Thursday, May 22, 2014

H.e.a.r. Chicago Talk: Spinning Right Round and Finding One's Path

Tuesday was a gorgeous summery day, and the Map Room a nice spot for the evening, with its big breezy windows. We started with pizza and chatting; the music turned off and mic came on a little after 7:00.

Unfortunately, some element of the sound system was picking up a television signal, and presenters and audience found themselves having to compete with television programming--and not just any programming, but Alvin and the Chipmunks, culminating in a soul-destroying rendition of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round." But let's just repurpose that disorienting (if theoretically hilarious) element of the evening into part of the theme that emerged: I'd call the theme for this installment of H.e.a.r. Chicago Talk "Identifying that which disconnects us, and recapturing our path."

Adam Heenan asked how high school teachers can help students develop an active voice in their own  education. He detailed some factors leading to students' rudderlessness (standards, testing) and described his solution: helping them apply the methods used in advocacy-organizing to their school experience.

Questions from the audience for Adam included, among many:
  • What are the implications of students who stand up to the "machine?"
  • Could there be a high school Local School Council [an LSC is usually made up of parents, community members, and school leadership]?
  • What if the students don't want to engage in this way of thinking, but are more comfortable being told what to do?

Lisa Clay asked why we persist in doing things that we know are bad for us. She explored the notion that, if self-defeating behavior is composed of a trigger, a routine, and a reward, focusing on changing the routine will yield the best results, since we humans are designed to develop and repeat habits. Lisa approached the question as it applies to nutrition (why do I eat sugar when it makes me feel awful?), but ended with an invitation to consider the concept's application to education contexts. 

Questions from the audience for Lisa included, among many:
  • Sometimes bad habits just happen, without a specific trigger. What then?
  • How do you get yourself to want to change the routine, or have the wherewithall to do so?
  • How do we get buy-in from friends and family when we want to change a habit?

Throughout the evening, I asked audience to submit their own edu-questions they'd been chewing on, which I posted to the wall on butcher paper so people could brainstorm ideas after the formal presentations. This activity didn't get much attention, which is all right, because everyone was talking with each other instead, sharing ideas, which is the point, after all. Attendees represented a fertile mix of teaching and communications disciplines--classroom teachers, informal educators, people in advertising, body/movement therapists, and so on.

However, I'm interested in the butcher-paper questions: 
1) Who won: Karen Lewis or Rahm Emanuel?

When I read this question aloud, the classroom teachers in the room kind of snorted and laughed--they didn't see this as a real question. But the submitter, a "layperson" in terms of edutalk, told me he found the whole situation confounding and inaccessible, and he would have been interested in responses. I think this is really telling. Talk about these issues can become very insular, knotted up in impenetrable thickets of history and context. When a critical mass of people--well, voters--can't access information or reasoning, that gap ultimately contributes to a disconnect between education policy and good practice.

2) What does respect for teachers look like?
This question got a bit of interaction, but merits more.  Maybe someone will explore this in a future H.e.a.r. Chicago Talk!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Climate Adaptation for Urban Nature...and Conceptual Adaptation for Urban Residents

I've been to several excellent nature-and-education-y gatherings this spring. (I generally tweet such experiences in a significantly more timely manner than my blogging about them, so Twitter is a good way to get the gist of a lot of thought-provoking happenings).

It's been months now but my first break-out session at the April 3 Chicago Wilderness 2014 Congress, "Climate Adaptation for Urban Nature," has continued to blow my mind. The session was conducted by scientists from the Field Museum, Morton Arboretum, and Northwestern University, who outlined Chicago's plan for climate-caused changes that they see!

The first aspect of the session that surprised me was the realization that a concrete, specific plan is even in place. While on the public wavelengths we are stuck in this ever-circling eddy arguing climate-change legitimacy, among those who can actually do something about it, at more local levels, stuff is actually getting done. For example, the session leaders told us, there are pilots already in place testing replacing trees at the edge of our ecological zone as they age out and die with trees that will be hardier to the new climate.

It was a tremendous relief to me to know that just because we only hear useless demogoguery doesn't mean necessary planning isn't happening. It's just a shame intelligent policy and implementation has to be conducted by stealth.

But this realization also was tremendously disconcerting. Replace our beloved Chicago trees with, like, pecan trees?? But what about the tree-ful signs of spring and summer and fall and winter? What about our familiar leaf shapes and smells? What will our parks look like? That's crazy! Crazy I tell you!

It sounds so obvious now. Of course, climate change brings ecological change, and far better to prepare for and facilitate the change, since there is no repelling it. But even for someone who thinks about climate change a lot (I do my best worrying in the early morning), it was, for a reason I don't understand, shocking to think about this element.

I was left with logistical questions. What about the critters that rely on these trees? You can't just go and and and replace the contents of an entire niche. What about all the other elements of that ecosystem--the plants that require the shade of those trees, the birds that eat the insects that live on our current trees, and so on? I'm pretty sure these scientists have thought about all that and only touched on this plan in the one-hour session, but their outline left me doing a Looney Tunes level double-take.

And I am still chewing on a question that straddles logistics and, I don't know, maybe philosophy. Given that everything is going to change and there is no stopping it, what is the point of conservation and restoration? What are we conserving? Plants and animals and systems that are going to disappear from our area anyway? Why are we restoring to a time that will never return?

Given the well of emptiness and loss this question leaves in me, I'm going to go with this question  neither logistical nor philosophical, but spiritual, at least for me.

I'd been mulling over this sad question since the Congress, but one of the speakers at the Center for Humans and Nature's May 4 Ethics and Nature symposium actually answered it, in part, in her talk. Conservation plant scientist Pati Vitt pointed out that a healthy and whole ecosystem is better able to adjust to climate change than a degraded one (think about how much less damaging the droughts and winds of the Dustbowl would have been if we had cultivated the land more thoughtfully).

Okay--that sounds right, and useful. But that doesn't sound like the whole answer to me. Maybe it's also that the notion of climate change makes all of us, even those of us who accept its reality, want to continue with our comfortable and comforting ways. I hope that's not it. I hope--I think--I don't know the answer yet. I do know that it seems increasingly important to keep conserving, keep restoring, and still keep planning.

Given the subject of this post, I thought this photo I took at last week's Nature Play workshop put on by Chicago Wilderness was a propos. Hah.