"In some way or other, each one of us affects the course of history.
Because of the extraordinarily serendipitous way change happens,
something you do during the course of today may eventually change the world."

James Burke

Connections...and our Children

Article for NCME National Reporter, by Anne S. Perrah, published Winter 2002

It always begins with a story...

and everyone has a story that will come to mind, if asked to think of a time when something that you said or did led to something totally unexpected in your life. Looking back, you may clearly make out the connection, but you didn't see it coming.

"Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don't happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident," says James Burke in his fascinating book entitled Connections. This "trigger effect" at work in the world is what Burke describes as part of the "complex process by which the modern world came to have the technological furniture with which it is filled, and which affects our lives by its very presence. We live surrounded by the end products of thousands of connections. And in every moment that goes by, more connections are made. The world is changing even as you read these words."

I would wager that our results from "doing in-order-to"s in life are far outweighed by life’s synchronicities. Yet, I can wholeheartedly agree with James Burke that "it is vitally important that we understand how change comes about, so as to manage it better, to our general advantage." For ourselves and for our children, the more awake and aware we can be, and the more consciousness we bring to our choices and our actions, the greater the possibility that the connections in our lives can be a force for good. The Great Web of Life is omni-present, yet, because the world is always changing, it is always a new day, a new beginning, a day to wake up again...

Connecting Self and Others...

Someone, somewhere, got up this morning and went back to work piecing together a patchwork quilt. Anna Grossnickle Hines, who wrote and illustrated Pieces: A Year in Poems & Quilts, tells us, "Quilting is an age-old American tradition, an art form, a means of self-expression, a way of using scraps and parts of worn clothing to provide warm and attractive bedcovers. But it is more than that. It provides a way for people to connect with one another and share a common passion and a wonderful heritage." Imagine people coming together, talking and laughing, working side by side on a shared project, focused toward a common goal, feeling connected...

There is a kind of beauty in feeling connected, and a beauty in remembering. In his book, The Last hours of Ancient Sunlight, Thom Hartmann tells of his mother's fascination with genealogy. "When I read the histories and family trees she and other members of our family have unearthed and organized, I get a feeling of belonging, a sense of history, a sensation of continuity and groundedness." Thom continues, "This sense of history is an essential one for humans. It's critical to a healthy culture...[connectedness] is important for self-esteem..."

Most educators and savvy parents would agree that children need regular doses of successful learning experience in order to thrive as learners and to grow toward self-efficacy. One aspect of this quality of experience in Montessori is the ability to connect profoundly with the prepared learning environment, and with teachers and learning peers. The "Failure to Connect" that Jane Healy, Ph.D. describes in her book by that title is another wake-up call for us to be alert to our children's needs as real-life, hands-on learners in a culture that is becoming ever more enamored with technology and "virtual reality." She relates a "cyberspace child's" story that is chilling in its implications.

While hiking in the Rockies, Healy observed a city-raised boy of about five years repeatedly questioning his mother as he encountered each new rock formation, "Mom, is this man-made?" Healy relates that "after two hours of hiking, the boy's bewilderment had not ceased." His mother's responses of, "No, that's natural" did not seem to ease the boy's troubled mind. Terribly out of touch and confused, this child had become so deeply enculterated by his "user-friendly" digital and Disneyland "reality" that he had come into nature conceptually challenged and struggling to distinguish the real from the virtual world. Healy echoes Montessori principles when she states that "[each] next generation has to start by learning to discern what is real and what is not."

Such contrast from this "cyberspace child" we find in the childhood experiences of one of today's most respected outdoorsmen, Tom Brown, Jr. In his Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness, Tom shares a story about his beloved Native American teacher, whom he came to call Grandfather. It was through the "coyote teaching" of this wise Apache elder that Tom and his friend Rick learned their first lesson regarding the profound interconnectedness of nature.

Grandfather had introduced the two boys to the ways of the great horned owl in the wild. On this particular day, however, Grandfather, keeping his eyes only on the ground, amazed the boys with his awareness that a huge owl roosted silently a few feet above their heads. How had he known that? "Being a coyote teacher and thus never telling something that we could learn by experience, he simply said, 'Go ask the mice.'" Those two boys spent many months "studying mice" — until they grew calluses! But Tom tells us the deep value of this direct learning experience: "From that encounter with the owl, we learned many lessons, including how everything was interconnected and how nothing could move in nature without disturbing something else."

