Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Bird Meets Girl" By Karen Dressner

Reprinted from Connect
Vol.19 No.2, November/December, 2005
Focus on: Adaptation
Grade Level: 3-5
Grade Level: 6-8

Bird Meets Girl

An Urban Tale
by Karen Dressner
Teachers often enjoy watching their students experience an, ‘aha!’ moment. About ten years ago I had my own little epiphany. For the past eighteen years I have been lower school science teacher at The Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan, New York. It is a plum job for a teacher in that the students are eager to learn, the school is very supportive of its staff, and we have a comfortable budget that allows for lots of good things in our classrooms.
I have carefully outfitted my little lab for teaching all the basic skills: books and computers for research; microscopes and hand lenses for observation; journals and cameras for recording what we observed; scales, rulers and graduated cylinders for measurement; at least one classroom pet; and a wide assortment of anything that looked useful and might assist at finding an answer to an impromptu question. Beyond that we have maintained large collections of shells, nests, bones and miscellany that I affectionately call ‘dead stuff.’ For ten years I taught confidently in the lab, bringing many ‘hands-on’ experiences to my students. They were happy. I was happy.
Then, after a decade of teaching, I went to a meeting at our local botanical garden. I started to meet genuine field scientists. Mesmerized, I listened to their stories. These adventurous men and women seek out information at its source. They endure the almost infinite discomforts of living in remote places while surveying and recording the miraculous diversity of life on earth. I went to lectures and had conversations. That was when the little light in my brain went on.
Information does not come from books. It comes from people who discover, observe, record and share their learning in natural surroundings. The woods, the jungle, the beach: these places can’t fit into a schoolhouse. So what could I do?
Learning in the field
I want my students to appreciate and understand nature. If they are to become the conservators of their generation or, better still, the next E.O. Wilson or Jane Goodall, they need to discover, observe and record their experiences outside of the classroom.
Teaching in an urban school, even a privileged one, has its limitations. We do not have a schoolyard. The best I could think of was our nearby park. True, Central Park is entirely designed and tended, but it is full of plants and animals. I became convinced that it was essential for my young students to spend a few hours focused on nature and among trees, squirrels, herons and the hundreds of natural surprises that the park offers throughout the year. The problem, of course, was scheduling.
The schedule
I see each student two to three times each week, but in forty-minute periods. It would take a restructuring of the whole lower school schedule to give me a block of time equal to my goal. What I wanted were the periods between recess and lunch as well as the option to leave at the start of recess and stay out of school through lunch. Rather than have a scant forty minutes, I would have the students with me for almost three hours! Because I was just fantasizing, I went a step further. What if I had an in-school forty-minute period in a computer lab as well? Then we could research, review, graph and compose on the computers as follow-up to our field outing.
I assume that some of you are ready to stop reading here. Not all schools would be able to or agree to make this class structure work, but please don’t assume it can’t be done. I believe that scheduling in large blocks of time needs to be done to educate students fully. I carefully proposed the field studies class to those who could make it happen. Then I waited. And for the past eight years, the schedule I described has been my schedule with my third grade class. The other grades still study science in our wonderful lab, but the field studies class also happens. The administrators of our schools have come to believe that this is important, especially for urban students. You, as teachers, know this matters, so why not ask?
Using the Park
After I had my ‘aha’ moment and the schedule was set, the next question was what to do once we were out of doors. A few different parts of the park beckoned. Central Park has several bodies of water (all human-made). I thought that a pond study would be valuable. In addition, we talked about the characteristics of a healthy forest and decided that large trees indicated stability, so we measured the trees along a given transect and graphed their radii at one meter from the soil. We dug into the ground, respectfully, and extracted invertebrates to examine and release. We took long walks looking for indications of the change of seasons. We donned binoculars and went to look at the bird life in the park. This was where our most exciting adventure took flight, so to speak.


Last year, one of our third graders had a friend who loved to watch birds in Central Park. She suggested that we invite her friend to join us on our outing the following week. I contacted my student’s family and verified that the friend would be a good person to know.
This was how we met Lincoln Karim, one of the most avid amateur birders of the Park. When Lincoln is not birding, he is a professional cameraman. One of Lincoln’s passions is the famous red-tailed hawk, Pale Male. Pale Male is a red-tailed hawk just like others that live all over the Americas. But what distinguishes this fantastic bird is his territory, his character and his many fans. Red-tailed hawks are carnivores. They live in large hunting territories and eat small mammals and other birds. Red-tailed hawks do not typically live in New York City. People do, eight or so million people. We have successfully dominated the landscape and monopolized every inch of the city with ownership and efficiency.
Urban hawk study
hawkThat is, until Pale Male made the Big Apple his home. In the years he has lived here, Pale Male has had several mates. His current love is Lola. To my knowledge, Pale Male is the star of two films, one book (Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn) and a Website. In addition, he has many fans. Pale Male’s story is one of those passionate tales about the underdog surviving all obstacles and making a place for himself in this world. He found himself in the center of controversy last year when people living in the tony Fifth Avenue apartment building he and Lola chose for their nest objected to the pigeon parts and other remains of hawk feasts littering their sidewalk. A board member of the building had the nest removed, triggering a wave of protest from pro-Pale Male New Yorkers. Lawyers and architects later, the nest was rebuilt by Pale Male and Lola. Today they seem to prefer Manhattan’s West Side, famous for its more liberal politics.
My students got caught up in the drama of the wonderful hawks through Lincoln’s knowledge and enthusiasm. He had taken us, pre-nest removal, to see the famous pair. He was a gentle and patient teacher, walking us through the park to visit his favorite viewing sites. The girls and I had a wonderful lesson. It is not just the acquisition of knowledge but passion that drives new learning. We all know that the best teachers teach from their hearts. Lincoln is a wonderful teacher and my students became connected with Pale Male through his teaching.
Involved in the issue
When all the difficulties about the nest arose, I found that my nine-year-old students had taken on a tinge of political activism. They were pro-Pale Male and wanted to be heard. They wrote letters that were later posted on the web. The good and unexpected lesson was that by advocating for the hawks, these students learned that getting involved can make a difference. I have every reason to hope that these children will grow into adults who will continue to advocate for nature.
I can’t take much credit for the amazing lessons my students learned wandering the park with their binoculars last year. But, “You have to be in it to win it!” as the NY Lottery likes to tell us. If we were not outdoors, if we weren’t watching and open to learning, if we were tucked into our classroom, then these students would never have seen the beauty and wonder of these pure and determined animals. They wouldn’t know that their very human passions had the power to help. Those of us with a toe in reality and a glance at the future of our planet are worried. The air, the water and the extinction rates point nowhere but down. It is our students who could make the crucial difference and maintain the beauty and mystery that diversity in nature allows. As hard as we try to talk about it, they also need to see, feel, smell and sense the perfection of the natural world if they are to secure it for their children. You can’t love what you never knew.
©Synergy Learning International, Inc., 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Karen Dressner - Karen lives in Manhattan and Copake Falls, New York, with her botanist husband. She has taught for many years at The Nightingale-Bamford School. She was educated in Maryland Public Schools and at the University of Virginia and Hunter College.
List all articles by Karen Dressner

