The Church of Nature

I’ve always responded enthusiastically to nature.  Today as I write this I am looking through my kitchen sliding doors at the hill behind my house covered with confectionary sugar.  Nature has always been a source of great beauty and comfort to me. When my children were younger I used to tell them that the closest I ever felt to “God” was when I went backpacking in the High Sierras of California above the treeline where it feels like you can reach out and touch the sky at night.

Today, as a retired teacher, I still feel the same way and look forward to the days when taking a walk is possible or to the sudden arrival of a flock of birds in my backyard as did happen yesterday when dozens of robins appeared out of nowhere to peck at the ground on my hill looking for insects to eat.  I can get as excited about sighting a blue heron as I can about anything else in my life.

This brings me to “The Church of Nature” and how it came to exist in my life.  When my children were around the ages of 8 and 10, as a family we took a “hike” every Sunday.  We are fortunate to live on the north shore of LI where the local scenery is quite lovely in most seasons and opportunities for short hikes are easily accessible.  For me the goal was to get outside and away from all the indoor concerns of the past week and the week to come, while introducing my children to the wonders of nature, albeit on a smaller scale than the High Sierras. We would pack a snack and drinks in our backpacks, dress appropriately for the season and set off for the day’s adventure.

In an age when it is irresponsible to allow children to just wander as I did as a child in my small seaside town, it was a relief to be able to let my children run through the woods or along the seashore discovering nature for themselves.  We have walked in Caumsett Park in Lloyd Neck when it was so cold the entire landscape was frozen.  We have often visited the Theodore Roosevelt bird sanctuary in Cove Neck and ended our walks with an obligatory visit to their nature center where my children could watch the local birds feeding from a wall-sized window or browse among the specimens of local flora and fauna. We have spent many summer Sundays on north shore beaches watching the children explore the saltwater marshes, discovering and capturing in their small nets (and releasing) the small crabs and fish that inhabit these waters.

Today, both my children are avid nature-lovers and environmentalists and each of them has traveled to far-flung places like Africa and Australia to experience the wonders each locale has to offer.  I like to think that some of their enthusiasm is due to the many Sundays we spent hiking and enjoying our local natural wonders.  When they got older I told them that instead of going to church every Sunday, we visited “the church of nature,” as a way of explaining to them where my personal brand of spirituality comes from and most likely theirs, too.

What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher Today?

This past Saturday I attended a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project (LIWP) at Nassau Community College offering K-12 teachers a chance to discuss and write about the topic “What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher Today?” This group of professionals has been my “go to” group since I became a full-time teacher over twenty years ago. It has consistently provided a safe place for teachers to hone their writing skills and learn how to help students become better writers. As a recent retiree (June 2014), I wasn’t sure whether I would still “fit in.”

I learned very quickly from the sharing of writing that took place at the workshop that teachers today are very torn between what they know in their hearts they need to do to help kids learn and what they are being told by administrators about how to spend their classroom instructional time. When teachers describe giving inappropriate tests to developmentally unprepared students as being “abusive” to their students, and then feeling guilty about doing so (as if they have any choice), we know we are in a state of crisis. When teachers are told to teach a “module” that will force kids to analyze a text beyond their reading comprehension level instead of one they can feel comfortable with and passionate about, teachers feel very conflicted and students begin to dislike learning.

I left the workshop feeling that my passion for teaching is still very much a part of me and that my “voice” is still welcome. But I felt both distressed and challenged by what I was hearing and grateful that there is a still place of refuge where teachers can safely express their feelings and ideas about what is happening to them. Now, if only we could do the same for students.