Stemming from inspirations from West Chester University's and the National Writing Project graduate course Literacy in Bloom (PWP-510-01) my 8th grade classes wrote, reflected, and dug deeper into nature. More specifically, this digging was about change.
a) A change in the way I taught some traditional, classic literature.
b) A change in what we wrote and what tools we used.
c) A change in how we connected with the texts.
This final project demonstrates how new knowledge can be applied to current curriculum while, at the same time, incorporating emerging digital technologies...without sacrificing anything. When we dig deeper, we provide a rich and authentic experience for our students. We move closer to the text and as you will read here, a closer understanding of our humanity.
The Recent PastWhile nature has played a role in the core literature read in class, I had done little with nature over recent years beyond theme. In September we discussed and wrote about Stephen Crane's use of nature in The Red Badge of Courage. Our pens focused on nature's indifference to man and how it lives on, no matter what man does--as it pertains to the novel. While men slaughter one another, birds sing on as the cannons quell. As the clouds of black smoke, oily and choking, dissipate, natural sunlight filters through the lush green canopies of Virgina. Indeed, nature's indifference overcomes man:
"As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment. " Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of CourageYet we had not made any connections with nature in our own lives. At the same time, dissonant sounds of wrankled students reverberated through the 8th grade--few found much worthy of original thought in their writing and class conversations (except "I don't like it.") in The Red Badge of Courage. Clearly, class discussions and writing activities occurred at arm's length from the text. We covered the material, but latched onto little.
We found a similar relationship with A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Nature rebels as Oberon and Titania fight. Contagions, fogs, floods destroy crops, slay wildlife, and threaten the very existence of humanity. Nature and man have a one-sided relationship--man is subservient to nature and the fairy kingdom.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Nights Dream II.i
So much of the play occurs in the woods. The audience is asked to use their imaginations as they take a journey with the characters into enchanted woods that are home to imagination, mischief, and magic. It is playful--we comprehended the story--but we never dug into our own relationships with the woods, nature, or our imaginations.
More specifically, our discussions and writing about humanity and nature, as a class, fell far short of making any personal connections. The magical pull of nature, again at arm's length, felt more like the pall of nature--something shrouding an idea. We didn't lift it to reexamine it as a life experience that we all shared.
My Transformation in the WoodsThe work by Richard Louv and David Sobel transformed how I look at nature as a teacher and how I approach nature in literature and our own writing. While it may be too late this year to establish those connections with The Red Badge of Courage and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Louv and Sobel enhanced and changed our classroom relationships with The Diary of Anne Frank and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer beyond anything I created on my own over the past seventeen years.
Struck most by the work of Richard Louv, I wondered what role the natural world played in the lives of my students--this became my starting point, and our way in, into the woods. And it was through these class conversations and writing experiences that I began to identify so many missed opportunities in the past for deeper connections between my students and the texts.
Change indeed occurred.
Borrowing an idea from David Sobel's Childhood and Nature, an early writing goal for the class as we started The Diary of Anne Frank was to use writing and digital tools to serve as an ally for something in nature. First, however, we would reflect on our previous (childhood) relationships with nature, and continue writing about any changes in that relationship over the years.
As an aside, I knew Anne wrote quite a bit about nature and I was hoping to use this because she was cut off from it...and we are not. Or so I thought.
The results astounded me. I anticipated most students having a healthy relationship with nature--at the very least I anticipated many of the athletes identifying sports as their current thirteen-year-old connection with the natural world.
It breaks my heart to reveal below what many of the students shared.
After several different drafts in our writer's notebooks, I asked students to write Tweets--design a "golden line" that captures the spirit of your recent writing in 140 characters or less! I created a unique hashtag for our students, as a way to teach them about using a hashtag to reach an audience. Hashtags would come into play more directly in the future.
After all, if you use Twitter and have few followers, are you truly writing to an audience? Hashtags would become our way to reach an audience...when the time was right. But for now, it was time to practice and a time to express our thoughts about our relationships with the natural world.
Charming messages like this one above caught my eye and attention at first.
Then, as the students took turns with the iPads and adding their messages, another idea began to emerge--students recognized that they had grown apart from nature, and have lost something in the process.
The repetition of loss, being a stranger or an intruder, caught me off guard--even though I had heard Louv's message. Yet, what troubles me most is the visceral sense for some that they may never get it back.
Nevertheless, the lessons and possibilities for connections to literature blossom within these lines of text. I began to wonder could I help my students take a step back towards nature? Could I help repair those relationships through literature and writing? Undeniably, the two major messages here are a) that nature has been a place of magic, wonder, and inner peace, and b) that magic, that connection, has been displaced by busy lives, speed, technology, and everything we occasionally hear people mutter about young people--their lives are too planned, too packed, too busy. And technology is only making it go faster.
