“Can you hear the silence? Our ancestors taught us to listen to the silence. It is beautiful to teach our minds to turn everything off, then mentally listen to the lessons that present themselves through this way of allowing silence to teach us.”
-Vi Hilbert, Upper Skagit Elder, Cultural Teacher, circa 1980s
At the beginning of any teaching week, I receive a list of my future students with their names, important medical information, and any other notes written by the parents and/or classroom teacher. Although I value this information, I often take the notes with a grain of salt; learning in an outdoor setting allows students who struggle to be successful in a classroom to channel their energy or think in other ways, so the notes often seem irrelevant. On one particular Monday, I received a lengthy paragraph about one student with autism, who I will call Wayne. I prepared myself mentally to make some slight changes to my instruction and speak very literally. When the students arrived and settled into the group, I noticed that Wayne was high energy and needed boundaries, both personal and physical, and for these boundaries to be drawn out explicitly. The students in that week’s field group seemed to keep about a 5-foot distance in between themselves and Wayne. He was very kind, but had a hard time knowing when someone was trying to communicate that he had crossed a line. After making these observations, I took a deep breath and channeled some extra calm and patience to get me through the week.
The transition from classroom teaching to environmental education was challenging for me. At IslandWood, I work with the same 8-12 students all day long, rather than with 30 for an hour at a time. My classroom is 250 acres of forested land, rather than contained by 4 walls. The weather affects the mood of my students more than ever (it was a soggy winter.) But more than anything else, my biggest challenge has been adjusting to having a group of students for just four days, rather than a year and beyond. Each week, it gets harder and harder to say goodbye to my students, but I have learned how to hyperfocus my teaching on just a couple of main objectives and connect them to all that we do. At the beginning of every week, I ask myself: What do I want these kids to leave here with? What skills need to be practiced so that we can come together as a team? and, What problem do we have in our society that I would like to address through my teaching? And I keep coming back to the same theme: Listening.
An outdoor classroom lends itself well to practicing listening. At any given moment, there may be a woodpecker pecking, a coyote howling, or the wind rustling through the trees. At any given moment, I can pause the lesson and have my students listen. At any given moment, there is magic to be heard, but it is not that kind of listening that has brought the most magical moments.
The goosebump-inducing moments come from when my students listen to the land, listen to the plants, listen to the animals through what they notice. I ask them to think about what we can learn from the behaviors or growth patterns that we observe. Through one lesson in particular, each student becomes an expert in a plant and teaches the rest of the students about that plant. After everyone has taught, the students take what they learned about the plant and transform it into learning from the plant in an arts-integrated lesson I call Lessons from the Forest. For example, a Big Leaf Maple provides a habitat many plants and animals, so a lesson that could be learned is to be welcoming. This challenges students to take characteristics of a plant, build a relationship with them, and be open to listening to the earth’s lessons.
The first time I did this lesson was the same week that I had Wayne as a student. In the past, students with autism that I have worked with have had challenges with more abstract thought, which led me to believe that this activity would be a challenge for Wayne. After I rolled out the lesson, I immediately checked in with him. When I asked him to explain something he learned about his plant, Trailing Blackberry, he said, “Native Americans use it to purify. Can I write ‘be pure of heart’?” Instant goosebumps! I think Wayne might have gotten a little bit creeped out as my eyes opened incredibly wide and my face beamed with pride and excitement. I had been completely wrong about Wayne. He took the time to create a beautiful page about the Trailing Blackberry and all we can learn from it.
Wayne took the lessons on listening seriously that week, with some occasional resistance. By the end of the week, I had noticed a change in him. It was as if he had slowed down and really tried to understand what others were saying. On the morning of their departure, I heard Wayne talking to another student in the group, “I didn’t know I was going to make new friends when I came here.” As if it were a movie, the other student smiled and put his arm around Wayne’s shoulders and said, “Me either!” The other students learned to listen to Wayne and Wayne learned to listen to them. The simple act of listening brought Wayne into the group in a way that he may have never been brought in before. Listening made our group a place of acceptance, understanding, and love.
In western culture, true listening comes few and far between. We are constantly in a hurry, have too many things on our to do list, have too much to worry about in our own lives to worry about what is going on in someone else’s life. The kids that come to me are the future teachers, politicians, lawyers, activists, doctors, environmentalists, leaders and so much more. If we can teach them to slow down and listen to each other, to the earth, to themselves, the future will be filled with peace, acceptance, and equity.