September 12, 2007

In circles

For our shared reading event, the whole campus community was invited to read the book we'd chosen last spring. Early this afternoon, we gathered in Lounge Named After an Imaginary Person to share our thoughts and ideas about the book. The students gathered in the middle of the room, most of them sitting on the floor, dropping backpacks and pulling out the book as they arrived. Earlier this summer, I'd lined up staff and faculty as discussion leaders, so once everyone arrived, I divided them into random groups and sent each group outside, handing them the discussion questions I'd written. I always cut the sheet of discussion questions up so the facilitator can pass the questions around, so that the responsibility for asking the questions is shared.

The sun was shining but the breeze was cool, a perfect day for sitting on a grass and talking about a book. I walked about to make sure that the discussion leaders had what they needed: every group seemed fine. Librarian and her group were plopped on the grass near the library. Dark-haired Writing Instructor had gathered her group on the edge of our small quad, enjoying the sun. The students in Science Guy's group were clustered near the bike rack, and I could see him gesturing. Paper Science Guy was climbing up the hill to take his group into the cemetery that adjoins our campus, the students clutching the book as they searched for the best spot to sit down. Landscape Architect was leading her group into a building, in search of a quiet lounge.

No one needed any help from me, so I joined Ornithologist and his group, sitting down on the grass beside him and jumping into the discussion. The premise of the book we'd read, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, is that the current generation of children being raised in this country today spend very little unstructured time in nature, a stark difference compared to their parents' generation and their grandparents. The book connects this separation from nature to all kinds of things, everything from ADHD in children to depression in adults, backing these connections up with all kinds of data. We had a lively discussion that began with personal experiences and ended with talk about climate change, environmental activism, and some philosophical speculation about the healing powers of nature.

"Whenever I go for a hike or a walk," Ornithologist said, "it's like going through a wall and coming out the other side. All that stuff I carry with me gets left behind."

The discussion circles lasted an hour; then it was time to send the students on our way and go home ourselves. The shadows along the buildings had gotten longer, and clouds were turning that bluish colour they get in late afternoon. I stopped to talk to Librarian and Chemistry Lab Guy, to see how their groups had gone.

"Wasn't this cool?" I said to Librarian. "It was like being at a liberal arts college. Groups of people on quad, sitting in circles, talking about books!"

The scientists in the group laughed at my enthusiasm, but I could tell they had enjoyed the event. I drove home still thinking about all the students had said, filled with their ideas and their energy. The light seemed just right for a photograph, so I stopped at the canal to climb down, snap a picture, and sit near a patch of purple loosestrife. Traffic hummed by on the road above the canal, but the sun shone warm against my arms and I could smell the drying grasses on the towpath. I rested for a moment, thinking about the satisfying day I'd had, absorbing the peaceful scene, before getting back into the car and continue home.

Along the towpath


Nadine said...

That book sounds fascinating. I just added it to my wishlist!

argon(one) said...

Ornithologist's statement, "Whenever I go for a hike or a walk, it's like going through a wall and coming out the other side..." is so true.There's a rustic trail near my work. Three or four times a week I hike this trail during lunch. My family and I hike it often on the weekends. After just a few minutes on the trail, the frustrations of the day seem to melt away, to be replaced by the sounds and sights of nature.

Magpie said...

Lovely photo - and nice group activity.

Dumb question, is it NOT a liberal arts college?

jo(e) said...

Nadine: You'll like the book.

Argon(one): Exactly.

Magpie: No, we are a small science and forestry school. We don't even have an English department, for example. I teach literature through the Environmental Studies Department.

Yankee T said...

MMMM...sounds like a great activity, and love the photo.

Lila said...

The book sounds really interesting. I'm going to check it out :-) Thanks! (And the picture is gorgeous...)

kathy a. said...

you pull me in every time. that is a WONDERFUL campus project! the book sounds so interesting, and the discussions even more so.

interdisciplinary endeavors and group discussions were absolutely my favorite academic experiences. i love love loved talking about how things relate to one another, and see literature as a bridge between various disciplines and connecting various human experiences.

YourFireAnt said...

That shot of the canal is gorgeous. I keep going back to look at it.


Mike said...

You are very lucky to live in such a pretty place, and you write so beautifully.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What did the students SAY?

I live in an outdoor-oriented town so my perspective is getting warped. I'm wondering what people on the other side of the country think about his theories.

BerryBird said...

I have that book in my to-be-read pile, and I think you just convinced me to bump it up. I'm glad you wrote about it and shared it with your students.

jo(e) said...

Jennifer: Oh, my students pretty much all agreed with the book. Many of them *did* spend lots of time outdoors when they were growing up (as you might expect from a group of students who would choose to come to a college that focuses on environmental issues), but they do not see themselves as typical of their generation. They were saying that kids today spend most of their time playing computer games, watching television, talking on cell phones, listening to iPods, playing organized sports, doing indoor stuff like gymnastics or ballet or laser tag, watching DVDs, etc.

Mostly, they see this disconnect from the natural world as a big problem, and the discussion focused mostly on ways we might solve this problem.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What interests me is that even though my town is outdoor-oriented, with many many people who mtn bike and hike and ski etc., I still believe there's a disconnect. Most of the people who live here grew up somewhere else and -- speaking as someone who grew up somewhere else -- it takes a lot time to really 'get' all the ways that a desert is different. Also, a lot of the people who live here make their living off the housing industry, so these same outdoor-oriented people are actively involved in paving what they love.

Since reading your blog I have been wishing for a do-over in my life. If I could, I'd enroll in enviro studies at Walla Walla : )

sam said...

I just finished this book, and found a lot in common with the author's perspective. I did find one thing that I couldn't resonate with, and that was his recommendation that kids be encouraged to explore the wild places near their homes (if there are any) but only with a cell phone along in case of emergency. I also have lots of safety concerns as a parent, and I think he was motivated to recommend this in recognition of the fact that the world just isn't the same as it was when adults of our generation were kids. But if I sent my 11 YO off with a cell phone - which he has been begging for already - he might climb a tree first, but I don't think he'd be able to resist calling his friends or playing the electronic game on the phone. I don't know how to resolve the safety issues, but sending the technology along would seem to distract from the goal. Did your students have any comments on this?

cloudscome said...

Yeah, I didn't like the cell phone idea either. It seemed like a bone thrown to anxious parents to me. I would just send an 11 year old out with a time to be back and clear boundaries.

I loved the book. And that photo is stunning. It sounds like you have found yourself a really delightful place to teach writing Jo(e).