The privilege is mine as I read their tweets, their blogs, their essays. While cries of loss permeate the text, the reverence and awe of nature is still a very real seed within them. As I read the tweets below, Anne Frank's message to Peter of inner peace and happiness resurfaced in a way I'd never grasped:
When I looked outside right into the depth of Nature and God, then I was happy, really happy. And Peter, so long as I have that happiness here, the joy in nature, health and lot more besides, all the while one has that, one can always recapture happiness.
Nothing is too late, but I can't help returning to the feeling that I let some months slip away with these kids. The love and reverence for those childhood experiences still exists. Something is indeed left to work with!
A few days back, a student shared that she is developing a theory about honesty and writing--we are most honest when we write. We tend to be more willing to disguise the truth or bury the truth when we think or silently consider--we convince ourselves of falsehoods, or we repress them and in so doing we no longer need worry. Out of sight, out of mind.
Just how out of sight and mind had nature become? The more I read the heart-breaking honesty of my students, the more I was and am left wondering...
...is this student the exception now, and not the rule?
...what is written in between the lines of this student?
...is there still magic out there for this student?
...will she ever return?
...would the warmth of this poet's voice have ever reached out?
...a raw finality sprouts from the word "rests"--almost chilling--do these words speak the plain truth for this generation?
Digging DeeperCharged with a renewed energy, I re-purposed Sobel's inspiration from nature writer Brenda Petersen,
'In our environmental wars, the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them,'
"If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, then the first task is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them."
Short of running around outdoors and growling or flapping our arms like wings, we used our imaginations to insert ourselves in another place, another creature, another circumstance.
After sharing their written work from the point of view of something (animal, plant, etc.) from the natural world, I asked students to write and perfect Tweets, again in their writer's notebooks, and then showed them how to Tweet their perspective out into an interested audience by using real hashtags followed by the public:
While much of their initial work has the patina of activism and a persuasive essay-in-the-making, my goal of asking the students to become the voice for the voiceless started to come together:
And others continue to reinforce the message present by Louv--human beings need nature. And when they do not have it, they miss it.
I like the transition to the blogs because they leave little room for interpretation or possible misreading of a Tweet. Here, students identify that change had indeed occurred--they have grown apart from nature:
The same message resonates loud and clear with many subsequent blog entries:
And when students are not lamenting the loss of nature in their lives, they revel in the memories once shared in nature:
In the end, I can only conclude that nature and young people is a significant topic to continue to study. People such as Richard Louv and David Sobel need to be read, heard, and shared with parents and educators.
The Nature of Anne Frank
With my own awareness heightened, I tuned into more than Anne Frank's long-lauded and highly publicized chestnut tree. Passages I never noticed before stood out. Only six months before their discovery and capture, Anne irrevocably joins nature and happiness hand in hand:
"As long as this exists," I thought, "and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy."I see parallels between Anne's desire for nature and the experiences my students remember of their childhoods:
We are still reading and writing about Anne Frank, and the more we write about our own connections and slow down while reading Anne Frank's diary, appreciating her connections, the closer we grow to the text.
This student identifies power of Anne's use of the word "privilege." Who in my community of learners could imagine that taking a breath of fresh air could be a privilege? Can we even identify with that here in America? I like that my student in this blog post, at the very least, acknowledges the concept of breathing as a privilege as "unreal" to her.
Additionally, this segment from a recent student essay resonates with Anne Frank's belief that her happiness is tied to Nature and God, and we all have access to all of it...if we would only take the time:
The Future: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
As a class, we will read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in May. My typical use of literary connections will still be in place, but I am looking forward to slowing down to connect with the text.
I'm thinking of using Tom's running to the woods to remain a child, to play (Robin Hood, and Pirates), to imagination to reconnect to the ideas my students have already expressed. As writing is a recursive process, I'm interested in seeing my students use a highlighter to go back through their writer's notebook to find sentences, phrases, ideas that fit, in any way, with Tom's need to escape to childhood, to play...to breath the fresh air.
Concluding ThoughtsStudying nature as a writer has reminded that I am not powerless--on the contrary, as a teacher I wield the great privilege of power and influence over how young people think, what young people read, and what young people do with their writing. Taking Literacy in Bloom and integrating the ideas learned in that class back into my classroom taught me the research and work of people such as Richard Louv, David Sobel is closer to the heart-wrenching truth, stark and alarming.
Today's goal is as simple as tomorrow's goal--help my students slow down, look to the outdoors again, and take one more step closer to the texts they read and the texts they write...and in so doing, one more step closer to themselves and the natural world.