Experience Matters

Experience Matters

by Emily Whalen – Science Teacher

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been working in education for over fifteen years.  During that time, I’ve taught at the middle school, high school and college levels.  I’ve taught in a classroom, on a boat, in the woods, in the rain and most recently, over a computer.

While a lot of things have changed, there’s one core idea I’ve clung to for all these years and it’s this:  True, deep learning is the result of authentic experiences.

To explain what this means, I’m afraid I have to start with a confession.  We all have bad habits, so try not to judge.

Although I care greatly about the environment, for many years, I’ve had the habit of tossing apple cores out my car window.  It sounds pretty bad, now that I’m typing it, but I would always wait until I was driving past a wooded area and then I’d just chuck them as far as I could.  It’s silly, but I didn’t (and still don’t) like having sticky trash sitting on my passenger seat, and I justified this act with the knowledge that the organic material in the apple would break down quickly, and the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules would get recycled into next year’s maple leaves.

A few years ago, though,  I was at a nature center with my kids and there was a special program about raptors.  There was a woman presenting who showed off a collection of rehabilitated birds of prey.  She had an owl that couldn’t fly and a blind red-tailed hawk.  Most of her spiel was familiar to me–great eyesight, sharp talons, fast fliers.  Pretty garden variety stuff, if you will.

At the end of her talk though, she was describing human threats to these birds.  Of course, there were the effects of climate change, agricultural chemicals and habitat loss.  But my heart sank when she also told us how owls and hawks are often killed by cars when they swoop down onto the road to snatch a mouse or chipmunk who had stopped to nibble on roadside debris–like apple cores and banana peels.

This was a new perspective, and my heart sank as I considered how my apple core habit might have been worse than just organic litter. Of course I felt bad, but more importantly, I resolved to stop throwing apple cores out the window.

And I didn’t.  For a long time.  And then one afternoon, I was driving to school with my mind in other places, and–whoops–out the window went the apple core.  If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, it’s hard.  And sometimes it takes several tries.

I knew the right thing was to stop tossing my apple cores out the window.  And I wanted to do the right thing. But sometimes I still forgot.

Earlier this year though, I was out for a run on a busy road near my house.  As I crested a hill, I looked down and saw a strange shape splayed out on the pavement at the bottom of the hill.  At first it looked like a trash bag or an old towel.  The wind was blowing and I could see parts of it fluttering with the gusts.

When I got closer, I saw that it was a beautiful, enormous barred owl.  And it was dead.  On one hand, seeing the hooked beak and the talons up close was amazing.  I imagined the thousands of rodents who had been plucked from the face of the earth by this bird.  On the other hand, the dull eyes and the trickle of blood on the pavement felt like a gut punch.

I haven’t thrown an apple core out the window since.

You might be wondering how this long story that ends with a dead bird is related to teaching, so let me explain.

Of course I had an idea that littering–even when it was a piece of fruit–was something I shouldn’t do.  Then when someone explained to me why I shouldn’t do it, I had a better understanding of the consequences of my actions.  But when I saw the dead owl for myself–experienced it–I was finally able to change my behavior.

As a teacher, it’s easy to tell kids what they need to know.  It’s easy to explain a concept until we are blue in the face.  We can assign worksheets, articles, and videos all day long.

But for kids to really understand new ideas and concepts, they need to be able to experience them, not just hear about them or take notes on them.

If you’ve ever visited my classroom, it’s often messy.  Sometimes it smells bad and there are almost always things crawling or growing in petrie dishes or in an aquarium.   It might seem like chaos, but all of those things are my attempts to help students experience science, not just sit and listen to me talk about it.  Trust me, I’m great at describing photosynthesis, but I’ll never do as good a job as a baby seedling sprouting up towards the light will do.

As you can imagine, it’s been challenging to make the shift to remote teaching over the last few months.  I miss being in my classroom, where kids are building, breaking, testing, fixing.  But at the same time, the last few months have given all of us new experiences that we would never have been able to predict.

Yes, I wish I didn’t see a dead owl on the side of the road, and yes, I wish we weren’t experiencing a global pandemic of epic proportions right now.

But remember–experiences are how we learn.

It’s too early to say exactly what lessons we’ll remember from a year without classrooms, birthday parties or live music.  I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from trying to learn new software platforms, create engaging online experiences and–oh yeah–trying not to catch Covid-19!

But we will learn something.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when I can reflect back on 2020 with amazement and wonder at all of the innovations and ideas that resulted from it.

For now though–I’ve got to go update Google Classroom.

Emily Whalen teaches science at Next Charter School in Derry, NH. Emily was part of the team that started Next in 2013 and lives in NH with her family. You can contact Emily at ewhalen@nextcharterschool.org.

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