New Tricks and Old Tricks

So, I think I’ve got to learn how to play Pokémon.  I’ve still got a few years, but eventually I’ll have to learn.

My granddaughter, who just turned seven a few months ago, was over yesterday for school.  For better or worse, her grandfather is an elementary grade teacher who really needs someone to teach, and she’s convenient. Well, and there’s the pandemic. I suppose that’s relevant.

Anyway, we sat down at the kitchen table like we always do, but today she puts a small box on the table and announces that we’re going to play a game of Pokémon.  

I looked over at the pile of stuff I had ready for reading, then looked at the  expectant face sitting across from me.  Time was tight, though, and there wasn’t enough of it for a game.  So, I said we’d play if that’s what she wanted to do.  I think I mentioned I’m a grandfather. 

Really, there was a little bit of time for a game, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over 15 years of teaching it’s that you’ve got to bend a little every once in a while.  Especially if, well, it’s your granddaughter.

Now, here’s the thing.  I’ve been around kids and Pokémon cards for a long time, and I’m not sure I’ve ever known one (a kid, not a card) who actually knows how to play the game.  Heck, I’m not even sure if it is a game–for all I know, it could just be an example of incredible marketing.  I’m sure that thousands of those cards have sat safely on my desk at school before being taken home at the end of the day, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the game played.

It certainly wasn’t today, at least not the way the game designers intended.  My granddaughter told me we were going to play the way her dad taught her to play, but it turns out she couldn’t remember how that worked.  It was a tricky spot for me to be in: If we just called it off, I could go ahead and scrap my reading lesson as well because, to put it mildly, the mood would be broken.  If I let her decide, without any help, how the game was to be played, the reading lesson would have been called on account of darkness.

In keeping with the spirit of things, I played the “this is how the kids in my class play the game” trick, and it worked!  We basically played “War” using the point values on the card, and she couldn’t have been happier that I won.  Well, she actually won the Pokémon game, but I got to teach my lesson with a happy student.  I’ll put that win in my column any day of the week!

Not Just a Moment

I was given a moment, earlier today 
And I’m happy to say I recognized it as such
An instant in time when I spotted a feather 
Lying on the ground by my garden fence 

An owl, sometime during the night, visited my yard
There was a moment when I recognized the feather 
Just as there was one when the feather was lost
Quite possibly a different moment saw the taking of prey in the dark 

We’re given moments, and sometimes they are given us
They’re not seconds, mere divisions of a day
Nor are they heartbeats, each one cherished but passing without remark
The life-giving product of a miraculous electrical impulse

We’re given many moments each day
Most of them inconsequential, but some of them not

The morning sun reflecting off sprinkler-wet stepping stones
A moment when I see my daughters looking out from a picture frame
One when I find my dog wanting to play
Another sees me finding a note from my wife, giving her love

A moment when my eyes fall on a flower in an unexpected place
A moment when the sun is just seconds away from disappearing 
behind the tree line to the west
A moment when sleep takes us, and there are no more

Big Dave

Just two weeks ago, which seems like forever when you’re on quarantine time, I wrote about memories of an environmental education conference I attended several years ago.  The story I wrote was mostly about bird calls, woodpecker drumming, and a bunch of environmental wackos, many of whom make me happy to now call friends.  Those memories make me smile, and probably always will.

That story started, though, by me recognizing the bark of a persimmon tree on a trail near my home in north Alabama.  I wasn’t able to recall the leaves when I saw them on a young tree, but when I saw them on a mature tree I instantly recognized the bark.  “Alligator hide” was what I learned to think of when I saw it, because that’s what Big Dave called it.  He’s not the first, and won’t be the last, person to call it that I’ve since learned, but he’s who taught it to me.

That’s one of the guys who was leading that naturalist hike that day, “Big Dave.”  It was a while before I learned his last name is Hollaway, because everyone just called him Big Dave.  He was indeed a pretty big guy at the time, and when he later lost a bunch of weight it felt kind of strange calling him that, but not really.  His personality carried on where his size left off.

