Earth Day Alphabet

As a project for Earth Day, I wanted my students to create some digital art using natural tools. I had never done this before, but was pretty sure we could manage to create a few letters. A full alphabet though? In the 1 1/2 hour session I had with 6 students we were able to put together a nearly complete alphabet, take pictures, and make some of our names. Here is how:


  • A Digital Camera (I used a Nikon N1 and my Smartphone… both worked fine)
  • A tripod (it keep the light consistent, but is not necessary)
  • A laptop or desktop
  • Software: GIMP and Inkscape
  • A White sheet of art paper
  • Access to lots of bits and bobs from nature


DSC_3712I started the kids out by creating a simple enough letter from flowers we found as we walked in the classroom. I set up the camera so that the image was slightly overexposed and snapped the shot. Ok, that was one letter… now I challenged them to go and find any additional pieces of stuff in nature and cover the other 25 letters. One student had the idea of writing the letters on the board and crossing them off as we go to them.

After about 15 minutes, I already had about 15 letters on my camera. I hit the pause button, transferred the photos, and showed a couple students how to process the pics so that the white background was equally white between photos. Basically, you have to adjust the fill light. This can be done in most image editing software (on phones I use snapseed, on computers I personally am a big fan of the recently retired Picassa).

After the background had been lighted to be white, each letter was cropped closely to the letter and resized to a standard size (800px width worked well for our purposes). They were then dragged into an Inkscape file and arranged to create words. Voila… digital nature art made simple!

If you are interested in seeing the full alphabet, we originally posted it in a photo album on Green School.


The Jungle Run

When Mikel, a middle school student, suggested that we just “run through the forest and learn while exploring the jungle” as a PE elective, I immediately took heed.  I knew the area around Green School well, and felt that in the PE time I would be able to get the kids into places that looked and felt like the middle of the Jungle. I had no idea how much more I would learn from this class.

Our first run was not so much physical as social. We teamed up with the first graders, and went on a walk. The premise was that as middle schoolers, our eyes had become desensitized to the amazing natural world around us. Going on a walk with younger people would allow us some new perspective. A few minutes in, and I found myself handing around a golden orb weaving spider as large as my hand, to the fascination of the youth and terror of the other adults. That walk slowed our pace, but provided insight into the amazing opportunities to explore a new side of the Jungle Run: building relationships amongst our students.

A week later, I questioned my judgement in taking the kids down the river. After finding ourselves at a loss to progress further along the river bank, we attempted to backtrack up the slopes of the river, more jungle that I was personally comfortable with. Every crevice looked like a hiding place for a cobra, and I had lost control of my group of adventurers.

“Rumi, stop clambering up the cliff, it is just too steep” I shouted ahead as I saw some of our younger kids blaze their way up a steep slope.

“It is ok, Pak Noan, I can do it. The others are already at the top.” he replied.

Oh man… what had I got us into? Fortunately, I found an alternative way up the slope and was able to get the group up to the Kul-Kul Farm above us. There, I gave some stern warnings about risk assessment, and being empathetic to the needs to the group. This was truly learning by doing, even though the doing was kind of borderline insanity.

This event convinced me that more adults were needed on the Jungle Runs. A lead and caboose would keep things in check. Bashalah, an intern from Spain, and Aga, our new Green Studies team member, joined us for the rest of the runs. Their first experience was another exploration which was entirely different: going into a manmade cave which extended deep into the earth.

With many students in tow, I knew the limits of our exploration. We would proceed with caution, looking for signs on dangerous wildlife, and keeping within sight of the cave exit. 10 meters down one shaft we found a gecko nest full of eggs, with the mother clinging the roof above them. We also saw coconuts, which had fallen down a shaft, striving to grow towards the small light source above them. After leaving the cave, the kids were hooked: we needed to go back there and look deeper into that cave!

The next class every student came prepared, and we did a briefing at the mouth of the cave. As a group, we discussed the hazards or exploration, and indicators we need to be aware of. Curiosity is a strong driver, but how can we make rational calls in spite of the intoxicating desire to explore further? With flashlights in hand, we started towards the cave mouth only to be greeted by a emerald green snake slithering within vines directly above the cave mouth.

