Observing Ecological Rhetoric

From November 13, 2018, Field Notes at Lost Corner Preserve.

A light wind on my face reminds me that it is chilly though the sun is shining through the tree canopy onto Katie’s journal. She sits side saddle on the edge of the footbridge, head down writing in her journal. She gazes in front of her, then turns the page and begins a sketch, erasing lines, starting again, quickly pulling and pushing her pencil, taking a second to move her hair behind her ear.

With his hood shading his face, Spencer sits on a log at the stream, resting his journal on his lap, watching the water pass by.

The sunlight on Nina’s face highlights her features and I can see her pencil moving. I hear a bird sing “wa – p – wa – p – wa” and watch it fly above the limbs over Nina’s head.

Limbs of dried leaves, gold and brown, hide Eric sitting on a rock, knees bent to form a makeshift desk with his journal resting on his thighs. I cannot see where he is looking but I can see his pencil drawing circles.

Are these students cold? I’m cold, standing here on the path watching them. My fingers are stiffening, holding the top of my journal and resting it on my forearm; my letters are nearly illegible because I cannot keep the pages steady. I wish I were ambidextrous so I could warm up my left hand while writing. The wind is blowing harder, yet the students are not moving. I am watching them in their work, in their observing while helicopter seed pods land on my page.

Katie shifts her position and dangles her feet over the edge of the footbridge. Her journal rests on her thighs.

Before I spent this time watching my students as they practiced observation, note-taking, and sketching, I would have told you the joy I found in teaching came when I was learning and working with others as they learned. I believed my passion came from puzzling through complex concepts and listening to students tease out their own understanding of challenging texts.  The satisfaction inherent in the analysis, synthesis, and interpretation (all the work that happens in my brain) I believed was the only food my soul needed. And I once thought I preferred to do this thinking and learning inside, comfortably protected from the weather.

Yet, this past November and December while teaching Ecological Rhetoric, an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning course, I found a new joy in looking carefully at what is around me, in staying outside of my analytical brain when observing nature and my students while being uncomfortable in a cold drizzle. The exhilaration that once lit fireworks in my brain, celebrating interpretation can also spark small firefly lights when I am noticing and smelling and listening and feeling and tasting.

Dusty Layers of History

img_8527Our Coliseum tour guide described Rome as a lasagna created from layers of cultural artifacts laid upon more layers of even older artifacts.  As we left Palentine Hill and began our trek for dinner, we saw evidence of these layers at nearly every corner: the remains of Roman aqueducts above our heads as we walked down a city sidewalk, unidentified ruins behind glass next to a 19th-century building where city architects worked, 21st-century tourist shops built into 18th-century storefronts around a piazza anchored by a 17th-century fountain.  Coming from the land of the new and the brave, immersion in what seemed to be an archaeological dig site was, at times, magnificently intimidating.


In southern Puliga, we heard the region described as a cake created from layers dating back to the Messappii who lived there during the time known as classical antiquity.  Exploring Lecce, an original Messapppian city that is also known by its Baroque features and nicknamed the “Florence of the South,”  we visited Museo Faggiano Lecce, a museum that celebrates the story of this phenomenon of civilization layering. Intrigued by the enlarged copy of this New York Times article “Centuries of Italian History Are Unearthed In A Quest to Fix a Toilet”  posted outside the entrance, we scrambled through the rooms, climbed up and down narrow staircases to see the layers of 2500 years of history unearthed by the Faggiano family in a real-life inquiry-based learning project that began as an attempt to convert a building into a trattoria.

Nearly overwhelmed by the enormity of what is contained within this small building, we learned that the history found within the artifacts dating back to antiquity and moving forward through time tell us the building was once a Messapian tomb, a Roman granary,  a medieval home to a Templar Knight family, and a renaissance Franciscan convent.

As we visited more walled cities in the desert region of Italy’s southern heel, the idea of civilizations building their cultures onto the remains of previous civilizations led me to think about how at times students can experience their education as layers built upon layers, with little acknowledgment of the layers that had been set down before. How many times have students been presented with concepts or skills that are “foundational” to then later sit through other classes where new concepts or skills are merely laid upon the foundation without any attempt to dig and find the connections, the place where the new knowledge and skills fit into the foundation rather than sit upon it?

As I think about the layers in the lasagna that is Rome, the cake that is southern Puliga, I think about the layers of knowledge and skills that students build up and wonder how difficult it can be to create tunnels and to use what they’ve learned in more authentic ways.  How can schools avoid the “layering” of knowledge and skills resulting in dusty artifacts buried in the ancient dirt?

The Museo Faggiano is the product of real-life, transdisciplinary inquiry-based learning.  The need to repair a sewer pipe led Mr. Faggiano to investigate what was below the floor of what he hoped to be his new trattoria.  Granted this plumbing project morphed into an archaeological dig and it concluded with a public product that is different from what Mr. Faggiano planned, yet we can see this museum as a model for inquiry-based learning.  The museum can also be seen as a model that illustrates the aftermath of teacher-centered, non-constructivist learning — dusty layers of education artifacts. The knowledge excavated from exploring this museum can show us how important it is that students begin to authentically use what they learn as early as possible in order to avoid the build-up of crumbling educational layers.