including the omnipresent media and our systems of schooling, we fool ourselves in four main ways. Progress toward meeting Mumford’s challenge — our most basic responsibility — depends on recognizing and correcting the ways that we’ve been fooled and continue to fool our children.
The fooling happens in how too many of us answer these four questions: 1) What is success?, 2) What is our greatest challenge?, 3) What is the basis for our decision making?, and 4) What are schools for?
What is Success?
One major reason for our continuing failure to meet — or even acknowledge — Mumford’s challenge is that for the majority of our species the challenge is not seen to be important enough to even pay attention to; for many, there is no connection between our personal yardstick of what it means to be a successful person and progress toward the challenge. Our systems and competitive instincts program us to be amused and preoccupied by other challenges and measures of success — accumulating more money than we need, proving that we are better than other people — whether on the sports field, in the classroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, or battlefield, and basing our identities and sense of success on the acquisition of power, prestige, and comfort — on what we can take instead of what we choose to give. So, much like the highly capable student who flunks a course because she just didn’t choose to try, the first reason we continue to not meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us continue to be fooled into believing that success is measured by actions which take us further from meeting the challenge instead of toward it. Tellingly, Mumford prefaced his question to Portland’s City Club with the caveat that he had a question which his audience probably would not like. Wasn’t this because it presented — to people who already saw themselves as successful — an alternative, ultimately more important, measure of success, which if recognized, stood to threaten and/or limit their accepted notions of success?
What is the Challenge?
As a teacher, I owe thanks to my students for helping me recognize the second way that we fool ourselves. Year after year class discussions devolve into a familiar debate over which of the challenges on humanity’s plate is most important and deserving of our attention and energies. Here is a sampler of predictable excerpts: “Yes, I know that all of the problems with the environment, such as saving the salmon, are important, but you’ve got to realize that we have to look out for the well being of our own species first; people are starving and that must be our top priority.” Or “These efforts to help people learn to treat each other well, and to solve environmental problems like global warming are important, but we have to be sure to do nothing which might threaten quarterly profits and harm the economy; if we don’t have a strong economy, things will fall apart”. They have learned what they have been taught — and been fooled, just as I was fooled. We have inherited a flawed conceptual model which is based on the assumption that our species faces three, competing challenges: the challenge of people learning and choosing to successfully live with one another, the challenge of humans learning and choosing to live within the limits of what the land can provide, and the challenge of learning and choosing to develop an economic system which can endure over time. I fell for it; conclusions such as Aldo Leopold’s: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” fooled me into the mistaken belief that one of the three competing challenge was paramount. I now see that from birth my culture conditioned me to see myself as positioned in the center of a triangle, with compelling, competing, and insistent voices from each corner vying for my attention. Across from Aldo’s siren call come the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and others, such as “We must either learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools.” And from the third corner come the powerful economic cautions of Alan Greenspan, Wall Street, and the WTO advising that without a functioning economy we have nothing. After investing twenty five years of my working life in the wholehearted, and often zealous, service of one of the three challenges — helping people learn and choose to live within the limits of what the land can provide – I have come to see that I was wrong because my work has been based on a flawed conceptual model of the real nature of the challenges. Aldo was right, but he was also wrong; King was right, but he was wrong; Greenspan is right, but he is wrong.
While each is essential, none is in itself sufficient. An economy dependent on the degradation of land or people will never succeed; a healthy land community depends on a functional economy and healthy human community; and humans cannot resolve their differences as long as the ecosystems and economies on which they depend are in disarray. As Jared Diamond described in a post September 11th letter to the Washington Post: “If a dozen years ago you had asked an ecologist uninterested in politics to name the countries with the most fragile environments, the most urgent public health problems, and the most severe overpopulation, the answer would have included Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe. The close match between that list and the list of the world’s political hot spots today is no accident.” Though the world around us continues to do its best to fool us into seeing three competing challenges, the evidence from a careful look at how the world really works convinces me that these are not three challenges, but one — building communities which can survive and thrive indefinitely. For me, the competitive triangle model has been replaced by an interdependent, cooperative circular model of three links of chain. Healthy communities depend on meeting the challenges represented by each link, and our success is only as strong as the weakest link.
Progress depends on each of us learning to let go of our drive to see our highest priority corner or link prevail over the other three (think Earth First, WTO), and instead develop a higher commitment to the whole of being a citizen and community member than to any one of the links. Ironically it seems that the longer and harder we continue to push on our chosen corner of the competitive triangle model — as well meaning as we may be — the less likely we are to make progress toward any of the challenges. Success depends on turning all of our environmentalists, human rights activists, and economic development enthusiasts into just plain citizens — knowledgeable about and committed to all three links of the chain. These people fit into Wallace Stegner’s notion of choosing to be “stickers” instead of “boomers”, and follow the advice of Gary Snyder and others that one of the most radical — an useful – things we can do is to stay put.