I’ll be honest: When I lead kids hikes or other environmental experiences, I have, since that very day some nine years ago, tried to put a little bit of Big Dave into my presentations and dialog.  His gift of showing the natural world in a way that made sense just spoke to me.  I watched him do all the “identify it stuff” as well as or better than most folks, but he also communicated how everything fit together.  This tree, that bird, those deer: They were all there for a reason, and I’m not the only person who found myself richer after he shared the natural world with me.

The eastern towhee singing, “Drink your tea,” and the barred owl calling, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” is old hat for me now, but back then when I learned it from Big Dave it was magical.  In a lot of ways, it still is.

Dave had a way of seeing the spiritual–not the religious, and not the new age stuff–side of nature.  As he walked you through the world, it was the foundation of everything he saw.  He especially, as I remember, found a kinship with the birds of prey he worked with.  The great horned owl, the red-tailed hawk, and even the diminutive screech owl: He had a kinship with all of them.  If you’ve ever been eye-to-eye with one of those birds, you might understand where he was coming from.  He saw a bigger picture than most.

I found out recently that Dave left this world a few days ago, and it hurts.  I hadn’t spoken with him in over a year, but the towhees behind my back yard remind me of him often.  And then, of course, there are the persimmon trees.  They won’t let me forget.

Thanks, Big Dave.

Where am I going, I don’t know. I’m not sure? I know this though…I don’t get lost anymore.  -From Dave’s Facebook page.

Bothered or Not

I’ve never met Mark Twain 
or Samuel Clemens, for that matter
I’ve read some of his stuff though
and something he said has always 
Sort of stuck with me  

“I’m bothered,” I’ve read
“By those passages of scripture I do understand” 
or something along those lines.  
The quote changes 
as such things will do over the years

He’d be, in the company of some folks
Alone with his thinking nowadays  
Blessed are the meek” 
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the peacemakers

Oh, we still understand

Lots of us just aren’t bothered anymore

Scripture from Matthew 5:5-9 (NIV)

In the Presence of Hope

Nature is hard

For the feathered
For the furred and for the finned
For those creatures that crawl 
For those that burrow or slither
Nature is hard

For you, for me, for those of us with the
Ability to read or understand these words
Life might not be easy
But it’s rarely as it is out there
Out there in nature

Out there, disaster usually means death
A broken wing or a strained leg
A spoiled source of water
A fallen nest or a disturbed den
Disaster like that almost always brings about the end

But sometimes–rarely, but sometimes
Disaster happens in the presence of hope

Hope in the form of human hands
That will scoop up and embrace
Human hands and a heart that strives to
Bring a wholeness to the broken and to 
Preserve that which was surely lost

Sometimes
Rarely, but sometimes

A word on wildlife rescue and rehabilitation:  While the fate of some animals might rest in the hands of humans, it is crucial that a would-be rescuer not make a difficult situation worse.  Many times, animals that are “rescued” were never in any danger.  Fledged birds, hidden fawns, and even box turtles crossing the road are oftentimes captured, putting them in an even worse situation. 

Fledged birds on the ground are almost always being watched over by an invisible parent, fawns are left by parents, concealed for the day, and turtles (who unknowingly appreciate being assisted across the road in the direction they were headed) are territorial and will often perish in a new location.  

If you find yourself in a position to help wildlife, please first contact a licensed rehab provider in your area for advice.  Thank you! 

A Trail. July, 2020

The trail leads on
Invisible after only a handful of yards
Turning lazily through the oak and hickory trees that 
Stand on this plot of north Alabama land

With the sun still below the tops of the trees
It’s an almost cool time of the morning
The July heat will come later this day
But for now we enjoy the morning shade

I look up to see fruit clusters
Pointing skyward from the branches
Of a stand of staghorn sumac
Burnt orange in anticipation of the crimson to come

Our grandchildren run ahead in search of their future
While my wife and I enjoy the company of their mother
With the world aflame beyond these trees
We live in and for the moment

And at this time, it is enough

Knock, Knock: It’s a Persimmon

It’s funny how little it takes to trigger a memory.  One little event, and a whole lot of recollections.  I love it.

