Where is the magic out there?

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By: Judy Halpern

I have been teaching for over 15 years and still have little difficulty finding magic in everyday experiences. Of course as I get older, more experienced and I dare say, more cynical, I may have to look a little harder but spending time outdoors with young children makes it an everyday possibility!

After eleven exciting years in the classroom and four wonderful years at an outdoor centre, I finally left the comforts of my life in Canada to spend a year travelling abroad. It has taken me a long time to realize this, but the world really is much bigger than our immediate schools, boards and issues!

When I returned, I faced another year in the classroom getting reacquainted with the new curriculum (it seems to be new every year). I found that my experiences in the "real world" gave me fresh insight on matters and helped me keep my everyday problems in perspective. I was lucky enough to enjoy a class of students who were my best audience and were genuinely interested in my experiences. I became a storyteller.

As the year progressed I yearned for ways to incorporate my experiences in the world and my love of nature into my teaching. Neither proved to be very difficult and I quickly learned that my students, who had a genuine curiosity about the world around them, would really learn through experiences that I could provide.

The story is the key. This I learned from Bob Henderson in his storyteller's workshop at the annual COEO conference, September 1998. I could use the medium of storytelling to relate concepts, recall events, remember information and recreate the 'magic' of the moment. I could use picture books to teach an appreciation for quality writing and the diversity of art in children's literature.

There is no better time to acquire scientific habits of mind and no better instigator than quality children's books. Children's books that instil the habits of mind sustain science. (Literature and Science Breakthroughs, Jo-Anne Lake, 2000)

I spent all my spare time (between planning, preparing, portfolios and personal profiles) putting together what came to be The Magic Suitcase! I applied for another year's leave and put my plan into action. Here are the results:

The Magic Suitcase is a literature-based program that uses Language Arts in the natural world to bring quality picture books to life. The program is dedicated to providing opportunities for young children to discover the wonders of literature and the outdoors. In turn, it will build an appreciative attitude in our children towards our fragile environment. That's the mission!

Patterns in nature resonate with mathematical precision. Shells, leaves, and animal evidence symmetries that can be expressed in complex formulations. In the last twenty years a whole branch of mathematics called chaos theory has arisen to account for the variations and seeming unpredictability of the natural world. Literature is filled with stories of people at odds with the natural world, surviving the forces of nature, or studying its beauty and power. (Tales of Thinking Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom Paul Carreiro, 1998).

It has been five years since my decision to leave the traditional classroom and teach in a way that I know children will learn. The program has been designed to allow our students to experience the natural world through their eyes, head and heart. By creating a personal connection to the world around us we can instill a desire to want to be a positive contributor to our society. It sounds very wholesome and 'apple pie-ish' but it works!

The Magic Suitcase first grew out of a desire to provide learning experiences to young children who may not have access to an 'outdoor education' centre. Then it evolved to provide ways for children (and teachers) to use their immediate surroundings to discover that nature exists right outside our door. Nature is not exclusive to the 'forest' or the field centres that you need to travel to by bus, it exists right in our own schoolyards - we just have to open the door and get outside!

Our schoolyards are really the perfect place to begin teaching about our environment. Just think, they are easy to get to, they can be observed over time with repeated trips, they reflect our neighbourhood, they are touched by the elements such as wind, sun, rain and pollution. Focussing on the schoolyard will hopefully inspire future environmental improvement projects. Now add to this a picture book depicting a similar place brimming with life and you have the perfect recipe for meaningful environmental education!

"[Children] find infinite appeal in soil and mud, in sand and water, in making colourful marks on paper; later they enjoy the discipline of wood, of stone and rock, of sound and light. It is the crust of the Earth, in all its variations, which most attracts the child. In handling these things, the child's powers of concentration are exercised to the full." Alice Yardley

The Magic Suitcase now travels right across Ontario providing workshops for children and teachers using their own schoolyards to explore the wonders of nature. Literature is used as a springboard to explain concepts and with a touch of 'magic' we make the experience a memorable one. Workshops are also provided for teachers who are looking for ways to integrate the outdoors into their regular program.

Aside from the workshops, The Magic Suitcase also provides teaching materials for the primary grades. These materials consist of published storybooks, props (necessary to teach the activities), and a teacher's guide integrating language arts, science, math, social studies and the arts. Each activity is coded to identify expectations of the new Ontario Curriculum it meets. With the use of these kits teachers can use their own backyards to teach environmental issues through literature-based activities.

The Magic Suitcase presents a new resource to help you get dirt under your fingernails and mud between you toes! DOWN TO EARTH is a kit on rocks, minerals and soil for grades 2 - 4. It is an ideal planning tool for teaching a progression of concepts for the primary grades or in helping to deal with split grades. Unearth the mysteries of rocks and soil through literature, art and science activities! Included in this kit are four published storybooks Backyard Time Detectives by David Suzuki, Who Wants Rocks? by Michael Kusugak, The Pebble in My Pocket by Meredith Hooper and Everyone Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor; labelled rock and mineral samples, soil ecosystem poster, fossils, artifacts and tumbled pebbles.

For more information about The Magic Suitcase programs, workshops or teaching materials please feel free to visit our website.

Need some magic in your life? Curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and a great book and let it transport you to the world of imagination. Then, bring that fantasy into a child's life by sharing picture books with your students. New at this? Try any of the recommended books below as a springboard and then go wild! Mother Earth by Nancy Luenn ISBN: 0-689-80164-5 This book is a joyful celebration of our Mother Earth. It reminds us that we have a job to do to help keep her healthy - be it covering the ground, her skin, with grass; sheltering her animals or learning to sit and listen as the stones do. With its use of soft watercolours, it is a gentle reminder to use her gifts well, and return them with respect.

The Inuksuk Book by Mary Wallace ISBN: 1-895688-91-4 "When you look at an inuksuk you are seeing more than a stack of stones. You are seeing the thoughts of another person left upon the land...Today inuksuit are being built in the North. This book is full of expressive photographs and spectacular paintings of life in the North".

Dragon in the Rocks by Marie Day ISBN: 1-895688-38-8 "Try the tongue twister, "She sells seashells by the seashore", and you might be referring to a story of a fabled dragon, prehistoric bones and an English girl who was fascinated by fossils. They say this famous chant was written about Mary Anning and her days selling "curiosities" by the sea. Here is a true tale of twelve year old Mary, perhaps the world's first child palaeontologist; two hundred years ago, she painstakingly dug a huge ichthyosaur skeleton from the stony cliffs of Lyme Regis. Told here with great charm and liveliness, her story combines history, science and one girl's incredible feat of perseverance. (See "The Three Mary Annings" in Wat on Earth, Spring 2000.)

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian ISBN: 0-15-239339-0 "When you find a rock, you don't always know what kind of a rock it is. Have you found a hiding rock? Or a rock to skip in the water? It might be a wishing rock, or a climbing rock, or a rock to kick in front of you all the way home. Or you might have found a rock that doesn't have a name yet. And that might be the best rock of all...Simple text and beautiful hand-tinted black and white photographs bring to life the simple pleasures of finding that perfect rock!

Grandad's Prayers of the Earth by Douglas Wood ISBN: 0-7636-0660-X "Trees pray. They reach for the clouds and sun and sky and stars. What else is reaching for heaven but a prayer? Rocks, streams, birds, and yes, people pray. All in their own ways, all for their own reasons." Douglas Wood and P. J. Lynch have written and illustrated a joy to read and to share with anyone you love.