Wednesday, 9 August 2017

a magical metaphorphosis

Wednesday afternoon I joined the forest school children and teachers for lunch. I was delighted to follow them around the meadow that they already knew so well after only two days, seeing the lovely wood frogs they caught (and then released), one of several moths flitting about the grass, and other tiny wonders. I shared my trick for calling songbirds down closer, or "pishing" and told how I love listening to birds wherever I go. I was touched, then, when T asked me, "Do you want to hear the most beautiful sound in the forest?" to which the only possible answer is, "Yes! Lead the way!" In the deep green veil of leaves (bottom right cormer of the collage) we marvelled at the loudness of the cricket chorus. I was indeed the most beautiful thing. I was honoured.

Today was the third day of the fifth annual, week-long "Rhythm of Learning in Nature" summer intensive course. It is my fifth year in attendance, my daughter's third year of attending the forest school, and my second year of attending as a facilitator for the week. I've written about the deeply immersive experience before, from a very different perspective. I was just finishing my first year at a new school, Thornwood PS, and was writing my observations throughout the week as this entirely new sort of professional experience unfolded. I knew something amazing was happening, but I didn't yet know how important it would be for me, over the year, to reflect on those five days and find inspiration and support from fellow learners who'd become friends.

The day began with a chance to reconnect over breakfast, after which we headed outside to the lawn overlooking Swan Lake. Art invitations were set all about the small yard. There weren't instructions or expectations to visit each one. Already, the freedom to explore as broadly or narrowly as we wanted set this apart from professional gatherings many of us have attended in the past - I heard more than one person comment to this effect today, and over the last two days.

I'm not sure what I was doing at the time (watching others trace faces at the vertical painting, grinding herbs in the mortar and pestles) but suddenly I was called to come see an interesting insect that Alex had found on the ground. I immediately recognized the hard carapace of a cicada, something my students and my own kids have collected with me over the years. Then I saw that it wasn't a carapace, but in fact moving... it was a cicada that had just dug its way up from under the tree, and was likely knocked down from its climb by the ropes used to hang the vertical painting easel. I may have screamed, I was so excited. I remember the forest school children calling me last year to show me the newly emerged cicada they'd found, hours later in the process than this hard-shelled critter clinging to the branch in my hand. I remember the awe as we watched it grow before our eyes... and here we were, able to witness it from the shell. This was magical, for lack of a better word, because it was really the exact opposite of magic. It was deeply mundane, and wonderful.

The cicada had likely fallen from the cedar tree, so I placed it in the crook of two branches where it would be safe from all of our feet. It immediately began to crawl up the bark of the trunk. More and more of us watched as the prehistoric-looking insect clung to the tree on its way to metamorphosize.

The cicada came to a rest in the grown-over hole where a limb had been cut. It seemed to anchor itself with a tight grip, and then was still, until it began to jiggle and dance. We wondered if perhaps it was pulling its legs from within the shell, like we might shake off heavy rubber boots or thick tights. I knew from seeing later stage cicada emergence last year with the forest school children that it would leave through a hole in the back, so I let everyone who would listen know to watch for this to begin. We saw the shape change (the back seemed to arch) but it wasn't until the colour subtly changed and the insect inside began to pulse (or breathe?) that we noticed it had already split its back.

It had already been at least an hour since we'd seen the shelled cicada climb up the tree, but it was still riveting. In front of our eyes we saw the creature pulse, shake, grow, arch, push, stretch its legs, and lean way out of its hard shell. No wings were visible yet, but the colour was brighter now, and the pale eyes had darkened. It was magical to watch. Many of us exclaimed how lucky we were to be present to see this unfold. 

Now the wings unfolded and began to pulse as the green blood flowed through the silvery veins. This process was even more magical, somehow, though the sheer effort of getting out and to this stage left us in awe. The wings stretched out to full, then a few moments later, the cicada folded them neatly along the sides of its body. This happened just before we sat down for our discussion. After we spoke, we noticed that it was now gone, perhaps adding its buzz to the chorus we heard in the trees around us. All that remained was the hard shell. 

Today as we sat down after lunch to reflect together on what we'd done thus far, I was struck by how deeply moved everyone was by the connections we'd made with each other, the place, and with our deepest feelings. We sat in the shade, high above Swan Lake which glimmered in the sunlight down the hill beside our gathering. An impromptu talking stick was passed;. people spoke about where they came from, what they had been expecting, and just how incredibly different this experience was from any other professional development they'd had. People spoke of the difficulty with explaining what it was we did that was different, why this place and time each summer became something shining to hold on to during the year. As the stick was passed, I jotted down words that struck me as powerful, meaningful:

  • Wonder 
  • Awe
  • Gratitude
  • Deep connections made
  • Perception of time in the outdoors (tapping into phenology)
  • A reminder that we learn from everyone in our path
  • Not a conference, not "pd", but a knowledge retreat (thank you Sally!)
  • Time with materials leads to deep understanding
  • We are co-constructing our learning right now
  • Sharing our time together so deeply makes this place (space and time together) into a sanctuary for us, a place where the ties that bind can't hold us back, and where we are safe to try, to fail, to share emotion (I hope to feature Nicole's story of how she came to this idea in a future guest post)
  • Teaching style is tied to learning style (so embrace learning)
  • It's okay to let go, many things are possible even when we can only attend one

Everyone's words touched me, left me thinking about my new year (new school, new team) and what matters most to me in teaching children. Erin, however, touched me particularly because she shared both her love of what she does and the children she works with, but also how incredibly hard and draining the last year was. I understood only too well how it feels to want to BE more, to DO more when our students need more of our us (some years there's more mothering involved, and even more support of the family at home). I understood how difficult it is to express the feeling of needing a break (whether a day off when sick, time away from documentation and reporting when home with family) but also feeling the need to carry the weight for the sake of the children and families we have such a strong connection with. Nadine responded with kindness and understanding: "It is a draining position because we give so much. It is restorative too; I learn and gain so much from the kids. " We give because we feel the need, and because it is joyful.

