Half of the school year has passed. We’ve had our Christmas break and, barring a snow storm this week, we’ll get back to our co-op classes. I am in the middle of a year of teaching field biology and natural history to a group of 6th-8th graders. In an earlier post written back in July, I talked about preparing for this year of teaching biology. Prompted by my blog post deadline this month, I want to look back at the last few months of learning with this group of students and examine our progress. Am I teaching science as Miss Mason might have done it? Are my students developing relationships with the objects of their study and do they care more widely and deeply now for the natural world around them than they did at the beginning of our study together?
Our journey, thus far, has been delightful and challenging. We began the year studying the trees and woodland habitat around us. We went for walks, gathered leaves and did bark rubbings. We learned to identify and name trees. We found ferns and moss and watched ants. We learned about the forest canopy above and the litter layer beneath our feet. We drew pictures, made lists, and wrote descriptions in our nature journals.
Next, we moved to the study of birds. We watched swallows dart, wheel, and dip into a pond. We viewed kingfishers, herons, and vultures and we saw a barred owl land in a tree, just yards away from where we sat. We held a dead cardinal (found by one of the moms and kept in my freezer). We looked at its exquisite feathers and when asked by eager students if we could do so, we dissected the bird and were amazed to see its tiny heart and other internal organs. We listened to recordings of bird songs and watched videos of peregrine falcons.
Many of these experiences have awakened wonder and excitement about the natural world in my middle school students. On numerous occasions, I have heard comments like, “I never knew there was so much to learn about trees” and “Guess what I saw this week!” Miss Mason said, “Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value.” I am happy to report that if gauged by the wonder and admiration expressed so far, our field biology studies have had tremendous educative value.
In addition to the hands-on learning experiences, reading living books has been an integral part of our study. In the fall, we read Rascal by Sterling North. Over the holiday break, many of the students read Owls in the Family by Farley Mowett. Others read poetry and essays by authors who love their subjects. We’ve used Gerard Durell’s The Amateur Naturalist, and the excellent little book, How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson. These living books are far more engaging to the students than the standard science textbooks found in many school classrooms or homeschool bookshelves!
In addition to meeting mind-to-mind through books, we’ve had the immense privilege of meeting mind-to-mind in person with people who know and love their subjects – an environmental educator at a local nature center, a researcher who demonstrated hummingbird banding, and a volunteer with the local Audubon Society. Each of these people has shared their expertise and enthusiasm, teaching and inspiring my students. Questions have been freely asked and answered, observations shared.
And finally, we’ve had an exam. Some people don’t like tests, but Charlotte Mason was not among them. She gave thorough exams. I sought to do that, as well, requiring my students to master a body of knowledge. Instead of dry intake and regurgitation, however, demonstration of this mastery through writing an exam connected to the relationships my students had begun to develop with the topics of our study. When asked to describe the composition of a deciduous woodland, my students could think back to the well written pages they read from Durrell, remember walking in the woods and bending down to examine the leaf litter, or picture the fern specimens we collected on one of our walks.
Can you tell I am pleased so far at the progress of my students? Knowledge, as measured by an exam score, is growing. As the students spend time outdoors, quietly observing and documenting, their powers of observation and attention are growing. And perhaps most importantly, wonder, as measured by excitement in voices as well as “proprietary interest” as measured by the pride in their discoveries and journal entries and the eagerness to share these discoveries are all growing in these middle school students.
So, we will continue along our path in the months ahead. When we study amphibians and reptiles we will visit a college herpetology lab; we’ll learn pond ecology by getting our feet wet and dipping our nets in the water; we will continue to write in nature journals and read the best books I can find. We will add to our lists and learn scientific names. We will develop relationships, with people who can teach us, with books, and with the natural world. It’s an exciting journey. The gates are ajar. Won’t you come with us!
“The whole circle of the sciences is set with gates ajar in order that a child may go forth furnished, not [only] with scientific knowledge, but with common information, so that he may feel for the objects on the earth and in the heavens the sort of proprietary interest which the son of an old house has in its heirlooms” (School Education, Volume 3, Charlotte Mason, p.79).
© Beth Pinckney 2011