The Great Nebula, Stardust, and True Learning

It was the last day of school and most of the students had left. Hans, the janitor, motioned for me to follow him. He had a smile on his face and was very animated in his gestures. One of the few survivors of the Wehrmacht’s ill fated drive into Russia as well as the Korean War, Hans was a fellow who was not easily excited.

“I’ve got to show somebody this,” he said, “or nobody will believe me.”

He took me into the boy’s bathroom and pointed to a stall. I looked in and saw a six inch rainbow trout flopping around in the toilet. I laughed and after a few minutes we figured out how it must have gotten in there. We had taken our second graders on a last day field trip to the city park which had a stocked pond in it. Several of my boys had amused themselves by catching fry in their drink cups and showing the baby fish to me. They wanted to take them home, but I explained that they needed to be returned to the water or they would die.

I had observed one boy trying to catch a bigger fish, and in spite of my admonition for him to stop, he had obviously succeeded and then in a panic dumped the fish in the nearest water source he could think of. It was not my only encounter with a trout during my public school teaching career. I once found one 12” rainbow outside my classroom door. It had escaped from the stocking truck that passed by my room earlier. It ended up in the principal’s desk, but that’s a story for another day.  I went on at least 2 field trips each year during my thirty decades in public schools. Included were fishing trips, campouts, visits to nature centers, museums, farms, ranches, MLB games, mountain climbing, ropes courses, and amusement parks. I have many great memories from these outside learning experiences.

I wonder if class field trips will survive the current “drill and test” paradigm of educational reform. I hope so. Perhaps these “reformers” have good enough memories of their own field trips to accept the retention of these outside of the school box forays. Often, some of the best learning occurred on these outings, even the ones that were disasters. Exhibit A is one field trip of mine in the early ’90s that went off of the rails. It was a three-day outing to the YMCA Nature Center in Estes Park, Colorado. As the titular leader of the trip, I had done a scouting run a week earlier since we had never been there before. Unfortunately, I came down with the worst case of laryngitis of my career.  This prevented me from stopping the lead bus driver (who swore to me that he knew where we were going) from making a wrong turn that put three school buses (we had started with four) on a narrow mountain road with no place to turn around.

We ended up getting to camp two and a half hours late. The kitchen had closed, and we then had to figure out how to feed 160 hungry 12-year-olds. Somehow we managed, and the lessons in patience, ingenuity, and community far outweighed the science the kids learned on the trip. I know this to be true because I still hear from former students who laugh about all of the difficulties. It was not my most difficult field trip, however. That experience took place in the spring of 1997. I was teaching earth science, but since I had a regular classroom and no budget, it was hard. Lack of sinks, funds, and storage space made hands-on work difficult. I took my students outdoors as much as possible and found creative ways to do things indoors. I also solicited the class’s advice on ways to make the best of the situation.

What really excited them was astronomy, and they were willing to come to school at night to do it. All we needed was a telescope. They volunteered to sell donuts to the high school students next door in the mornings and soda after school to raise money. I contacted a local amateur astronomer named Doug, and he advised me about a low cost Newtonian model that would meet our needs splendidly. Doug also offered his observatory for a tour and a place to break in our new scope. Money was accumulated, the telescope purchased, forms were signed, and parent drivers corralled in time for a Friday night field trip during the last month of school.

The observatory was located in Lake George which was about an hour away from the school. We set up a time with the astronomer, met in the parking lot and headed out just as the light was fading. We couldn’t see the sunset because it was foggy and rainy. Everyone was worried that we wouldn’t see anything with our new telescope, but Doug had assured us that in spite of the weather in town, we would probably have good viewing conditions at his observatory. Sure enough, when we got to the turnoff, the clouds vanished and we could see stars. We could also see two police cars with flashing lights and a yellow Subaru station wagon in the middle of the road we had turned onto. A man lay on his back in the road while deputies and paramedics milled around. The man was obviously dead since no one was attempting to revive him.

A deputy with a flashlight waved us through, and ten minutes later we found the observatory. I got out of the car and went up to it, but it was locked and dark. After a couple of minutes, two men with a flashlight came up to us.

“Are you Mr. Parent? “one of them asked.

I said yes. They explained that Doug had asked them to give me his apologies. He was feeling ill and had been forced to leave before we arrived.

“You probably passed him. He was in a yellow Subaru station wagon.”

The students overheard, and everyone quickly figured out what had happened. It had been our host, Doug, who had been lying in the road. We later learned he had a heart attack. I gathered the students together and talked to them. I don’t remember what I said. but the chaperones assured me it was appropriate for the situation. The class voted to show their respect by setting up the telescope and exploring the night sky as best we could. Fortunately, I had done some homework and was able to show them a few things that made me look smarter than I actually am. I pointed out the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. Everyone looked, and although there were oohs and ahhs, the children were relatively subdued.

But the astronomical highlight of the evening was the Great Nebula in Orion’s belt. Nebulae are the remains of stars that have exploded. They contain all of the elements that were manufactured inside of the star. Therefore, you, me, and everything around us is made of matter that was made inside of a star. We are all made of stardust. As I explained these facts to the class, the circumstances of our surroundings gave the lesson an added effect. After an hour and a half, we packed up and drove home in relative silence. I made sure that every parent who picked up their child was aware of what had taken place. A couple of parents and students stayed for a long time afterward talking. The sky had cleared, so I set the telescope up again and nobody went home until long after midnight.

On Monday, the children wanted to send condolence cards, so I gave them supplies and they made their own. I called Doug’s family and asked if I could attend the funeral. They said yes. The cards the students made were lovely, well written, and very creative. I gave them to the family after the service. They wrote me later and told me how special our actions were to them. Doug died doing what he loved best in a place he loved best. They thought my students were exceptionally articulate.

Many of the parents contacted me over the last weeks of school and related the profound conversations that our field trip had generated between them and their children. They thanked me both for the year and for the field trip. It was literally the journey of a lifetime. So for those school reformers who are so enamored of tests, I ask: where in the Pearson Vue computerized testing is there room for writing and designing sympathy cards for a man who devoted his last breath towards opening up the universe to a group of twelve-year-olds? Give me a satisfactory answer, and then maybe I’ll support you.

Photo By: NASA