In mid-January, during those grand days of winter when we actually had snow on the ground, I learned the value of taking chances through the determination of an 8th grade girl.
It was a chilly day, but I had discovered the previous week that students cannot wait to be outside, even on the coldest of days.
One student caught my attention as we walked out to the bus. She told me that it was her first trip to the Urban Ecology Center, her first winter in Wisconsin, and how excited she was for her first opportunity to explore snow. Little did she know, her class was about to go cross-country skiing.
Environmental education is at the core of our mission. The main way we accomplish this during the school year is our Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP). Through NEEP our partner schools send students to our branches for hands on science and environmental lessons.
We’re educating the next generation of environmental leaders. Plus, they have so much fun they don’t realize how much they’re learning!
A few weeks ago, I was pulling together some attendance numbers for a report. I sent them over to Jen Hense, our Director of Development, and she sent me back an email that said, "Safe to assume all of these numbers were 'zero' four years ago, huh? :-)" She's right – 4 years ago there literally were zero kids playing in Three Bridges Park because there WAS NO Three Bridges Park!
Mary (not her real name) was excited. She could smell the earthiness and hear the wind rustling the trees that told her that today’s lesson was going to be outdoors. She bounced slightly from foot to foot as her favorite Urban Ecology Center educator, Ms. Regina, described the day’s activities.
“Can I run now?” Mary asked her teacher from school.
“Yes, go for it!” her teacher replied. Smiling, Mary ran across the field, exhilarated by the fresh air and the ground pounding beneath her feet.
Sometimes making the impossible possible just takes a little confidence and ingenuity. Just ask the class of students with visual impairments who spent time exploring Riverside Park and the lakefront with Urban Ecology Center Educators Matt Flower and Regina Miller.
While learning about nature and the environment, all of the students who participate in the Urban Ecology Center's school programs are expected to participate in every way regardless of ability. It's the Center's mission to connect people to nature in part because of the fresh perspective getting outside can provide. In the case of these students, they knew deep down that "Mr. Flower and Ms. Regina" believed that they could do anything and should try everything.
This time of year always gets me thinking about gratitude (I probably say that every November). This year, I want to share a story that perfectly captured for me why I’m so grateful to be a part of this work, and why I’m grateful for the support of so many people that make this work possible.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to teach a 3rd grade Neighborhood Environmental Education Project class at our Menomonee Valley branch. It was a glorious late spring day—sunny with just that faintest taste of summer coming around the corner.
One of my favorite places to take school groups is Lake Michigan. It is such a valuable resource right in the backyard of our city. We use it in many ways to teach lessons to students. One lesson is that our drinking water comes from Lake Michigan. Another is the rock cycle, during which we collect different rocks at the “skipping stone beach.” Recently, my co-teacher Tory and I used the beach to teach 4th graders about glaciers and glacial landforms.
I was asked recently, “What is your philosophy of education?” This is a question I’ve explored many times throughout my years as an educator. Depending on the crowd, my answer brought warm smiles or a furrowed brow as some consider my philosophy a bit “dreamy” in this data-driven, standards-based era of education.
To me, a meaningful education is a journey of discovery, exploring the mystery and the magic of the world around us and within us. I had the joy of witnessing this outward and inward journey recently while observing two of our talented environmental educators in action.
“Look! Up there, high in the tree, perched on that branch,” an environmental educator directed his class of students to where a Cooper’s Hawk sat in a tree in Riverside Park.
Just moments before they spotted the hawk, a chipmunk had darted across the path in front of them. Out hunting for signs of spring, the class was thrilled at the sighting because chipmunks are hibernators and only awaken from their deep slumber when the weather warms just enough – a true sign of spring!
The morning sunlight shimmered on the rippling surface of the river. It was a beautiful day in late fall as second graders hiked along the Menomonee Valley trails. The excitement of the kids grew as the trail got more and more covered by the trees. I realized that the border between them and the natural world had started to break down when I heard a few “wows” for a Blue Heron that flew by and a salmon going up the river to spawn. You could sense the connection one student had as she held an improvised walking stick.