What is the Basis of Our Decisions?
The third way that many of us continue to fool ourselves is pretending that the basis of our decisions can reasonably shift if distanced by time and/or space. When reduced to the most local scale, our moral evolution, as a species, has progressed toward basing an increasingly percentage of our actions on what is right to do as opposed to what we have the power to do.
Even if I am bigger and tougher than my two eating mates, I don’t eat more than my third of the pizza because that is the right thing to do; sharing a common pasture with other farming families, I choose to graze only as many cattle on it as the land can provide for, because that is the right thing to do; even if certain investments could be unusually lucrative, I choose not to invest in them because they are bad for the community. Each of these represents a choice to base decisions on ethics instead of power. In contrast to the progress we have made in what might be called moral evolution, we continue to fool ourselves with arbitrary blinders and barriers in terms of what we consider to be the domain of ethics and what is the domain of power.
Curiously something which is based on ethics when close to us in space or time, can slip back to being based on power when removed to greater distance. An example is the land use choices of forest products companies based in the Pacific Northwest. When operating within the United States the company uses a set of land use practices which their full page newspaper ads tell us are shaped not by laws, but by an abiding, ethically based commitment to land stewardship. Yet when the same companies transfer capital from domestic investments to forestry in other countries, their treatment of land is much less careful and, in the absence of land use laws in places like Russia, the basis for company decision making apparently shifts from ethics to what they have the power to do. Similarly, though I might buy a shirt made using child labor paid at unreasonably low rates — if it came from a very distant place, I would refuse, on ethical grounds, to eat at a local restaurant whose existence and profits depended on similar human abuse. Though a fisher would choose for ethical reasons not to steal fish from the hold of a fellow fisher’s boat moored alongside of his, he sees no ethical problem with overfishing a species, such as Atlantic Cod, to commercial extinction, which is effectively stealing fish from the holds of the fish boats of his children and grand children. Why do so many of us continue to fool ourselves into believing that our responsibility for ethical decision making decreases in proportion to how distant and anonymous the consequences become in space and/or time? Isn’t a consequence a consequence, no matter where and when they happen?
The Work of Schools
Mumford’s question — do we have the characteristics necessary to successfully live here — begs a preceding question: what characteristics are most important to us as we seek to meet the challenge?
Though he suggested intelligence, imagination, and cooperation, what would be your top ten essential attitudes, skills, and habits? What letter grade would you give the success of the five schools closest to your home at developing these characteristics in their students? What limits their success in doing this? The schools in my community are failing in this most important responsibility because they don’t recognize it as being their responsibility and are never held accountable for success. Instead, their missions, parental pressure, and deadening effect of school reform standards focus their attention and resources on maintaining and increasing students’ upward mobility — or put more bluntly – using the fair winds of competitive instinct to train good predators. Because of this, the final of the four barrier between us and rising to meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us fool ourselves into believing that our schools can be considered to be successful when they continue to put a disproportionate emphasis on preparing students to take/pursue personal gain — instead of developing in students the readiness to give in proportion to what they take, which is the measure of responsible citizenship. This status quo of schooling is a road toward diminishing returns because the pursuit of individual gain at the expense of our commonwealth leaves a dwindling world to be upwardly mobile in. We will know that this barrier is behind us when our schools are as, or more, effective at encouraging moral evolution and developing the characteristics of citizenship as they are in preparing students for upward mobility.
I was born into a world where the imbalance between what people asked of our communities and what those communities had the capacity to provide led to progressive erosion of community health and vitality. Though the decline continues, I am optimistic that within my lifetime it is possible for us to turn the corner by reconciling what our species demands with what the systems can sustainably provide. Every day I become increasingly convinced that the key to success is waking up to the four crucial ways that we fool ourselves and continue to fool each succeeding generation. What makes me hopeful is that when you look closely, in the right spots, it is easy to find, learn from, and be inspired by many remarkable examples of work that are successfully beginning to rebuild community vitality. Their success is the result of choosing to end the foolishness by redefining progress and success, re-envisioning three competing community challenges as one challenge, expanding the universe of ethical responsibility, and reshaping schooling to acknowledge that educating for responsible citizenship is our highest responsibility.
Among all of the candidates proposed as yardsticks for a successful life – educational pedigree, net worth, level of influence — is not the ultimate measure of our value and good work the degree to which we help equip our culture and its children to answer “yes” to Mumford’s challenge?
