Learning from the Listserv — Science at TLC

Science is everywhere — at TLC Middle School, we will learn about science in an in-depth way through the projects we do; but we will also learn about science just by paying attention to what happens in the natural world around us. And sometimes, we learn about the natural world from our neighbors…

This morning (Saturday, June 8), someone wrote this on my wonderful neighborhood listserv in Watts-Hillandale:

… I woke up and looked out my back window and there was a rather large deer in my back yard eating my tomato plants among other things.  I suppose it wandered up the creek from the golf course.  What next?  A black bear?

I thought “hmm…. that’s interesting.” When we lived for a year and a half in Carrboro, we would often see deer in our back yard (they could easily jump the fence). They were all around the neighborhood.

But deer in the Watts-Hillandale area of Durham are less common — or so I thought before reading my listserv.

Later the same morning, there was a thoughtful reply. The reply is a little long. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I don’t want to lose my readers, so I’m pasting just the start of it here — the entire reply (re-posted here with permission from the author) is at the end of this blog post. Here’s how the listserv reply started:

Back in April, someone on the Forest Hills listserv reported seeing what they were certain was a coyote somewhere in Durham.

There was an article in the Feb. 21 issue of The New York Review of Books, in which Russell Baker reviewed a recent book by journalist James P. Sterba on the explosive growth of a number of species of wildlife — including white-tailed deer, beavers, Canada geese, wild turkeys, feral cats, foxes, bears, and coyotes — many of which had been driven to near-extinction by the early 1900s but have proliferated as the human population of the United States east of the prairies spread out “from urban concentration into suburban, exurban, and rural sprawl.” Although the early settlers cleared away some 250 million acres of forest in this region during the first 250 years of our country’s history, one-half to two-thirds of that landscape had become reforested by the 1950s.

I was intrigued.  I tried to imagine 250 million acres (an acre is about the size of a football field) cleared away in 250 years. And then I thought about one-half to two-thirds of that landscape coming back by the 1950s.

What an interesting lens for looking at both US history and the history of Durham (which happens to be the first unit we’ll be doing at TLC middle school).

Inspired, I proceeded to read the article from the New York Review of Books and found it both fascinating and extremely well-written — here’s the opening paragraph and the first sentences of the second paragraph:

Glancing out the kitchen window one sunny afternoon not long ago, I was startled to see two beautiful red foxes copulating in the garden. It was not the unabashed sexual display that was remarkable. Mating must be routine exercise out there, judging by the frequency with which brand-new rabbits can be seen eating the lawn, but foxes are another matter. This is an in-town garden at a well-trafficked intersection two blocks from the county courthouse, definitely not a fox-friendly location. A single fox doing nothing at all on this turf would be a newsworthy sight; two foxes engaged in propagating the species would seem to border on the unthinkable.

Jim Sterba, on the other hand, believes it entirely thinkable. His Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds argues persuasively that events like this foxes-in-the-garden sighting are evidence that humans are losing some kind of property rights struggle with creatures of the wild.

This review inspired me to order the book from the Durham Library — as you can see below, the library has two copies, and both are checked in — at the North Regional and South Regional branches.

book hold

But I don’t typically visit either of those branches. So I placed a hold on the book, and I should be able to pick the book up at the Main Library in a few days. I love libraries.

So let’s break down what just happened here:

I learned from the listserv. And from the New York Review of Books (which middle school students can and should be reading, given proper guidance). And from a book that I will read as soon as I get it from the library.

I might share some of the chapters from the book with students at TLC; if they take an interest, there are any number of directions in which we could take this line of inquiry.

Does this line exploration of animals in habitats up in the Common Core? Probably some aspects do, but I honestly don’t care — it’s interesting to me because people in my neighborhood are seeing deer and coyotes, and that makes me want to learn about what’s going on. The listserv gave me an intrinsic spark and now I want to learn about my natural world.

This sort of organic learning — which can (and will) happen every morning at TLC — is one of the main reasons TLC will be different from other schools. I can’t tell you exactly what the curriculum at TLC will be, because I don’t know my students and what they are interested in learning.

When I talk about TLC, people seem intrigued by this slide:

learning

In my experience as a teacher, learning (in school) is often not any of these things — and it’s particularly not the last two. In school as we have it configured, students generally do not look forward to learning (because someone else determined what everyone “needs” to learn) and they usually try to put forth the least amount effort required in order to get the grade they want to get.

If something’s not graded, it won’t be done (at least by most students).

