Reading the Stories the Land Has to Tell

As the rain slowed to a gentle mist and the last bit of daylight faded from the north Alabama sky, a river otter stood next to a small pool of water just off a tributary of Limestone Creek.  Confident in its apparent solitude, it dropped into the water and quickly swam to the other side, its powerful tail allowing it to cross in just seconds.  Recognizing the easiest path available, it left the water and stepped onto the smooth mud of a beaver slide that was worn between the pool and the nearby creek.

Not quite running, it moved at a quick pace with a sense of self assurance.  It slowed and ducked slightly as it passed beneath a low-lying branch, its right front paw crushing a tiny plant into the soft mud as it did so.  Having cleared that small obstacle, the otter moved quickly once again up the slight incline of the slide before flowing gracefully into the dark, cool waters of the creek.  It disappeared with hardly a ripple as it went on its way, watching for predators as it sought prey of its own.

That’s what the story says, anyway.  The story written in the mud of that particular beaver slide.

I was recently able to spend a morning learning basic tracking skills from Nick Sharp, a friend who’s a wildlife biologist with Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  He and I both serve on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s environmental education committee, and we were spending time together preparing for an upcoming children’s workshop.  He’s the expert on tracking, and I’ve got a bit of experience translating adult-level material down for an elementary-aged audience.   

I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and know a thing or two about temperate hardwood forests, but this was a new and eye-opening experience for me as I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before.

We started our morning together with Nick quickly walking me through some printed resources he uses with adult learners.  After a short discussion about how they could be used with children, we were off, heading across an open field and into the woods to see what we could see.  

Evidence of animals in the wild falls into two broad categories: tracks and signs.  Tracks are just that–footprints cast into soft dirt, sand, or snow.  Signs, however, can be so much more, and are plentiful in comparison to tracks. As we traversed the countryside, Nick’s words and tutelage helped me read the stories the land had to tell.

When an animal moves through grass and other vegetation, it bends and breaks the plants in the direction of its travel.  This is called flagging.

Flagging was easy to see as we started walking across the field we shared with a small herd of cattle.  I certainly didn’t have the ability to follow the trail of a single animal from the herd, but the experience was akin to reading from a children’s book and gave me the basics that I’d be able to apply later in the morning.  We saw flagging again later, this time apparently caused by deer or armadillos.  It wasn’t nearly as easy to see, but there it was once I knew what to look for.

The way this vegetation is shredded lets you know that deer probably browsed here.  Deer don’t have teeth in the front of their top jaw.  They have a hard palate that they use with the teeth on their lower jaw.  This means they can’t bite cleanly when they eat.

It was neat to think and learn about the ways animals find food and eat.  Larger squirrels like the grey and fox squirrels will chew the shells of different nuts to pieces.  It’s not uncommon to find the shell pieces of harder nuts like black walnuts, while softer nuts like acorns may be shredded. Smaller rodents like flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice can’t begin to do that kind of damage to a nut, but will chew holes in the sides and eat the nut meat through them.  Deer browse, shredding vegetation as they go, but beavers and other, smaller rodents shear vegetation at a near-45 degree angle.  Squirrels dig small holes the size of a saucer as they bury and dig up hidden nuts, armadillos disrupt the soil and vegetation of an area the size of a dinner table, and wild hogs basically plow areas the size of the whole dining room–and then some.  

What we’re doing is reading the woods…reading the forest.

The story was fascinating as we did just that: read the narrative that was laid out before us.  Whether it was dissecting bird droppings or tracing the oft-traveled trail of an armadillo, the tale of the otherwise unseen was there for us to decode.  Examining the chewed bark of a squirrel stripe on a tulip poplar and spotting hair plucked from the tail of a passing horse by a protruding branch all helped us piece together the recent past as if we had been there to witness it.  Even listening to the warning chirp of a distant chipmunk gave us a sense of the fauna all around us.  

If you get the chance, take a walk and open your eyes in a new way.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Note: The ideas expressed in italics are Nick’s, but the paraphrase is mine.  I’m sure the lessons were expressed more clearly when he gave them.

 

 

An Old Friend of Sorts

It’s the busy season for teachers, isn’t it?  As May gets underway, we’re preparing for the end-of-the-year everything: Report cards, parties, assessments, lessons, sanity savers…the list goes on.  In the busy-ness of things, it’s nice to have a moment of calm pop up every once in a while.