Peter Hayes is the former Ecological Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle. He now manages a family tree farm in the Coast Range of western Oregon.
Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live
By Anne Forbes, Partners in Place, LLC
This article originally appeared in Earthzine – http://earthzine.org/
aking a habit of Earth observation where you live is a fun and fundamental way to practice Earth stewardship. It is often our own observations close to home that keep us inspired to learn more and allow us to remain steady advocates for solutions to today’s daunting problems. Earth observation done whole-heartedly becomes skilled Earth awareness that leads to profound relationships with the plants, animals, and seasonal cycles surrounding us in real time, whether we live in the city, suburbs, or countryside.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
One way to track Earth observations is an activity called Phenology Wheels, suitable for individuals, families, classrooms, youth programs, and workshops for people of all ages. Phenology is a term that refers to the observation of the life cycles and habits of plants and animals as they respond to the seasons, weather, and climate. A Phenology Wheel is a circular journal or calendar that encourages a routine of Earth observation where you live. Single observations of what is happening in the lives of plants and animals made over time begin to tell a compelling story – your story – about the place on our living planet that you call home.
Why a circle? We usually think of the passing of time as linear, with one event following another in sequence by day, by month, by year. Placing the same events in a circular journal, or wheel shape, helps us discover new patterns (or rediscover known ones). We can use the Phenology Wheel to communicate about what is really important or interesting to us.
Here’s the General Idea
A Phenology Wheel is made up of three rings in a circle, like a target. To become a Wheel-keeper, you select a home place, such as a garden, a “sit spot,” schoolyard, watershed, or landscape that will be represented by a map or image in the center ring, the bull’s eye. Next, you mark units of time – such as the months and seasons of a year, hours of a day, or phases of a lunar month – around the outside ring, like the numbers on the face of a clock. Then, as you make specific observations of what is going on in the lives of plants and animals and the flow of seasons, you record them within the middle ring using words, phrases, images, or a combination.
Here’s How To Get Started
Because the wheel is round, you can begin a Phenology Wheel for Earth observation at any time of year.
Although you can pick among different time scales for the outer ring, let’s begin here with a year of seasons and months.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
1. Draw a set of nested circles on a large piece of paper. You can do this by tracing around large plates or pizza pans, by using an artist’s compass or by making your own compass out of a pencil, pin, and string. You may also purchase a kit of print Wheels or a set of digital PDF Wheels online.
2. If you are making your own Wheel, write the names of the seasons and months on the outer rings.
3. Select an image for the center to represent the place or theme you have selected and to anchor your practice of observation in time and space.
Maps for the Center: If you choose a map, will it be geographically accurate or symbolic? Will it be traced or cut and pasted from an existing map, or will it be a map of your own creation?
Tip: Use a web-based mapping system such as Google Maps to print a map and use it to trace selected features as a base map for your Wheel.
A Centering Image: If you choose an image other than a map, will you create your own image or use one that you find already in print material? Will you use a photo, make a collage, or choose a found object, like a leaf or feather?
Tip: Children often enjoy a picture of themselves at their “sit spot” or other place they have chosen to track their observations.
4. Establish a Routine: Observe → Investigate and Reflect → Record
OBSERVE: What do I notice in this moment? What is extraordinary about seemingly ordinary things? What surprises me as unexpected or dramatic?
INVESTIGATE: What more do I want to know about what I observe? What questions will I seek to answer through my own continued observation? What information will I search for in books or from mentors or websites?
REFLECT: What does my observation mean to me? How is it changing me? How does it help me explore my values and beliefs?
RECORD: A routine of frequent observation provides the raw material to transform your blank Wheel into a circular journal as you record images, symbols, or words as you observe the passing of the seasons in your home place.
Tip: An interactive diagram of this process can be found under the Observe & Record tab here.
5. Share and Celebrate: Use your Wheel to report or tell stories about what you learn from and value about Earth observation in your home place.
Like a wheel on a cart, time turns around the hub of your home place;
the metaphor is a journey taken through a day, a month, a year,
or a lifetime of curiosity and appreciation.
Of course, you don’t have to keep a journal to explore and appreciate your home place on earth and the home place in your heart. What are the dimensions of your home place in this moment? What marks of time’s passing do you observe? The more playful you are with these questions, the more you may feel a part of your home place and committed to co-creating its well-being with others in your community.
Courtesy The Yahara Watershed Journal.
