Taking our whole curriculum outside the classroom is one of my greatest pleasures in teaching at Ananda Living Wisdom School. Poetry, creative writing, and art projects come alive when they are experienced in the heart of nature. In take classroom mathematics and apply it in the field to calculating the height of trees or cliffs; we study California history by directly experiencing the sites where it took place; we learn more about service and our community by involving ourselves in real work projects. All aspects of science and ecology are taught at a much deeper level by direct experience.
Joseph Cornell has clarified a system of experiencing the outdoors in his book, Sharing Nature with Children. (See his interview on our website here.) His concept of “Flow Learning” and a series of nature activities and games give a great structure for direct experience in education. Underlying all of his work is the notion that all glorious forms of creation in nature around us offer a marvelous “classroom.” The following experience is an amazing example of what can happen when teachers and students are “in the moment” and open to receiving a learning opportunity when they least expect it.
It was Tuesday, the day we explore one of the many rich and interesting sites in our local community. We loaded into the school van and took off on another adventure. This time we had been studying map reading and topography so we went to a small pond near Nevada City with the goal of finding our way around the pond. Each of the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in my class was going to map the plants, trees, animals, land and water forms we found to proper scale. We started off with half of us going around in each direction, staggered by a few minutes and in silence to maximize our chance of discovery.
Twenty minutes into our project I heard Jahn yelling from the far side of the pond. He didn’t sound panicked, just excited, so I changed course and went to meet him. He was staring up into a Ponderosa Pine and reported that he had spotted a bear! We soon discovered it wasn’t just one bear, but a mother Black bear about 50 feet up the tree with three cubs in the branches above her. Once we realized she was comfortable with her position and distance from us, we gathered everyone else for a look. It took over an hour to get all the students to the site; the bear family was very relaxed in their tree and let everyone have a good look.
Over lunch there were great discussions of bears and how we co-habit our Northern California environment with so many beautiful creatures. The mapping lesson plan was left for another day; we wrote poems, short stories, and created art projects based on bears. The next day we studied the natural history of bears and their habitats and the history of bear/human connections in the development of California over the last two centuries.
I could never have contrived a lesson plan on bears that riveted the students’ attention in such a deep way. If I had ignored the bears and stuck to my original plan, I doubt students would have followed me. Being awake and aware in the moment allowed us to have an amazing direct experience of the mama bear and her cubs. I can say with certainty that learning took place on that morning in the most unexpected and lasting way.
By John Orlowski, 4th-6th grade teacher at Ananda LWS