Ok, strike one… that was scary but not enough to call off our expedition. We were able to identify the snake as a red-tailed racer, a non-venomous snake. So, we continued with newfound caution and trepidation.

Six meters deeper into the cave, we noticed something on the floor. A sock? Dried leaves? As I approached, trembling slightly, it became clear that what we were seeing was in fact a snake skin.

It was enough to convince me not to look for strike three. We called off further cave exploration, and surprisingly (or not) no child protested. They too had taken in the indicators can came to a similar conclusion. This cave was not meant to be explored today.

The final Jungle Run classes involved similar challenges to overcome, and each time I saw students throw out a helping hand to their peers, so that as a group we could overcome greater challenges. On one run we climbed a dusty slope using a rope and lots of encouragement from one another. Another time I was in the tail of the group and caught up to some kids helping an Ibu push her motorbike up a hill. There was not a single class I did not come back feeling proud of the students’ behavior and attitude.

Gokcen, another intern who joined us for a couple classes, put it well. “It is so nice to see students enjoying the moment, not worried about what they needed to make or learn” she told me.

I agree completely. There is much value is liberating our students from a prescriptive learning process, and allowing them to help craft the skills and outcomes that the experience may produce. Jungle Run started with simple needs and expectations, but by the end of the class I felt we had created so much more than just a way to get fit and ask a few questions about nature.

Perhaps more learning happened before the walls were built?

This article which was recently shared with me does an excellent job in summarizing a critical piece of understanding. The world of education is riddled with formula for better learning, and we often forget to recognize quite simply that humanity is pre-disposed to learning.

A Thousand Rivers – by Carol Black

A Reflection on Systems Thinking Sessions High School Course

In teaching several High School classes, I started to notice an interesting trend among a few students. As the class flowed into a more discussion based format, their interests were piqued and great questions started to form. Unfortunately, these classes had a container, namely the content of the class. Against my instincts I found myself redirecting the conversation to align with the preordained material.

This experience led me to question how important content was, and what could be done to ensure that instead of cutting tangential thinking off, we could do the opposite and encourage it. Thus, a class with the name Systems Thinking was born.

Instead of producing content driven outcomes, Systems Thinking would employ a range of democratic principles and a vital skill: how to immerse yourself in the topic fully and without distraction for an allotted time.

Within the first class, I absolved myself from the formal role of teacher, and declared that while the adults in the room (we always had guests: parents, teachers, and interns) may have more experience they are equals in terms of mandating direction in this course. I went through question generation ,mechanics on how we would employ democracy in our class, and the process of self evaluation which would ultimately determine the students’ grades. Looking around, I recognized the students were processing the ride they were in for: greater agency to learn on their terms, but greater responsibility in how they learned.

The second class was where the structure would begin to prove its worth. While in principle all these ideas would lead to greater engagement and ease in authentic learning, the class itself had never been tested. I had to trust that the students would react positively to this form of learning, and that by relinquishing control I was in fact providing greater opportunity for students to learn.

Each class started with a vote, choosing among questions generated by the students themselves. The first question to be dissected and discussed was “Are we alone in the universe?”. I had no idea where this would lead.

Students broke into self-chosen groups (or to work alone if that suited them). They understood that for an hour they were to attempt to keep the question relevant. Tangential thinking was encouraged, but ultimately it was agreed that students should be able to trace their line of thought back to the original question if challenged.

An hour later, the class let out a collective sigh as our Systems Thinking session came to close. However, the conversations were far from complete. Following a personal reflection on their engagement, we had a group discussion on any aspect the students wished to raise. Some focussed on their discussion, and the connections they built as a group. Others focussed on the process, discussing where challenges were found in maintaining focus, and how we may overcome these.

The subsequent classes flowed ever more smoothly, and as an educator I was able to free myself from managing students and move into a role of sharing in the experience, influencing direction of conversation, and encouraging new strategies on how to view complex systems.

How successful was this class? Well, the model certainly provided agency, and through this enlistment of the students. A strangely awkward situation best summarizes the power of such a model: On multiple occasions, as I call class adjourned a number of students have been compelled to clap, only to kind of stop and realize they are applauding a class they take in school.