Example #1: The Yahara Watershed Wheel
About twelve years ago, a group of like-minded friends gathered by my fireside to reflect upon what it means to live in this place we call home in Dane County, Wisconsin, USA. We chose to think of the Yahara Watershed as our common home place, and the series of seasonal events that occur in a typical year as the time scale to track. We put a map of the watershed in the center of a large Wheel of the Year, with units of time going around the outside rim, much like a clock, but using seasons and months instead of hours. We then went around our own circle, each speaking of the defining moments in the natural world and in the lives of people enjoying it throughout the months of a typical year. The artist among us sketched the images onto the Yahara Watershed Wheel that you see here. The detail in the enlarged image represents the unique happenings in March and April: pasque flowers in bloom, the return of redwing blackbirds and sandhill cranes, woodcock mating dances, first dandelions, and spring peepers in chorus.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
Example #2: Poems of Place
In reporting on this Wheel filled with seasonal poems by 4th and 5th graders about the large school woods, just outside an elementary school “backdoor” in Cambridge, Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez writes, “Because the woods is so accessible, the children spend quite a lot of time there developing a deep sense of place, including keen observational skills and a heightened imagination, all enhanced by the affection they have gained by years of exploring, learning and stewardship.” This selection of student poems illustrates how Phenology Wheels can be used to enhance language arts as well as science curriculum.
Example #3: Local Biodiversity
In another example from Cambridge Elementary School in Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez reports that a classroom studied the biodiversity of the area where they live. Each student picked a different animal or plant from their adjacent woods or prairie for the center of an 11-inch Wheel and then did research to tell the full story of the life cycle in words. The example here shows the work of one student who studied the Jack-in-the-Pulpit wildflower.
The next step would be for the students to combine their information for single species onto one large 32-inch Wheel and use it to explore the dynamics of the ecosystem that appear through food webs, habitat use, seed dispersal mechanisms, and so on.
Frequently Asked Questions
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
1. Where do I get more information?
If you are ready to start a Phenology Wheel for yourself, family, classroom or youth program, or any other interest group:
• Visit the Wheels of Time and Place website for instructions, resources, and a gallery of examples.
• Download a curriculum for youth developed in partnership with Georgia Gomez-Ibanez, an elementary school teacher, and Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Earth Partnership for Schools, UW-Madison Arboretum.
2. Where do I order pre-made Wheels?
Order the blank Wheel templates as a digital download of PDF files or as a complete toolkit, Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life. The latter includes a set of print Wheels in 11-inch and 24-inch sizes, a code to download the PDF files, and an instruction booklet – all in a recycled chipboard carrying case.
3. What size should my Wheels be?
Some people prefer 11-inch Wheels because they are compact, portable, and can be easily duplicated in a copy machine on 11 x 17-inch paper. You can trim them down to 11-inch square if you would like.
When people share the 24-inch Wheels, their faces often light up with excitement. This size, or larger, works well if you have a large clip board or a place to keep it posted for frequent use or when people are working on one Wheel in a group.
Of course, if you make your Wheels by hand, you can make them any size you like. If you purchase the PDF files, you can enlarge them up to 32-36 inches at a copy or blueprint shop.
4. What if I’m already a journal-keeper?
Some people who already keep a written journal use the Wheels to review their journals periodically and pull out observations to further explore and put on a Wheel. It’s amazing what patterns and stories can emerge.
5. Can the Wheels be created from databases?
Frank Nelson of the Missouri Department of Conservation has used wheels called Ring Maps, A Useful Way to Visualize Temporal Data to show trends and reveal patterns in a complex set of data.
Anne Forbes of Partners in Place, LLC is an ecologist who seeks to integrate her scientific and spiritual ways of knowing. For over 35 years, she worked on biodiversity policy as a natural resource manager and supported environmental and community collaborations as a facilitator and consultant. Her years of spiritual practice in varied traditions, most recently the Bon Buddhist tradition of Tibet, inspire her commitment to engaged action on behalf of present and future generations. She failed her first attempt at retirement and instead created the Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life.
Photo by Braden McKinnon 2013.
We need to provide opportunities for students to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty.
t was February 2012 in northwestern Ontario. I was in teachers college and my outdoor, environmental education cohort was on a winter camping trip. Cold winds blew outside, but inside of our cabin it was cozy as my peers snuggled up under blankets, ready for story time. I was about to share with them Stuart McLean’s “Burd”, a short-story from the author’s Home from the Vinyl Café.
“Burd” tells the story of Dave, a second hand record store owner, who becomes a reluctant new birder when an unexpected visitor begins to frequent Dave’s backyard birdfeeder. The visitor is a summer tanager, completely off-course from its usual winter habitat of Mexico or Brazil. Dave comes to cherish the time he spends with his bird; waking up early to feed the bird, and coming home from work at lunch so that the bird does not go hungry. When, on an early May morning, Dave discovers that his bird has left, he is heartbroken and hopes she will return next winter.
