Sunday, November 16, 2008
An Author Visit. I had never done an author visit to a school before. I could never have anticipated what that entailed, the months of preparation on the part of my school contacts at Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Batavia, Ohio. In order to accommodate an author, in this case for the entire day, they have call assemblies, figure out how many kids they can pack into each assembly, and in general discard any semblance of their normal schedule. Speaking to middle school students is different from speaking at nature festivals or bird club banquets. For one thing, festival goers and bird club members don't have to sit on the floor. There are other differences, too. Middle school students get a lot more excited than bird club people. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
I visited Clermont Northeastern Middle School on November 7. And it was clear to me as the excitement for my visit built up that overhauling their schedule was the least of CNE's preparations. I had first received an inquiry from a gracious and lovely person named Pam Murphy, who was familiar with my work, but who retired from her position as school librarian in the year that ensued. She must have made a good case for hosting me. Library aide Sherri Newberry and science teacher Melody Newman took up Pam's torch and made sure the students were familiar with Letters from Eden. Mrs. Newberry got all fired up, made Letters a centerpiece of her library classes, and read several chapters to her students. In a unique electronic outreach, they and several other teachers took pains to familiarize their students with my blog.
Ooh. Wait a minute.
When the 5th through 8th grade students began digging into the archives of the last three years, I was extremely happy that I've taken care from the very start to keep it reasonably clean, rant-free and kid-friendly. Once a post goes up, it's up, and there it stands for anyone to read at any time. So do the comments.
Pause for other bloggers to think about whether they want 5th through 8th graders reading their blog archives...waiting for their next post...
OK, go get yourselves a glass of wine and come back. Pour me one, too. The genie is out of the bottle. I am not going back to edit old posts. I yam what I yam, as Popeye says.
Not only had the kids read much of my book and begun following my blog, but Melody Newman had spearheaded an effort to have a feeding station put up and a bird blind built overlooking the feeding station...all in time for my visit. This fact really didn't sink in on me until I walked into the blind, redolent of new plywood, and sat down to look at birds visiting the spanking-new feeders. This is not just any bird blind. It is a masterpiece, built as an Eagle Scout project by CNE alum Nick Adams. Here is Nick, with his sister Caitlin, me and Melody Newman. You'll see more of Caitlin later. This is the night before the school visit, and she doesn't know what she is about to discover. Neither do I, but we look like we're expecting something good, don't we?photo by Sherri Newberry
And here is the blind that Nick built, on weekends and evenings for "I don't know, exactly. A really long time."
photo courtesy Melody Newman and Sherri Newberry
I could live in this bird blind.The students were obviously proud and happy to have an official school bird blind. Have you ever seen a middle school with its own bird feeders and observation blind? Me, neither. The middle school I attended was an enormous, dark, windowless prison, a maze of dreadful dark halls and windowless cubicle classrooms. Did I mention that there were no windows? Every bit of vegetation had been scoured away, as if to eliminate places for prison-breakers to hide...But I digress. Shudder...
Clermont Northeastern Middle School was much, much better. It was great. Though the feeders had been up for only a week, cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and even a red-bellied woodpecker visited the feeding station while the students and I looked on. I was impressed at the birds' adaptability; they were probably already well-acclimated to the sight and sound of active kids, and our wiggling around in the blind didn't faze them. It was the perfect way for kids without binoculars to get close looks at wild birds on school grounds. Imagine.
It became clear to me that Mrs. Newman is the kind of person who can't help leaving a legacy behind. She cares deeply that her students truly connect with nature, and she puts that caring into action. Thanks to her, plantings around the school building were bird-friendly, fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. A beautiful pond graces school grounds, afloat with Canada geese, home to snapping turtles and minnows, because Mrs. Newman refused to allow it to be filled in for a parking lot. She and her students can be found out there with dip nets and buckets, figuring out what all lives beneath its quiet surface. A school with a pond.Is the sight and sound of Canada geese skimming in to land on a pond, a wriggly crawfish in a child's hand, the sight of a young snapping turtle surfacing to breathe, worth as much as a few extra parking spaces, a slab of hot asphalt? Mrs. Newman thinks so, and so do the CNE students. The pond is an aesthetic oasis and a place of inquiry.
But there is an even greater legacy now. Behind CNE, on its land, is a very fine stand of old timber, many trees in excess of 100 years old. Dominated by fine, straight oak and hickory trees, it is precisely the kind of stand that, in southern Ohio, might long ago have been cut and sold for lumber. How it escaped timbering this long is a wonder and a mystery. Finally, though, tough financial times and its undeniable monetary value combined to bring it onto the block. The old trees were spray-painted and marked for cutting. Melody Newman said no. And then she yelled NO!!!! long and loud, and a lot of other people yelled with her. She and her students had made a nature trail through that forest, and they meant to keep it. Were these trees, this mature forest ecosystem, worth more than their value as timber? Mrs. Newman thought so, and she'd have lain down in front of the bulldozers if she had to. She may yet have to. There is as yet no formal protection of this woodlot, no covenant to ensure that it will remain forever wooded. But for now, it is safe. Here's Mrs. Newman in her element.
Here is the outdoor classroom that Ivan Glasgow built for the school's science classes. Mrs. Newman's vision at work, again. It's in a beautiful natural amphitheatre and it has all the comfort and wonder of the woods in it.photo courtesy Melody Newman and Sherri Newberry
And it was through that beautiful forest we walked on November 3, and it was there that we found the most magical thing imaginable.
Oh. What's THAT?Next...It's a bird! It's a mouse! It's a...
I love to torture you kids.