Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Ice Bubbles and Education

Ice forming on the Cannon River in Dundas, Minnesota.

The pond had in the meanwhile skimmed over in the shadiest and shallowest coves, some days or even weeks before the general freezing. The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind glass...

I finished reading Walden for the first time on July 27, 2004. On the previous evening, according to the journal I keep each summer, Will and I watched three whistling swans flying low over Wilderness Bay. In the early morning, we woke up and sat on the dock to watch the Northern Lights. "At first," I wrote, "they filled most of the sky with a faint shimmer, like light evaporating... After about an hour, the light seemed to gather into folds, like a curtain, waving across the sky, fading toward the east. Bright enough to be reflected in the water."

For me, the most outstanding part of Walden is not the sententious philosophy of self-reliance in the early chapters, but the close observation in the later chapters, such as when Thoreau observes ants, or ice, or the small leaf-shaped deltas that form in the sand where streams enter the pond. His examination of bubbles in the ice on Walden Pond, in the chapter called "House-Warming," is remarkable for its combination of detailed scientific observation and poetry.

These bubbles are from an eightieth to an eighth of an inch in diameter, very clear and beautiful, and you see your face reflected in them through the ice. There may be thirty or forty of them to a square inch. There are also already within the ice narrow oblong perpendicular bubbles about half an inch long, sharp cones with the apex upward; or oftener, if the ice is quite fresh, minute spherical bubbles one directly above another, like a string of beads.

How marvelous to have such patience, such a capacity to observe and to put those observations into words. What a foundation this would be for an education: to look at the world with one's own eyes, to count and measure bubbles in the ice, to put the experience into words. From her own first-hand observations, a student might gradually move on to more abstract math and science, always returning to the context in the world around her that makes such concepts meaningful.

Several years ago, when I took an education course at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, I wrote a paper on "place-based education," arguing that education is most meaningful when it is rooted in the realities of a particular place. Imagine how pleased I was, last week, when I was asked to serve on the board of a new K-8 charter school, the Cannon River STEM School, scheduled to open in the fall of 2009. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The school, which is sponsored by the Audubon Center of the Northwoods, will be organized around a place-based curriculum that takes the local environment as an "integrating context" for student learning.

I urge any interested local parents with children in elementary and middle school to attend an open house on Saturday, December 6, 2008, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Just Food Coop meeting room. There will be information for parents and activities for children.

Standing on the bank of the Cannon River yesterday, I thought of Thoreau studying the ice and the leaf-shaped deltas on Walden Pond. Noticing the shape of the deltas fanning out in the sand, he wrote: "You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant with it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype." Thoreau, in his close observations of the world around him, seemed to be groping toward the concept of fractals. How many great concepts could begin to take shape on the bank of a river!

Even the ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth...

For more "patterns of ice and stone," see Penny's photographs of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield on Penelopedia.


Penelope said...

Lovely. I am a big fan of the Maltby folks and the STEM school. Congratulations on joining their board. Let me know if I can help.

Penelope said...

Ah, I just did some further investigating and I see that the school will not be locating at The Science Center at Maltby Nature Preserve at this stage, after all. I had a lovely tour of their facilities some months back. I hope a good alternate site is forthcoming.

Jim H. said...


The district's loss is STEM's gain.

This business of place in education is worthy of discussion. The city where I grew up is a mostly ugly place, filled with noisy, smelly, crowded, marginal manufacturing and a n overwhelming sense of desperation. There are a few attractive natural places and a few rather grand neighborhoods of fine old river homes. I wonder how an education rooted in place would even be possible there. I suppose we could hold to some romantic notion that there is beauty everywhere on earth if we look hard enough. But every time I return to mu old home town, I look but cannot find much to like.

Rob Hardy said...

Jim: I think "place-based education" can also be a way of increasing "social capital" in a community, of encouraging civic involvement, of strengthening intergenerational bonds in a community, and, ultimately, of encouraging young people to invest in their community. Even decaying places have a history worth studying, and a future worth working for.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .