Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Human Nature April 13, 2011

(Source – Tim Allen)

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Are you an animal? Are we part of an ecosystem? Are humans still evolving, with all of the other creatures around us?

The answer is YES, my friends. YES. We are mammals, we are animals, we are vertebrates, we are multi-celled organisms. We came from this world, our ancestors changing through time and space, stepping trembling webbed feet onto land and scurrying into burrows to avoid a hungry dinosaur, and reaching nimble fingers towards a glistening, golden fruit, and stepping out from the edge of the forest into unknown, open grasslands. Spreading across the world, over land bridges and expanses of ocean. Using fire, planting seeds, training other creatures to be our friends and tools. Wheels and pack animals allowing us to carry things in a way we never could before,  developing specialties, building stronger houses. Learning about sanitation and disease so our loved ones could survive. Building strange contraptions that let us capture a moment in time, hear our mother’s voice on the other end, exchange information with people around the world. The world, once huge and incomprehensible, gets small. We share medicine, scientific advancements, philosophical wisdom with each other.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

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We share terrible things too, but the point here is that we aren’t some creature that appeared out of the blue and proceeded to change everything–we are born of this world, born of these animals and these plants, born of these bacteria and these oceans.

We believe we are so different from everything else (and everyone else) in the world, and it hurts us. It makes us feel like we can do anything we want, but just as harmful, makes us feel like we are hopeless, terrible creatures who have ruined everything.  I believe that if we want people to care, to conserve, we need to bring back the positive aspects of being a part of the world. We need to acknowledge the amazing progress that humans have made. Our creativity, our innovation. We need to use the qualities that have brought us here to help us into the future.

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(Source)

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I love when people embrace our place in the ecosystems of the world, and so was very excited to hear about the new BBC Earth program “Human Planet.” Each episode profiles people living in a certain landscape, like mountains or forests. It is simply amazing, and I love every second of it. The will of humans to live, and the universal desire to create a better life for your children than you had for yourself, is astounding.

I was really struck, watching the show, by the many advancements humans have made–advancements that required a single person to decide that the way their world was then wasn’t the way it always had to be. In one area, someone long ago carefully planted young mangrove trees, stringing the tender roots slowly across a river. Today, there are astonishing living bridges of thick, intertwined trees, allowing people to cross safely even during monsoons. In another place, a bat hunter once decided that if an opening was cut in the forest, many bats would probably try to fly through the easier-to-navigate short cut, and maybe, just maybe, a net could be strung up to catch them.

It is this ingenuity that has allowed us to not just survive, but thrive, in almost any environment.

My favorite part of the show was a story of a family in Tibet. They lived high in the snowy mountains, and wanted their two children to go to school. Their young girl was about 8 or 10, and accompanied her father on a 6 day trek along a frozen river through the mountains to get to the village where she would start school for the first time. It was very dangerous, and at a few parts along the way they had to navigate narrow shelves of ice about to break through, or climb down a “ladder” made of iron spikes driven into the rock. At each difficult section the father coaxed his daughter through, explaining how to move and where to put her feet. She was scared, and he guided her gently and with obvious pride at her accomplishments.

I have never had to do anything so difficult or life threatening, but it reminded me a bit of exploring the woods with my own father–crossing a river on a wire strung from bank to bank, or on a log that had fallen across. Probably the same age as the girl in Tibet, I was sometimes afraid, and I remember many times where my feet were pointed to certain safe locations, and I was encouraged to continue. I am sure there are other lucky people out there who could see their own lives in this experience as well. That love is so universal, and remains the same whether a situation is life threatening or just a weekend outing. It is the driving factor behind so many of our accomplishments, and we are all better for its existence.

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A father helps his daughter over a narrow part of the ice. To learn more about the “school run,” check out this post from Tim Allen: Source

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I was also, of course, moved by the amount of work and dedication this family put into their children going to school. Their love for their children was obvious, and shone through everything else. Next time I am driving to work I will think about how at least I don’t have to walk for 40 miles over thawing ice to get there. If they can do that, what can’t we all do?

