After Reading “Into The Field” by Amanda Giracca (Orion Magazine, May/June 2016)
"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.