My wife and I were out hiking early this past Sunday morning.  I was checking out a trail where I’m soon going to be leading a kids’ hike.  I haven’t been there in a while, and I like to prepare by checking out the lay of the land so I’m not just winging it.

As we started, I saw the leaves of a tree that I recognized but couldn’t identify.  The name was right there, floating around my brain, but just out of reach.  As we walked, I saw that type of tree a few more times, but just couldn’t figure it out.  I snapped a few pictures, intending to look it up when I got back home.

We were more than half-way through the trail when I saw the leaves yet again, but this time on a mature tree.  Mature enough to have recognizable bark.  Recognizable bark that instantly told me the once-elusive name of that tree: It was a persimmon. 

If Sunday’s hike was a movie, the landscape would have started to swirl around me, the wind would have whipped up, the sky would have darkened, and then everything would have been bathed in cloud-filtered sunlight.  Oh, and it would have been a lot cooler.  February cool, instead of July hot.  I would have left where I was standing on a trail just south of Huntsville and been taken back to Lake Guntersville State Park some nine years earlier.

Nine years earlier, when I wasn’t doing things like preparing to lead a kids’ hike.  Nine years earlier, when I wasn’t involved with environmental education at all.

So, to back up just a little bit further than nine years, this story all started with an email.  It was one of those “all employee” emails that move around a school district, and this one caught my eye because it actually interested me.  It was giving information about the annual conference of the Environmental Education Association of Alabama (EEAA).  Couldn’t say I’d ever heard of such an organization, but I was curious.  Truthfully, I was intrigued because it was an opportunity to go to a conference that I actually had a shot at attending, given that our school had just started an outdoor classroom.

A few exchanged emails, a bit of paperwork, a purchase order, and three of my friends–I mean, fellow teachers–and I were on our way.

Now, none of us had ever been to something like this, and we didn’t know what to expect.  Environmental education…what was that?  It was a three-day conference, and on the second day I learned what a persimmon tree looked like, but that wasn’t the memory that made me smile this past Sunday.  Nope, it was the first evening that came flooding back to me.  The persimmon tree was just the trigger.

We had pulled into the lodge parking lot sometime around late afternoon, and while there were signs directing us to the registration area, we still had that “not sure what’s going on” look about us.  As would be expected, a few inquiries took us to the registration table.  We were given a warm welcome, we got settled into our rooms, and soon we were seated in a largish conference room with 80 or so other people.

The four of us sat off to the side, a little more than half-way back from the front.  Not quite the back pew, but you get the idea.  The speaker, whose name escapes me, was giving a presentation on a research expedition in which he had recently taken part.  The group was searching the swamps of Louisiana near the Gulf Coast, looking for signs of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

As a quick aside, the last verified sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was in the 1940s.  The bird has a distinct knock, however, and while there hasn’t been a sighting in decades, there have been enough “hearings” that they’ve not yet been declared extinct.

The knock–two quick raps–is what got the ball rolling that night.  Two quick raps.  Now, the ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world at around 20 inches long with a 30 inch wingspan, so those are two substantial knocks.

Go ahead, try it: Two hard knocks on whatever wood is available.  I’ll wait. 

That’s what everyone wanted to do that night. They wanted to try it, and they did. 

So, the four of us were sitting there, surrounded by the growing sounds of people knocking on their tables.  Then it got better, as folks started comparing the knocking of the ivory-billed woodpecker to other species. We heard the rapid, longer, steady pattern of the pileated woodpecker and the slower, shorter pattern of the small downy woodpecker.  We heard the Morse code of the yellow bellied sapsucker and the rapid-fire machine gun of the hairy woodpecker.

By now, the speaker had both lost the audience and found a sidebar conversation himself.  Things quickly progressed to bird calls, songs, and other vocalizations.  

Folks, things were getting kinda scary for the four of us.  It was loud, and on the verge of growing frenetic.  All the while we were enjoying the ride and politely laughing along with many of the other participants.  Well, our laughter started politely and then grew more raucous along with everyone else’s.

That’s what I remembered as my mind settled on “persimmon” the other day.  That was my memory.  The knocking, the bird calls, and the laughter.

Since I started this story with preparing for a hike, the conference obviously made an impression.  Within a few years, two of the four of us were serving on the board of EEAA, and community environmental education is something I now do both personally and professionally as an elementary grade teacher.

Be careful: You never know where opening an email might lead.

If you’re curious, here’s a picture of the bark of a persimmon tree. You can probably see why I was able to recognize it.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Common_Persimmon_Bark.jpg

Summer Haiku

Just a couple of poems. I’m sorry to say the first one is more of a memory.

Under the dark sky
Crickets sing the night away
Cacophonous joy

A nearly full moon
Lightens the mid-summer sky
Immutable hush

Taking Tests

An observation: Teachers, generally speaking, don’t like to take tests.

I am, of course, painting with a broad brush, but that’s pretty much so true, in my limited experience.  It’s our job–it’s my job–to teach and mold, then to assess.  “Assessment drives instruction,” and all that.  (I do believe that, by the way.)  We give formative assessments and summative assessments, and we can tell you our opinion about the differences between a “spot check,” a quiz, and a test.  We do formal and informal evaluations and put together qualitative and quantitative data.  We give tests.  It’s part of what we do.

But, again, generally speaking, we don’t like to take them.  Ahem.  Okay, I don’t like to take them.

The odd thing is, with most tests, I do well.  Multiple choice is preferred, because like so many other students I’m able to look at the options, eliminate a couple right off the bat, and make (more) sense of one of the remaining answers.  Essay questions aren’t too bad, either, because (according to some) my BS degree didn’t just mean Bachelor of Science.

Okay, this slice isn’t about testing, it’s about taking a test. Specifically, me taking a test.

I’ve been an elementary (PK-5) STEM coach for the last three years, and I’ll serve in that capacity again this upcoming year.  After that, though, I’m almost certain to go back into a general ed classroom.  That, by the way, is a good thing for me.  Hopefully, I’ll go back into a third-grade classroom, but I’m willing to give other grades a shot.  Anyway, I was recently given the opportunity to be part of a LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) cohort here in Alabama.  I’m all about some good professional development, and I’ve heard positive things about LETRS.

I did the registration thing, and a few days later received an email letting me know dates and times for my orientation webinar.  I signed up for a session that worked for me, and there I was last Friday, sitting in front of a computer, getting ready to learn.

My presenter was good: She delivered the information with a light-handed approach, added just the right amount of humor, and didn’t read her slides word-for-word.  There was that moment, though, when I could feel hundreds of teachers from all over the state being jolted–just a tiny bit–from their webinar haze when they heard the word “pretest.”

Say what?

Then, there it was again.  “Pretest.”  Then, she said words like “post test” and “check on learning.” I think she even tossed in, “demonstrate mastery.” Whoa.

So that’s the way you want to play it, eh?

To make it even better, the two-hour block of time we were asked to set aside for the webinar actually included the aforementioned pretest.  I was supposed to do it that day.

In retrospect, the situation was pretty funny (at the time, though, all I knew was I needed to take a test).  I mentioned my B.S. (the degree) earlier, but on Friday I was thinking about the fact that I was about to be assessed on my knowledge of teaching reading after having earned my master’s degree a few years back in, you guessed it, elementary reading.  No pressure.

And, it went okay.  I showed I had room for growth as a teacher, but I didn’t embarrass myself (sometimes the hardest tests are the ones where only you know your results).  I’m looking forward to this training, but don’t doubt that I’ll still clinch up just a little bit as I wrap up each lesson and unit with the assessments.  I can do this–I know I can.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers (https://twowritingteachers.org) for hosting the Slice of Life Story Challenge. If you’re a teacher who teaches writing (and, really, there aren’t many K-12 teachers who don’t in some capacity), you should check out the challenge and give it a shot!

Nursery Stroll

Walking through a nursery
   A nursery of plants
Is to stroll through the potential
   Of the future
The future of a different space

Each plant can be lifted
   Lifted from the pot
   Soil falling through your fingers
And placed into a new place
   A place, a void, a hole that was prepared
   Just for that plant

Walk the rows
Browse
Dream
See tomorrow