Educator Spotlight: “Reading Landscapes” to Explore the Local Environment

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Jim Bishop, this week’s Educator of the Week, is the Associate Head of School at Bozeman Field School, a new independent school in Bozeman, Montana. He is currently teaching a humanities course that encompasses reading, writing, history, ethics, philosophy, and a variety of related subjects. He also coordinates immersive block courses, connecting students with people in the community who offer unique skills and opportunities.

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Jim Bishop teaches at the Bozeman Field School in Bozeman, Montana. Photo by Liberty Sheckleton

It sounds like your school, which is in its first year, provides a rich experience for students. What makes it unique?

Our students undertake immersive, experiential learning experiences, including regular expeditions such as canoeing through the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, conducting citizen science in Yellowstone National Park, snowshoeing in the Spanish Peaks, and mountain biking in the American Prairie Reserve. The immersive block courses we offer in partnership with people in Bozeman are meant to give students a variety of skills and experiences that may serve as a springboard into a deeper exploration of these subjects later in their education.

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Jim Bishop’s students learned landscape-reading techniques in preparation for their expedition to Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Tory Dille

Your students practiced “reading landscapes” while on an expedition to Yellowstone. What does this involve?

Before the expedition, students read the introduction to How to Read the American West: A Field Guide, by Montana State University physical geographer William Wyckoff. This provided them with a list of strategies for “reading” Western landscapes. (I have found that most of these strategies can also be applied to other landscapes in other regions). Each student selected one of these approaches, and on the trip, it was the student’s responsibility to learn as much as possible about how the approach could be applied to the greater Yellowstone area.

For instance, one of Wyckoff’s tips is to “pay attention to edges in the landscape.” The student who selected that strategy looked closely at edges on a small scale (the edges of a dug-up area in Tom Miner Basin, where grizzly bears had been digging for caraway roots) while also paying attention to edges on a much larger scale (the boundary of the national park, separating it from private land).

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While in Yellowstone, students used firsthand observation to make inferences about landscapes and wildlife. Photo by Jim Bishop

How do you help students hone their observation skills?

One of our community partners, the Yellowstone Forever Institute, has a great approach to field observation that I’ve incorporated into my own teaching. When practicing direct observation, we emphasize starting with “objective” observable phenomena before moving on to interpretation.

So, for instance, if we’re having students observe bison in their natural habitat, we encourage students to notice what they are actually seeing (“a large adult male moving slowly toward two adult females with its head lowered”) as opposed to what they assume it means (“it looked aggressive”). This forces them to slow down and be precise, rather than immediately leaping to conclusions, and teaches them to be better critical thinkers.

How did students share their observations, and what was the impact of this experience on them?

Each student kept a field journal for recording observations, questions, and musings, and then converted these notes into a presentation. We invited parents and community members to student presentations to remind students of the importance of sharing what they’ve learned with a wider audience.

Our students are developing expertise on topics of local significance, and increasingly they are in a position to contribute meaningfully to public discussions about topics such as wildlife management, the control and flow of water, and community development. Some of our students have expressed an interest in becoming more involved in public hearings and comment periods that affect species and landscapes they’ve studied. Others may pursue long-term internships and citizen science initiatives with local grassroots organizations.

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A student tracked bison in Yellowstone using telemetry equipment. Photo by Jim Bishop

What is your teaching philosophy?

My philosophy of teaching centers on the idea that students learn best when they have a firm grounding in the place they call home. In the words of novelist Ralph Ellison, “[I]f you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are.”

When I work with students, I like to begin with the familiar and the local, and work our way outward in an ever-expanding spiral toward places that are less familiar and ideas that are more intellectually challenging.

Ultimately, I want my students to become equally comfortable in their roles as local community members and global citizens, since the demands of the modern world require us to be both kinds of people. Whenever possible, I try to help students understand how local issues are connected to their wider geopolitical and historical context, while at the same time seeing how national and international events affect us here in Bozeman.

What resources would you recommend for educators interested in helping their students learn to read landscapes in the West or other regions?

  • For the “reading landscapes” portion of my humanities course, I have students read the introduction to William Wyckoff’s book How to Read the American West: A Field Guide.
  • Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape, focused on New England, is similarly helpful. Most of the texts I’ve seen that teach this type of field geography are specific to particular regional landscapes, but keep in mind that many of the strategies they discuss can be used in other regions as well.
  • Regional nature writing, environmental literature, and memoir can help orient students to the physical and cultural geographies of their regions. For example, our students in southwest Montana read excerpts from Ivan Doig’s memoir This House of Sky and Gretel Ehrlich’s collection of ranching sketches The Solace of Open Spaces.
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Students explored Anderson Ranch, near Yellowstone National Park, to learn how ranchers’ management techniques allow cattle to co-exist with bison, grizzlies, and other wildlife that make their way from the park onto adjoining private land. Photo by Jim Bishop

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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