I was once very fortunate to have had my closest friend write a recommendation for me in the form of a poem. He captures how I hope my graduate students and I can experience each other.
A Short Walk with Jimmy
It happens on a short walk the first time you meet Jimmy.
It happens over years of friendship:
You come away, first of all,
grinning from the laughter,
lightened by his infectious sense of humor;
having been engaged with a vibrant mind
that can swiftly discover the salient point,
that can turn gently, and reflect on itself;
having been held and heard with an easy warmth,
yet challenged to venture from the comfort of old notions.
You come away, best of all,
having had your own funny lines,
your own sense of wonder,
and somehow caring more about what you care about.
When I was 17 I arranged to have myself incarcerated in a juvenile detention center for 3 days and nights under fake charges. I felt that in order to better understand the youth with whom I was working, I would have to come closer to living their experience. As a result of giving the staff some very candid feedback upon my release, the detention center changed a number of its policies. Two years later, after dropping out of Cornell and directing the Tompkins County Youth Court-a court in which 12-18-year-olds act as attorneys, judges, and jurors while trying their peers charged with misdemeanors-I took off on my bicycle with Chuck, a roller pigeon, for uncertain destinies. When he tired, he would land on my shoulder and bob away as I sailed through the air on a downhill. It was a way to fly without wings and to connect with the natural world. When Chuck would go aloft, so would a part of me. By the time I earned my Masters’ of Science Teaching degree from Antioch New England Graduate School in Environmental Education (K-12 Biology Certification), my science teaching philosophy had a distinctive flavor and texture. At Antioch I developed a deeper understanding of environmental issues, a more profound connection with nature, and greater respect for the art of teaching. It was a place where the alternative educator in me was honored and nurtured by folks like Tom Wessels, David Sobel, Mitchell Thomashow, and Ty Minton.
It was here I experienced a flood of opportunities for teaching environmental education in creative and innovative ways. During my stay at Antioch and within a short time afterwards, I had developed an unusual portfolio of environmental education experiences: I had co-directed a nature day camp, co-authored a curriculum book, Know Nukes: Controversy in the Classroom, developed bias-free curriculum for the public tour programs at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, produced and authored The Mating Calendar: A Year of Natural Sex in New England, and facilitated a highly experiential keynote address at conferences about the courtship and mating behavior of wildlife. It was at Antioch where I learned to free myself from the didactic, impersonal ways I had been taught and to consider teaching and learning as a dynamic creative process. Just prior to graduation, I was hired to be the science teacher at Thayer Junior High School. Located in what was reputed to be the poorest community in New Hampshire, my 7th and 8th grade students and I turned our science classroom into an interactive environment where students worked with partners to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not they could teach a rat something using only positive reinforcement and inventing “Thing-a-ma-Jigs,” Rube Goldberg-like devices, to demonstrate their understanding of simple machines.. A few years later, I directed Thayer High School’s Apprenticeship Program, a program in which 9th-12th graders explored their career fantasies during school time for school credit.
These and many other personal and professional experiences have enough in common to engender a teaching philosophy that imbues all my courses at Antioch. All of these experiences share my commitment to learning by doing, by creating and solving real problems, by exploring controversial issues, and by deliberating on personally relevant moral dilemmas. I believe students should be given opportunities to make their own discoveries, to be an Archimedes, a Darwin, or a Curie, rather than a passive recipient of the discoveries of others; I believe that students and their colleagues have a great deal to learn from one another; I view my role as a facilitator whose purpose is to help students twist, stretch, and flip their understanding of and relationship to ideas; I can offer students more questions than answers; I believe cognitive disequilibrium is a signpost for learning (i.e., a certain kind of frustration or confusion that aids and abets learning); I feel that learning is both an intellectual and emotional experience (i.e., no idea is free of an emotional association); and I believe teaching is about helping others construct their own understandings.
In return for presenting my students with relevant, hands-on, problem solving challenges, I too enjoy the occasion to make discoveries, and to join their explorations into unfamiliar territories. As a result, I have learned the value in saying, “I don’t know,” in letting go of the need to be right, and in respecting and expecting more than one correct answer. One of the gifts I hope I can offer both the field of education and the natural world is to help graduate students and teachers identify, question, and further develop their personal pedagogy for teaching about the natural world.
One Special Place of Reflection
On a typical Tuesday or Wednesday between the Spring and Fall, I sit alongside one of the earth’s wet, roaring arteries, winding its way in and around the swaying meadows and rolling deciduous forests; I am enamored by its ability to nourish. There, on the Green River in southern Vermont, my laptop and myself rest ourselves on the backs of a cedar tree. My computer is connected to a solar panel that greets the sun all day long as I and the river turn beneath it. This is where I do my best reflective work: create and revise my courses; translate my “dissertation for insomniacs” into an engaging article about children’s ecological concepts and theories; design innovative outdoor adventure ecology education games like Wild Treasures; create experiential workshops like an “Inquiry into Inquiry” for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); read my students’ papers, imagine ways to improve the Science Teacher Certification program, and compose research like the Case Study of National Geographic’s Kids Network: Constraints and Opportunities.
During my “breaks” from work, minnows tickle my soul as they pull an overly persistent black fly from between my fingers. During lunch time, I can often be found in the water, face submerged. In the hayfield just above the river’s edge, I jog, play badminton and volleyball, and get silly with my two children and wife.