Thoughts on birdwatching with children

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted!! Montessori teacher training is exhausting, and with all the tendonitis/carpal tunnel issues I’ve had from spending hours at the computer every day, the last thing I’ve wanted to do is come home and write more. But, we’ll be done in two weeks, at which point I will be an honest to goodness Montessori guide. I’ve also discovered that I now have a whole new level of responsibility when it comes to blogging. By the time I’m done considering whether what I have to say is going to violate anyone’s privacy or offend anyone that I’ll regret offending, I’m too exhausted to write.

At any rate, last week I had a chance to go birdwatching with about 25 children, ages 6-9. The children had their own teacher with them, and we had a naturalist guide to help us find and identify the birds. As far as I could tell, the children had a wonderful time. They were certainly enthusiastic. However, the entire walk had a bit of a harried feel as the guide rushed us along, often dragging the children away from watching a bird they found interesting, only to drag the children back when she wanted to stop and watch something.

The more I watched this interaction, the more it became apparent to me that our guide was birding like an adult and that this is not how children approach watching birds. For many adult birders, a big part of bird watching is finding as many different species as possible, looking especially for rare birds and “life birds” (ones the watcher has never seen before). For these children though, the excitement lay in finding and successfully identifying familiar birds and watching what those birds are doing. Add to this a lack of basic birding skills, such as using binoculars and navigating a field guide, and I think the children missed out on a lot of potential fun during the trip, even though they had a great time.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to introduce children to the pleasures of bird watching. This is just my brainstormed list and many of the ideas are no-brainers. I’m sure there are experienced birders and experienced teachers who will have more ideas. Please share!

Practice using binoculars before going out in the field. This is definitely a skill, and not a trivial one for a six year old. Learning to find and focus on an object that isn’t flitting around among the trees is probably a good starting point.

Put up a bird feeder near the classroom/house. Learn the regular visitors before going out and trying to identify more birds in the field. At our feeder here, we regularly have cardinals, blue jays, grackles, cowbirds, blackbirds, house finches, nuthatches, chickadees, several kinds of woodpecker, titmice, and at least five kinds of sparrows. That’s a lot of birds to learn without even going outside, and a feeder gives lots of opportunity to really practice studying the birds closely.

Learn how to use a field guide. To some extent, I think this is a skill that has to develop over time. In my experience, to really use a guide successfully, I need to already have a fairly good idea of what I’m looking for. Still, if nothing else, knowing something about the organization and parts of a bird guide would be very helpful. I brought two guides with me on our trip, and they were in use for most of the time we were out. I noticed that the guides were very helpful when the children came and asked me for help looking for something. Either they wanted to see a particular bird, and I helped them find it, or we had a pretty good idea of what we’d seen, and I could direct them to the right section. But when I just gave the children one of the books, they didn’t need to know how to use them. One child told me she’d seen a swallow-tailed kite, which she almost certainly did not see here in Ohio. (I didn’t see the process, so I don’t know if she chose the kite because it looked similar to something she’d seen or if she chose it at random.) Something as simple as instruction on how to use read a range map would have been helpful.

Choose a local bird guide. I brought Birds of Ohio and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds (Eastern Region) with me. Both books were used a great deal, but it was quite apparent that the children had an easier time with the Ohio book, simply because it had fewer birds in it. The Sibley guide may be the bird bible, but it is difficult to use.

Learn just a few birds at a time, learn how to recognize them and learn something about them. I have long had a sort of disgusted fascination with turkey vultures because when I was 10 or so someone told me that they had evolved to eat carrion and so they can eat rotting food that would kill an adult human and they pee on their heads to keep clean. (I have since learned that the second part doesn’t seem to be true: they have bald heads to stay relatively clean after sticking their heads inside animal carcasses and they pee on their legs to increase evaporation and keep cool). Sometime later, someone told me how to tell a flying turkey vulture apart from a flying hawk. The result is that a) these birds are interesting to me because I know something about how they live and how they’re different from other birds and b) I am capable of recognizing them on my own (and c) turkey vultures are gratifyingly gross, a fact that counted for a lot more when I was ten). This is something that seemed to be lacking on our trip. Our guide pointed out many types of birds to the children, but without added information on how to recognize them and how they live, the birds were just temporary curiosities.

Go birding in a small group or have enough experts that each can work with a small group. A lot of learning about birds happens on the fly from listening to a more experienced birder (at least, this is how I’ve learned). With one expert and 25 children, it’s impossible for the guide to know what all the children are seeing or for all the children to see the birds the guide points out.