I oftentimes start my mornings in our school car-rider line, helping direct traffic and keep kids safe.  One of the bright spots of the spring (and there are many) is the first red-winged blackbird of the year.  They usually show up around late March, and I love it when I hear one sing his song to me after the months of absence.  I listened to one just this morning, and it inspired me to bring out this poem to go with my short introduction.

Red-winged Blackbird

It’s like seeing an old friend

Across a crowded room
Across a field at woods’ edge

You know his voice
before you recognize his face
You know his voice
before you see him, just a glance

His carriage, familiar in a subconscious way
His tipped head, bringing a smile to your face

Remembering the walks, the talks, the dialog
Knowing this time you’re only there to listen

A moment shared before good byes
A brief time, ending in a flash

of red. Until next time, old friend

Pajama Shopping

As I’ve mentioned before, “tax season” is the busy time of the year for my wife.  She’s a tax preparer, so April 18th for her was the equivalent of the last day of school for me as a teacher–it’s time to take a deep breath and try to relax just a bit.  The next year is coming, but for now it’s time to slow down and catch up.

Our granddaughters have missed their Nana, who likes to spend the other ten months of the year seeing them considerably more than she has over the last two.  It’s not as if they haven’t seen each other, but it hasn’t been as much as any of them would like.  This year, as things started to draw to a close, my wife announced a treat for the end of the season: We would take the girls pajama shopping!

Now, for me, I didn’t really understand the excitement of going shopping for what in essence is an old pair of gym shorts and a past-its-prime t-shirt.

Okay, despite having never been a two- or three-year-old girl, I guess I did understand.  What was it going to be? Trolls have been popular, and My Little Pony is still high on the list of things that make their hearts beat faster.  Maybe a favorite color: pink for the older and purple for the younger.  Regardless, I knew that gym shorts and an old t-shirt wasn’t what they had in mind.

Tax season saw its last day pass, and it was finally shopping day.  If this was a movie, the day would have dawned clear and crisp with a light breeze to make it more exciting for the butterflies and flowers to dance in the air.  As it turned out, though, an unseasonably cool morning, a wind from the north, and a fine mist is what greeted us as we stepped out of the house.  Not quite one of Pooh’s blustery days, but not a beautiful spring morning, either.  

The shopping experience came and went, and a good time was–for the most part–had by all.  The three-year-old was just excited because somethingwashappeningsomethingwashappening! and the two-year-old turned out to be, well, two.  That’s okay, we had fun and made a memory, if not for them, then for us.  If our plans for next year hold out, we’ll be out there again in the middle of April with two children who are another year older, ready to go through a new selection of pjs in search of the just-perfect pair.  

Me? I’m so much more than happy with what I’ve got, thanks…and my pajamas are okay, too.

“I Love Hiking!”

There is not an audible whoosh when I slip my foot into one of my hiking boots.  I listen for it every time, but haven’t heard it yet.  There is, however, a deeply satisfying piston-like feeling as I grip the tongue of the boot with one hand, the fabric loop on the back with the other, and slide my foot in.  A few loops of the lace around the hooks, a just-tight-enough tug, and a quick knot has me ready to go.  That was part of the routine a few mornings ago as I got ready to hit the trail on one of my most memorable excursions in quite a while.  

Meeting the crew at the trail head half an hour later helped me know just how demanding this trip would be.  As I looked from Aaron, the seasoned Sierra Club hike leader, to Mike, recently transplanted to our area from the land of Colorado’s fourteeners, those 14,000 feet high behemoths of stone, I knew I was out of my league.  Then there was Heather, a veteran naturalist with plenty of her life spent in the wildernesses of our nation, and Erin, whose well-worn hiking boots gave testimony to her time putting one foot in front of the other along the paths of innumerable rocky elevations throughout the southeast United States.  Glancing down at my own boots and recognizing that I could only see their toes beneath my waistline (shrinking, thank you very much, but only slowly) didn’t help matters.  

Finally, there was the crew member who would soon reveal herself to be the true leader of our sojourn, not because of her experience or other bona fides, but simply through the force of her personality.  It was easy to recognize her as an experienced hiker because of her calm, I-belong-here demeanor.  I’m happy to say, though, that my butterflies eased a bit, and I found no small measure of solace as I read the graphic emblazoned across the front of her t-shirt.  It helped me know I’d be able to keep up with this most august group of trekkers.

“Wish, Dream, Sparkle,” with a wand-toting fairy flying alongside the words.

At four years old, this little hiker with the Velcro-fastened shoes was a force that had to be respected. That said, I knew I was going to be okay.

