Ecological identity in learning

Reflections on Coming Together – for the MCA Educators’ Symposium April 13, 2012

The Coming Together group has helped me understand ecological identity in learning and teaching.   I am going to try sketching out a little portrait of ecological identity as a way of thinking about the flow of life in education.

I grew up in a small town near the California Coast.  Petaluma means “little hills” in the Miwok language.  My school emphasized the Native American heritage of the region, and all the field trips I remember had to do with that heritage.  Demonstration villages were big in that area — we went to one where we learned to weave baskets and make acorn bread.  We also learned about plants through Native stories and practices.  Most interesting was the Miwok Indian Village, which we and many other school groups helped construct, using tools that the elders told us the Miwok used.

We probably went once a year, over the course of my 2nd through 6th grades.  My memory of those years is marked by stages of construction of the Miwok Village, not by the school calendar.  Our time at the Miwok Village always included rituals and stories that seeped into the rest of our lives.

I’m sure there was a curricular connection — I have a sense that there were books and papers and tests on the native tribes of California, but I don’t remember anything specific.  In the classroom, my attention was much more on the psychosocial dramas going on all around me.

At the Miwok Village I learned about taking care of the land.  Digging in the dirt with shells taught me to think about work as a way of being present, that it was more important to build this village respectfully than to build it efficiently. I learned that human responsibility for the land demanded that we look to past cultures to see how they carried it out, and know the land ritualistically, in our souls as well as in our bodies.

The people who led our expeditions had a passion and a focus that I couldn’t imagine being contained within a classroom.  They loved their history, loved the land, and we got to sit at their feet for a day.  I remember they were also fierce — we were not to mess around.  I was a little afraid of them, afraid of doing something disrespectful.  This gave me more of a focus in what I was doing.  Respect and disrespect were very important concepts coming out of this experience. Our teachers looked like marshmallows next to these Miwok elders. It was clear that none of this was to be trivialized; it wasn’t quaint or romantic.

What stuck with me was reverence for people’s traditions and identity. Responsibility for the land, people.  And an endless need for getting outside.

It wasn’t until I sat down with this group of educators from school and community contexts that I remembered this part of my education, and realized how deeply it had impacted me.  I hadn’t understood that a set of field trips in childhood mapped out the work I do now — developing experiential learning programs means: questioning the authority of academic knowledge, trying to understand and work with the distinction between boundaries of respect –and boundaries of avoidance and ignorance, and exploring the power of rituals in the lives of young people.

When I shared my story, I was amazed to hear that the other teachers had also been powerfully shaped by experiences outdoors and outside the bounds of academic learning.

One of the teachers summarized the connections between our stories in this way: There was an underlying sense of reverence, seeking deep roots and seeking knowledge, seeing the ecological systems, and a link toward present commitments to working around issues of environmental and human capacity, possibility and justice.

Starting out our time together in this space that was a little wild gave us the courage to venture into experiences that were a little new and a little scary for all of us.  Over the course of this year, sharing our stories has enabled me to dig into where I am now, and where students are, to slow down enough to notice what we’re doing, think about who we are here.  Sharing inquiry across school and community contexts helps me to appreciate the knowledge, perspectives, and movement around me.  To cultivate my artist’s eye.

A couple of weeks ago I came across this passage that evokes the integrative practice that I have been experiencing with this group, so I’ll end with that; it’s from John Tallmadge, Meeting the Tree of Life:

Imagine a map … drawn from your memory instead of from the atlas. It is made of strong places stitched together by the vivid threads of transforming journeys. It contains all the things you learned from the land and shows where you learned them…. Think of this map as a living thing, not a chart but a tissue of stories that grows half-consciously with each experience. It tells where and who you are with respect to the earth, and in times of stress or disorientation it gives you the bearings you need in order to move on. We all carry such maps within us as sentient and reflective beings, and we depend upon them unthinkingly, as we do upon language or thought…. And it is part of wisdom, to consider this ecological aspect of our identity.

The lines that connect learning in the classroom and outside of the classroom, the overlapping circles of learning in schools, museums, and community organizations, map out the ecological identity of engaged learning.  Whereas in much of our work we are asked to focus on deficiencies and goals, in the Coming Together group we are attending closely to what is. We take our bearings in the work of mapping meaning, which we share no matter where we teach.