“Burd”, in its simple way, speaks to the pain and gratification that can come with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Can you recall a time when the natural world overwhelmed you? Have you ever felt in awe of the beauty of nature? Have you sat in salutation to the sun, or in quiet reverence to the river? Has nature left you speechless? When I posed these questions to my peers, in anticipation of reading “Burd”, they shared stories about thunder storms and the stars. Of canoe trips that they wished had never ended. One friend talked about that moment at night when you roll over in bed and catch a glimpse of the full moon outside your window. Magic moments, courtesy of our natural world.
But what about heartbreak? Nature provides those moments too. As educators of environmental literacy we can all surely reflect back on moments of loss, as something from the natural world was taken from us. It may have been as small as returning to your childhood home to find that the tall birch tree in your front yard had been cut down. Or it might be bigger – those lost fights against short-term gains and corporate interests that take away our rivers, our lakes, and our forests.
Does this sense of loss have a place in our classrooms? Indeed it is our students’ generation that is going to be handed the consequences of greed and inaction – rising sea levels, frequent and severe natural disasters, a complete disconnect from the natural world. If we continue down our current path, their losses will be far greater than anything we have experienced.
And yet, a feeling of loss necessitates that a connection has been established in the first place. In a world where children and adults alike are spending increasingly less time outdoors, these connections to the natural world are precious. For every story we have of loss, we each have a million more of those little moments of taking time for nature – time to be in awe, to slow down and find connection. If it weren’t for these moments, we wouldn’t be working as hard as we are to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for our children. The environmental movement wouldn’t exist. Dave’s summer tanager may not have survived an unplanned Canadian winter.
It is moments to build connection, awe, and wonder then that we must help create for our students. Moments that connect our students to the natural world, for not only is time in nature good for them, but they will then be good to the natural world. We can share our own experiences and the experiences of others, like Dave’s romance with a bird. But we must also provide opportunities for our students to have their own experiences – to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty. We know this already, it is why we seek out resources like CLEARING to inspire us to rely less on our four-walled classroom.
The most powerful story I can share, of my own experience creating space for awe, is from a most unlikely place: a suburban Grade 8 classroom. It was mid-December, the air was chilly, the sky was clear, and anticipation was building…snow would be coming soon. And sure enough it did, just as I started an afternoon lesson on local hunger issues. I didn’t notice the snow at first, but rather the sudden excitement on students’ faces as they began whispering and furtively pointing to the window. I looked outside and there it was – the first snow of the year! Big, beautiful snowflakes whipping around outside of the window.
I had two choices: as a student teacher I could maintain “classroom order”, aware that my teacher advisor was evaluating me, or I could allow space for awe. I chose the latter: “It’s snowing – look outside!” And then my students cheered. Suddenly, without any prompt from me, they ran to the window and cheered for snow. I cheered with them and also made a promise to myself: if I was ever lucky enough to be in front of a classroom again when snow fell for the first time outside, my class would bundle up, run outside, and lift our faces to the sky.
I made this promise because the first snow only happens once a year. Because nature has a way of spontaneously providing beautiful and powerful teaching moments, with no lesson plan required. And because these are the moments that students remember, and are the reason us educators do the work that we do.
Dave was heartbroken when his bird left. Not only had he lost a bird that he had come to care for, but he had also lost that very real connection to the natural world. In a world that is continually spinning faster and faster, Dave had found something small and vulnerable to focus on and to care for. He had been gifted with a reason to sit and watch nature – and to wonder. Why did this bird come to his backyard, of all places? How did it get there? Would it return? Dave did not know all of the answers and that was okay, because the answers were not what mattered. What mattered was that Dave knew how his bird looked in warm sunlight, and from what direction she flew in from the hedge to be fed. That is the beauty of “Burd” –it makes you want to go outside, sit by a bird feeder, and see what happens.
Let us make a promise to ourselves that as educators we will allow more time for awe. For wonder. For connection. That we will consider it a lesson well done if all our students do is sit by a bird feeder to see what happens.
Kim McCrory is a certified teacher and experienced outdoor educator from Ontario, but now calls Victoria, British Columbia home. Kim works for Sierra Club BC as the organization’s environmental educator, traveling the province to reconnect students with the wild products of our Temperate Rainforest.
McLean, Stuart. 1998. Home from the Vinyl Café. Toronto, ON: Viking by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. P. 256. ISBN 0-14-027743-9.