Once upon a time I suggested to some colleagues that I had no difficulty believing that human life began when our ancestors, whoever or whatever they were, slithered or crawled out of salt water. The comment was not entirely light-hearted. Growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico meant that salt water was a constant in my life. Waves, sandbars, tidal pools, bays, lagoons, marshes, estuaries, creeks, they were powerful forces in my early life and have continued to fascinate me for well over fifty years. The look, the sound, the odor of moving water, and the subtle variety of life which gravitates to the contact zones created by land mating with water have created avenues for understanding much that is non-aquatic.
Where water moves, the soul stirs. Realism, naturalism, and romanticism emanate from the oscillation of the waves, the flux of the tide, and swirls of the current. Science and philosophy, life and death, past and present all in one place but never constant. Sounds a bit like life in a classroom. No two iterations of water are the same, just as no two learning situations are the same. So where to begin our exploration?
Creeks! Some flow from inland toward the salt water. Others, like those in the Florida Keys are actually rapidly flowing cuts between small un-named keys. The high desert of Arizona is home to creeks that flow underground all summer; surfacing only during the winter wet- season of heavy rains. A rather “traditional” creek carved my grandparents’ pasture. It meandered; the water was cold; it had great clay hidden in its banks; it had fish. It taught lessons.
Once per year I spent time with my grandparents and their creek. The daily visit to the water in the dead heat of Florida summers was the “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Bathing, playing, and exploring were the foundation of an essential learning experience. The classroom was always familiar, but of course we were never in the same water twice. Familiarity bred respect not contempt.
Specific locations displayed semi-permanent features, but were in constant flux. The remains of the old dam my grandfather constructed to drive the wheel of his long defunct grist mill was fascinating, but thought to be a haven for water moccasins as well as a place where rotten timbers could trap small boys in fast moving water. Far from the pasture the highway bridge blocked light and split the streambed into two paths. Venturing under the bridge meant crossing boundaries – literally and figuratively.
No matter where we chose to play two features were always prominent because topography and hydrodynamics are ever-present forces in streams. One of our favorite spots was a bend in the waterway some distance upstream from the old dam. Within the space of 100 yards the land and water produced a deep hole and a series of shallow rapids. Of course, deep and rapid are hardly absolute terms.
Four feet was probably a generous measure of the hole’s depth, and the “rapids” were fast only because the gravel and sand bottom were so close to the surface as water was forced out of the hole. Yet, the power and influence of these features on little boys was enormous. Each generated specific experiences and lessons.
The water in the hole was dark; you could not see the bottom. How does one overcome the fear of not knowing? Fear is the tool of ignorance, but to wade into the dark and ever deepening water was to overcome fear and discover the secrets of the hole. Fish, well, mostly minnows, inhabited the hole. To move through their world was far more fun than merely observing them from the shore. The realization that they did not bite brought confidence and opened new passages to understanding that I was the outsider. After all, I could submerge into the dark liquid, but unlike the minnows, I had to hold my breath and eventually return to the surface. The hole was deep enough to swim in, but so narrow that one stroke was more than enough to cross into the down stream shallows. The lessons of the hole required the tools of courage, patience, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Exiting the hole downstream the water moved swiftly across clean white sand and gravel. Here we could see the bottom, as well as any small creatures inhabiting “our creek”. The shallows were fun; they reflected light and moved whatever we placed in their path. Their kinetic energy was a near perfect reflection of the little boys who interrupted the water’s journey to far away destinations. If the hole taught us about conquering fear and appreciating the darkness of depth, the rapids taught us humility. The narrow two inch deep water seemed ideal for creating a dam. We could block the stream and create a bigger hole that would be more conducive to swimming. Moreover, we could exercise our “unlimited” power over the forces of nature. MAN (boy) subdues CREEK! No matter how we planned, no matter how many rocks, logs, and branches we brought into the shallows we always fell victim to some aspect of Bernoulli’s Principle. Our hypothesis that the shallows would make an ideal location for a damn was undone by our ignorance, but we learned. Damming the creek was a short-lived game.
I have not been in that creek since 1969. My grandparents are gone as is their farm. Now as I reflect on my career in education and the idea of integrated (interdisciplinary) learning the creek comes back to me. Any meaningful learning experience needs deep holes as well as fast water. The fast water is in vogue these days. Technology is by definition fast and faster. It allows us to explore a multitude of topics; respond and receive responses almost instantaneously. It is open and fun, just like the shallow rapids in a creek. Yet, it also invites us to indulge in hubris. With so much information acquired so rapidly surely we can change the flow of the creek. Perhaps.
Less in vogue is the exploration of deep holes. Why bother exploring the lessons of slow dark water in one area, when “problem solving” using all sorts of fun fast implements, means we can move straight to the rapids? To know and understand the creek requires probing the depths as well as the shallows. Why did we want to dam the creek? Pride and a juvenile power trip were key motivators, but so was the knowledge that a larger deep hole would generate more long-term fun. Why did we believe this? We spent time in the hole.
Authentic, extended integrated study needs to be like time spent in a creek. The learners need to be cold, in the dark, slightly afraid, filled with adventure, having fun, and discovering their limitations as well as solving problems.
P.S. This came to me while I was in the shower.