Although he is best remembered for his “experiment in living” near Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau was, among other things, a teacher. Not long after resigning from Concord’s Center School, whose administrator had ordered him to use corporal punishment to keep his students under control, the Harvard-educated Thoreau found himself teaching again, this time with his brother, John, his best friend. It was 1839.
The Thoreaus taught together two years, but eventually quit the profession when John’s tuberculosis worsened. By all accounts they were innovative and popular teachers who regularly took their students out of the classroom, granted them much longer recesses, and in one instance, even had their charges help with tarring the bottom of their rowboat, a very practical skill to have in those days.
Henry and John believed in what I grew up calling “field trips,” although it is important to add that they often instructed their students with very traditional methods and in classical subjects; it seems that rote learning and memorization had places in their curriculum, too.
But the brothers also opened their classroom’s windows for the fresh air, a practice that was hardly conventional in the days when teachers ruled with stern authority and expected the undivided attention of their students.
They also regularly took long walks in the fields and woods around the busy Massachusetts town — just north and west of Boston — yet, advocating that their students learn trades, they conducted tours of local businesses, including the print and gun shops.
Henry wrote in his journal, “We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and we should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.” With that concept very much in play, Thoreau mastered the fundamentals of surveying while he and his students took a field trip to analyze the height and size of Fair Haven Hill. This teacher of Greek and French and Physics truly advocated life-long learning, for he became everything from carpenter to pencil maker to stonemason to poet, and he eventually supported himself off-and-on as a surveyor.
Despite my growing intolerance of the cold weather that plagued us in late fall, I have been taking my own field trips — now, often called “study trips” — into the countryside, and I have seen plenty: eagles and hawks; the abstract designs of frozen pond ice; the work of beavers; the early evening hunting of short-eared owls; the tracks of bobcats and coyote.
As a teacher, I decided long ago that it was almost always a good thing to get my students out of their chairs, to stir their blood, to get them moving, for the habit led them to think and question; it seems to work that way for me, as well.
There is something about walking in the woods, sometimes with my grandson or daughter or wife — but most often alone — that helps me make some sense of the noise I hear on the news, through social media, through nuisance calls and sales pitches. Nature, it seems, forces me to bear down a bit and listen and observe and ponder.
A few weeks ago, the day after a few inches of snowfall, and with the promise of more to come that night, my oldest grandson, who is 4, came over for the day. He expected me to take him for a walk; I had expected him to ask. Although it was in the low 20s, the sun was covered by clouds, and a brisk north breeze blew in our faces, we headed out the door. Knowing that he had recently outgrown his boots, his mother had packed an old pair of hers for him in the hope he could play a while outdoors while she shopped that very day for new ones. The boots were clownishly big, but he assured us that they were fine, and so we left.
Because it was slick and mostly downhill, he walked in my shadow and in my footsteps. Because the boots were awkward, we plodded, which suited him well for it seemed as though he had something to say about nearly everything he saw. We heard the jays and woodpeckers squawking high above us, and he asked more than once about another bird he was hearing — a little nuthatch that we eventually spotted just as he scrabbled head-first down a fat wild grape vine.
With a half-hour or so behind us, he pronounced us “lost,” that his grandmother would be missing us, but it was his cold face and wet hands that convinced me that we needed to end the field trip in favor of something warm to drink, and that by the time we walked back — uphill much of the way — it would be enough for the day.
As we headed home, following his suggestion that we walk in the footprints we had left coming down, his borrowed boots, now thoroughly soaked, began to slip off his feet. With the worst of the climb yet to go, I knew I would have to eventually carry him on my back the rest of the way, or his grandmother might, indeed, be sending out a hunting party. It proved to be a tough climb.
Perhaps on that day, I reaffirmed two things: that my physical conditioning has slipped, and that these “adventure” days have helped me get to know my grandson better. Together, we have traveled to the creek to walk sandbars and to the woods to learn the trees, but I have also taken him along to the recycling center and the hardware store, to the county courthouse and to lunch with my old buddies. He is discovering, despite already being a decided homebody, that there is a world, and we must learn to live in it.
In another journal entry, still timely, although written 160 years ago, Thoreau says that it would be worthwhile to introduce children to a grove of primitive oaks before the trees “…are all gone, instead of hiring botanists to lecture to them when it is too late.”