Arwen Kuttner began teaching in Portland Public Schools after earning an MAT in elementary education at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. A decade later, she is now supporting Second Grade students at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey. Along with a group of colleagues,¬†Arwen has recently joined the PLP community. She’ll be writing about her connected learning experience here at the Voices blog – in the context of her concerns about children losing touch with the natural world.

I have always been grateful for the childhood I had on the outskirts of Corvallis, Oregon. During the winter months, we warmed ourselves at a blackened wood stove that burned newspaper and the firewood my dad chopped. On warmer days I had a grass yard to play in and an acre of pine trees to explore.

I also had the daily morning responsibility of stepping through the dew-damp grass to collect eggs from the chickens in my parents’ garden. Along the way I had the fun of crushing old eggshells beneath my sneakers for compost. And on weekends I helped to harvest or weed the strawberries, grapes, corn, carrots or artichokes my family had planted.

During long days home from school, I played alongside my mother who was always very “crafty” — whether cooking, sewing or developing projects for me to do using needle and thread, or scissors and glue.

My school days too were filled with touching interesting things. I went to Montessori where we learned our letters by tracing them on sandpaper-colored boards. My school had a great emphasis on time in nature, collecting and cataloging leaves or searching for salamanders in streams. Our art projects mixed history with science and tactile experiences, creating paper using methods invented thousands of years ago in Egypt or making batik with wax on cloth.

Fast forwarding

Fast forward two decades. I never expected to end up in suburban Englewood, New Jersey. Our backyard is small and so plagued with mosquitoes that we rarely go outside. I  take my daughter on walks in the woods or to nearby farms, but the fact is, she has less opportunity to connect with the physical world than I did as a child.

Instead, my daughter’s world and that of my students is dominated by digital media. Within this new world is an abundance of knowledge, networking and possibilities that none of us yet completely understand. I know there is a wealth here. Yet sometimes it seems that the screens are just blocking our kids’ awareness of the natural world, in the same way I become distracted from friends and family when I have an iPad in front of me.

It still disturbs me to see the zombie-like look on children’s faces when in front of a TV, and it disappoints me that some very young children seem to lose interest in toys that don’t make noise. The part of me that values associations with the natural world wants to resist the inevitability of iPads and computers and other digital portals claiming more and more time and attention in our classrooms.

And yet . . .

With or without computers, the status quo is that many children’s in-class time is not spent touching and experiencing the vast world. It is spent at a desk with pencil and paper and sometimes it’s tedious. I remember hours spent during my schooling years confined to a desk, facing a paper and pencil task of my own. I do not enjoy those memories, nor do I think I learned a great deal from them.

The school assignments that I remember with pride were usually research projects such as when I had to choose an animal and show its perspective throughout different periods and places in history. I very much enjoyed taking my imaginary cat through being venerated as a God in ancient Egypt (and later helping with the rodent problem during the Black Plague). I enjoyed the research, the pictures I drew and the stories I wrote. I can imagine I would have had so much more available to me had the internet been an additional resource.

Now, as a teacher, I find myself reflecting on these experiences and wondering how best to make education meaningful to my students. I have to weigh many questions. Not only am I considering the difference between life in a digital world and the absence of computers in my own childhood, but I’m also trying to understand the differences between rural Oregon and suburban New Jersey — between teaching in a large Jewish day school and learning in a tiny Montessori school.

I find myself nervous and curious about what changes may be ahead, and I look forward to what I’ll discover as I and others in my school embark on PLP’s Connected Learner Experience. I’ll let you know more about what I find out.

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Arwen Kuttner

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