The students in my class for behavior disorders leaned forward on their desks. “We don’t got no leaves where we live.” For three days, I had begged them to bring in autumn leaves to press between pages of a catalog then use for leaf rubbings. On day four, still no leaves from them.
“I find that hard to imagine.” They lived in the suburbs, and their claim seemed improbable. “There are leaves everywhere.”
Skeptical eyes stared into mine. “Okay,” I gave in. “I will bring leaves tomorrow.”
But not before I checked their story.
After school, as the sun slid closer to the horizon, I drove to the neighborhood where the students lived in public housing. The nearer to the tall brick buildings that I came, the less vegetation, grass or trees graced the roadside. By the time I wheeled into the streets lined with apartments, only concrete, stone and asphalt covered the ground. Knowing that their parents did not allow these students to roam the neighborhood, the fact that they could not bring in leaves checked. My stomach ached, not from the lack of food, but from the lack of understanding on my part about how the students in my class lived. How deeply nature deficit disorder affected them.
After supper, my feet took to the sidewalks in the suburban neighborhood of Chicago bungalows. Stooping, I picked up several brown leathery oak leaves. Bright red and yellow maples. Tiptoeing onto a neighbor’s grass, I eased to the north side of the house to snip off a few fern fronds. Not satisfied with just tree leaves, my husband helped gather beet leaves, kale, zucchini, tomato and other greenery from the garden. The cache’ stuffed several tool catalogues in my effort to flatten them.
The next morning, the class learned about photosynthesis, the types of veins, the outer border textures, and the shape of the leaves. By dragging the side of crayons across a piece of paper placed on the underside of the leaves, the characteristics of each specimen popped. The morning sped by, filled with vocabulary and hands-on learning. Taking home their leaf rubbings, my behavior-disordered boys grinned from the connection to nature they made that day.
But my connection to their world, their problems, and their challenges was more significant. The words of George Eliot pressed on my mind. “We could never have learned to love the Earth so well, if we had had no childhood in it.”
Finding the potential in problematic students is challenging regardless of the setting, be it public school, private school, church clubs, youth groups, or Sunday school. For Cleo’s devotional for teachers, check out Teaching Diamonds in the Tough!
Cleo has also written an urban teacher romance that addresses the issues of nature deficit disorder in today’s students in metropolitan settings. Cultivating Wildflowers is available from amazon.com.