Monday, March 25, 2013

Moss, a tale of terror

Maybe it is a little scary.

Lest you think that I hate the real world because I love technology, I'd like to offer evidence to the contrary because I'm actually a huge fan of it. In fact, just to prove I'm not back-pedaling, I offer this article that I wrote for in 2011.

And here's a little story to illustrate why it's important that students spend at least an equal amount of time engaged with the real world.

I teach a lesson to my students on imagery that focuses on nature writing. As a class, we examine three examples of beautifully descriptive prose: one from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, one from Thoreau's Walden, and my personal favorite, an excerpt from the Japanese poet Basho's travel narrative Narrow Road to a Far Province. Take a look at this passage:

The fields of Miyagino were thick with bush clover, and I could imagine the sight in autumn.  It was the season when the pieris flowered around Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka. We walked through a pine forest so thick that sunlight could not penetrate at all, and were told its name, Konoshita.

One thing that makes this description evocative is the use of specific details. Bush cloverpieris, and pine call to mind more vivid images than weedsbushes, and trees. Basho was familiar with the names of the things around him, and he used that familiarity to paint incredible pictures in his readers' minds.

While a lot of kids can name every variety of tree found in a Minecraft biome, many are unfamiliar with native flora and fauna. I became more and more aware of this as I pushed students to use precise nouns in their writing. Kids simply couldn't name trees or flowers or birds other than a few standards, like roses and robins. I can only stand so many poems about roses and robins, so I talked with a science teacher who let me borrow a set of tree identification guides, and I decided to spend some time with my kids getting to know the real world more intimately.

I gave the kids a notecard each, and they brought that and a pencil along with them. We left the classroom and wandered over to a more natural area of the school campus where pines, gumball trees, and dogwoods were home to red-headed woodpeckers and flocks of thousands of tree swallows. I instructed them to make detailed notes on their sensory impressions: what they saw, heard, smelled, felt, etc., being as specific as possible regarding the shapes of leaves and the texture of bark so that they could identify specific trees by name using their guides once we got back to class.

One girl comes up to me flanked by a few other students, all of them looking bewildered and more than a little annoyed with the assignment. The leader of the pack said, hand on hip, "Miss Crisp, what do you mean by feeling? There's nothing to feel out here."

"What!?" I replied, "you're nuts. There are lots of things to feel."

Then I did this thing that probably resembled Patty Duke when she played Helen Keller discovering words for the first time. I dragged them around, making them touch different trees to see the difference between the texture of barks, and then I dragged them to a tree with emerald green moss growing at its roots.

Let me stop for a moment and say that I love moss. I love any plant that you can pet. It's like having a cat without the hassle of providing food and water and scooping poop. So I was really excited about the moss. In all likelihood, it was the sort of excitement that maybe should be reserved for things like seeing a famous author at Starbucks.

I pointed to the moss, extolling its virtues, and then I leaned down to touch it, and the girl grabbed my arm, pulling me away from my furry friend, shouting, "No! Don't touch it!" They were terrified that I'd stumbled upon some sort of alien mind sucking sludge and was now leading them to my sludgy alien leader. At least that's the impression they gave me.

This kid (along with her cronies) had never actually been properly introduced to moss. I'm sure they'd seen it, but in all fairness, to the untrained eye, moss could seem less interesting than, say, Temple Run or Cut the Rope. I assured the girls that moss does not kill people, that it is, in fact, a really lovely little organism that feels like velvet and should be petted. They watched as I demonstrated, and then I coerced them into touching the moss themselves (because I can be a bit of a bully sometimes in the name of learning).

Her response? "Ooooh, Miss Crisp! It does feel like velvet! I'm going to go home and tell my mama I learned something today." (If you didn't pick up on the back-handed compliment there, I assure you I did.)

Here's my point. I love technology in the classroom. I believe it is a 21st century teacher's duty to become familiar with it and to try to find ways to integrate it naturally into her classroom at least occasionally because it's here to stay, and we need to find ways to make it work for us and for our kids.

However, I have the capacity to be excited about more than one thing at a time. I can love moss and love Temple Run. I can teach using pencils, notecards, and moss, and I can teach using World of Warcraft, Garage Band, and iMovie. I'm grateful for anything and everything that helps my students not only to learn, but to enjoy learning and to become well-rounded individuals.

End of story.

No comments:

Post a Comment