“Oh my gosh! LOOK!”
Eleven first-graders race to join their classmate under an ancient knobbed oak. He is squatting over a line of ants that are carrying small bits of something white into a hole in the ground. They watch the ants with the urgency of explorers discovering an alien civilization. It’s as if they have never seen ants before, which I know is not true at all. We have seen them in our classroom on this very day. But these ants are different. These are in the canyon, and the canyon is our special place.
In the summer of 2010, I was considering a job as a science teacher at a small private school. As a long-time environmental educator and garden teacher, I had spent much of my career linking indoor and outdoor learning. I was excited by the fact that one of the units I would teach, if I accepted the job, was Ecology—perfect for outdoor learning, if only I could get my students out of the classroom and into the natural world.
Taking a walk around the neighborhood, I saw that in back of the park next to the school, the earth dropped away into a broad, sloping canyon, which ended in a busy street. It was an entrance to Tecolote Canyon—trashy, scraped bare and left for the colonization of weeds. But the slope had a few healthy stands of native plants—lemonadeberry, chamise, buckwheat and sagebrush—all evidence that underneath the thrashed veneer, a healthy ecosystem still struggled to exist. I walked farther into the neighborhood and found more canyon access points that led to trickling creeks, oak woodlands, and chaparral and coastal sage scrub ecosystems. All were within walking distance of the school.
Back in my classroom-to-be, I considered a wall of shiny textbooks and the expectation that textbooks, vocabulary quizzes, tests and lab reports were traditionally a part of the school’s science curriculum. Somehow, I would need to meet those expectations while pursuing the project-based learning I felt best served students. A vague idea began to form in my mind of using the canyon for a project. I accepted the job the next day, on the condition that I be allowed to take children into the canyon on a regular basis. My experiment with place-based learning had begun.
Place-based learning is the study of a particular place as an organizing and driving factor in a project-based learning classroom. According to the Center for Eco-literacy, “Place-based learning begins with asking questions such as, ‘Where am I? What is the natural and social history of this place? How does this place fit into the larger world?’”
Place-based learning seemed like the perfect method for studying ecology, since ecology is the study of the relationships between living and nonliving things in a specific place. For my science students, grades 1-8, using a specific natural place in our community— Tecolote Canyon—as both a subject and place of study could provide us with an ever-changing, living textbook from which to learn basic ecological concepts and develop a relationship with the natural world.
Ask any adult who feels connected and concerned about the environment how they developed that connection, and chances are they will mention a specific place—generally a small one—and a large amount of free time. For Richard Louv, San Diego author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, that place was the intersection of suburbia, woods and farmland in his Missouri backyard, where he could play alone in nature for hours. For me, that place was a small, verdant pocket between my yard and the next in suburban Philadelphia. It was green and moist, rocky and private, and it smelled like soil.
For children, developing a relationship with our big planet comes from small, specific encounters. We see, smell and touch the shelf fungus decomposing a fallen log and see a flower springing from the enriched soil—and we understand the cycle of life and death. We watch a hawk circle, dive, and flap off with a struggling snake—and the thrill we feel embeds the concept of energy flow in our minds and our guts. We sit in silence and listen to a brook trickle by, our own breath joining the breeze, and we feel connected to a place and a planet. Developing a relationship with a place that encompasses our minds, hearts and bodies is what place-based learning is all about.
Never having done a place-based learning project before, I was driven by instinct and by the canyon itself. I wrote down what I already knew about the canyon, what I wondered about, and all the different ways I imagined we could learn about the canyon. How was it formed geologically? What animals and plants lived in this particular canyon? Why was it disturbed in some areas, and a healthy ecosystem in others? What was the canyon’s history? How did water drain through the canyon? How polluted is the canyon, and what and where does the pollution come from? Who uses the canyon and who takes care of it? What endangers the canyon? How do the issues facing the canyon relate to larger ecological issues such as global climate change?
I wrote down every person I could think of who might be able to help my project go from an idea to a reality. I emailed rangers from the City of San Diego, friends who are botanists, volunteers from the California Native Plant Society, staff members at the Audubon Society, San Diego Canyonlands, the Natural History Museum, San Diego Children and Nature, Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Tecolote Nature Center and Friends of Rose Canyon. From each one, I asked for ideas as to how they would use the canyon in a months-long study with grades 1–8. They sent back ideas for bird watching, plant restoration, canyon clean-ups, and studies of Kumeyaay Indians and art.
I wrote down an outline of what a study of the canyon might look like, and all the things it could include:
take class to a City Council debate on an environmental issue.
check out taxidermied animals and pelts from the Natural History Museum’s loan library.
go on a birding hike with an Audubon volunteer.
draw the canyon as it changes over the months.
use Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North as a basis for writing nature haikus.
take out invasive plants and trash; restore a section of canyon.
do water testing for pollutants; follow the creek from street drains to the bay.
interview the people who helped save the canyon.
survey canyon neighbors about how they use the canyon. Collaboration: work with other schools to create a garden to attract wildlife to restored areas.
exhibit work in a public place, both on the internet and at an event.
With so many ideas pouring through my brain, I needed a realistic timeline and structure. Since Ecology was only one of seven units I was required to teach, I figured I could spend six weeks on it. Between September 15 and November 23, I would take middle schoolers, who had science daily, to the canyon every week. The elementary school students, who only had science twice a week, would visit the canyon every other week.
I marked December 1st as an end date for the unit, and as a target date for an exhibition of learning. I called the Tecolote Nature Center and arranged to hold the exhibition there, so that students would have a real audience for sharing what they learned. Now I had a framework from which to work.
