A girl sits in a high school library, headphones in, connected to the computer where she sits. The empty glow of the screen rests on her apathetic gaze. Beyond her–twenty feet to her right–sit a bank of windows, twenty feet high and fifty feet long, a portal on a beautiful summer morning–trees and birds and sunshine– to which she is oblivious. Sh has to be. She needs to push through, to answer the pressing question on the screen.
“Which statement best characterizes Dickinson’s view on nature?”
Ah, Emily Dickinson. No doubt, the student would find answer choices that had to do with respect for nature with a sprinkling of morbidity and death for good measure. Here, in her summer credit recovery program, she would sit in the air-conditioning, figuring out the answer to nature, while nature itself went on–largely ignored–outside.
I’ve had this picture with me since the beginning of the summer, when I witnessed it as I was teaching a summer enrichment camp at my school. At first, it was a humorous tidbit of teacher irony, but the scene has been tenacious in my imagination: I keep coming back to it as a meditation on my own classroom practice. You see, over the last few years, I’ve made it a point to incorporate the outdoor space at my school as part of the my “classroom.” We are very fortunate to have a large wooded campus with an expansive quad and winding cross-country trails that are all a short walk from my classroom door; and whenever an activity lends itself to using that space, I try to take advantage.
I started this a few years ago on a whim, and it seems to work well. Most students, for no other reason than a break from monotony, like to go outside. A few years ago, I went on an Outward Bound teacher trip and began to think more how the outside space could be used for lessons that need more room than a classroom provides to incorporate experiential learning. However, if you were to ask me why I take kids outside, the answer may not be as pedagogically sound as I would like: sometimes, I just need to go outside and stop staring at the same four walls, stop breathing the same recycled air.
Perhaps to justify this bias, I’ve crafted a belief that being in nature is an inherent good in and of itself, and this belief has looped back on itself to motivate me to find more ways to take my students outside of the physical classroom. But not all students share my belief. Some dislike the heat (or the cold, depending on the time of year). Some vocally hate the bugs (and have the bugs that have flown in their face to prove it). Moreover, there are sound pedagogical reasons to not go outside: students are more prone to distraction, and “classroom management” can be more difficult when spread out. Even morally and spiritually, the Puritan strains of American Lit attest, evil lurks in the woods, while the good and upright stays in “civilization,” a motif supported by the fact that few of the “good kids” even know we have cross-country trails while many of the “not so good kids” know them all too well.
So I have a personal urge about the student condition shown in the girl at the computer it is less important that she can answer a question about how Dickinson feels about nature and more important that she can go out and experience how she feels about it herself. On the other hand, my professional responsibility calls this into question. Would just telling her to go walk around in the woods for an hour really teach her anything of value? Does the choice of a 30 minute nature walk over 30 minutes of explicating a poem about nature make that much of a difference? Is this a form of professional malpractice for my own peace of mind?
A friend and colleague of mine turned me on to a book this summer that helped me gain a little perspective on this. In Lit Up, David Denby follows a handful of high school English teachers over the course of a school year, analyzing their practices and reading lists and the effects the teaching seems to have on the students. Mr. Leon, an energetic man from New York’s Beacon High, is the main focus of the story. Seen through the author’s lens, Leon seems to place a high premium on assigning challenging literature (Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett, to name a few) for his 10th grade class. However, he does not choose the literature because kids need challenging work to perform better on tests and build “21st century, workforce ready” skills; he chooses the books he does because he wants the students to find meaning in what they read, to be challenged in ideas as well as skill.
For the girl in the library, I feel sure that reading that Dickinson poem had little impact or meaning for her life. Is this an obvious point, as she was likely slogging through summer school just to get credit? Of course. But the experience of reading in this manner is not too removed from an everyday classroom experience. Increasingly, large scale testing and a focus on work an college preparation can pare down education to answer guessing and skill development. Texts can be analyzed but never understood. In essence, the student does not learn about nature (or death or technology or whatever else we are reading about on that particular day). Rather, she is playing a game of semantics, matching word patterns and incomplete images about nature but ultimately divorced from it. She plays the game and then moves on.
The problems becomes, I think, the longer we teach in this manner, the less meaningful the content becomes for students. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard anticipated such a problem in his book Simulacra and Simulation (If the name sounds familiar, it’s in The Matrix, and this essay was very helpful in forming this idea). Words represent reality, but we often lose sight of the reality we represent and only play with the words, devoid of their connection to anything actual, tangible, or in many ways meaningful.
I know. It seems paradoxical to have a bookworm English teacher trying to pull students’ heads out of books, as much as reading about nature on a computer screen. My classrooms is a setting where we manage student experience to lead them to an intended outcome. Nature doesn’t always work that way. It doesn’t always have clean edges and correct answers. And when I put myself out in nature, I never know exactly what kind of knowledge or contemplation will take place. But Emerson once wrote of this, of a person finding their interest in the world and letting that be the root by which we learn excitedly and passionately.
Consider the following contrast:
Most students spend 7 hours a day in school. In my school, it’s 90 minutes per class with brief breaks for lunch and class change. In those 90 minutes, I sometimes try to throw as much as I can at them. Analyze sentences for structure and meaning. Discuss the readings they had for homework. Do an activity that asks them to analyze or construct arguments. Definitely some writing. Then the leave the class and have another planned educational experience. Maybe they stare at a screen. Maybe they click another answer. Some times I hit home runs and they are invigorated all class long. But on other more common days, even when they are patient, they and I are both conscious of passing time.
In this last week, I went to my own outdoor classroom twice. On Tuesday, I kayaked the Rocky River through the southern Piedmont. On Sunday, I hiked to the Linville River at the bottom of the Gorge. All told, probably nine hours of time in nature. Not once did I wish the time would go faster so I could leave.
I had physical education: rowing, swimming, hiking, climbing. Navigated a boat through Rapids, learning to better read the flow of water. Took a fish’s life in my hands and then let him go. Read maps, calculated time, distance, and altitude. Watched hawks dive for fish and egrets swoop the river. Packed supplies. Practiced first aid…yet again. Paddled by the remains of two dead deer buzzing with flies consuming their bloated flesh. Napped in a hammock. Wrote. Paddled through slow water and thought, both deep and shallow. Learned to fall and pick myself up again. Identified fungus. Trained dogs. Laughed. Paddled in solitude: hiked in great company. Remembered it’s always better to jump straight in the cold water than ease yourself in.
It’s probably the dead deer that stuck with me the most, a mix of revulsion, reverence, and morbid fascination. I heard a thousand flies buzz where they died. Emily Dickinson, I think, would’ve had a field day. But her poem would not have been my poem, nor the poem of any other person who happened to float by. Even if I had snapped a pic to illustrate what a memento mori is, for example, I would be reducing it to a symbolic meaning, and for that matter reduced all the thoughts and impulses and feelings I had as floated by these deer. This spontaneous reflection couldn’t be planned, even if I had snapped a picture, written a poem, or brought the deer in itself for a lesson.
Taking that girl out of the library and telling her to walk the cross-country trails may not have made her any “smarter” by any measurable standards. It surely wouldn’t get her any closer to graduation, which…let’s be honest…is the only reason she was at school on a summer day in the first place. But there are also lessons that we don’t plan. When I wade in the deeper waters and wonder what the most important lessons a student can take from school, I hope that I have continued to encourage their sense of wonder, not reduced it, and that they continue to be adults who are open to unplanned lessons. To make that happen, sometimes they have to step back from objectives and screens and see the larger world that they inhabit every day.