 It was something said in a place that was safe to express this feeling - at school we hold our head high and smile at every child, our own or in other classes, to show we are happy to see them. We are available, attentive, delighted, respectful, engaged, inspired. It is the most wonderful job there is, one I feel incredibly lucky to grow in every day. It is full of wonder, and joy. It is also full of intense emotions, and our role as supporting children to regulate those (and over time self-regulate throughout their day) requires us to constantly up- or down- regulate to meet the needs of our many learners. It is rewarding. It is also, at times, some years more than others, exhausting, and in order to keep the classroom community a safe place to learn, we show our best self every day. We hold our lamp aloft and shine. This is easier to do when the entire class team enjoy each other and when students come to school feeling ready to join in and learn. This isn't always the case, and when needs must be met in order for children to be able to join in (lack of food, sleep, comfortable clothing for all weather, or other lack) we as teachers naturally must slow down and meet the children where they are. If we can support our teaching partners, share the load (especially in large classes), make each other laugh, help each solve day-to-day problems, we can't help but feel we have the best job in world.  But it is possible to give our light away, and burn down in the process... if too much is asked, or the entire load not shared. So what does coming together to play, to share joy with others (old friends and brand new acquaintances) do for us? We shine our light together, and rekindle those whose lamps are low. It is so much more than learning new skills, techniques, or ideas about pedagogy that brings us back every year.

And thus I found the shared experience of the cicada emerging to be a powerful metaphor, one I shared with the group as we wrapped our sharing circle. I had scribbled a few lines in my journal as we paused:
Like the cicada, we are reborn here. We are pushing through, shaking off our armour, the shield we need to keep strong, but also armour that we carry from our idealized image of how we should be as teachers. Here we push through, shake off the shell and trust that the time and space will be perfect, for us to spread our wings, and like the cicada, to sing the song we've been waiting to sing. 

At home I looked through the photos of the day, and relived the marvel that we witnessed this morning. Here is what came to me...

Why do we feel such connection to this place, to this group of people, some of whom were strangers only two days ago?
The cicada lives underground, under the roots of a tree, for most of its life. It has but a few days with which to emerge (moult), unfold its wings, fly, and "sing" (though not singing as we know it because its more like a rattle in their hind end). The time has to be just right - when the connection to others of its kind are possible. Once it climbs up above ground and begins its climb, it can't turn back. Likewise, in this company in the slowed-down time spend engaging in emerging play in nature, we just have to open and trust that we've picked the right time, and space.
 We live our lives underground?
No, that's not quite right. We do, however, keep our feelings underground while in our professional lives. Educators need the trust of parents, fellow educators, and above all our students, in order to be able to create a classroom learning community. We don't feel able to show vulnerability, instead we project our best, most strong self to welcome others in our classrooms. But educators on a journey of pedagogical learning can be lonely, disconnected from other grades (whose classes hum along at an entirely different rhythm than those of early years classes). We can feel disconnected from others like us, who see and hear the magic of children and who hold in our hearts the image of ourselves as learners, too. We work in our spaces, safe in our armour. We show outwardly that we are capable, not vulnerable; knowledgeable, not full of doubt about what we know and believed important. But at Swan Lake, at Rhythm, we may climb up, root our feet deeply in a trusted place, steady ourselves and begin to dance... we push out against our binds... the memories of our long time underground released, our wings unfurling as we breathe deeply, release the emotion of deep connection... and we may "sing" our song.
Thank you, cicada, for sharing your beautiful journey with us. 
A beautiful moment I was honoured to share with the children at the forest school at last year's Rhythm of Learning in Nature summer intensive course. The kids had come to get me (perhaps at my daughter's urging, or simply because I was the one who always loved to look closely at any small creatures when with them) when they noticed what was happening, and I was able to witness (and document) the wondrous event with them.


  1. So amazing. I am filled with deep joy reading this! And I so want to figure out how we start to spread this slow down and watch the changes around you and learn approach up the academic ladder.

  2. Thank you Lisa!
    One of the ways we can all do this with classes is to spend time visiting a local spot that our class has access to. It may be a forest, a local park with a pond, or a creek, but for many of us it may be a few trees at the end of a lawn. No matter where we teach, there are places to engage with nature, even if it is only to watch the daily changes of one accessible tree. Drawing it, taking photos, writing about it, making a nature journal (see "To Look Closely" and "Ellie's Log" as good examples of this for older grades) or making nothing at all but observations... when we come to know one living being intimately, we began to know all the lives it is intertwined with, and that ultimately we are a part of that web, too. Powerful, but perfectly simple.