Walking with John Muir, Jesse Stuart, and Opal
(Living With the Earth, Part II: Outside Explorations of Lake Tahoe)
Donald F. Webb, Jr.

When I feel sad inside
I talk things over with my tree.
I call him Michael Raphael.
It is such a comfort
To nestle up to Michael Raphael.
He is a grand tree.
He has an understanding soul.

Many people are profoundly worried about the state of education and the plight of children and teachers in this country. Young people are entering a world of exploding knowledge, but many have lost all joy in learning. Those who have been able to succeed in the mastery of concepts and skills have often done so to the detriment of personal development and have real trouble collaborating and interacting effectively in their professional worlds. There is also the growing conviction among both educators and employers that teaching proscribed skills (to be swallowed more or less whole) in a highly competitive environment by rigidly proscribed methods fails to encourage the development of that drive, or whatever it is that distinguishes a committed person who looks upon learning as a way of life from an indifferent one who wants to get learning over with once and for all and spend the rest of life doing only what is needed to get by.

Understanding and Making Use of Cultural and Age Diversity We know that no two people learn exactly the same way. We also know to ignore a childs (or an adult's) learning strengths, attention span, interests, or personal way of processing data is to engender only fatigue, discouragement, and resistance. The educational challenges are: to help individual children acquire the knowledge they need in a way that releases in them a real joy for the learning process; to help them prepare to make choices and to become responsible for their own learning; to help them become excellent observers and askers of good questions; and to help them relate to each other in peace and cooperation, taking pleasure in each other's company. These are the skills children of all cultures must have to succeed in the world they are inheriting.

The Whispering Oaks and Meathouse Hollow One-Room Schoolhouses, and Nature Camps, Inc. hold the philosophy that children learn best by doing . . . especially doing things that interest them. (Both schools are now closed.) Whispering Oaks was a private school working with children of different learning styles, mostly dyslexic, ADHD, and ADD children. The Meathouse school was a public school in the deepest hollers (mountains) of east Kentucky, and the children attending were Appalachian mountain children. Nature Camps, Inc. is an ongoing outdoor adventure and environmental education facility.

Teaching children of various ages, abilities, and backgrounds in one room provides a unique experience. The intimacy of a mixed age group (ages 4-16) resembles a family. In this relaxed atmosphere, high levels of aspirations are encouraged naturally; the discouragement is taken out of failure; there is the joy of cooperative efforts and the reinforcement of skills when children coach one another. They are teachers as well as learners. The children are being exposed to a way of life. Understanding this is very important. Children know that realities turn them on: the realities of sun and wind and rain; of a calf that licks your hand when you feed her rows of corn that can mean corn roasts later on; of mountains to climb that challenge young muscles; and of subsistence training which tests knowledge of wilderness roots, berries, and plants. Out of this comes the self-sufficiency of children who grew up in well-planned, Aresponsive school setting. They approach problems with confidence in their ability to solve problems. Children are learning how to learn, how to live, and how to work with others.

Culturally Disadvantaged -- Not!
Due to poverty and living issues, people outside of Appalachia often speak of the Appalachian people as being culturally disadvantaged. They are anything but this. To make the teaching of reading relevant and meaningful at the Meathouse school, the children would gather together to tell many stories. All the children (ages five to19) would contribute to the same story by taking turns. Eventually enough stories were made, copied, and titled by the children, making their OWN reader. Here, for the first time in their lives, what the children were attempting to read ( . . . and then really read) made sense to them because it was about their environment, about them, and was their expression of beliefs and imagination. The "Meathouse Reader" became their book a book of their stories. The children were filled with pride and joy!

Stuck-Up Chickens (Excerpt from children-made Meathouse Reader) One day Andy, Don, and I went over to the hog lot and the chicken was stuck in the mud. The old hog came over to the chicken and began to eat it. She sure had a good mess. And she got a bone caught crossways in her neck. Oakley came over and started to feed her, but she wouldn't eat any. And Oakley ran his hand down her neck, and the hog bit his hand off. And he swallowed Oakley's hand and the old hog got poison from Oakley's hand and died. Oakley went to the doctor to see about the hand. The doctor told him to go back to the house and cut the old dead hog open and get his hand out, and bring his hand back and he would sew it back on. The doctor sewed the hand back on, and told him to come back to the house. He went to bed, and after awhile he heard something say, I WANT MY BIG HAND!! And he got up to see what it was, and he didn't see anything, and he went back to bed. After he got back into bed, he heard that THING yell again, I WANT MY BIG HAND! !" He got back up and looked around the house. He didn't see anything, so he went back to bed and heard the door begin to open a little at a time. And it kept right on opening until it was wide open. And he saw BIG TOENAILS peeping around the door and then all at once it jumped out and hollered, I WANT MY HAND!!! By that time Oakley and Bess and all the kids were getting scared. They saw it rooting and knew it was the same big old sow that was dead. And Oakley said to Bess, "That's our old sow!" And Oakley said, "You can't have my hand back," and he grabbed the old shotgun and killed the sow. And all at once a lot of pigs began to come out of the hole that Oakley shot in the sow. And Oakley counted and he had twelve new pigs. He put them in the pen, and had lots of meat for the winter. THE END

Assuring Children of Their Inestimable Worth
These schoolhouse and environmental education experiences only begin to describe effective . . . joyful . . . education a leading forth toward the happy and effective living we all want for each of our children and for the school community as a whole. School experiences should enable each child to learn to deal with change, to probe with questions, and to thrive on independence. It should also tend to bring forth compassion, and a rugged, venturesome, and joyful attitude.

Lastly: About a Child's World, Merlin, King Arthur, and Goose Perspective The child's world is a world of symbols, shapes and sizes until that dismal day when it is taught to put a label on each and every thing it has felt, touched and smelt, and forced to shrink it by a name. The child's world is the poet's world where dimensions differ only according to feeling, not fact, that place of the fourth dimension that eludes all but painters, poets, lunatics, and the players of musical instruments. And it even eludes those at times. That is why they remain children, eternally committed to chasing after it, clinging to the tatters of those clouds of glory with which we were born and which only rationalization can rip off. If we are fortunate, we find an understanding that eventually transcends knowing. As in the tale of King Arthur, when his childhood mentor Merlyn the magician enters to give him one last lesson in life. Arthur is transformed into a goose and while flying about speaks: But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived. As in the lives of John Muir, Jesse Stuart, and Opal, we as educators and facilitators need to steadfastly keep as our mission: bringing forth a spirit of adventure, excitement, acceptance, and joy to our charges.




References
Meathouse Hollow Children. (1967). The Meathouse reader. Unpublished manuscript.
Menuhin, Y. Forward in W. Blake. (1993). The tyger. (1st ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Webb, D.F. (1997). Living with the Earth: An outside interactive acclimatizing workshop. Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.
White, T.H. (1977). The book of Merlyn. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Whitely, O. (1984). The journal of an understanding heart. New York: Crown Paperbacks.