It is time for us to embrace our humanity–to revel in it, to put our unique set of skills to use. Too often in conservation “people” is almost a dirty word. I disagree! Much of the damage people have done has been–truly, when you really come down to it–to give our children a better life, to help our parents live longer, to help stay in touch with each other, to have a comfortable place to sink into at the end of the day. If we continue to feel far away from the natural world, it can only get worse. But if we embrace our humanity, if we see ourselves in every woman, man, and child out in the world, if we use the same creativity and ingenuity that brought us fire, fishing poles, arrowheads, shelves, blankets, bridges, wheels, and nets to create a better place for our children and their children–now that is a future I would like to see.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

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Spring Growth April 8, 2011

What a difference a day makes…

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As much as I love nature and being outside, I am not a person who is good at raising plants. I want all of the benefits with none of the work, and I don’t do the research necessary to really care for them well. As a result, I just don’t keep them! Every summer, though, I suddenly wish I had tomato plants. I sometimes go and buy a full grown plant, setting it out on my balcony and heading out every now and then to collect the glowing fruit.

This year, though, I am trying to get a head start. I bought this little tomato starter kit and some seeds, and tried to follow the little set of directions on the back. I’ve already had to ask my excellent Facebook friends for tips, like should you rotate the plants so they don’t get leggy (yes) and now am wondering how I ‘cut back’ all but the strongest seedling. Do I snip it with scissors?  Pull out the whole plant? And how do I know the right time for putting them outside?

It is a learning process, but it has been so much fun just to watch these little guys spring up in the window in front of my work desk. I have watched them grow with speed and force, unfurling their leaves and reaching for the sun. They turn as I rotate them, leaning their faces back toward the light.

I can’t promise they will make it through a whole season of living with me, but I am certainly going to try! In the mean time, I am going to take pictures of them every day, just like I did for the Backyard Transition Challenge last fall. I encourage you to do the same! If not something you are growing, than just something you see changing around you–a bud on a tree branch, a weed in your yard. It is always a great experience to watch something grow and be able to look back and see how far it really has come.

Happy Spring!

 

Spring Rain April 5, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 9:39 am
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There was light outside, but those particles never seemed to make it into the room. Everything was dark–not even a color, just shadowy and dull. The couch squeaked and creased underneath me. The padding between my limbs and the bar in the arm rest is wearing thin, surely a sign of too much use.  It was drizzling outside, but for a short time the rain out the window slowed… slowed… and stopped.  The sky cleared a bit leaving a beautiful pre-thunderstorm mottled gray, and the cars going by made tschh tschhh sounds through the puddles.

I sprang up, ready at last. I changed into soft clothes and pulled on my sneakers–the new blue and yellow ones that make me feel like I am a gazelle, a panther, that I could leap forever, although I can tell you now this is far from true. I put in some head phones, tripped down the stairs, and opened the door into fresh spring air.

I ran and walked in intervals–each cycle of running pushing me to the edge of my ability, each cycle of walking just long enough to convince my lungs everything was fine before starting again. I moved past the road and down a bike path, tucked snugly against a line of trees. It felt good to power myself, to ponder my skeleton and its coverings as I pushed my legs across the arc of the earth. While I ran I noticed only the pain in my lungs, but while I walked I saw leaves beginning to unfurl, the dappled sky.

Shortly after I returned home, the sky kept its promise and a dark storm unfurled. The gray darkened to black and low thunder rumbled in the distance. A bowling lane. A truck going by. A boulder rolling. A waterfall.  I nestled in and listened to it surround the house–deliciously plump drops of rain coating everything. As the thunder called out I thought of how much I love feeling safe in the middle of a storm and of all the other people through history who have felt the same way.  Archaic humans hearing water drip from the branches of their brush huts. Ancient pueblo people looking out from stone caves, tucked away from lightning and flash floods. Colonial settlers hearing the rain tap the logs of their newly finished cabin. Maybe even my neighbor, who has a different wreath made out of candy for every holiday, sitting in her room listening just like me.

When I went to sleep that night the rain was still there. A spring rain. A rain full of promise. A rain tapping out a message on every roof and window: “We are the same, we are the same, we are the same.”

