65: Nature’s Classroom

65: Nature’s Classroom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Nature’s Classroom

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

~Henry David Thoreau

It was one of those crisp, cool November days, when the leaves are all colors, and it is glorious to be outdoors. It was 3:00 p.m., and we were on a yellow school bus about to pick up a class of fifth grade “at-risk” students for an overnight camping experience at the Outdoor Environmental Education campsite.

When we arrived, the students were all waiting outside their school with their duffle bags of bedding and a change of clothes. Some had their things in trash bags, and some had very little in the way of bedding. It was obvious that these kids had no one to help them prepare for the overnight, even though we had given them an hour-by-hour itinerary and recommendations for what to bring.

As I stepped off the bus, the principal of the school greeted me. He took me aside and asked if he could have a private discussion. When we reached his office, he informed me that he had kept eight boys after school for misbehavior, and they were no longer to be included on the field trip.

I reminded him that our whole program had been designed for just the kind of students he had forbidden to go on this adventure. Those eight boys needed to see a part of our world totally different from the one they had come from that morning. I begged him to reconsider his decision and let them go. He listened, and then said, “Well, I guess I can delay their punishment until next week.” Then he called those eight boys in and told them he had changed their punishment. They could go, after all.

The boys were excited, but they had no extra clothing or bedding for sleeping. We always had extra clothes and bedding in case of emergencies at the site, so this was not a problem.

I had talked the principal into letting these troublemakers go, so I told the rest of the staff that I had my group of eight, and they could divide the rest of the class between the three of them.

Most of the students from these “at-risk” schools had never been out in the woods, sampled the rippling waters of a stream, or heard the calls of the whippoorwills or coyotes yapping at night. They had never fallen in the meadow grasses and pretended to be deer or rabbits, and hadn’t hiked a trail lit by moonlight.

And the wonders, with these eight boys, were just beginning. The first job upon arrival at camp was to set up tents and fetch water from the pump. Then I led them into the deepest part of the oak-hickory forest, far enough so they were completely worn down and dependent on me to show them the way back to camp. We were discovering wildlife tracks, fungi, and other things of interest as we hiked. Now I had the upper hand. They needed me to show them the way back with a compass and map.

These boys found many things to explore. They lifted the side of an old watering tank and discovered ten or twelve tiny garter snakes. They asked if they might pick them up, and I said yes; they were not poisonous. One of the boys wanted to take one home to scare his sister, and I explained the special job these creatures have in nature. Then I asked him why he wanted to scare his sister with a tiny snake, and he said, “Because she’s big and mean and makes me do stuff I don’t want to do.” We put the snakes back where we found them and moved on.

At the stream, so clear that the rocks lining the bottom were visible, the boys asked if they could remove their shoes and socks, and wade in the water. It was still warm enough, so I said yes. They found tadpoles, crawdads, minnows, and insect larvae, which begin their short lives attached to rocks in the water. These boys were full of wonder and asked many questions about the things they were observing.

The boys dried off their feet on their trouser legs, and put their socks and shoes back on. We continued our hike, stopping each time one of them found something of interest. And the “wonders” they found. Travis (the apparent ringleader of this group) found some owl pellets beneath an oak tree. “What’s this?” he asked. In all my twenty years of field studies, I had never found an owl pellet. Not only had Travis found one, but he found one containing a complete skull of a field mouse. “Can I take it home to show my mom?”

I said, “Let’s take it back to camp and share it with the group. We do not take things like this home because it isn’t sanitary, and your mom wouldn’t want you handling it.” We put it in a plastic bag for safekeeping. On the way back to camp, Jessie (the quiet one) pulled on my shirt and pointed. He had found a rare, wild, fringed orchid growing there for us to see, but hidden away from the rest of the world.

In the evening, we had a good time roasting hot dogs and making s’mores by the campfire. We sang all the silly songs we knew, and ended with a beautiful one called “Moon on the Meadow.” They liked it so much that we sang it several times until they knew all the words by heart. Just before retiring, we took a short hike down to the lakeshore in the moonlight.

Next morning, we woke everyone to scrambled eggs, French toast and cocoa. Then we hiked again to the shoreline to look for arrow points and bits of old Native American pottery. The boys found tiny arrow points called “bird heads” and “friendship rocks” (rocks with a hole through the middle). We let them keep the friendship rocks, but re-buried the arrow points where they were found. The kids were talkative and excited about their “finds” as we returned to camp.

After lunch, we hiked one last time before leaving. The boys found a hollowed-out sycamore tree, big enough for all eight of them to fit into. Then they discovered the tree was still alive, as it had tall branches with green leaves. It was a chance to talk about how a tree grows, the parts of a tree, and the function of each. As we were talking, Jessie said quietly, “What’s that?” He was pointing at an evergreen about five feet tall… a red cedar. Nestled among the branches was a small bird, quietly looking at us. I dug out my bird book and identified it as a full-grown screech owl, even though it was tiny.

Wonders never cease. Up to that point, Jessie was the one holdout in the group who didn’t seem to be enjoying himself like the others. Now he was talking a mile a minute about finding things none of the rest of us knew anything about… and he was ecstatic! He was going to have some things to tell his family when he got home.

Most of the group slept all the way back to school. It had been a beautiful overnight experience for all of us. The principal met us as we arrived and invited me into his office to tell him how things went. He was extremely anxious about the eight boys he had reluctantly allowed to go on the trip. As it was, he had more to tell me than I told him. When I asked permission for Travis to take his owl pellet home (which we had carefully placed in a glass specimen bottle with a tight cap), he said the boy could keep his treasure to show his mom, but confided his mom was a prostitute. His dad was in and out of jail. He spent most of his time with his older big sister. Yes, that big sister! Two of the other boys had one parent in jail, and Jessie was in his fourth foster home.

I had tears in my eyes as the principal thanked me for insisting that these boys be allowed to go with us. As he observed the happy looks on their faces, he said, “It was just what they needed!”

The boys made discoveries that day they will remember for a lifetime — not just discoveries in nature, but discoveries about themselves. They had used compasses and topographic maps to find their way back to camp (with a little help). They had assembled a tent, slept on the ground with only a blanket, cooked and cleaned, pumped and carried water, gathered wood to make a campfire, and shared all of this with school friends. I have thought about those eight boys through the years, and I’ve wondered how much that weekend might have changed their perspective and improved their futures.

~Yvonne Evie Green

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