In my final year of teaching at Cary Academy, the father of one of my students was visiting Saudi Arabia for two weeks on a business trip at the same time we were studying Islam. The father and I met before he left, and during the time he was in KSA (which I learned is the abbreviation for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), he emailed us a series of six or seven detailed and insightful emails about what it was like to be businessman in an Islamic country — how business would stop in the afternoon for afternoon prayers; how women were treated; things like that.  He included great pictures, and I lined up the pictures with the text. It was fascinating stuff. And so I shared these emails with my students.

Predictably, a student asked, “will we be tested on this?”

When I said “no, it’s just interesting and will enhance your understanding of Islam” a good 90% of the students took that as “whew!  Thought I was going to have to read those emails!”

We need a new approach to learning — one that follows student interest wherever it leads (okay, just about wherever it leads). It’s the teacher’s job to make sure the students get something meaningful out of the work they are doing. And it’s probably not okay to focus on one topic all the time, even if that is what a student is passionate about.

But when the local listserv helps explain why we are seeing more deer and coyotes, and how what we are seeing in Durham is part of a nation-wide trend, that seems like something worth investigating — if students seem into it.

And that’s how we will roll at TLC — we have the time to do a mini-unit on that book — or chapters from it. And we will be out in nature all the time. We will often visit Ellerbe Creek, since there’s an entrance to the creek less than half a mile from TLC. We’re even preparing a water quality unit as an introduction to science — that’s why I was talking with the teacher from Asheville who I referenced at the end of my prior blog post.

But science will come up not just when we do that water project — it will come up all the time, because science is everywhere. As is math, and history, and the arts, and technology. These subjects should not be segregated into “departments” or “courses” — we should have the flexibility to allow students to learn in a multi-disciplinary way (the last time I checked, the world was multi-disciplinary) and reflect on what they learn.

Students should be learning from their whole community — not just from their “teachers.” And that community includes such sources as the listserv (electronic community) as well as the natural community (Ellerbe Creek and deer and coyotes).

As promised, here’s the entire posting from my listserv that got me thinking this morning. I love living in — and learning from — my neighborhood:

* * *

Back in April, someone on the Forest Hills listserv reported seeing what they were certain was a coyote somewhere in Durham.

There was an article in the Feb. 21 issue of The New York Review of Books, in which Russell Baker reviewed a recent book by journalist James P. Sterba on the explosive growth of a number of species of wildlife — including white-tailed deer, beavers, Canada geese, wild turkeys, feral cats, foxes, bears, and coyotes — many of which had been driven to near-extinction by the early 1900s but have proliferated as the human population of the United States east of the prairies spread out “from urban concentration into suburban, exurban, and rural sprawl.” Although the early settlers cleared away some 250 million acres of forest in this region during the first 250 years of our country’s history, one-half to two-thirds of that landscape had become reforested by the 1950s. What Sterba calls “sprawl areas” — which can include “suburbs, exurbs, golf courses, cropland, pasture, parks, highway median strips, parking areas, … and people” — are so covered by trees and other plants that they offer “a mosaic of hiding places, open places, feeding places, watering places, bedding places,” and in general  “have the feel of a forest, and for many wild creatures all the comforts of forest home,” along with the absence of natural predators including humans, most of whom no longer hunt as many once did. The North American population of white-tailed deer, for example, which by 1900 had been reduced to about 500,000, had exploded less than a century later, reaching an estimated “25 to 40 million [by 1990] and growing unchecked” to this day.

This past October, for the first time since I moved to Durham in 1994, I nearly ran into a group of three deer that were crossing University Drive in the Rockwood area at around 10:30 at night; and I saw several deer carcasses lying by the side of the road along 15/501 between Rockwood and South Square over the winter months. According to Sterba, about 3000 deer collide with automobiles every day throughout the United States. So I’m not at all surprised to hear that people have reported seeing coyotes in the area. Regardless of how you may feel about the incursion of so many wild creatures into human neighborhoods like Forest Hills and Watts Hillandale, it’s something I’d never really thought about before; and I find it a fascinating counterpoint to the many other wild species (like polar bears, seals, tigers, and elephants) that humans are driving to extinction in other parts of the globe.

Here’s a link to the article:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/21/visitors/

Keep an eye out for coyotes; black bears may indeed be next!

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Learning from the Listserv — Science at TLC

  1. Edie McDowell says:

    Hi Steve, This was a very interesting post to me, as an avid student of Environmental History, and as an Asheville runner, who just yesterday encountered an ENORMOUS black bear and her two tiny cubs during my early morning run near Grove Park Inn. I know we need to think about the consequences of building on hillsides, let alone encroaching upon the natural habitats of bears, coyotes, and deer.

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