Conduct a bird survey. Instead of going out and looking for as many species as possible, conduct a count of common species the children know well. On our trip, the children pointed out every robin, blue jay, cardinal, and chickadee they saw, because they knew how to recognize these birds and the birds are easy to find. (They especially like the chickadees, which, in this park, would eat birdseed out of your hand.) Alternatively, go out with the intent to look for a few particular new but likely birds. I suppose this could be frustrating if those birds don’t cooperate by showing up.

Learn about bird families. Knowing something about the different families of birds and how they behave seems to me to be a crucial start for learning about birds. It helps narrow down possibilities enough that a field guide can be used successfully, and besides, just recognizing what family a bird belongs to can be a major success when first learning about birds.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because I love birds and, although I’m a beginner when it comes to recognizing birds, I’d love to share this interest with children. Still, my goal is to help the children learn what they want to know and to explore independently, so teaching them about birds is no good if they are totally dependent on me to tell them what they’ve seen.

A Montessorian’s Metta Meditation

So I started my Montessori training! Well, sort of. I’ve actually just finished the two week Foundation Course, which anyone taking the elementary training has to do if they don’t already have a Montessori primary certificate. Needless to say, I’ve been rather busy. I’ve also developed a bit of tendinitis from spending 6-10 hours every day typing furiously, so the blogging is going to be a bit slow this year. I got wrist braces and one of those ergonomic keyboards, and that’s helping a lot, so I’ll try to blog now and then, but I’ll definitely be minimizing any extra typing.

So how’s the training? Let’s just say that Montessori training is not Montessori. There is so much to cover in so little time, that training basically consists of four to six hours of lectures every day, during which the trainees frantically write down/type what the trainer is saying. Homework consists of proofreading, formatting, and illustrating the lectures, which amount to several hundred pages of writing/editing every week. Since there’s so much to cover, there’s not a lot of time for questions, discussion, or reflection, though that should get better when the real training starts, since we’ll have two hours every day for supervised practice time, which should help us absorb everything we’re learning.

I was warned that the training wouldn’t be like a Montessori classroom this by many, many Montessori teachers before I started the training,  but the reality has been shocking and, honestly, a bit distressing. During this long weekend (we’re off until Wednesday!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep myself motivated while I slog through the year, since I know I have a very, very good reason for doing this. Today, I remembered something I came up with during my last meditation retreat, and I tried it.

During retreats, we spend some of our time practicing a technique called “metta” meditation. Metta is a Pali word that describes a feeling of kindness and generosity towards all beings. It’s often translated as “lovingkindness.” The idea of metta meditation is to strengthen your capacity for metta, and it’s usually done by repeating a series of four or so phrases silently to yourself. The phrases are wishes of well being, and traditionally, you start by doing metta for yourself, and then for a dear friend or a “benefactor” (someone who has taught or supported you). From there, you move on to a neutral person (someone you have no strong feelings about, like your mailman, say), and then an “enemy.” After that, you offer metta to larger and larger circles of people (and animals, and spirits, if that’s your thing), until eventually you offer metta to all beings everywhere.

At any rate, on my last retreat, the usual progression got rather messed up for me when I found myself offering metta for all children, everywhere. I’ve since realized that those phrases represent my deepest wish as a Montessori teacher, and they will be my mantra this year as I try to keep myself focused on my goal. They are my prayer for the future of our world.

May all children be safe from harm.
May all children be safe from fear.
May all children be loved and cared for.
May all children be free to grow.
May all children live in peace.

The Adventure Begins

I apologize once again for being offline for so long. This time, I have a good excuse. I’ve been busy moving from Oregon to Ohio to go back to school. Tomorrow, I start the Montessori elementary teacher training! If all goes according to plan, in 9 1/2 months I’ll be a certified Montessori teacher, and this time next year, I’ll be setting up my own classroom. I’m hoping to blog about the experience, at least now and then, but the elementary training is a lot of work (it involves turning in around 250 written pages every week), so I don’t know how much time I’ll have.

I’ll be blogging about the elementary (1st to 6th grade) training, but if you’re interested in other ages, my friend Emily will be blogging about the Primary (ages 3-6) training that she’s taking this year, and her friend Zoe is currently blogging about taking the Assistants to Infancy (ages 0-3) and Primary trainings.

Okay, back to trying to find places to put things, cleaning up the piles of cardboard strewn all over the living room, and endeavoring not to keel over in the heat. We Oregonians aren’t so good at humidity.

Would you want to be a teacher?