Using the middle school textbooks, I identified key ecological concepts I would need to cover over the course of the unit. I considered how I could use visits to the canyon to teach these concepts. Then I considered how we could also examine global ecological issues through the lens of our little canyon.
Students, administration, teachers and parents were overwhelmingly excited about having students get out of the classroom and into the canyon. Most had never hiked in our urban canyons, though many lived within walking distance of one. But canyon visits also needed the intellectual underpinning of lessons.
Each week, I would teach a new concept in the classroom, using a storybook, film, readings from the textbook or sections of commercially available books. I began with the abiotic, or nonliving, elements of the canyon. We looked at soil, experimented with different types of soil, and checked out what soil is made of. Then we went into the canyon to see what abiotic elements existed in our canyon—soil, water, weather, wind, and sun.
We went on to study plants next, and looked at what qualities, or adaptations, plants had to have in order to survive within the abiotic elements of the canyon. We went into the canyon and looked for native plants, and non-native plants. We studied how non-native plants affect an ecosystem.
Next we studied the animals of the ecosystem, using taxidermy models as well as a few live critters. We went into the canyon to look for animals and signs of animals. We went on bird walks with Audubon Society volunteers. We learned about the canyon’s food web, how energy flows from the sun to producers, consumers and decomposers in an ecosystem, and how everything is recycled in nature.
We connected the canyon to the larger ecological issue of waste through a field trip to the Miramar Landfill. We compared nature’s method of recycling (decompositon) with our own urban methods. Then we returned to school to dig through our own trash and see what we throw away and recycle. Drawing on their feelings of shock at seeing the amount of garbage our city throws away, middle school students created films, power points and letters to the principal about what they learned and how they would like to see trash handled at our school.
To help children understand the history of our canyon, we invited two local conservation volunteers to visit our classroom. Eloise Battle, an 80-something dynamo who saved Tecolote Canyon from destruction in the 1970s, was joined by Debbie Knight, who is trying to save Rose Canyon from development today. They shared not only their love for their canyons, but what they have had to do to save these open spaces.
While each week and each visit to the canyon had a focus, a good deal of canyon time was also open for spontaneous learning opportunities. Raccoon tracks and a partially eaten crayfish by the creek led to a discussion of the food chain in the riparian, or creekside, habitat. Avoiding a patch of poison oak led to a vigorous debate about “good” and “bad” plants and point of view. And oil floating on top of the creek demonstrated how larger ecological issues—such as the recent Gulf oil spill—can be seen on a small scale in the canyon. While none of these lessons were planned, each took advantage of the “wow” factor of science—the thrill and wonder of experiencing something new.
Art and science intertwined naturally in the canyon. Early in the project, we talked about how scientists and artists both look at details and notice connections between things. In order to look and listen carefully, students often sat apart from one another and drew what they saw—sometimes fine details, and at other times broad landscapes. An artist joined us one day and helped students draw contours and panoramas of the canyon. At other times, students found quiet places to listen, and then wrote poems about what they noticed. The students’ ability to sit quietly and listen carefully-– rambunctious first graders to chatty middle schoolers—felt amazing and magical and transformative.
In addition to traditional tests, quizzes and vocabulary for the middle schoolers, each student chose some aspect of the canyon to study and report on. Middle schoolers chose global ecological issues and solutions, and created presentations describing how these issues affect both the world on a global scale, and Tecolote Canyon on a local level. Elementary students created reports, paintings and paper-mache sculptures of canyon animals.
At our final exhibition of learning at the Tecolote Nature Center, students displayed their work, talked to adults from the school and community about their projects, and shared their love of the canyon with anyone who would listen. In the end, the canyon’s rangers chose fifteen projects to continue to display at the nature center, so that more people would have a chance to learn from the students.
For students, parents and teacher, Tecolote Canyon became more than a place to learn science. It became a place to directly experience earth’s amazing capacity for renewal—and to renew ourselves in the process. It became a place to measure our own impact on the world. It became the place where many students developed their first relationship with a healthy planet. When vocabulary words and test results fade from my students’ minds, I hope that a gut-level, heart-felt connection to one special place remains. As Richard Louv wrote in Last Child in the Woods, “If, when we were young, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that traveled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today. Nature still informs our years—lifts us, carries us.”
On the seventh grade’s last visit to Tecolote Canyon, I brought along a book of poetry—Basho’s haikus. In a quiet clearing next to the creek, I read Basho’s poems about nature, written in the 1600s. Then I asked each student to take a pencil, clipboard and paper and find a quiet spot alone to write their own poems, focusing on details in nature. I paused, waiting for protests, chattering, silliness. Instead, students scattered in silence, finding spots and sitting so quietly we could hear the brook bubbling by, birds chirping, a hawk screaming. For fifteen minutes, they sat alone and wrote in silence.
The results were beautiful—and sometimes hilarious—evidence that they had found not only an intellectual understanding of canyon ecology, but an uplifting joy and connection.
Icy cold water
With a dip it falls below
Blue and whooshing, there it goes!
[the spider’s web]
Shines in the bright light
Sewn thick, invisible net
Now caught—no way out!
I walked through bushes.
Dang, I just touched poison oak.
Call an ambulance!
As for myself, I felt uplifted by the project in multiple ways. Intellectually, it was a chance to solidify my own understanding of how the natural world works. On a personal level, I felt a deeper connection with the planet through my connection both with students and with the canyon, as if I were viewing the world from the top of Maslow’s peak for at least a moment.
Louv, Richard (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
The Center for Ecoliteracy: https://www.ecoliteracy.org/