How my son’s obsession with birds is teaching us how to learn. By Christopher J. Anderson
When my son Atticus was old enough to have interests outside his mother, he latched onto dinosaurs. This seems perfectly normal given how little we really know about these fantastic creatures. I went through my own dinosaur phase when I was young, though back then there were far fewer known dinosaurs and it was easy to have a broad knowledge of the subject. Atticus impressed us, and anyone he met, with all he knew about dinosaurs. God forbid you said that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived in the Triassic Period. He would correct you, leaving you feeling foolish for saying anything at all.
But something interesting happened along the way, mirroring our current understanding of these ancient creatures. Atticus’ interest has shifted from dinosaurs to birds, the direct descendents of such ferocious creatures as T Rex and velocoraptor. In fact, as any respectable paleontologist will tell you, dinosaurs are still living amongst us—they’re just smaller and nest in trees.
Atticus, now 7 years old, has three birding books: a 10th edition of National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, a copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to New England (which includes a large section on birds), and Sibley’s Guide to North American Birds. Since the switch happened from dinosaur to bird, Atticus has devoured all three guides. At first he asked his mother and I to read entire sections to him, but now that he’s beginning to read he pours over the pages on his own. I think it would be fair to say he’s memorized both books for the most part. The other day when a local professor of biology told Atticus he saw a Carolina Wren, he was quickly corrected. Carolina Wrens don’t come this far north, Atticus told the professor. “You’re right,” the professor told him. “It must’ve been a Savannah Sparrow. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I find all of this fascinating, mostly because Atticus helps to make it exciting. We home school. Not for religious or political reasons, but simply because his mother and I work odd hours (I teach college writing classes and his mother waits tables), and if we sent him off to school we would barely see him except on weekends. And this brings me to the point of this essay. It appears we’re entering new territory as we define what home schooling means for us.
For the past school year we’ve struggled somewhat with home schooling. There are rules, you see, to this whole home schooling game. And we’ve been trying our best to lead Atticus (and his sister Meadow) to where we, and the state, think he needs to go. We are learning reading by slogging through a book designed to teach reading (“Every time we sit down to read this book, my head gets sleepy,” Atticus says.). He studies math—and enjoys it quite a bit—mostly because math at this age is about puzzles, and nearly every kid enjoys puzzles until they are tested over them. Still, most of the home schooling feels overly forced, like we’re the ones threatening to send our children to the principal’s office for not following the rules.
So I’ve been thinking about this bird business. What if we let the birds lead the way?
There are a few reasons why this comes to mind. First, and most obvious, is that Atticus lights up around nature. When camping, I’ve caught him coming to consciousness after a good night’s sleep in our tent, his eyes fluttering, then opening, the wide smile that creeps across his beautiful face. He glows. It’s as if waking in that immersion of nature pumps the blood through his veins, and he is instantly awake, fully alive, nowhere else he’d rather be. The trees are full of birds signing their morning songs, talking to each other, calling out for connection. Atticus is always the first one out of the tent.
And it seems to me that the birds can teach us nearly anything we want to know. Atticus is learning geography by studying migratory patterns. He is learning math by counting the various birds he sees (other animals, too). His reading excels the most when he is pouring over his guides or any bird themed library book we pick on a given week. One boy who he attends a Mass Audubon nature skills class with recently told his mother, “Can we have a play date with Atticus? He always has the most interesting things to say.” I’m going to go out on limb here and guess that he was talking about wild animals of all kinds, but mostly about birds. The kid’s a walking nature show.
I think also about the best students I encountered while teaching college writing. One young woman who won a prestigious national writing contest a few years back was unschooled once her interest began to wane in middle school. Her mother told me it was one of the scariest—and best—decisions she’s ever made. This isn’t to say unschooling or home schooling is for everybody. This young woman’s sister remained in the public school system because it was serving her (she’s now making a great living as a software programmer). But on the whole, non-traditionally schooled students faired better than traditionally schooled students, at least in my writing classes at a small liberal arts college in rural New Hampshire. So take that as you will.
And my own elementary education was fraught with trouble. I aced certain subjects (art, psychology, government), while failing miserably in others. I remember my own sleepy head hitting the desk when our 11th grade English teacher “taught” The Scarlet Letter using a slide projector with a vinyl record soundtrack. (I repeated that class over the summer) I don’t want to assume Atticus is a carbon copy of myself, but I can also sense that this apple has not fallen too far from the tree.
I always thought that having children would be a time for me to relearn everything I’d forgotten. Most surprising about this was how much I’d forgotten about the natural world, a world I lived in as best I could in cookie cutter suburbia I experienced. We lived in the creeks that cut through the north Texas landscape, hunting snakes, catching frogs, watching birds. Now, when I go for my daily walk, I pay a new kind of attention to the world that surrounds me. The goldfinch that swoop between trees, the pink blossoms that will soon become a fruit thanks to the numerous pollinators, especially bees. The smell of wild animal that sometimes surprises me as I walk through the woods, or even by the local golf course (coy-wolves!). What a gift it is to be curious. How I had forgotten to stay so curious, to live every day in a state of wonder.
We don’t know where all of this will lead. Atticus may one day want to join his friends at the nearby elementary school. But for now I hope he remains in this natural state of wonder about the world that we need so desperately to know. We’ll need more people like my son to create the change that our world is in need of. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long for me to learn this.
photo: crschmidt / flickr