I really liked Claus von Zastrow’s post this morning at Learning First about the rhetoric of education reform and its effect on would-be teachers. I especially like his “job description” for new teachers:

If you’re considering a teaching career, review the following job description:

  • You must have missionary zeal. This job isn’t just work. It’s a calling that demands self sacrifice.
  • You should expect to outlive your usefulness in five or ten years. You’ll end up being a drag on this system unless someone can figure out how to freeze your salary after you hit thirty-five or forty–and someone might just do that.

So–are you in?

As he rightfully points out, things haven’t actually gotten that bad, but the rhetoric we hear about public school teachers keeps moving farther and farther in that direction (including people who argue that the best way to fix the school system is to reduce teacher salaries and benefits because it’s just a short term job anyway).

That said, I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of the role of Teach for America (generally referred to as TFA or TfA):

Some might argue that Teach for America (TFA) is making teaching cool again, but I’m not sure that all or even most teachers’ stock will rise as a result. The TFA brand is certainly strong, but it’s not clear that most teachers can bathe in the reflected light of their TFA colleagues. Too often, pundits use TFA teachers as a foil for all other teachers. If you’re not entering the profession through the TFA door, your status may suffer.

TfA is an extremely competitive and prestigious two-year program, mainly for recent college grads. As a participant, you teach in a low-income school for two years and get a teaching license (and usually master’s degree, I think) in the process. Many participants leave the teaching profession after their two years are up (or before, lots of participants never finish). TfA reports that 34% of alumni teach at their assigned schools for a third year, though they don’t report how many stay longer than that, and that 63% stay in the field of education in some capacity. I worry that TfA is helping to reinforce the ideas that teaching is something you can do successfully with essentially no training (at least if you graduated from a sufficiently prestigious college and you’re teaching low income students) and that teaching is a short-term stop on the way to a bigger and better career.  TfA may do great things for its participants, and might (or might not) have a positive impact on students taught by TfA teachers, but I’m not convinced it’s doing great things for the teaching profession.

[I should add that I actually do support alternative paths to teacher certification. There are a great many people out there who are natural teachers and whose life experience makes them valuable additions to schools’ faculties, and these people should be able to teach without having to spend several years (possible mid-career) going back to school. That said, I worry when a program like TfA becomes the model for how the teaching profession should work.]

This is a very wise young woman

This morning, my partner pointed me towards the valedictorian speech given by Erica Goldson at Coxsackie-Athens High School in upstate New York. It is among the more insightful and heart-wrenching pieces of writing on education I’ve seen, and it deserves to be read by everyone. I’d like to reprint it in full, but I want her permission first. Meanwhile, you can read it here, and I will quote two of my favorite parts.

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Q: How do you stop bullying?

A: Treat children with kindness and respect and teach them to treat others with kindness and respect.

Massachussetts just passed a law that’s supposed to help schools crack down on bullying (or maybe force them too), but this morning’s New York Times includes an Op-Ed that wisely points out that bullying cannot be stopped by legislation alone. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll quote my favorite bit:

Most important, educators need to make a profound commitment to turn schools into genuine communities. Children need to know that adults consider kindness and collaboration to be every bit as important as algebra and reading. In groups and one-on-one sessions, students and teachers should be having conversations about relationships every day. And, as obvious as it might sound, teachers can’t just preach kindness; they need to actually be nice to one another and to their students.

The only thing I disagree with, and at this point it’s a philosophical opinion, because I don’t think there’s enough evidence to decide one way or another, is their claim that “apparently, the inclination and ability to protect one another and to enforce a culture of tolerance does not come naturally. These are values that must be taught.” I’d suggest we need to avoid rewarding meanness to allow innate kindness to grow, not “teach” kindness as though it can only be learned through active teaching.

Understanding Square Roots vs. Computing Square Roots

Some time ago, I wrote a post about why it’s so hard to learn square roots. Several people left comments referencing the process of extracting square roots on paper, including someone this morning, who posted an entire description of Heron’s method for extracting square roots. I was rather surprised, because, when I wrote that post, I wasn’t thinking about the process of extracting square roots at all, I was thinking about how hard it is for my students to grasp what a square root means. The reality is, I learned to extract square roots on paper in 4th or 5th grade, thought it was really incredibly cool, did it a bunch of times, and then promptly forgot how. In the nearly 20 years since (during which I earned a master’s degree in math, so I really was using this sort of thing), I have not once found myself in a situation where I needed to extract a root by hand. If I’m dealing with roots, mostly I don’t care what the value of the root is, and if I do need an approximate value, I either estimate it (24 is just a bit less than 25, so sqrt(24) must be just a little smaller than 5) or use a calculator. I never find myself in a grocery store or in front of a class of students needing to know the exact value of a square root down to the decimal point on the fly.

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