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25 Inspirations from Nature March 16, 2011

Change has finally arrived to the world outside my window. The snow that poured down just a week ago is gone from sight. The birds are singing and fluttering outside my window. The internet nature-lovers community is on fire with talk of gardens and composting. There is another change happening too–during this in-like-a-lion out-like-a-lamb-at-least-we-hope month, I am turning 25 years old.

One of my favorite personal blogs, Dig this Chick, has a post every birthday where she writes one thing she currently loves for each year she has been alive. I really like reading these posts, and thought I would try my hand at it, with a nature twist.  So here, dear readers, are 25 things that currently inspire me about nature, science, and being outside.

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1. The Sun. Gentle enough to make your take off your jacket and stretch out on the grass, powerful enough to burn you from even 9.3 million miles away.

2. A smooth, round stone held loosely in the palm of your hand.

3. Powering myself over the landscape with just my heart, my lungs, my feet.

3.. Time-lapse videos that show how plants grow.

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4. The smell of the earth after a gentle rain.

5. Evolution. By far the most exciting thing I have ever learned about the world. I see the evidence for it and proof of it everywhere I turn my eyes, and it fills me with wonder.

6. Life finds a way.  I am partly using this phrasing because we just watched Jurassic Park, but also because it is true. I certainly don’t want to force life to always find a way between our concrete and glass, but I really appreciate that it does.

7. Feeling the warmth of the day still radiating from a rock face even after the sun has gone down.

8. Looking for animal tracks.

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9. Holding leaves, eggshells, snow, mud, and yes, sometimes animals in my hands. (Sorry, take only pictures leave only footprints rule! I follow you most of the time, I swear!)

10. Teaching others about nature, and hearing what they think about it. The kids I teach always have really great insights and questions, and I love hearing their perspective.

11. The online nature-lovers community, and everyone who I have “met” through it. This sounds a little cheesy, but I love feeling like I am a part of this group, and I have met many people who have supported me and shared my posts and pictures with others. It has been awesome to see what other people are working on and what they are inspired by. So thank you for all of the kind words and support!

12. Walking under naturally formed archways in the forest.

13. Learning about an animal or plant I’ve never seen before, like the raccoon dog.

14. Splitting apart a sedimentary rock with a sharp rock hammer and wondering what you will find inside.

15. My magical childhood.

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16. Songs with lyrics inspired by nature. This is a little nerdy, I know, but I can’t help it.

17. Making boats out of pieces of wood and leaves and sending them down the creek.

18. This video, which I can’t believe is real.

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19. Queen Anne’s Lace.

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20. A milky clean journal page and a fine tip pen.

21. The signs animals leave behind.

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22. Taking photographs of the natural world around me.

23. The way nature calls to almost all people in some way, even if they don’t know too much about or don’t spend a lot of time in it.

24. Knowing that I am the product of 2.5 million years of humans, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of cells, 4.5 billion years of earth, 13.7 billion years of space, and who knows what before that!

25. Being alive! Seeing what there is to see.

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I wonder what will inspire me next year?  How about you, readers? What makes you want to get outside or learn more about the world around you? What keeps you excited and yearning for more? What special connections do you feel for the plants and animals in your backyard?

Thanks for reading, and as always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Once More with Feeling March 7, 2011

Yesterday, a gentle rain fell over central Pennsylvania, saturating the struggling earth and melting away the last remnants of ice clinging along the roads.  It was that good kind of rain, the kind I imagine makes the earth sigh and open its arms. I thought about how soon my husband and I will play catch in the yard. I picked out clothes for a “30 for 30 challenge” I started today, including flip-flops, capris pants, and two dresses. Spring was coming and I was ready.

In the late afternoon I sat watching the rain out the window when suddenly, shockingly, it turned into snow right before my eyes. The snow got heavier and heavier, swirling around in a miniature blizzard just outside the glass. It snowed for the rest of the evening and through the night, leaving us buried in a winter wonderland that rivals anything we had in December or January.

When it first started snowing yesterday I was sad about it, but this morning I woke up and the branches were stacked with snow, the sun was bright and reflecting off every surface, and I just wanted to go outside.  I can’t explain it, but my number one rule besides “Try to make yourself go out even if you don’t want to because you will be happy once you get there,” is “If you DO want to go out, go NOW NOW NOW before it is too late!!!”