And I was.  We had a wonderful morning, hiking within a tract of land preserved by the local government and maintained by the Land Trust of North Alabama.  This hike was billed as “family friendly,” and it came about as a way to fill the need for activities that are slower and allow for folks to bring their younger children.  (Quick aside: I wasn’t exaggerating when I described the other members of our group–there really are many, many trail miles hiked among them.)

That day we experienced much of what the trail had to offer us during the few hours we spent hiking along it.  The color of the day was apparently purple, which suited our youngest companion just fine.  She quickly stated it was her favorite color, and based on her outfit I had no reason to doubt it.  We counted nearly 10 different flowers that were a shade of that particular hue, the most brilliant being a single crested dwarf iris–the only one we saw on the trail that day (crested, anyway).  Gorgeous.

While my memory and notes bring back plenty of reasons to smile, the single event that sticks out in my mind came as we were hiking up a relatively strenuous incline.  As we moved carefully from one limestone step to another, our youngest member–without prompting–suddenly burst out with a proclamation for the surrounding creation to hear: “I love hiking!”

I do too, young lady, I do too.  Thank you for taking me along.

Balance Rock resized
Balance Rock, one of the natural wonders we saw that day

 

A First Time for Everything

It doesn’t matter what you do, whether it’s for a living or otherwise; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve done it; it doesn’t even matter how well you can do it now.  There was a time when you did it–whatever it is–for the first time.  That time when you took a deep breath, put on the brave face, and committed to actually getting in there and making it happen.  Ready or not, here I come, and all that.

If you’re a parent, you brought home your first child, nervously wondering how you could possibly nurture and raise another human being after struggling for five minutes with something as simple as a car seat.

If you’re a teacher, you stood there mildly quaking in your low wedges (sensible flats for me) as your first class walked toward you in the hallway.  “Wait a minute, I’m here by myself?”

If you’re a retail clerk, you had your first customer.  A police officer, you had your first traffic stop.  A firefighter, your first structure fire.  A barista, your first latte.  A ten-year-old kid dragging a lawn mower, your first paying yard.  The list goes on.  Pick a profession…each has its firsts.

So, about my haircut the other day.

It wouldn’t be right to say that I have a hairstyle, per se. My hair is too thin (though not that thin) and I’m too old to grow it longer, I’ve got a few well placed cowlicks that require it to be sorta-parted on the right side, and, honestly, I don’t have the energy or inclination to maintain it with anything other than a brush in the morning and my fingers run through it during the day.  At my age I’m thankful for what I’ve got–my dad says you can comb grey–but every month or so I don’t go to get it styled…I just need a haircut.

I frequent a local chain that features sports TV and a guy-ish atmosphere.  There usually aren’t too many kids, and it’s far enough away from my school that it doesn’t matter if there were.

I learned a long time ago that it’s best for me to let the barber, er, stylist just cut my hair.  If I try to tell her what to do, invariably she’ll do exactly what I ask and people will look at me funny for the next few weeks until it grows back out.  It does grow back out, you know.  While I’m a control freak in many other areas of my life, when I sit down in the chair I just ask for a haircut.  It works for me.  

The other day my name was called and I shook hands (nice touch, I suppose) with a stylist I’d never met before.  She looked younger than most, but nothing seemed amiss as I made my way back to her chair.  I still had my glasses on as she put the cape around me and asked how I wanted my hair cut.  My glasses are relevant, because without them I wouldn’t have seen her expression as I asked her to simply give me a haircut.

Note to self: When a stylist’s eyes go wide with your request, that’s not necessarily a good sign.

I elaborated, giving my quick spiel about her knowing her business better than I do, and she seemed to understand what I wanted.  I’m not trying to ruin the story, reader, when I say that my hair looked pretty good when I walked out the door.  It did, well, for the most part. No one has looked at my hair any funnier than they usually do.  

There were a few moments, though, after I realized she was just that new at this that I was worried: She dropped the comb twice (“Your hair is so thick that I can’t get a comb through it!”  Ohhhh kay), she stood there looking at my head for a few really long seconds a couple of times, and the entire process took two innings of baseball–nearly an eternity in stylist years. Oh, and she brought over the stylist from the next chair to actually finish the cut. In retrospect, I guess that was a positive.  Bless her heart, though, she did okay for a newby.  We’ve all been there, and it’s not easy.

Besides, when it’s all said and done, it does grow back out, you know.

