Winter, Contraction and Frustration

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season. We find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather, along with different forms of personal attention and focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.

Lawrence WilliamsSince 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives”, I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:

Winter, Contraction and Frustration

Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.

The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.

The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.

Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.

So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.

The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.

In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.

Embracing Winter

Meg Minehan is an Oak Meadow teacher for grades K-6. She currently homeschools her own children using the Oak Meadow curriculum. Meg co-leads a monthly forest and fields program for preschoolers in Chester, Vermont. She embraces winter by cross country skiing and sweating in her woodfired sauna. 

Although all of us at Oak Meadow extol the benefits of getting children outside, we also recognize that getting young ones outdoors in winter can be quite challenging! Here are some helpful hints to help you and your children embrace these blustery, and for some of us, downright frigid days.
Perhaps most of you are familiar with the oft-quoted saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather…” Although my feelings about that quote can change depending on my mood, the wind speed, and the type of precipitation I am about to endure, it is important to acknowledge that wearing appropriate clothing in winter is a must. These past few weeks, you may have encountered temperatures that are too cold to be safe. Most days, however, can be safely enjoyed, if only for a short time, provided you and your children are clothed appropriately. But even after investing in or, better yet, inheriting quality outdoor clothing, how do you entice children and their caretakers to go outside?
For many children, a fresh snowstorm is usually a welcome invitation to play outdoors. There are the obvious tried-and-true activities, such as sledding, snowman making, snow fort building, snowshoeing, and skiing. Now that my children are older, ages 16, 13, and 10, these are some of their favorite activities. I no longer need to encourage them to go outdoors. In fact, usually I am calling them in, so we can get some of our Oak Meadow work done. When my children were young, however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes they needed a hook, something to entice them to “get out and blow the stink off ye.” (quote courtesy of my father, Ed Minehan) Here are some ideas that worked, at least some of the time, for my family.

Get Moving and Follow the Tracks: On the coldest days, the only option was to keep moving. Even getting out for a short hike or snowshoe was still worth it. To keep things interesting, we often went tracking. Because we live near the woods, this was, admittedly, pretty easy for us. But driving to a special trail adds a sense of adventure too. First, spend a little time familiarizing yourself with tracking patterns. Is the animal a straight walker, hopper, waddler, or bounder? Kids can practice walking in these styles as well. Next, examine the print of the animal’s foot. Notice the shape and size. Can you count the toes? Are their claws present? What other nearby animal signs or clues can you spot? To maximize child participation, I made each of my kids a laminated detective tracking card with pictures of the four patterns and common prints. I photocopied our cards from the Shelburne Farms Project Seasons book. There are many great tracking guides or cards available. We approached each tracking expedition like a mystery. As they got older, my children became more interested in the C.S.I. scene. They loved following the tracks and searching for evidence of last meals. Yes, sometimes the results were a little gruesome, but always exciting.

Curriculum Extensions: Keep in mind these snowy mysteries can lead to imaginative storytelling, story mapping, further research, and investigative writing projects. These activities can easily be integrated into science and language arts lessons. Talk to your Oak Meadow teacher about substituting assignments. We want you and your children to embrace winter too!

Trail Games: Simple trail games are another way to keep things interesting on a cold winter walk. One of my favorite games is Christmas Tree for a Mouse. I learned it from Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder. As we walked through the woods, we would look at various trees, gauge their relative sizes, and decide which animal would be perfectly suited to which tree. This can be a fun way to talk about the animals that live in your area. This game could be easily modified if Christmas trees aren’t part of your family’s traditions. Maybe you could find the tree with the best treehouse option for a mouse, a mink, or a bear. If you and your child are feeling really ambitious, you might even assist with the building process.

Photo Credit: Meg Minehan

Winter Art: Scavenger hunts and treasure walks were also a good way to build enthusiasm for a cold winter walk. After collecting simple treasures, such as pine needles, cones, and winter berries, we would put them in a mold with twine or raffia hangers, fill with water, and wait for them to freeze. We’ve used mini-bundt pans for wreaths, but silicone molds work even better. These lovely ornaments or sun catchers can be hung nearby. Quite often, however, I would encourage us to share our decorations with the birds and squirrels. Aha! Another “excuse” to get out for a walk.
Finally, on those days when everyone needs a little extra enticement, there is nothing like the promise of homemade hot chocolate and a favorite board game awaiting. Happy winter!
NOTE: Oak Meadow recently posted a great link on Facebook about following tracks: http://www.audubon.org/news/a-beginners-guide-reading-bird-tracks-snow

Snowflakes!