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I dug my long underwear out of the closet and my winter boots out of the car (Note: Do not keep winter boots in your car! The walk from the house to get them will defeat the whole purpose), and set out to see what I could see.

The air was crisp but not freezing, in the way that it sometimes is when snow keeps everything close and muffled. My boots squeaked and crunched and the sun shone on everything. The snow was stacked high on every surface, and the low bushes and rocks were now just mysterious lumps along the ground.

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I am not a morning person but today was out early enough to enjoy the empty sidewalks before anyone shoveled (sorry, neighbors, for packing the snow down with my boots so it is now impossible to remove!). There weren’t even animal tracks yet, as if the squirrels and birds were as stunned as I had been to see a finally green world erased and white.

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In one spot there was a “wild” overgrown area right off the path. The sun was hitting it directly and it looked really beautiful. Welcoming and magical and quiet. I took a series of photos of it using my iPhone, which is currently the “camera” I use for everything. I am not a professional photographer, and I was amazed when I got home at how much the scene didn’t translate into the photos at all!  I had to laugh to see this three-dimensional wonderland show up as a flat and tangled place.

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I think it would have been better if I had kneeled down to take the picture instead of standing, so you felt like you were on the same level as the plants. To my photographer readers, anything else I could do in the future to capture this kind of busy space more accurately?

I continued on, craning my neck and standing right at the base of trees to get a “squirrel’s eye view” of all of the bright snow on the branches. I like how the snow makes this branch look like a feather from underneath:

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All in all, it was a lovely walk. I came in with red cheeks to the smell of coffee I had started in the coffeepot before I left. I hung my jeans up to dry by the door, and sat in front of my window to watch the world go by and write this post. I am making the effort not to be miserable about this snow for at least a couple more days, but really I didn’t have to work for my happiness this morning. Sometimes the yellow sun is reflecting off the brilliant new snow and what can you do but feel joy that you were there to see it?

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Bird Nests in Your Backyard March 3, 2011

Today it is 33 degrees outside. Tomorrow it will be 41. Saturday, 52.  There is a lot of rain in the forecast, but on March 12th a “full day of sunshine” is proposed. Do you know what this means, readers?  In the northeast United States, spring is coming.

As you may have guessed from my recent posts, I will be very happy to see winter go. In the mean time, though, I have noticed a surprising benefit to the leaves being off the trees.

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Bird nests! If you keep an eye out, you can see them easily right now through the branches of trees, without the dark foliage to camouflage them. I sometimes see them in my neighborhood, nestled against the bare bark. I also sometimes see bird and squirrel nests in the trees while I am driving. I usually am not able to stop to take pictures, but I enjoy seeing them and getting a glimpse of how animals are living and raising their young.

Last year, when this blog was still a baby, I discovered a pair of mourning doves nesting on my balcony. They eventually laid eggs and hatched a squab. I really loved having them there and was sad to see them go.  Last May I also had the opportunity to see a killdeer nest and have a reader submit video of bluebird and wren babies living in his backyard. All of this means I am very excited to have the chance to look at some bird nests up close before all of the leaves grow back and birds take up residence again.

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The change in season also means that birds are going to start building new nests soon. Gathering material to build nests is a lot of work, so some people put out “nest material holders,” for birds to visit and borrow from.  You can buy professional versions of these, or you can make your own. Here is a crafted nest material holder shaped like a little house, and here is one made from a mesh onion bag.

