Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teaching Underground goes Underground, literally.

I did something I don't do enough of the other day and decided to take a day trip with my 4 year old daughter. While pondering several destinations, ones I'd like, ones she'd like, my daughter remarked she wanted to go somewhere cool. I am not certain what she meant but since it was hot as a Nick Lachay boy band outside I thought she might be referring to the temperature. Several days passed and while reading "We're Going on Bear Hunt" to her for the 1300th time it came to me. I'd take her to a cave.

The chosen spot was near where I often fish in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. It is called Grand Caverns(Weyers Cave to some) and it is tucked away in Grottoes about 45 minutes drive from our house. Grottoes, (Italian for cave) is a splendid little place and the town now owns and operates what is America's oldest show cave. Grand Caverns was discovered in 1804 by a man named Bernard Weyer while he was looking for one of his animal traps, presumably taken into the opening by an animal. What he found is truly amazing and inspired a sense of wonder and awe in both my daughter and myself. We arrived at about 11 AM and there were only 2 cars in the lot. The warm nature of the cashier at the store where you buy the tickets was a good start and once we bought our tickets he said the next tour started in 20 minutes. We passed the time with the penny crushing machine in the gift shop and then climbed "Cave hill" to the entrance. That irony wasn't lost on my 4 year old who complained about the trek and having to carry a sweatshirt along for seemingly no reason.

It was there where we met our guide, a local who was well versed in the history and geology of the area. She headed the line of 7 visitors on our careful descent into the cool darkness below. The age in our group ranged from my 4 year old to an older couple from Phoenix. Talk about differentiation! At the front was this individual who quickly showed she was a master of her craft. She managed to hold our attention with a mix of talents. The volume and range of what she shared with us was impressive and wide ranging. I guess I have a peculiar kinship given I also teach underground. I can only hope to do half as good a job.

When I venture to a "destination" I often prefer to do my own thing and focus only on what interests me. That mentality seems analogous to what many students feel when they think about school. Thinking back I can learn much from this person who literally works underground in the dark. She did talk most of the time but paused to ask questions and seek input, giving us sufficient time to just absorb all we were seeing. Just before the tour she skillfully took a few moments to learn a little about each of us and then catered to our interests and connect us to what we were learning. She engaged personally with us all and managed to make each of us feel important. She threw in some inquiry based learning and started with some rooms simply by asking questions. I got 2 correct. My daughter got 3.

All told we were in the 54 degree cavern for more than an hour and 15 minutes and walked more than a mile and a half. But man, we took in a lot of information. Topics ranged from stories of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and underground parties, to descriptions of the eons of growth and geologic oddities. We got much more than the cookie cutter version that most big groups likely get when pressed for time. We even saw "George's ghost" seen here at the center of "cathedral hall".

The Civil War is woven into the fabric of the Valley's history and that is no different below ground. Within sight of Cave Hill were 2 engagements where more than 3,000 soldiers died. But in the Cave things were somewhat different. Evidence suggests Union and Confederate soldiers visited at the same time, sort of leaving the war on the outside. I wish that could be the same today and especially that we could set aside our differences for the greater good of those in our schools. I guess in some ways we have always done this in schools but it is seems too infrequent in an increasingly vitriolic debate on the future of education. During the war more than 200 Civil War soldiers visited the cave and left signatures. This graffiti would be frowned upon and illegal today but it opened a snapshot into one story in particular. The tale of Captain William Miles(seen here as W W Miles) from Pennsylvania who was later killed in an engagement with the famed Gray Ghost John Mosby.

So the literal "journey" we took below ground might have some metaphorical comparisons to what happens in a school. It takes time to grow rocks and a single touch can stop this process permanently. Similarly the maturation and education of a child can be equally fragile. Any missteps along they way leave marks hard to overcome. Exterior factors such as poverty, teacher turnover, national policy and shifting curriculum impact children just as the subterranean world is subject to shifts beyond their walls. Taken individually these formations might seem unimpressive, like hearing only one note in a song. But in concert they contribute to something wondrous. I think reflecting on people who enter our schools as students and teachers only as individuals leads to the same conclusion. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Plato's Allegory of the cave from the Republic which I have found to be one of the most rewarding lessons I use with my kids. Symbolic indeed.

One could find many more parallels between this cave and education. You could have given me a map, tour book, and weeks to prepare outside the cave but that would be no substitute for the knowledge and experience of a seasoned guide. Maybe teachers are the same. A digital snapshot from inside the cave does little to convey what it is really like to someone who hasn't experienced it themselves. Still decisions are made far from the classroom and often because there is political momentum to do something, even if it is the wrong thing. I had been in caves but it had been some two decades and perhaps this is similar to those that have left the classroom. They think they remember what it's like but they do not. As a general rule caves are thought of by most people as uninviting inhospitable places but those are misplaced perceptions. I think how the public understands schools can be characterized the same way.

Many folks know the basics about caves. The stalactite, stalagmite... but we went much deeper(pun intended) learning of the amazing abundance of shields there, the cave coral, and ancient tectonic processes that folded the Earth's crust turning horizontal rock into vertical. Anything worthwhile takes time. If we are to strengthen and improve our schools our progress should be measured and cautious. Going in too fast might take us somewhere we might not want to be, with no way to reverse course. An unwise cave explorer might then bear some resemblance to those calling for drastic reform and quick fixes. Trying to describe what we saw in the cave is likely much like explaining the impact of reform to those that do not work directly with kids.

People have toured the cave for 205 years and much has changed with the experience, as is the case in our education system in this country. They graduated from using candles and torches to flashlights and electric bulbs. But what they felt and what we felt were probably the same at their heart. Teaching at the same school I attended gives me a desire to maintain some things about our school that shouldn't be altered but also move it forward in necessary ways. Seeing some shifts makes me uneasy as if someone in our group were touching a prized attraction. My daughter's favorite moment was when the guide took us back into a large side chamber and switched off all the lights. Transporting us to the days of old when explorers ventured by candlelight. This afforded us a look at something you can't see with electric illumination. The crystalline walls of the cave sparkled like diamonds as the candle flickered and for the next few moments we just stood in silence and wonder taking it in.

Our tour ended when we ascended up back into the humidity and heat. We signed the guestbook and thanked our guide for our amazing journey. My daughter gave her leg a hug and said thank you and quickly scurried towards the door dragging my hand behind. But she quipped, "Dad it was really cool in there". I hope that sense of wonder will show up again on some other adventure we take. It'll be a tough act to follow. Maybe I shouldn't worry so much about outdoing this day and just tuck it away in my memory.

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