As I sit here this evening with a winter storm warning in effect for my area of New England, I am once again fascinated by how these tiny snow crystals can impact whole regions of the United States.
Some of you may have read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That story is about an actual winter storm that raced across the prairie lands of the United States in the winter of 1880-1881. In his book The Children’s Blizzard David Laskin gives an account of the deadly prairie blizzard of 1888 and he also gives an excellent description of the different types of snowflakes there are and what the conditions are that create them. I highly recommend it if you are interested in the science of snow!
The Native American Indians had many ways to predict the weather by observing what was happening in the natural world around them for clues. In the 1880’s the weather news was sent via telegraph across the United States from Army base to Army base. The weather often arrived before the news of its coming. Today we have the National Weather Service and technology to help us predict storms and to warn us of storms.
If you are interested in learning more about snow crystals, go to your library and find the book  Snowflake Bentley. You may also want to visit snowcrystals.com.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

                                Dust of Snow by Robert Frost

Happy Solstice!

“I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.”
–   Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing

Such a beautiful poem! I love to recite it every year around this time.

This year I’ve looked at it a bit differently because I have many students in the Southern Hemisphere. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are tilted away from the sun and experience these darker December days while my students in the Southern Hemisphere are enjoying warmer days as they are tilted toward the sun. Here, north of the equator, the December solstice brings the longest night and shortest day of the year and the Southern Hemisphere experiences the longest day and shortest night. As I look forward to snow falling, students in the Southern Hemisphere head to the ocean for summertime fun!

I looked for a poem to share with my Southern Hemisphere friends, but couldn’t find one. If you know of one, please share it with us!

If you would like to learn more about what is happening on the Winter Solstice on the planet Earth, go to EarthSky.org and enjoy!

Happy Solstice!

Birding!

This time of year I start thinking about the birds in my area. The temperatures are dropping close to freezing. I see birds in great flocks swooping into the bird bath and landing on the feeder. Last week there were about 15 Common Grackles splashing and crowding into my bird bath. The winter is upon us here in New Hampshire. The birds need to eat quite a bit of food to keep up their energy for traveling south. Those that stay will need food all winter. I often look out the kitchen window in the winter to see a little black -capped chickadee at the feeder, and I wonder how it can keep warm. The tiny little feet and the skinny little legs look so vulnerable. They need high energy foods and lots of it! I know there are Oak Meadow students that enjoy watching and feeding the birds. If you do also, then you might like to join the Project FeederWatch that is a program of the Cornell University Lab of Orinthology.

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Project Overview, FeederWatch.org

Interesting bird facts can be found at: http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/Birds_Kamm_Kuss/Pages/PAGE_HOME.html

Here’s one: The Common Grackle often allows ants to crawl over its body so that they may secrete formic acid, which is thought to kill parasites, a practice called anting. Besides formic acid from ants, the Common Grackle has been observed using various other substances, such as walnut juice, mothballs, lemons, limes, and choke cherries in similar ways.

Do you watch the birds? Do you keep a list of the birds you’ve seen? Let us know!
 

Hibernation & Torpor

Thanks to Oak Meadow’s K-4 teacher, Sarah Antel, for this wonderful addition to our blog. 

As autumn finally settles in Vermont, I always notice mental and physical changes in myself. I am found in the kitchen making soups, stews, and bread, I pick up the handwork I abandoned last spring with renewed interest, and I often feel fatigued as the early evening darkness falls; a purring cat on my lap helps this state of calm occur more easily.
Even though it may seem many plants have died outside with a morning frost, I see this season as a time of rest and ultimately, renewal. A good rest often helps one to rise refreshed and ready to work. Winter is nature’s time to rest. The trees have dropped their leaves and stored the food they made in their roots, plants of all kinds have scattered their seeds, and many animals are nesting in warm places, preparing for the winter respite.
As winter draws near, people often remark that animals are getting ready to hibernate. This statement is only accurate for a handful of animals here in the Northeast. If animals do not migrate or stay active in the winter months, many enter a state of torpor, or light hibernation during the colder weather; most do not hibernate.