Useful literature, linked to this category:
  • My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal, Sophie Webb
  • Urban Roosts: Where Birds Nest in the City, Barbara Bash

    Materials and other resources related to this article:
  • NATURE: Pale Male, Written by David Malakoff with filming and editing by Frederick Lilien
  • Pale Male Web site, Lincoln Karim

  • Wednesday, January 25, 2012

    In Memory of Karen Dressner

    I am working on a tribute to Karen Dressner, the fabulous lower school science teacher that I so often site for my motivation, who died a year ago tomorrow. In the mean time, I thought I would share the eulogy I gave at her memorial service last year.

    "Throughout high school I have often peeked into my lower school science classroom, and each time my love of learning has been reinvigorated. My teacher, Ms. Dressner, opened my eyes to the wonders of science by letting us freely explore her packed classroom. Ever since, problem solving, discovery, and hands on learning have been my passions." 

    That was the opening paragraph of the first college essay I wrote. When asked to present myself on paper – to explain my academic motivations, and the root of my intellectual curiosity – Ms. Dressner, or “dressy” as she affectionately let us call her, was the first thing that came to my mind. After she heard about my essay she asked to read it. She then wrote in an email to me, “You will never know how much your essay means to me…” Her reaction truly showed her dedication to teaching. I am glad I was able to share with her a small piece of the incredible imprint she left on me, but it would have been impossible for her to have ever known how much of a mark she left on all of her students. Usually it takes a tragedy to realize how important someone has been in your life, but Ms. Dressner was so special that I routinely told and heard stories about how great a teacher and mentor she was. 

    Ms. Dressner was so vivacious that it would only be right to tell some classic Dressy stories to celebrate her life. For example, my classmates and I will never forget the time that Lydie took off her shoes in the science lab. When Lydie wasn't looking, Ms. Dressner threw Lydie’s shoes in the garbage, then asked Lydie to put her shoes back on. When Lydie couldn't find them, Ms. Dressner was even more amused than the rest of us were – and, of course, Lydie never took off her shoes again in class. There was also the time a Kindergartener ran out of the classroom when she saw Ms. Bonaparte, the classroom skeleton. What was Ms. Dressner’s obvious solution? She dressed Ms. Bonaparte in a Nightingale tunic. 

    There were also the everyday things she did that set her apart: how she used to pull out our loose baby teeth and give us the tooth to carry around in a treasure chest that hung on a string around our neck; how she would put up any nature related specimens we brought in on her wall, such as butterflies and leaves; how she would always invite tour guides and prospective parents in to meet her bird and see the glass vials of specimens she had on her counter; how we were all allowed to sit on the tabletops when we were 'examining' things and thought we were really rebellious since the rest of the Lower School was so structured; how nothing was gross or yucky, but instead it was 'ahhhhh, interesting’ (a phrase that was adopted into my family’s lexicon as well as many other families’). 

    In fourth grade, I wrote, “My favorite subject is science because I have Dressy.” I think that sums up my experience with her. We loved science because we loved how she taught it, and once our attention was sparked by such an incredible teacher, many of us were set up to be captivated by science forever. One always got the sense that even while she let us play and explore in class every day, she was having even more fun than the rest of us – she really loved her job and she loved us, which was what made her so great at it. As we moved on to middle and upper school she became a steady source of vitality – a familiar smile at the end of the hallway that reminded us of carefree lower school days and put the stresses of older years into perspective. 

    I think I can speak for anyone who has ever been taught by Ms. Dressner – she was an incredible teacher who imparted her passion and love of learning to all her students. She maintained a child-like enthusiasm for everything she did. And she had an elegance in the way she carried herself – she was an excellent role model for all the women in the building. 

    On Friday, while reviewing plant anatomy in AP Biology, I found myself vividly remembering how Ms. Dressner taught us the same material almost 10 years ago. It takes a special type of teacher to get you to remember the definition of monocots and dicots for 10 years…. Thank you Ms. Dressner.

    Saturday, January 21, 2012

    TEDx Manhattan

    I've been tweeting all day on the TEDx Manhattan conference on Food Sustainability. It's really a fantastic conference with amazing speakers, so I thought I would dedicate a blog post to it (my tweets mainly, which sum up some of the action).

    Here is a list of the speakers for the event.

    And here is my twitter feed for the afternoon.