TEACHING WITH AND LEARNING FROM BIRDS AND CHILDREN
I’ve taught at four universities and in a women’s prison. I’ve created service learning programs for three of these schools. At UVM this teaching has been covered by 13 media outlets (Audubon Magazine, Academic Minute Podcast, UVM Today, American Birding Podcast, The New York Times, NBC News, Regional Education Television Network (Vermont), Seven Days, 2020 and Seven Days, 2017, Brown University Daily Herald, Headwaters, UVM Homepage 2016, Vermont Cynic, and North End News), and garnered three teaching awards: a CUPS Service Learning Award (2017), the Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award (2018) and the Marcia Caldwell Award (2019).
My teaching mission is to connect students to other humans, to their immediate environment, and to other species. By using place-based pedagogy, I put students in the real world in order to understand it and themselves, and to transform it and themselves. My teaching goals are to imbue students with a detective’s dogged curiosity to foster lifelong learning, and a deep sense of empathy for others, human and non-human. I am educating citizens–not just consumers–who understand that democracy is a muscle that must be exercised. Prison students at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, journalism students at Auburn University, and writing students in post-Katrina New Orleans taught me what they needed to become engaged citizens. Over and over again my students teach me that if you create learning experiences that put them in the real world, they will learn and become part of community solutions.I discovered birds as one portal to learning while teaching in post-Katrina New Orleans (see Chronicle of Higher Education). Later, as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I was able to integrate this post-Katrina teaching experience into the university’s introductory environmental studies courses. I also designed a senior capstone course for the Nelson Institute to meet a community need in my neighborhood at that time. Community leaders, concerned about gang activity, needed youth mentors. Parents were afraid to let their kids play outside, yet they lived next to Madison’s Warner Park, the study site for my dissertation research. This was also my neighborhood and many of my neighbors were children of color. So I created an environmental justice course based on Richard Louv’s text, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and John Robinson’s Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. This course — Environmental Studies 600: Last Child in the Park: How Kids and Birds Can Save the Planet —paired UW-Madison undergraduates as mentors with Sherman Middle School students in the Nature Explorers after-school club. I began teaching this course in 2010. In 2015, when I left for the University of Vermont, Anke Keuser and Paul Noeldner took over the course. They still teach it today and have worked with hundreds of kids and college students, innovating and building community through birding.
At the University of Vermont, the course became “Birding to Change the World” and is now in its sixth year, taught in partnership with Flynn Elementary School and Hunt Middle School. Every Monday we meet as a class to learn about birds, education and social justice. Then every Wednesday afternoon my students and I climb into two vans, drive five miles to the schools and my students walk, learn and play with their 4th or 5th grade “co-explorer” for three hours in a neighborhood wetland and woods. My students are paired with the same child all semester. We use Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Nature Study” pedagogy as a basic text for designing some of our outdoor activities.This environmental justice course teaches our undergraduates how race, class and place intersect; UVM students become part of a community solution. Our students conduct weekly public research on the area’s natural history and share their findings with the kids. Flynn Elementary School Principal, Graham Clarke told NBC News that his students were “wildly enthusiastic” about the experience: “This is a really unique partnership with the university that goes far beyond anything the city can offer in an after-school program.”
