Last week we enjoyed the warm, Spring-like weather by getting outside a little more. We explored the plants around the school and found two bird nests in the bushes. Several children studied how they were built and made sketches in their nature notebooks. Some of the students also chose to work on their hand crafts in the sunshine. On Friday we took a field trip to Historic Brattonsville, where we saw homes and other buildings from both the Revolutionary War and Civil War periods.
On Friday, we took a walk over to the observatory at Gardner-Webb for a chat with Dr. Don Olive. Here is what the children had to say about what they learned:
Abbie: He says it's easier to see inside the observatory with red lights because then your eyes don't have to adjust to the dark.
Brett: The telescope flips everything upside-down because of the mirrors. When we looked at the church steeple it was flipped upside-down.
Anthony: Apparently there are many stars out in space, and some of them are in a pattern that seems to resemble something else. These patterns are called "constellations". Perhaps you have heard of some of them, like Ursa Major and the Big Dipper. And there are also not-so-well known constellations like Leo, Gemini, and Scorpio.
Ethan: If you look through a telescope at the sun it can blind your eyes in less than a second if you don't put a special lens on it.
Marley: The sun is made up of a lot of colors. Ultraviolet rays cause sunburn. Inferred rays warm us. The black sun spots happen when parts get cool.
Anna: If it wasn't for the atmosphere we would all be baking by now. The atmosphere keeps a lot of the ultraviolet light out.
Justin: Sometimes the solar winds will hit the atmosphere at the poles and cause the Northern Lights. You can hear them crackle.
Susanna: We saw pictures of solar flares coming from the sun. We made star maps that showed us all the different stars and when you can see them.
Damon: Solar wind can knock out power if it hits the earth.
Kyrin: We looked through a telescope and we saw a church that was very far away.
On Friday, we bundled up and went to Broad River Greenway for our Outdoor Classroom day. We started by putting our lunch boxes down at the playground area, and then we walked south along the river. (This, we decided later, was a bad idea, since we found the remnants of Anna's lunch on the ground when we got back--pirated by a rogue squirrel!) We called this a "silent walk" because everyone was asked to focus completely on the nature that they saw while abstaining from conversation. After about ten minutes of walking and looking, we stopped and let the children tell the things they had seen. Among the things they observed were a beaver dam, a raptor nest, sycamore leaves, and fungi. Students were baffled at one point, because it looked like a disaster had destroyed the trees. Some were broken in half, there was lots of brush on the ground, and the tree trunks were black at the bottom. One student who lives near the Greenway informed us that, a while back, there had been a controlled burn that got a bit out of hand. That explained the blackened tree trunks, and we talked about how fire is an important part of the health of a forest. We wondered if maybe a bad storm had caused the other damage.
Students were encouraged to make notes and sketches in their nature notebooks, which they carried with them on our walk. On our way back, the children delighted in showing their friends the things they had observed earlier. They were allowed to choose specimens to draw or paint, but not to pick things that were growing. Some found things on the ground that they decided to take back to the picnic tables for further study. One thing we found in abundance was lichen. We learned that lichen is an indicator of air quality. The more lichen you see, the better the air quality in an area. We also learned that it is a cross between a fungus and an algae, and that it grows less than 1 mm per year. That meant that some of our specimens were 10-20 years old! We learned to distinguish between lichen and moss, and how to tell direction from the moss, which grows heaviest on the north side of trees. We shivered in the freezing weather, but it was worth it to get out in Creation for a while!
Who says you have to go into the woods in order to see woodland wildlife? Sometimes it comes to you! We found animal tracks between the ball fields at the city park, where we go each day for recess. There were at least two sets of deer tracks, one larger and one smaller. There were also some rather large feline prints. You can tell they are feline rather than canine because they are round instead of oval, and the "palm" pads have three bottom lobes instead of two. (You can find out more about identifying tracks here.) These prints were roughly 3 and 1/2 inches in diameter, meaning that was one big cat--most likely a mountain lion! Luckily, the students had their nature notebooks at the ready and were able to sketch the prints.
We also saw several squirrel nests and LOTS of mistletoe in the leafless canopies, and we learned to identify the River Birch tree by its peeling bark. Students had already learned about its cousin, the Black Birch, by the wintergreen smell of the wood. The River Birch does not have this characteristic, but its bark is stunning.
Welcome back! On our last day of school before our break, we had a fun and festive time at our family banquet. The children worked hard to make cookies, to decorate the fellowship hall, and to make our guests, their parents, feel loved. We even had a sparkling cider toast to our school!
Now that we are back (and almost half way through our first year together), the time has come to focus on how to move everyone forward. It takes a while to adjust to the curriculum and methods at Willow Tree, but all of our students have made their own paradigm shifts and are ready for the bar to be raised. In the first half of the year, we spent a lot of time learning how to read and listen attentively, so that we know. We also had lots of practice learning how to narrate, or tell back in great detail, using names, places, dates, and other specifics. Now we are ready for the students (especially the older ones) to begin taking more responsibility for their own learning. We will be doing more writing, and our older students will have more independent assignments, with the adults serving more in the role of a mentor or coach. In this way, children learn to be self-directed and responsible self-educators.
Contact us at 864-761-6484 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Jen Spencer is the Director and Lead Teacher of Willow Tree Community School. She enjoys hiking, writing, and discussing philosophy and education reform.