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 cant 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.
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 dont assume it cant 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 students 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 Lincolns 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
That 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 Males 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 Manhattans West Side, famous for its more liberal politics.
My students got caught up in the drama of the wonderful hawks through Lincolns 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 cant 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 werent 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 wouldnt 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 cant 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.
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