One of the professional sellers also has a lot of great information about how to make your own and what materials to use. I am going to copy and paste some of that info here, but please know that I got the info from another website: http://www.bird-house-bath.com/nesting-materials.html

 

“You can put out centralized stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or man made items such as yarn and string. Always use natural colored, un-dyed man made items. Try putting out any combination of the following:
– Thin twigs
– Dog and cat hair – If you have dogs or cats, and we do, you know what a cakewalk this one is. Simply brush pet and pull insane volumes of hair from the brush. Later, you can be enormously amused that the cute little bird babies outside were raised in a nest from your pet hair – as your pet glares out the window.
– Human hair – from your hairbrush
– Thin strips of cloth – cut about an 1 wide and 4-6 inches long
– Feathers – old down or feather pillows are a resource for this
– Long dried grasses
– Yarn or thread or string cut into 4-6 inch lengths
– Pieces of cotton, fluff. We actually purchased an inexpensive cotton filled throw pillow on clearance for this and had enough nesting materials to share with all our (equally strange as ourselves) birding friends for several seasons. Next time, it’s a smaller pillow!
– Long wilted leaves from daffodils, tulips or iris
– Small strips of cellophane – cut thinly and 4-6 inches long
– Spanish moss
– Regular moss – Once a season we pick some moss while on walks and lay it out to dry for a few days, them add to our nesting materials supplies.
– Pine needles – plenty of that to go around in most places.
– Milkweed silk – this one is favorite of several species of birds and worth collecting a few pods if you can. American goldfinch and orioles use ot often.
– Horse hair – Do you ride or know anyone that does? Horse hair from manes and tails is great stuff and very strong!

Items we do not use:
– Dryer lint. While there are several opinions about this, we tend to stay away from anything that may harm the birds. If you get dryer lint wet, when it dries it is hard and crumbles apart. Also, it is unclear if dryer sheets or other chemicals used when washing clothing is harmful for birds so we choose to not go there and give them items we are positive will not hurt them. Laundry detergent or fabric softener residue just does not sound good to us. Maybe it will not hurt them is not enough for us to test.
– Plastic sacks such as grocery bags – We have seen these suggested and think it is a very bad idea. Who has not seen a plastic sack after it has gotten wet and then dried up? Maybe you set on a damp spot at one time. They get hard and brittle and the logo dye cracks of them in flakes.”

This website recommends putting these materials out now (early March) to get birds started. I also want to echo what they said about using plastic–I have read that many birds are running into trouble by using plastic fibers in their nests that don’t insulate the way natural materials do. As a result, the eggs don’t stay warm enough and do not hatch. For this reason do not use anything plastic, and the more natural materials you can provide, the better!

I want to end this post by linking to some really amazing bird nest videos from the always lovely Sir David Attenborough. These should get you inspired for the upcoming nesting season!

First, here are some very clever ways that birds camouflage their nests. If you like to craft/sew/make things you should especially watch this! It is astounding to me that birds can do such delicate work with only their beaks!!

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Next we have one of my favorite examples, the Australian bowerbird. In addition to building a large covered structure, this bird collects and organizes found objects into pleasing arrangements to attract a mate. Some birds only collect blue items, others have a variety of colors. It is a lot of fun to watch the birds placing everything just so, and examining with a critical eye.

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Finally, here is a type of nest I had never seen before looking up the previous videos. It is a giant “apartment complex” of straw that houses hundreds of birds. Keep watching until the end so you can see their little heads poking out!

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I also want to give a shout out to one of my favorite nature blogs, www.goexplorenature.blogspot.com. The author recently said on Facebook that she is building a nest with her sons out of materials they find on neighborhood walks. She is going to be posting about it soon (I believe tomorrow, Friday), and I encourage you all to check it out!

So what about you, dear readers? Have you noticed any bird nests around? Have you seen any birds building yet around your yard? Do you ever put out building materials for them? What other signs of seasonal change are you noticing and looking forward to?  What do you hope the next season will bring?

 

 

 

10 Tips for Teaching Environmental Education February 24, 2011

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When I am not writing this blog or struggling to make myself get out into the snow, I am an environmental education coordinator for a local school district. I work with K – 12 grade classes, creating outdoor activities that fit with class curriculum and PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exam standards. My goals are always two-fold: 1. to have students learn something about the topic at hand, and 2. to give them an experience with nature that will increase their comfort in being outside and turn nature into a “friend.”

Before this position I spent time as a museum guide in Philadelphia, a park guide at Arches National Park in Utah, a nature camp leader, and as a “content expert” for high school geoscience teachers at a conference in Pennsylvania. Each of these brought their own set of challenges, rewards, and lessons, and each has helped me to grow as a person and educator.  I am always changing based on new experiences, but here are the ten most important lessons for teaching environmental education that I have learned so far!

