Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic — the old adage evoking the bones of a traditional, well-rounded education. But are old, extinct bones the best analogy we can apply? To be honest, conventional pedagogy, one where students sit respectfully in rows of desks, with all eyes and ears on the teacher, was feeling a little archaic anyway. But here we are, facing a scholastic system that is even more unrecognizable.
When schools closed in the spring of 2020 desks sat vacant and chalkboards faded to a dusty black. Teachers, administration and students were forced to pivot on lesson plans and readjust expectations weekly.
Even though the four walls of brick-and-mortar classrooms were breached, sending students to the streets, so to speak, might not have been such a detrimental move after all. Sure, there is a time and a place for formal academics, but the beauty of learning is that it happens … everywhere.
“We started looking for different places to go hike just to get out of the house and to engage in some much-needed stress release and exercise,” offers McCreery Mann, a physical education teacher at Narrows Middle School.
The Mann family hiked local trails including Mill Creek Falls, Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, the Mary Ingles Trail and Chimney Ridge. They started morel (mushroom), turkey and shed hunting, the craft of looking for dropped deer antlers. They fished the New River, Wolf Creek, Rich Creek and the Roanoke River. They even tried kayaking for the first time.
“We studied the behaviors of turkeys while turkey hunting, like why they gobble, when they roost, what they eat and the anatomy of the turkey,” McCreery states.
They taught their children about animal track identification and put plant apps on their phones to look-up the names of different foliage. They identified trees by looking at their bark and leaves. When they caught a fish, they figured out what kind it was by examining its markings.
The beauty that learning happens all around us is one thing. But the beauty that we can reference encyclopedic information on the Internet takes learning to a new level of instant gratification. When you can supplement a kayak river run with a YouTube video about how kayaks are built or a Google search on who was the first person to ever paddle a kayak, the lesson becomes tangible, memorable, unobvious and dare we add, ‘fun’?
Fellow New River Valley Magazine writer Emily Alberts reveals: “My children have learned how to navigate the endless chasm of Internet content and find useful, informative channels and webpages. They have learned how to learn, and that is a life-skill beyond compare.” Alberts is mom to an 11-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, both attending varying schedules of public school.
In the oodles of pandemic downtime, her daughter picked up cooking (teaching moment: fractions, math) and her son started helping more with home projects (teaching moment: measuring, tool usage). Like the McCreerys, Alberts headed toward local hiking trails as well. They summitted Bald Knob behind Mountain Lake Lodge to see the once-in-a-lifetime Neowise comet and learned how to identify wildflowers while hiking to Dragon’s Tooth along the Appalachian Trail. Her daughter was featured in The Roanoke Times for producing an outside aerial art show. She designed her own custom marketing materials and distributed them around the neighborhood.
Alberts adds: “These days, learning is more active than passive, and I embrace that with my children.” Even something as simple as looking out the window at the weather every morning can turn into a study on clouds or the stages of the water cycle. Almost every day is designated National [something] Day. Make a habit of researching the specific honor and its origin. Grocery shopping can be the impetus for a lesson in finance or budgeting.
“It’s all about finding that ‘spark’ that is going to motivate you and energize you to get through another day of lockdown. I think so much is gained through conversation and exchanging ideas, because it really helps shape them as creative thinkers finding their own voice,” Alberts concludes.
Children are naturally inquisitive creatures. Now is our opportunity to embrace their incessant ‘why? why? why?’ and use the queries to stimulate commonplace curriculum. It’s hard to let go of the addiction to ‘reading, writing, ‘rithmetic,’ but it’s profoundly more powerful to master an interest in learning, period, no matter the subject.
“It was a positive thing for my kids as they got to do and explore things we usually never had the time to do. I feel like we appreciate things that we took for granted before the pandemic,” McCreery states.
And that’s just it. Quarantine conditions forced us to slow down. The rat race of an everyday routine, of extracurricular activities, of work-a-day life is not the reality we’re facing. Now we can afford the extra time required to stop and smell the roses. Where do roses come from, anyway?
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg. She has found that her children tend to ask the most engaging questions when riding in the car. ‘Where is Timbuktu?’ led to an impromptu geography lesson (it’s in Mali, a country in West Africa) and a discussion on what it might be like to live there.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley