I experienced an amazing learning-moment in the woods.
This past Tuesday, my teacher-candidate peers and I took a field study trip to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, near Townsend. As many times as I have been in the Smoky Mountains, I never knew about this facility! Beautiful, peaceful campus with plenty of places to hike, swim, and relax.
Our professor's goal was to provide us with a quality example of how hands-on experiences and inquiry learning are effective means of education, especially for science. Our guide kept things simple, but demonstrated a variety of activities that would be facilitated with elementary school students. This included exploration time with little magnifying glasses, a blindfolded trust game which called upon paying attention to details and characteristics, and lots of discussion and questioning that stemmed from the observations we made while within nature.
It was during the final activity, a scavenger-hunt-based exploration activity, when I learned something that I will never forget as an educator. Our guide was asking us to find simple things and bring them back to the circle. We would then observe what we found and compare. He told us to find a dead stick or branch on the ground, and we were off.
I immediately was drawn to a broken piece of old, seemingly dead would that looked like a miniature elephant tusk. However, the wood was very squishy and spongy. My guess was that it was rotten wood or fungus. However, the guide was not answering my questions! I kept pressing it and realized that in the center of the spongy wood was a hard piece. I started peeling off the soft parts; the texture and characteristics of the wood reminded me of breaking apart a mushroom while cooking, which led me to believe even further that it was some sort of fungus.
Finally, I had peeled away all of the soft wood and arrived at a small, sharp stick which was all that was left in the middle. I asked our guide if that stick had been the original stick and something grew around it, or if the original size was bigger and it just rotted or changed to this. At this time, he called the group's attention back together and asked me to share the questions and observations I made about my stick. Then, he seemed ready to finally give me some information! He asked for the stick, and...
HE THREW IT! Back into the woods! Never to be found again!
I'm not going to lie, there was a quick pang of panic in my heart when he did it. Over a stupid dead stick.
He asked the group if they saw my reaction. I was a little embarrassed, but immediately I saw where this was going. He proceeded to make the point that I was so interested in something so significant because I found it, I observed it, I had questions about it, I manipulated it, and I wanted to understand what it was. He wanted to illustrate this point by taking the stick and seeing the reaction to prove that the attachment and connection to the arbitrary object was there. Bingo!
Here comes the best part. After he explained all of this, he revealed that he actually did not throw the stick. Like tricking a dog to fetch when you actually just held it in your hand. I don't know whether it was because he gave the stick back or because I appreciated the point he made so deeply, but this moment brought a little water to my eyes.
The lesson I took away from this was fundamental and profound. Allow students the opportunity to become interested in and connected to things. Use that interest and that connection as a springboard for learning. And don't pretend to throw things that they love into the woods, because they might cry.
Here is Tremont's website: http://gsmit.org/ They do group activities close to year-round, and they have sleeping and dining facilities on their campus. Check it out!