"Humility, an understanding of the world around you, a sense of agency, the ability to form hypotheses based on observations, understanding complexity - these are the qualities educators want all students to have..." Amanda Giracca posits in her recent essay titled "Into The Field" in Orion Magazine. She begins her essay on the road, following a van of students from Prescott College in Arizona toward the cliffs of the Verde River, while explaining that learning by going out of the classroom into the world is what pulls students into real memory forming experiences.
Professor Bob Ellis, who leads this crew, has the stated goal that day of having his students understand why different plants have different types of leaves, some big and broad, some small and waxy. But as a raptor glides overhead, the group stops to notice and to describe what they see, Giracca says she notices that Ellis doesn't tell the students what type of bird it is. He just wants to get the students to be in the habit of noticing. It's not about memorizing names or facts. It's about getting kids out into the field because as an educator, when you create authentic experiences, spontaneous things happen, and that's where real learning can take place. We need to give our students "ample opportunity to develop a sense of wonder or to build a set of skills that will help them think through the complexities of reality – skills that no textbook-derived information can replace... It's the experience in its purest form that seems to be missing for students."
As I read Giracca's article, I connected to it in a strong way. As an educator myself, I'm constantly trying to get my students out of the classroom. When you bring students out into the world, they wake up. They ask different questions – questions that aren't triggered by workbooks and spelling tests. Professor Ellis, hiking with a group of students in Wyoming's Wind River Mountain range, hiked to the top of a peak after setting up camp. They made it to the top just in time to see the "setting sun send a line of cottonwoods aglow." A light rain fell, making the leaves sparkle. One of the students turned to Ellis and asked, "Bob, what role does beauty have in education?"
When you experience the beauty of nature high on a mountain peak for the first time, you form strong connections with that place. This leads to a love and respect for the place that goes deep. Whether students interview a local fisherman or spend an afternoon each month visiting the same tree at the state park, the connections that they make are not superficial. I think this is the whole point of place-based education. When I've taken my 9 to 12-year-old students to the White Mountains to hike the ridges for a week, when they actually leap from rock to rock, smell the alpine forest, feel the rain whipping against their face, taste tiny mountain cranberries… that is when we're hooked, connected. That is when we care, right? Think about a place that you've visited. You didn't just read about it in a guidebook. When your feet touched the earth, when you talked to people there, I'm sure you felt connected in a different way than when you were planning for that trip. When we've experienced the place, we want to learn more. Every time we hear about that place afterward, our ears perk up. We not only want to learn about our place more, but we want to take care of it. It's become our special place.
Many of my own philosophies on teaching come from my favorite, most meaningful semester of education, a semester with the School for International Training on the South Pacific island of Western Samoa. As I recall, ten American college students are sitting cross-legged in an open air fale (Samoan house), learning how to make traditional art called tapa cloth by pounding and then dying it with the inner layers of tree bark. There are vendors sitting on their mats at the market selling passion fruit and papaya, colorful fabrics, and lace. The crowded, rainbow-colored wooden buses are blasting the same song from the boom box over and over. (I learned quickly on those buses to pull a child on my lap, so I didn't have to sit on the lap of some older gentleman when the bus got crowded.) We are wearing white on Sundays as our host families take us to church in the morning, and again in the afternoon, with an outdoor village feast between the two services. The fresh water pools on the edge of the ocean mix with seawater as the tides come in. We respectfully leave when the 16-year-old boy with the fresh, raw tattoo covering much of his body comes to cool off. The delicious mango brought lovingly from the city by my host family's mother is charmed away from me by some eight-year-old child asking for a bit, then walking away with the whole thing. We, unbeknownst, were learning the meaning of place.