This is Not a Story About My Wife and Granddaughter

It’s a sunny spring morning, this first Sunday in April, and our girls came over earlier for breakfast to celebrate Lisa’s birthday.  It was great to have all of them: Karin, Kim, and both granddaughters, ACT 1 and 2.  (We’re avoiding putting the girls’ names online for now.  Since both of them have ACT as their initials, ACT 1 & 2 is a convenient–and cute, in our opinion–way to refer to them.  Kind of like Thing 1 and Thing 2, only different.  Did Karin plan it that way?  Probably.)

They’re back home now taking naps, Lisa’s gone into the office (she’s an accountant who specializes in personal tax preparation, and there are only two weeks left until April 18…’tis the season), and I’ve got the side porch to myself.  Well, almost.  Our dog, Maggie, is sunning on the top step.

And there are the chickens.  When I sat down to pen (type? keyboard?) this narrative, our chickens weren’t part of my plot line.  I’m being totally honest when I say they didn’t even enter my mind until after I’d written the word “myself” in the previous paragraph.  Our ladies were doing their free-ranging thing since I’m out here to supervise, but I wasn’t going to tell you about that.  I was going to write a story about my wife trying to teach ACT 2 to wrinkle her nose.  The Google doc I’m working in is even titled “Nose Wrinkling.”  Then I got these pictures.  

Quick aside: The advantage of an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard over a typewriter is apparent during these situations.  No one ever picked up a typewriter and took a quick picture with it.

Chickens are naturally curious, I’ve observed over the years they’ve been a part of our lives, and some of them are just a little bit bossy.  There are docile breeds and more aggressive breeds, and within each there’s a range of personalities.  We’ve got a Rhode Island Red that simply needs to be in charge.  She’s not necessarily aggressive (although she does peck at toenails during sandal season), but she’s far from being shy.  

I was sitting in a chair with my keyboard perched on my lap and a cup of coffee on the porch rail beside me when this little lady marched up the steps. She was clucking away, and without breaking stride walked up to me and flew/hopped the 18 inches to my right knee.  

Um, hello.

She gave me the eyeball (like most birds, chickens’ eyes are situated on their heads in such as way as to allow only one eye to really focus on an object at once), pecked away at my keyboard–the trim, not the keys, or I’d have totally left those letters in the story, and expressed her displeasure when I reached out to stroke her comb.  My wife read once that stroking a chicken’s comb or wattles is a pleasurable experience; for years, we’ve wondered if the author meant for the person or for the chicken since she wasn’t really clear in the text.  I’m leaning toward the person.

After a few minutes I’d had enough fun for one day and nudged her stubborn fluffy butt off of my leg.  Away she went, back into the yard, apparently satisfied with her on-the-porch exploration.

There’s a slight breeze that’s nicely offsetting the rising temperature, I can hear birds singing all around me, and the smell of fresh grass is tickling my nose as a result of my upwind neighbor’s lawn mowing.  I’m going to finish both this narrative and my coffee now, since, for the life of me, I can’t remember the story I sat down to write.  Trust me, though, it was cute.

A Brief Introduction

Note: I used to have this stuck to the top of my blog.  Now it’s not.  I don’t want to get rid of it, though!

I’ve had an online presence for quite a while now (I think my first blog post was around 2005) and I’ve moved my site from place to place a few times over the years.  My latest blog was at http://www.yetthereismethod.net/ (not online anymore) and before that I was at http://www.yetthereismethod.wordpress.com.  The WordPress site was my primary site for most of my online years, and served, for the most part, as a place to stash my teaching thoughts, resources, and materials.

This blog, though, is going to be a place to share my writing about what’s going on around me.  Most of it is written in a “Slice of Life” format (especially titles that include “SOLSC”), but this blog might include commentary (not a lot) and a bit of poetry.  A few pictures now and then.  Maybe the odd video link.  It’s hard to tell.  That said, thank you for being here!

Is the Passage of Time Constant? SOLSC 31

I have to confess: I teach subject material I don’t really believe.

I teach my students there are 24 hours in a day, and all of those hours take the same amount of time to pass.  The rotation of the Earth, and all that.  There are 60 minutes in an hour, and, again, they all take the same amount of time to pass. 60 seconds in a minute…same amount of time for each one of those, too.

I teach it, but I don’t believe it.  Perhaps you don’t, either.

Sometimes, time speeds up.  For example, those 48 hours between 5:00 p.m. on Friday and 5:00 p.m. on Sunday: Do you think those hours take the same amount of time to pass as any given hour during the week?  Nope, me either.  Much faster.