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1. Don’t depend on the teacher to get control of the class for you.

This is sometimes hard to do, because you don’t want to come into a new place and correct someone elses’ kids. I am not saying you should go overboard with this, but sometimes teachers are going to welcome the brief respite from teaching and take the time to grade papers, plan the next activity, etc.  They will not always be available to step in for you, or step in at the time you need it. The ability to gently bring a group back together when they are not listening on your own is very important!

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2. You don’t know what else these kids are dealing with, so be compassionate!

You can’t let kids walk all over you, but you will often find that the kid who is having the hardest time sitting still or listening to directions is also struggling in other ways. I once told a kindergarten class to show the work we did to their families when they got home, and the student who had been the hardest to work with said quietly, “My dad only calls me bad names.” A 4th grade student in a writing exercise about a favorite place in nature wrote about a tree in his backyard that was his only friend, who he could “tell all his secrets to.” The list goes on.  Some kids are struggling with very difficult things, and you won’t always know what they are.

Along these same lines I am careful to never address letters home to ‘parents,’ and don’t use the word ‘parents’ to students–I only ever say ‘families.’  I am also careful to say “where you live” instead of house.  It requires less effort than it might seem–it quickly became a habit for me and now I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It might seem extreme at first to worry about this stuff, but it is a small change that might make a big difference.

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3. Instead of being angry at a “difficult” student, invest extra time into that student or get her or him to help you with an activity.

This is one of the very best pieces of teaching advice I ever got. If a teacher tells you in advance that one of their students might be difficult, set up a positive relationship with them as soon as possible. Your initial reaction to hearing someone is difficult might be to assert dominance and show them you can’t be messed with. Resist this urge! Instead, ask them to help you set up an activity or ask for their opinion on a topic. If you discover that a certain student is causing problems in the middle of the activity, use any down time to see how that child is doing, what they find exciting about the class, etc.

Shortly after I first got this advice I had a 3rd grade student who had a really hard time working in a group and following directions. During the lunch break I noticed him looking at a plant and went over to talk to him about it. After I showed interest in what he was thinking, he was much more willing to work with me in the second half of the day. It was amazing what a difference this minimal effort made!

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4. Kids will be excited if you are excited!

And they will be bored if you are bored. One of the best tools you have for reaching kids is your passion for a subject. It is contagious, and will keep kids listening and wanting to learn more. Don’t ever forget that you got into this field because you love the topic, and you want to share that love with others. You are making a difference in ways you won’t ever even know about!

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5. Some students you work with will have Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorderattention deficit disorder, anxiety, Down syndrome, etc. Sometimes you will know about it and sometimes you won’t.

In my opinion, the more you can learn about these different topics the better you will be at working with ALL students. This is a bit like #2, in that if you are not the regular teacher you never really know what an individual student is dealing with. I started thinking about this a lot recently after watching the documentary “I can’t do this but I CAN do that: A film for families about learning differences.”  I highly recommend watching it if you have a chance! One of the stories that especially stuck with me is of a boy with auditory processing disorder. He had a very difficult time understanding what the teacher was saying over other class noises, and as a result was always in trouble for “not paying attention.” I think back in horror now to every time I ever said to a student “Well, what did I just explain to the class?” After seeing this film I started asking myself, “Why do I care about explaining something a second time? What is the big deal to me?” It is possible some people could argue I am being ‘too easy’ on the kids, but I have made the decision that my most important goal is to get kids excited about nature and science while keeping everyone safe. This means that I will stop an individual who is disrupting the class or calm a group down that has gotten out of hand, but I don’t feel the need to punish a kid for being distracted when I first explained directions. If the regular teacher wants to do that, I will leave it up to them, but it isn’t my job in the few hours I see a group.

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6. Make sure students really know they can ask you questions, and be willing to cover less than you thought you would if students are confused.

I make sure to ask students if they have any questions often, and at times explicitly say, “Please tell me if you don’t understand this topic, I don’t mind and I am happy to explain it in a different way.” Sometimes you won’t find out until the very end of a lesson that students have no idea what you are talking about. This is okay! Remember that your goal is NOT to just get through all of your material, but to impart knowledge to other beings. It is okay if you can’t cover everything you hoped if students really understand what you do cover.