In my memory, I compare these delightful and sometimes difficult, always powerful experiences to my other semesters of college which comprised fuzzy thoughts of me sitting at a table or a desk with a book open, trying to memorize Greek verbs that I no longer remember. I did get an A- in my Ancient Greek course most semesters, and I learned how to write and rewrite Greek words over and over, how to memorize passages for the coming exam. But in terms of deep, meaningful learning, I remember thinking two weeks into my studies in Samoa, "This is what learning can be like? This is so real. It's wonderful!" I had never experienced anything like it and never realized that learning could be so engaging.
It was hard for me to get on a bus the first day we were in the country, but that was our assignment. Get on a bus. Get off in the center of town. Change buses. Go where it takes you, and then get back here. Our Samoan language skills were limited to "hello" and "thank you" at that point, but I did it—we all did. We felt empowered. While we can't take all of the students out of the country, when we take them out of the classroom, perhaps pushing their comfort zone a little, or a lot, the world becomes real, and students become alive when engaged in real, out-of-textbook learning.
This past spring, I was driving a van of eight fifth-graders to a local family farm. This was to be our fifth and final trip of the year. That day, after we had planted strawberry seedlings, helped with the irrigation system, covered an asparagus hill with hay to keep the weeds down, collected eggs, held tiny fluffy chicks, and watched the baby goats wobble on shaky legs, we took turns playing on the raft in the pond which, while attached to a tree on the bank, felt as tippy and unsteady as those newborn kids. So fun! Finally, before leaving, we circled up on the grass in the shade and took turns finishing the prompt, "Before coming to this farm, I had never. . ." Our list went on and on. One reason was none of us wanted the day to end. Each time we'd come to the farm, we pulled into the school driveway late, just as dismissal was starting. On the way back to school that particular day, the students noticed all the political signs that were on people's lawns and started talking about what was happening with the elections. They asked really thoughtful questions and pushed each other's thinking. Taking time away from the classroom gives us an opportunity—and time—to have real conversations triggered by things in the world that make us curious. It is easy, as an educator, to tell when your people are truly engaged.
"Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment." This is a quote by Maria Montessori. At the Montessori public school where I teach 25 upper-elementary students, I am lucky enough to be able to take students out of the classroom on a regular basis. Part of our charter is to learn about the history, culture, and ecology of the Merrimack River Valley, the area where we live. So we go out a lot. We explore the local state park and the Merrimack River. We interview people in town and invite local experts in. The history of our area is rich and deep. I feel grateful to be able to access our community outside of the classroom walls. That said, it can be hard to get out, even in our school. There's the extra time it takes to set up the trips, do the paperwork, and figure out transportation. Sometimes there are costs involved, and we have to figure out how to pay for trips. Then, there's the curriculum-that's-supposed-to-be-taught. Learning by experience certainly takes more time than delivering the information in a lecture or written form. But really, what's the point of education?
Going outside the classroom isn't just a nice break from the routine. It's often the beauty of the natural world and the unassigned learning that drives students to explore their own curiosities further. It gives students confidence and lights joyous discovery. What's being lost in education today, Giracca says, is the "opportunity to question and grow—to be moved, to be momentarily stunned—or flummoxed—by something you couldn't have anticipated." I would add joy and delight to that list. As more and more of us are speeding through life, attached to our screens and our urgent agendas, one of my great hopes for education is that we can teach our children to look up more often; to look up, to pause, and to notice details of the world around them that they've never wondered about before. It can be wonderful to be flummoxed once in awhile!
Ali Fields teaches in an upper elementary classroom at River Valley Charter School, a Montessori public school in Newburyport, MA. Her love of the outdoors started as a child when she went to summer camp. There she paddled on Squam Lake and hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She still goes to camp every summer and spends much time outdoors during the rest of the year as well, cross-country skiing, backpacking, canoeing, playing and making fairy houses and, these days, trying to keep up with her seven-year-old twins. Ali spent a year out of the woods and in the wilds of Cambridge earning a Masters in Education from the Ed School at Harvard. Ali and her family recently spent a year on sabbatical working on organic farms in Chile and Denmark. Ali is an avid believer in getting children out into the world.