The following post was written by 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Janet Shedd during her expedition to the Galápagos. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.
I hovered above the sea turtle, buoyed by the Pacific Ocean. My breath, amplified by the snorkel tube, was a raspy metronome. Just me and a creature that first came into being more than 120 million years ago, long before humans ever walked the Earth. Just there, observing, really seeing it, suspended in time for a long, powerful moment.
Being there. Using your eyes and ears and nose and your sense of touch and just being there —wherever you are—observing the moment. The payback for this type of learning is huge, whether you are in the Galápagos Islands or in the school where you teach.
Keep a check on the checklist
I teach at a Montessori school in Lexington, Kentucky, and our curriculum is based on learning through concrete materials that touch all of the senses. We honor the outdoor world, and we preach the values of observation—teachers observing students, and students observing the work and the world going on around them.
And yet…as a teacher, I still find myself getting caught up in the mentality of the checklist: Have you done your math choice? What language work did you do today? What’s your next choice? In the drive to make sure academics are covered and students are engaged, we sometimes forget the value of just sitting and watching and being.
But what better way to learn about our natural world, what better way to spark our children’s curiosity than silent observation? What better way to engage children in the process of critical thinking—of figuring the whys and hows of the natural world?
Learning, by silence
One of the guides on my trip to the Galápagos Islands, Celso Montalvo, grew up on the archipelago. When Celso was growing up, technology had not yet reached the remote, beautiful, harsh environments. Children, Celso said, could learn about how the natural world worked just by listening, watching, and waiting. Now, he said, people “never listen, we are always talking, always active. We never sit and listen. …. Without talking, we can learn.”
As a teachers, we need to give our students the chance to learn without talking. Where I teach, we regularly give our children the opportunity to “make silence.” We sit in a circle, and for several minutes just listen, see, feel, and smell. We end the silence by quietly ringing a bell, and talking about our experiences during this quiet time.
Like any skill, making silence has to be practiced. But it can be one of the few chances children have to do this kind of work in their busy lives—lives that are filled with noise from computers, smart phones, televisions, and all kinds of extracurricular activities.
Another way to practice silent observation is nature journaling. Students at our school have a sketchbook to be used only for recording the natural world. They can go outside and sit in our garden, and observe and draw what they see. They have the time to sit and watch a garden spider—and really look at it. They can explore the different shapes and types of leaves they see on the ground. A variation on this is a nature field trip around the school. With sketchbooks, students and teachers follow clues: “Find a producer and draw it.” “Find an arachnid and draw it.”
Giving our students the gift of silence and the time for observation…. how do you do this as a teacher?
To learn more about Janet’s expedition, click here.