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croppped tarantualLet’s be honest…looking for tarantulas on the ceiling before sitting down to dinner is not considered normal. Nor is checking for frogs in the shower before you shampoo.  But as many of our Amazon travelers will attest, there is an undeniable sense of pride and accomplishment when you can actually say you’ve done this!  There are definite benefits to traveling to places in the world that take you to the edge of your comfort zone.

It is on this un-comfortable edge where:

1.  perspectives are changed

2.  passions are discovered

3.  adventurous souls are awakened

4.  routines are broken

5.  true callings are revealed

6.  futures are redefined

7.  independence takes root

8.  the most surprising people become friends

9.  life altering experiences occur

10. real growth and learning happen!

Take for example, the tarantula on the ceiling.  When it fell from the rafters onto the dinner table, naturally a collective gasp (and a few shrieks)  erupted around the room.  But after the initial shock, these were replaced with awe and wonder.  The student closest to the airborne arachnid overcame her phobia and calmly held her ground, much to the awe of her peers!  This in turn inspired others to take a closer look as researcher, Steve Madigosky, gently collected it and explained it was a pink-toed  tarantula (Avicularia sp.).

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Sure enough it looked as if each of the eight toes had been dipped in pink nail polish, prompting oohs and ahhs instead of squeals and shrieks from the audience. Someone then asked the obvious question, “What was it doing on the ceiling?”  Much to everyone’s surprise, Steve explained that there are arboreal (tree dwelling) tarantulas in the Amazon, uniquely adapted to life in the treetops.  The beauty that landed on the dinner table had simply lost her footing but because she was built for tree top living, she survived the fall just fine.

When Steve asked if anyone would like to hold it, the response was overwhelmingly positive and students patiently waited for their turn to feel the delicate touch of 8 pink toes on their skin.   In this unscripted travel experience, perspectives were changed, fears were overcome, routines were broken, and new passions discovered…

When was the last time you checked for tarantulas on the ceiling?  If you haven’t, maybe it’s about time!

Bags are packed, equipment checked, guidebooks read and re-read.  We are ready! We already know more than the average Joe about the Amazon.  If we were preparing for a test, we’d expect an A+.  But as the plane slips below the clouds, and we catch our first glimpse of the rainforest…a vast carpet of green with only the snaking curves of the Amazon River to give a sense of scale, we begin to realize we don’t really understand this place. This is the place that overwhelmed Charles Darwin, who once described it as “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.”  The PBS documentary movies describe it as crawling, slithering, clinging, and jumping with amazing wildlife – much of it unkown to science. This is the place we’ve been told is critical to the health of our planet…a place that is rapidly disappearing unless we take action..but we don’t have the first clue how to even begin…

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As travelers to the Amazon, we are fortunate to experience one of the world’s most astonishing and important ecosystems – the tropical rainforest. In preparation for this epic adventure, we have done our homework and can reel off the facts. We know that the world’s rainforests:

• support more than ½ of the world’s biodiversity;
• provide new medicines, foods, and other products of global economic value;
• impact local, regional, and global climates-protecting against floods, drought, and erosion;
• store vast amounts of carbon and help to mitigate global climate change;
• provide food and shelter to indigenous people;
• and are a source of inspiration and wonder.

We know as the world’s largest intact rainforest, the Amazon is a critically important global resource.  We’ve read that it is unrivalled in its scale and its complexity. We might even know that it makes up of 50% of the world’s remaining rainforest and encompasses an area greater than the continental USA.

If we are really serious about our studies, we also know that the Amazon harbors least 10% of the word’s known biodiversity, with new species being discovered at the rate of 1 every 3 days (more than 1,200 new species in the last decade). We know that the Amazon River system accounts for more than 15% of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. We can even state with some confidence that approximately 350 ethnic groups are sheltered by its forests and sustained by its waters – and that a few “uncontacted” groups still exist.

GREAT! We can recite all these facts and more. Surely we deserve an A+ and can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But wait…what job is well done? Has our fact finding led to something greater? Has it made a difference? Have we forged any kind of connection to this place will move us beyond factual recall and into the realm of inspiration, wonder, and action?

Last week we introduced the topic of place-based learning and how it can be used to move us beyond factual awareness and into active participation and deep understanding. In Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Mitchell Thomashow, a place-based education guru, suggests that to be actively engaged in understanding a place you must acquire

“…a range of facilities – the willingness to plunge your senses into the living landscape, the ability to ask good, scientific questions and develop approaches to finding empirical answers; the imaginative capacity to use the natural world as inspiration for artwork, photography, stories, essays, music, and poetry; the open-mindedness and reflective ability to be perennially engaged by the wonder, insight, and meaning derived of from your observations.”

These are the ingredients which will open the doors to understanding a place – even a place like the Amazon.

We are looking forward to “plunging into the living landscape” of the Amazon this summer, armed with the facts, but ready to ask good questions, ignite our imaginations, and engage with wonder. We are ready to get that A+ in Amazon 101!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Leave a reply below. Have you been to the Amazon? Are you going? What questions do you have? What do you want to know more about? How do you make meaning in new and different places and situations?

Ahhh…Amazonia.  A magical word that conjures up images of snaking rivers, soaring trees, and strange wildlife.  Surely if there is a place that can inspire wonder and curiosity, it is this.  And yet…many visitors struggle to make sense of it all, to put it into perspective, to find a scale that makes it understandable and manageable, to find a way to meaningfully connect.  It seems that many find it difficult to immerse themselves and fully experience the world right in front of them.

Now imagine if you were blind.  How would you begin to understand and connect to this strange new world without the sense of sight?  I recently finished A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts, a remarkable book about a remarkable man who traveled – completely blind to some of the most remote and wild regions of the world – often by himself.  Needless to say, it got me thinking – and questioning! 

How does one typically develop a sense of a place?  How do I connect with the places I visit every day or once-in-a-lifetime?  How do others connect?  What ways of making connections are overlooked or under-utilized? Does a deepening sense of place lead to action? involvement? As educators and naturalists, what is our role in helping our students develop a “sense of a place” and what implications does this have for teaching and learning?  How can we facilitate total immersion in a place?

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

Total Immersion of 2012 Amazon Educators

According to the Center for Ecoliteracy, place-based learning begins with asking questions such as, “Where am I? What is the natural and social history of this place? How does this place fit into the larger world?”

IMG_3602All great questions, but it seems to me, as stated, they barely scratch the surface.  The real power of place-based learning comes when these questions are used to not only develop a student’s awareness of the world around them, but to deepen their understanding that they are active participants and not passive observers of the places they live and the places they visit.   Planting and nurturing this sense of awareness, this personal responsibility to a place, will allow real and lasting transformation to take root.

As we prepare for our upcoming 2013 Educator Academy in the Amazon, we will be using these Vital Venture tips for getting started with place-based learning to focus the development of our field sessions.  You can use these just as easily in your own classroom or own backyard!

  • Make it personal. Make personal connections to your community and environment through research, personal reflection, and exploration.
  • Find out what is going on.  Identify local issues or ongoing projects related to concepts you are studying in the classroom or exploring in the field – “real world” examples provide context, life, and meaning.
  • Find out who your local “experts” are. Deepen understanding by engaging with local professionals from a variety of backgrounds and ask them to share their perspectives on the issue at hand.
  • Investigate. Engage in independent, personalized research and enlist the support and guidance of the “experts” in your community.
  • Take action.  Apply your learning and serve your community. Work with community members to help solve a local problem.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  Leave a reply below. How do you connect to the place you call home or the places you’ve visted?  How do you use place-based learning in your curriculum?