One of the more difficult sides of this is that you really do need to explain things in a different way if kids aren’t getting you. This can be difficult, but the better you know your material the easier it will be. I once had a math class in college where the professor would answer my question by repeating the exact same sentences and examples he used the first time. I really hated this, and it did nothing whatsoever to help my problems with math. It is very frustrating to be willing to learn in spite of struggling, and not have the instructor meet you half way.

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7. Be willing to change your plans completely.

It will rain. The teacher will forget you are coming that day. The students will remember the golden retriever they saw at the farm above every other thing they learned that day. You will teach a whole activity and find out at the end that you were accidentally using a word beyond their vocabulary but nobody told you. Most importantly, sometimes you will just feel that things aren’t going very well. When you get this feeling, CHANGE YOUR PLANS! Do not continue to teach to blank faces, do not cling desperately to your notes as you go down with the ship. You have to be willing to adapt to each individual class, their interests, and their needs. This will be difficult and scary at first but will get easier with time, and is one of the most important things you can do to be an effective educator.

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8. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something!

If you don’t know something and make up an answer anyway, they will know, and they will not listen to anything else you say. This advice was given to me when I was working as a park guide in Arches National Park, and I have stuck by it ever since. The most important part about saying you don’t know something, though, is to tell students/groups that you will find out the answer and get back to them, and then actually do it. More than a few times I have e-mailed a teacher after an activity with information that the students wanted to know that I just didn’t. Saying you don’t know something will also seem scary at first, but it is really important. If you are willing to say what you don’t know, people will trust what you DO know even more, and students will see that the learning process continues even in adulthood.

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9.  Spend a few seconds before each activity getting mentally ready.

This is probably one of the biggest “little” things you can do. Spending a short time before an activity reminding yourself of the topic, why you like it, and to be “centered” will make you more confident and ready to deal with whatever comes next. I do this a couple of different ways–sometimes I run through what I want to say again in my head, sometimes I center myself by thinking about all of the atoms in my body with their electrons spinning around (this is a weird thing I have done for a while–don’t know quite where it came from!), and sometimes I just think about how cool the science topic I am about to teach is! I find taking this time really helps with #4, and conveying my excitement and interest to the students.

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10. Reflect, reflect, reflect!

The best way to get better is by doing, making some good decisions, making some bad decisions, and then reflecting on why one was good and one was bad. Sometimes you will have an amazing day with kids who are excited and asking great questions, and sometimes you will wonder if you made any impact at all. You need to figure out what went well! I try to do this immediately, while I am driving home from an activity (although sometimes I just listen to music and sing along loudly). If you like writing, journaling can be another good way to do this. Other times I reflect just by talking about my day to someone. Explaining things out loud to another person helps me recognize patterns or reasons that I didn’t see at first.

I’ve also started sending out brief 5 question surveys to teachers after activities. I made the survey for free on http://www.surveymonkey.com, and ask questions like “Q: Do you feel students were engaged in this activity? A: Yes, the entire time. B. Yes, for part of the time. C. No, they were not engaged,” “What was the best part of this activity?” and “What would you like to see in the future?” The teachers don’t always have time to answer but the information I do get back is well worth the effort.

Reflecting will also help you develop your own personal tips and guidelines. Five years ago I was afraid to speak up and correct a class if their teacher wasn’t doing it. One year ago I had never thought about how saying “parents” might affect kids who lived with their grandparents, a family friend, or a single parent. 6 months ago I had never even heard of sensory processing disorder! I can’t even imagine what kind of things I will learn in the next activity, the next 6 months, the next years of my life. But I do know that I will find out, thanks to reflection and the help of those around me.

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So how about you, readers? What have you learned from your time in the classroom or outside, with kids or adults? How do you stay excited and interested in your topic? How do you convey that to others? What kinds of life experiences have affected the way you interact with others?

I hope you will leave some of your experiences and tips in the comments section! There is such a wealth of personal experience out there, and we are always better for sharing. I would love to learn from you!