Mud Season

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

I’ve just walked down to the path by the river and through the woods near my house, which I haven’t walked since before the winter hit. It’s sunny today, and another snow storm is coming tomorrow. This is what late winter is famous for in New England – the drastic flip-flops back and forth between warm sun, more snowfall, more sun. But I love that about New England. I love that we have no control over nature’s actions, that we must work with what we’ve got. I love how, in late winter, we can’t tell yet what the outcome will be. Everything feels in-between.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

In New England, we call this time of year mud season (right around sugaring season!). I love mud season for all it represents–an uncovering, a messy digging, mucking through confusion and uncertainty. I love uncertainty because I love writing, and writing is about mucking through questions. It’s about walking the same old familiar path until you come to a clearing you don’t recognize, even though you’ve been there before. You suddenly feel lost, though you are standing still. You wonder how you got here. You wonder if you will ever find your way back.

Maybe it’s mud season that’s made me notice my students’ questions more lately–both the questions they ask over email, and the questions they include in their essays. Often over email, they will ask me direct questions that seek one clear, direct answer. But one correct answer is not typically what I send back. When the question relates to how they should approach a writing assignment, I can’t give them one correct answer because there is not one correct answer. I am looking for their own curiosities, their own questions, their own uncertainties. As a culture, we’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty that it has filtered into the way we teach writing–we’ve come to see essays as a space for demonstrating expert knowledge, instead of a place to write through one’s questions in order to discover truth.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

When I walk in the woods in New England in late winter, I think about the essays of Thoreau, and Emerson, and Diderot, and Rousseau. Their essays straddle autobiography, educational philosophy, and reflections on nature. They are firm in their opinions and beliefs, and express them strongly, but through writing and walking, and walking through writing, and writing through walking, they often found themselves on the next page believing the opposite of what they’d said before–expressing some new opinion they never imagined they would express.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

This is what I hope my writing classes can be for students–a late winter walk in New England, through snow and mud and sun, crunching through dried leaves and brittle twigs beside a frozen, yet melting, river. That in-between space. And so, it is this landscape that I try to conjure when my students ask me questions. Instead of telling them the one right way to write their essay, I try to conjure up the landscape that will help them come to find and see it on their own. Often, I don’t hear back from students after I have sent them my response. I wonder how they’re doing. Then, a few days letter, I receive their essay in my inbox. I open it and begin reading. In the essay, I see them walking, perhaps hesitantly at first, then more steadily, as their feet press into the leaves on the ground. A paragraph begins, and I see them standing in a familiar clearing, speaking to me. After a while, I see that we are somewhere new, somewhere I haven’t been before.

Citrus Bird Feeder

Create your own bird feeder from an orange!

Create your own bird feeder from an orange!

We have been discussing how animals adapt and change through seasons, specifically Winter.   A few words we have discussed are adaptations, camouflage, hibernation and migration.  When we were researching birds and how they survived Winter we learned that it is harder for them to find food so we decided to help them out a little bit by making some bird feeders to hang on our trees.

orange bird feeder hanging in tree
Orange Bird Feeder Project

The first two feeders we made were hanging for a full day before the birds discovered it but once we put the second set out the next day they came right to it.  We also caught a squirrel trying to steal some seeds! Which led to a great discussion on squirrels and why they must store their food for the winter. It was so exciting for the kids to see the birds eating from their creation.  We even got a picture of it.  We enjoyed this fun and simple craft but our absolute favorite part was getting to watch the birds eat our creation.  

Orange Bird Feeder hanging on tree
Orange Bird Feeder hanging on tree

Materials

  • Cutting board
  • Oranges – one orange makes 2 feeders
  • Knife
  • Yarn
  • Skewer – worked best for me but a toothpick would work, anything sharp enough to penetrate the orange
  • Bird seed
  • Helpful material: a wet towel – this one gets a little sticky! 
  1. Cut orange in ½ right down the middle horizontally (so that you are cutting in the middle of the top and bottom). The halves will act as bowls for the seed.
  2. Take out the orange segments and enjoy a delicious snack. I used a knife to carve/loosen the slices and then had my eldest scoop out the insides with a spoon. This part gets a little messy.
  3. Using the skewer punch 4 holes in the peel of the orange bowl. Its best to evenly space your holes.
  4. Weave yarn through holes in orange. We pressed the yarn through the skewer, as if it were a needle and pushed the skewer through the hole.  It helped when we would twist the skewer.  Once we got the yarn through the hole we would use our fingers to pull it through.  Weaving through each hole.
  5. Pull yarn so that you can knot the two ends together.
  6. Once tied pull the two sides even so that you can evenly hang your orange bowl.
  7. Fill with bird seeds. Its best to fill outside or near where you plan to hang your feeder.  We dropped one of our feeders on the way outside and bird seed went everywhere!! Eeeeks!!!
  8. Make sure to place feeder somewhere you can observe the birds eating their treat.  It’s so exciting to catch them in the act!
orange bird feeder project close-up
Orange Bird Feeder project

Embracing Winter

Meg's son, Ian, hanging a suncatcher on the tree

Meg's son, Ian, hanging a suncatcher on the tree

This is a special guest post by Oak Meadow K-6 teacher Meg Minehan.

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.

Fisher and Turkey Tracks/Photo Credit: Meg Minehan

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!