The 30 “minutes” I get for planning–are those the same as the thirty minutes during a reading test?  Again, not even close.  There you have it, more proof that time speeds up.

Sometimes, time slows down.  The best example I can give happened just today.

I was in the middle of a science lesson, when the intercom “dinged.”   Time froze.  The entire class froze with it, waiting for whatever announcement was to follow.  Waiting.

“Code red, code red.”

Argh, an intruder drill (I hoped).  The class knew what to do, and quickly got into its position.  Time slowed down once again as we waited for the all clear.  Minutes crawled by as we looked for the under-the-door shadow of the feet belonging to whomever would give us the all clear. Finally, our principal turned her key and gave us the word.

After a few moments during which the passage of time returned to normal, it slowed again as I began to wonder, one drill, two drills…three?  The speed of the next period of time vacillated as we went through the weather and fire drill procedures.  Finally, all went back to being as it should (except for recess–that goes fast, too) for the rest of the school day.

Is the passage of time constant?  Not even close.  I’ll still teach it, but you’ll never get me to believe it.
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It’s hard to believe that this is the 31st day of this year’s Slice of Life Challenge.  I’d like to say thank you to each of the folks responsible for this event, and to each of you who have taken the time to read my slices (especially my Welcome Wagon readers).  I appreciate the time and effort, and look forward to continuing the relationship I have with this community.  

The Kids are Alright SOLSC 30

This was also posted on my blog at http://www.yetthereismethod.net/

Whenever I can, I like to incorporate music into my classroom routine.  I’ve only had limited success with music to teach content (trust me, it’s me and not the students…I’m working on it), but I enjoy playing music to brighten the classroom climate.  My go-to music is Kidz Bop.  I don’t think I could play many of the original songs with students, but the kid-friendly covers are well done.

Perhaps my favorite time to turn on the tunes is when the class is practicing cursive writing.  The students are sort of on autopilot (we’ve had the instruction, now we’re just refining letter and word formation) and things are pretty casual.

This morning was great.  As hard as it is to believe, I had just about everyone engaged (yes, you can go to the restroom) and the class was sort of collectively swaying to the beat and singing along.  If it wouldn’t have messed up the morning (and rightly so), I would have done the “hit pause” trick just to hear those few seconds of uninhibited singing along.

In my early years of teaching, a mere ten years ago, I got along with folk tunes (really…Peter, Paul, and Mary were classroom favorites), but in this day of YouTube and streaming audio the students don’t really go for that anymore.  That’s okay, I suppose; I can adapt.  To quote The Who, “The kids are alright!”
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Word nerd note: For fun, take a look at the “all right” versus “alright” discussions at the various credible grammar sites.  Interesting reading.

Recess SOLSC 29

This was also posted on my blog at http://www.yetthereismethod.net/

Today was a beautiful day here in north Alabama!  Right around 80 degrees, a light cloud cover, and a slight breeze made it a wonderful day to be outside, which has been nice after the few recent rainy days we’ve had.  

Today was a recess day, no doubt about it.

As a teacher of third graders, I’m a big fan of recess.  I know the research: How students need a time of physical exertion, how recess helps student engagement, and how nice it is simply to have a break (okay, that last one was peer reviewed personal research, as in, all of the other teachers in my grade level like a break, too!).  Mostly, though, I like to play on the playground, and this was that kind of day.  

On occasions like today, I feel the best vantage point for my playground supervision is the top of our large geodesic dome.  I moseyed on over, and climbed right up to the very top.  I’m probably going to hurt myself someday, but today was not that day.  This particular structure isn’t the most popular on the playground since we recently had new equipment installed, but within a few minutes I had a swarm of kids all around me, clamoring for my attention. Needless to say (yet he says it anyway), not many of our teachers have been to the top of the dome.  We had a big ol’ time hanging out and talking, and I watched nearly a dozen students show me how they could drop down “from almost at the top, Mr. Gels!”  

“Wow, look at you!”

Writing this slice reminds me of a day during my first year teaching.  One of the students challenged me to a race around the playground.  Being an enthusiastic, sprightly 41-year-old, I picked up the gauntlet he threw down and we were off.  Rounding the last turn, I wiped out in the loose gravel and absolutely shredded the right knee of my pants as well as me.  For the record, I still beat him.  We were gasping for air at the finish line (me more than him) and he looked down and saw the blood running down my exposed leg.  

I’ll chuckle about his first words for the rest of my days: “Mr. Gels, is your mom going to be mad?

Kids.  Sheesh.