Photo Credit: Morgan Wiebke

An animal that is considered a “true hibernator” stores fat reserves, their breathing slows to as little as one breath a minute, their heart rate often registers at four beats per minute, and their body temperature lowers close to the temperature of the surrounding air. Often, these creatures will not awaken, even if they are handled. The only animals that are true hibernators in the North East are bats, groundhogs, and jumping mice. Many other animals, including bears, go into torpor. These animals’ bodies stay very close to their normal temperatures. Additionally, their breathing and heart rates do not slow. They are easily awakened and will often be found foraging for food during a warm spell. Reptiles, like snakes, can be found in dens in a state of torpor, but they will sometimes be seen warming themselves when the sun’s rays beckon. Amphibians bury themselves in the soil, often at the bottom of a pond. But these creatures also can awaken during the winter as some people have spied them moving about below ice.
Although the winter season may seem like a silent time for nature, there is still an abundance of activity and life beneath the blanket of snow. If you live in a place where snow falls in the winter, you may want to set up a subnivean zone board so you can observe some activity that happens below the snow. Once there is some snow on the ground, lay a wide piece of wood like a large piece of plywood, over some seeds you sprinkle on top of the snow. In a few days, gently lift the board to peek underneath. Many of the seeds may be gone and you may see a network of tunnels under the board. The subnivean zone is the area in and underneath the snowpack where some small mammals like mice, voles, and shrews live out the winter and forage for food. Staying in the subnivean zone helps to protect them from predators and insulates them from the cold winter air. Sprinkle more seeds throughout the winter so these creatures can have a place to find food and you can make scientific observations all winter-long.
This post was written by Oak Meadow’s K-4 teacher, Sarah Antel. 

Iditarod

Iditarod public domain photo

The 2017 IDITAROD will start on March 4 in Alaska. If you haven’t yet heard of the Iditarod Race, let me tell you it is one very exciting 1,150 miles! Men and women race with teams of dogs and sleds to see who will arrive in Nome, Alaska first. (There are two starting points, Anchorage or Fairbanks, depending on the year, the weather, and the snow coverage.) The race is based on true events that occurred in 1925 when the children in Nome, Alaska were ill with the deadly disease of diphtheria. They were in need of a special medicine and they needed it quickly, as many children were dying. That medicine was far away in Anchorage, Alaska, it was January with freezing ice blocking the ports and grounding airplanes. The race was on to get the medicine to the children as quickly as possible and it seemed the only way to do that was to use the mushers and their faithful dogs. A relay of the best sled drivers and dogs was arranged and after five and a half days of grueling weather, the last sled driver and his dogs arrived in Nome. Many children in Nome were saved and an epidemic was halted all thanks to the amazing teams of dogs that each man had cared for. One special dog team leader was a dog named Balto.
The famous sled dog Balto with musher Gunner Kaasen.

You can read more about Balto, his bravery, and the events in The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail by Debbie Miller. The first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in 1973 and has been raced ever since in honor of the first race to save children’s lives.
In the past years, while the race is on, children and families have taken up the challenge of spending the same amount of minutes outdoors as the mileage of the Iditarod. That’s 1,150 minutes! Why not take up this challenge with friends and family members? Keep a record of your time outdoors and what activities you did!
By the way, when the Oak Meadow group was at a conference in Alaska last May, they contributed to a fundraiser for the 34th annual Yukon Quest, writing messages on the protective booties that the dogs wear in the race (they need a LOT of them!). One of Oak Meadow’s booties was on team #3!
Here are some books that you might enjoy for further reading:
Mush! The Sled Dogs of the Iditarod
by Joe Funk

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod
by Gary Paulsen

The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail
by Debbie S. Miller

 

Snow!

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley 1925
One of my favorite stories to share with children during the winter is Else Beskow’s book, Ollie’s Ski Trip. Ollie goes on a snowy adventure and discovers King Winter’s palace where he finds him sitting on his icy throne with sheer pride and pleasure. Ollie also meets King Winter’s spritely right hand man, Jack Frost, as well as Mrs. Thaw, who shows up with her broom to sweep away the last of the winter snow in preparation for the entrance of Lady Spring.
The season of winter goes hand in hand with the wonder of snow, which brings to mind a man by the name of Wilson Bentley, better known as the Snowflake Man. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was a farmer who grew up and lived in Vermont. As a young boy, he was home schooled. He had a natural affinity with nature, and with snowflakes in particular. He received his first microscope on his 15th birthday (in 1881) and began examining snowflakes. He soon discovered that no snowflake is like any other. At the age of 19, Bentley took his first micro-photograph of a snowflake, and this was the beginning of a passionate hobby. He spent his entire adult life photographing snowflakes, and by the time he died in 1931, he had photographed over 5,000 images. Imagine that!
William Bentley’s official home site also provides an assortment of books for all ages on this marvelous “Snowflake Man”. If you are fortunate to live close to or pass by Jericho, Vermont, you can visit the Bentley Museum to view his photographed snowflakes and to learn more about his fascinating life and the captivating beauty of snow!
The Oak Meadow syllabus in kindergarten and in first grade offers the artistic project of making paper snowflake designs. Oak Meadow’s fourth grade coursework offers a block on poetry, which involves creating a portfolio of freestyle, rhyming and acrostic poems. Student Maren Doughty wrote a lovely acrostic poem on “SNOWFLAKES”…
Smelling hot chocolate
Now winter is here
Outside we go!
Wind howling
Freezing fingers and noses
Lots of snow angels shaped in the snow
All the gournd is covered white
Kids building snowman
Everyone is excited
Seeing snowflakes falling

HAPPY SOLSTICE!


“The 2016 December solstice will come on the 21st at 10:44 UTC. That’s 4:44 a.m. on December 21, for those in the central time zone in North America. It’s when the sun reaches its southernmost point for the year. This solstice marks the beginning of the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere, and the start of the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere. And, no matter where you are on Earth, it marks the beginning of your shortest season.” http://earthsky.org/tonight/years-shortest-season-starts-with-december-solstice
Best wishes for a happy and healthy winter or summer season wherever you are on Earth!

Water, Air, and Wind

images-1At this time of the year here in New England we are in our winter months. As the temperatures hover below freezing, we do all we can to keep warm.
The temperature of the oceans, the air, and also the wind patterns of the planet all create climate. In the Oak Meadow 7th grade science curriculum you study about climate, weather patterns, and global winds. You learn the relationship between air masses and weather. You become a meteorologist! Collecting weather data is one job of a meteorologist, so students using the curriculum set up their own weather station, keep records over a 5 day period, and report their data. Looking at the past data and the present data allows meteorologists to predict the weather of the future.
Today some scientists are collecting data about the Arctic sea and the Antarctic sea. Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center study the CRYOSPHERE, or more simply, they study the cold places on our planet. They study glaciers, snow, sea ice and specifically the areas around the North and South poles. In their studies of these areas, scientists have recorded warmer temperatures of the seas and the air. Those records provide data for the scientists to measure how much sea ice is disappearing. Just as 7th grade students record their own weather data and make predictions, these scientists gather data to report the impact the state of the cryosphere has on the planet. That means that they are able to report and predict weather patterns on the Earth. With warmer temperatures of water and air recorded, scientists are able to warn us of future climatic changes.
In the Oak Meadow science curriculum, you learn that ozone depletion, the thinning of the stratospheric ozone, contributes to global warming.
“How much can a single person affect Earth’s changing climate? According to researchers in the United States and Germany, 3 square meters of summer sea ice disappear in the Arctic for every metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) that a person directly or indirectly produces. How can one person produce 1 metric ton of CO2? That’s about a roundtrip flight from New York to Europe per passenger. Or, a 4,000-kilometer car ride.” https://nsidc.org/news/newsroom/us-and-german-researchers-calculate-individual-contribution-climate-change
The Oak Meadow science curriculum across the grades has assignments in which students consider how to limit, or reduce, their impact on the ozone, and how the ozone can be preserved. If you are a student, or family, looking for suggestions on how to reduce your impact, read this.
 

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