Snowflake Photos by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley

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

Time Is Always Right

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

https://www.nationalservice.gov/mlkday

On October 14, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man to ever receive it. He was just 35 years old and so committed to his cause that he donated the prize money of over $50,000. to the Civil Rights Movement. His protests and his “I Have a Dream” speech are world famous, and his accomplishments are still celebrated today. You can learn more about the 1960s and the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, by watching the excellent video The Sixties from Annenberg Lerner. In Dr. King Jr.’s honor, the United States Congress designated a federal holiday in January each year to be a national day of service.

To take part in this day, plan what you and your family may do to promote King’s values on January 15, 2018. It is the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Each year I plan to mentor students in my community that experience challenges in school. It’s a service that I enjoy very much! Share with us what you and your family plan to do in the comments.

Nature Craft: Pine Cone Christmas Trees

Christmas Tree Pinecones

Christmas Tree Pinecones

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to welcome Veronica Dantzler to our team! She will be sharing original, recycled- and nature-based crafts with us, full of color, creativity and fun. You can follow her on instagram here.

Christmas tree pinecone ornaments on tree

Pine Cone Christmas Trees 

Materials:
Pine cones

Optional materials:
Paint (tempera is great)
Pom poms
Holly berries or any berries that grow in your area (I’m honestly not sure what ours are called but they grow every winter and they are a beautiful red. Editor’s Note: We caution against using bittersweet berries, as this is a very invasive plant and moving berries spreads it, especially in New England)
Clay
Beads
Yarn
Ornament hooks
Glue gun

There are so many things you can create with a pine cone. I have grown to absolutely love them! This craft requires no glue because of the awesomeness of these natural pods.  Simply decide which option
you want to make, gather your supplies and decorate! Push in pom poms, holly berries, lace, some beads and wrap – pushing the beads in as you go to make beautiful homemade ornaments.  You can paint them green for Christmas tree pine cones, white for snow covered trees or leave them natural.

White pinecone trees with berries
White “snow-covered” trees with berries

They are all beautiful and an easy craft to set up for your family. We made ours into ornaments by either using a glue gun to attach an ornament hook or by tying a piece of yarn to the top.  We also used them to make a centerpiece by sticking them into a piece of clay (to help them stand) and sprinkling some glitter to make them sparkle and shine.  The options are limitless!

Christmas tree pinecone centerpieces or placecards
Christmas tree pinecone centerpieces or placecards

Pinecones take paint fantastically. Tempera paint works wonderfully. Paint if you desire. We painted our holly berry ornament white so that the red would pop and we painted one of our forest trees green, spread some glue and sprinkled some glitter.  Let dry before you add your  pom pom or berry “bulbs”.

Bead-and-yarn "garland" on a pinecone Christmas tree
Bead-and-yarn “garland” on a pinecone Christmas tree

Pick your decor.

Pinecone tree centerpiece
We used pom poms on the green tree and we made clay balls for the other two trees in that set.

White Berry Ornament
We simply pushed in our berries to make our white tree ornament and added a hook.

Yarn- and Bead-wrapped Ornament
Tie a piece of yarn to the top of the pine cone (or glue it down with a glue gun) and thread some beads and wrap pushing the beads into the pine cone as you go.

Enjoy!

NORAD Tracks Santa!

Image from https://www.noradsanta.org/

Now that December has arrived, the holiday spirit is in full gear and children and families around the globe are excitedly making their special preparations. If Santa is celebrated in your home, you might like to join the NORAD Tracks Santa countdown that begins every year on December 1st.

This particular event hosted by NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) has a wonderful story relating to how tracking Santa actually began. According to the NORAD Tracks Santa website:

On Dec. 24, 1955, a call was made to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. However, this call was not from the president or a general. It was from a young child in Colorado Springs who was following the directions in an advertisement printed in the local paper – the youngster wanted to know the whereabouts of Santa Claus.

The ad said “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number.” However, the number was printed incorrectly in the advertisement and rang into the CONAD operations center.

On duty that night was Colonel Harry Shoup, who has come to be known as the “Santa Colonel.” Colonel Shoup received numerous calls that night and rather than hanging up, he had his operators find the location of Santa Claus and reported it to every child who phoned in that night.

Thus began a tradition carried on by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when it was formed in 1958. Today, through satellite systems, high-powered radars and jet fighters, NORAD tracks Santa Claus as he makes his Yuletide journey around the world.

Every year on December 24, fifteen hundred volunteers staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children (and adults) from around the world. Live updates are provided through the NORAD Tracks Santa Website (in seven languages), over telephone lines, and by e-mail to keep curious children and their families informed about Santa’s whereabouts and if it’s time to get to bed.

Photo Credit: NORAD Tracks Santa
Photo Credit: NORAD Tracks Santa

If you visit Santa’s Village, you will discover there is even more than just the tracking of Santa on Christmas Eve. In Santa’s village, there is a Theater to watch movies, an Arcade to play a new game every day, a Music Stage for listening to Santa’s favorite holiday songs, and a Library to learn about Santa, his magic sleigh, and holiday traditions. There is even a gift shop you can visit!

For the past 62 years, NORAD Tracks Santa has provided a magical delight to families all over the world. If you are a Santa “believer”, then you just might like to join in these annual festivities!

Birding!

https://feederwatch.org/blog/

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!

 

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