Today I got to witness a most amazing thing—fifth graders looking through microscopes for the first time. As a naturalist in training at Sheldrake Environmental Center in Larchmont, New York, I will observe a few field trips, as well as a few pre-trip classes, where the naturalist visits the school classroom before taking the kids out to the woods or the beach.
Groups of 12 kids collected pond samples and looked at them outside before bringing them into the nature center’s classroom, which was set up with a microscope for each child. Well slides (which hold a drop of water with living organisms from the pond) had been clipped onto the stages of each device.
The kids filed in and took their places standing in front of a microscope, one per customer, so-to-speak. They were remarkably well behaved. The head naturalist, Jenny, who’s my teacher for the outdoor educator 6-week training course, a lovely woman with lots of wisdom, introduced some concepts to the children while they listened. Then she gave them a tour of the microscope’s parts—the light switch, the objectives, the stage, the slides. She told the kids to look and see if their objectives were in the 1X position (10 times magnification) or the 3X position (30 times magnification), and said that if the 3X setting was showing, they should rotate the objective ring to the 1X setting. This was the magic moment. The moment the kids got to put their hands on the instruments. Jenny took a deep breath and told the kids they could all switch on their lights. They’d been holstering their eager hands, and as soon as she gave the go ahead, their interest in this novel experience was kindled.
It reminded me of the first time I looked through a telescope, in Sedona, Arizona, while I was traveling solo in the late 90s, and I saw the rings of Saturn with my own eyes. Up until then, I had only seen pictures of Saturn, not the real thing. This magical telescope enabled me to see a part of the world that had previously been invisible to me, and it expanded my whole worldview. The same goes for microscopes and macro lenses—they just wow me! They give me superhuman powers. They bring worlds I wasn't aware of before into focus. Then I feel privy to a new realm of secrets, and connected to a new set of possibilities.
The first moment a student experiences something new is filled with awesome potential. If the experience is positive, it could give rise to a future biologist, chemist, explorer, archaeologist, geneticist, and more!
As a child, I felt such awe, reverence, and wonder... such curiosity, comfort, and delight immersed in nature. Undertaking this environmental educator course with the commitment to then lead talks and walks looking at birds, insects, and plants in the pond, forest, and seashore feels like my calling.
I’ve worked as a book editor for the past 16 years. I was trained at DePaul University to teach writing (and to teach writing teachers how to teach writing), and my favorite thing is to teach writing workshops. I have a Nature Writing curriculum I love to teach, that involves taking participants on a nature hike, then guiding them with writing prompts to use all their senses and become better writers on any subject, using nature as a practice subject. The 3-hour workshop is rejuvenating for all levels of writers and even non-writers who desire creative enrichment. I’ve also done serious rainforest and alpine trekking, which I hope to have the endurance to do again. It will be rewarding to share my enthusiasm for the creatures and features of our earth with kids. I’ve got my two daughters as a captive audience for the time being. One is distinctly more comfortable in nature than the other. I'm hoping the other catches up and catches the contagion of my enthusiasm and fearlessness in the forest.
Can you think of the first time you discovered a deeper layer of the natural world? Or was there a teacher who sparked in you the love of a subject that you then went on to pursue later in life? Write about that!