In this particular course, birds are the portal for learning how to observe, how to listen, and how to connect to our place. Avians are just one portal. This type of course could be based on any other urban animal, on plants or on local watersheds. But birds are one of the most visible and accessible forms of wildlife. They grace our dull city hedges with flashes of color and bursts of song. For urban children and college students nationwide, birds are the nature they see and hear every day without having to be driven to a zoo or “wilderness.”The course also provides undergraduates with an immediate opportunity to engage with concepts in course readings and discussions. They learn the socioeconomic reasons why children, particularly lower-income urban kids, are too often segregated from nature and have lost the right to unstructured play. In course readings students read about the criminalization of play and nature-deficit disorder and then walk with their middle school or elementary “co-explorers” only to learn that they are not allowed to throw snowballs (against school rules), and that some kids will get in trouble at home if they get dirty (their families do not have easy access to washers and driers—a reality that shocks college students). Our students learn directly how class and race affects our co-explorers.At the same time, our students’ perceptions of class and race are challenged and stereotypes blown up as the children teach them nature lessons about their schoolyard and surrounding woods and wetlands. A seventh grader teaches his college mentor, a former marine in Iraq, the difference between a Cooper’s hawk and a red-tail. Another seventh-grader shows his mentor the secret spot where marsh turtles sun themselves. A geology student splits stones with a rock hammer, helping a boy discover a geode. A forestry major teaches her middle school co-explorer–a fungi fanatic–how to identify mushrooms and lichens. Then the girl shows the aspiring forester where to find puffball mushrooms. The kids also challenge my students to become more politically engaged, pestering my students to vote and asking them what they think about community issues like policing and racism.
The birds also teach my undergraduate students skills that can help them in future jobs. During their weekly birding homework students must observe, listen, and write down what they see and hear, honing their note-taking skills. They learn how to be quiet and connect to the soundscape, a new realm of ecology. The mentoring and service learning component reinforces qualities that serve students in any future environment and builds citizenship. Students must practice humility as they discover weekly that a bug, bird or sixth-grader can become their teacher. They cultivate curiosity while doing research for the children they work with; every week, the children assign two environmental research questions to our college students. Undergraduates research the answers to these questions and present their findings to the kids for a “grade.” This weekly public research teaches our students how to use credible sources and how to become a lifelong learner.Through birding together every week, often in extreme weather, and by working with the children, this course is much more than a class–we become a flock. Students must do their weekly birding homework with a class “buddy.” I try to pair the more experienced student-birders with the uninitiated; this is one teaching method for building community within the class and it works. In their final reflection papers, environmental studies students report that this is one of the few college classes in which they made deep friendships and connections to the community beyond the campus bubble. Some of our students become so attached to their young co-explorer that they repeat the course. Every semester, 2-3 students decide to enroll again the following semester for independent study credits.
This UVM course has led to environmental education programs at three universities, and public schools in Wisconsin, Vermont and Rhode Island. Between all three programs, over 500 birding mentors have worked with at least 1000 schoolchildren. In 2019, Brown University replicated this model in Providence.This course has also become a job-creation engine. In Burlington, the school district has hired at least 16 students from this class. One alumni just hired four of our students; our alumni are becoming community partners. Vermont parks’ districts have hired others as stewards and educators, and every summer Audubon hires my student-mentors as interns. In 2019, a UVM birding mentor founded the first Audubon campus chapter in the US.Birding to Change the World Syllabus, pre-COVID
Birding to Change the World Syllabus, COVID syllabusOther Courses I Teach at UVM:
- “Endangered Environmentalists in Central America,” an Honors College course which gives students the historical context to understand the current immigration crisis;
- “Sustainability from a Non-Human Perspective,” a field course connecting students to Burlington’s urban wilds;
- “Environmental Policy, Media Literacy and Activism,” UVM’s first media literacy course which teaches citizenship skills and research-based writing-for-change. In 2018, the second time this writing-intensive course was taught, 25% percent of students published op-eds in eight states and over a dozen testified before public commissions: see Student Publishing and Community Impact Map. Students have published op-eds in local Burlington papers and hometown outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, News-Press in Naples, Florida, and The Durango Herald in Colorado, covering topics ranging from noise pollution to fighter jets over Burlington, pipeline safety in Pennsylvania, how to curb overpopulation of deer in New Jersey, the need for climate change planning in coastal Florida, and the hidden migrant farm workers in Vermont. That same semester, 13 students in the class met with Governor Phil Scott for 30 minutes to discuss pending gun legislation; this meeting was the result of a class team-research assignment. In 2021, this course will become one of UVM’s first in the new “Civic Learning” category.