Under the tutelage of this wise Apache elder these children, engaged in freely chosen work, were deepening their powers of observation and exercising their ability to think and reason. They were being guided in learning how to think, not what to think. And they were given the greatest of compliments by this "coyote teacher." Such clear demonstration of this elder's confidence in their innate intelligence, and his respect for their deep commitment to learning, must surely have made a life-long impression on both of them. As Dr. Myrna Shure says in Raising a Thinking Child, "All of us like to be free to think for ourselves. [Even children!] [The I-Can-Problem-Solve] approach to promoting healthy and responsible behavior goes beyond just what we do. It gives at least equal weight to how we think, because how we think affects what we do." There is always what happens, and then there is what we make it mean.

Perceiving the World as Connected...

"The search for meaning is innate...and the brain is essentially a connective organ." This view of the brain has been confirmed by research on brain functioning gathered by Geoffrey and Renate Caine. The brain's potential for connections is limitless, they report, and "when we allow the brain to function optimally, we create conditions that make those connections meaningful and purposeful." The Caines have also found that, "just as we cannot separate the brain from the body or the emotions or the meanings that we construct, we also cannot easily delineate our perceived experiences from the rest of our being. It is this incredible sense of connectedness that led them to entitle their book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain." Working with the Caines, Sam Crowell and they began to see the deconstructionist, mechanistic worldview as ever more inadequate for the deep new questions facing us all. As Sam proposes in The Re-Enchantment of Education, "Wholeness, relatedness, and connectedness are new descriptors of our universe, and they can help us to frame the issues we face in new ways." He suggests that "part of our challenge is to see the connections embedded in the world around us. Once we perceive the world in an expanded way, our interaction with that world becomes different." And then he adds softly, "In order to see, there has to be the willingness to look."

Sam tells us that "re-enchantment [of learning] is about the process of perceiving a connected world and living a life that reflects this relatedness." And it is about "experiencing the joy that feeling we are connected to the world brings and then creatively incorporating this joy into [our lives and into] our classrooms." What comes to mind for me in considering Sam's concept of "re-enchantment" is the experience of reconnecting to what Thom Hartmann has described as a profound "sense of aliveness." And for many of us there is an undisputed connection between the joy, the sense of aliveness borne of nurturing our own authentic spiritual life, and our abiding sense of connection to and our kinship with all Life. In her inspiring book, Nurturing the Spirit, Aline Wolf writes: "Our task as spiritual nurturers becomes easier when we realize that we do not have to instill spirituality in a child, we have only to protect it from being trampled and to nourish its natural growth." One of the ways we do this is as honored witness with children in the presence of the ineffable and the numinous, as when, at my students' spontaneous funeral for a pet rat, a child of four leans to my ear and whispers, "Why is...every time something dies, something white goes up...like that?"

Connecting with Nature...and Spirit

Another of the ways we nourish Spirit, for ourselves and for our children, is through Story. The stories of St. Francis of Assisi reflect a reverential attitude toward animals and all of nature. As we read in the Notes on his life from a book by Robert Byrd, "[Francis] believed the world of God, man, and nature were... inseparable. St. Bonaventure, writing in the thirteenth century, says that Francis 'would call the dumb animals, however small, by the names of brother and sister, for... he recognized in them the same origin as himself.'" Through his inspirational storytelling Byrd shares his belief that "the nature stories of Saint Francis...are not simply myths about an isolated mystic but reveal a vital, enthusiastic, and communal member of society — a man whose love of God and the natural world were overriding passions."

Another life-long nature lover, a bit closer to home, was John Muir. Early in life, he was a brilliant and popular inventor of machines. During a terrible episode in Muir's life, when a factory accident caused him to lose his eyesight, he told friends in despair, "The sunshine and the winds are playing in all the gardens of God, but I — I am lost!" When, after long weeks, Muir's eyesight miraculously returned, he chose to spend his life honoring and preserving wild lands. He vowed then, "I would devote my life only to the inventions of God." His writings on wilderness are poetic as well as influential and wise: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, and places where Nature can heal and cheer us." "Nature [is] streaming into us, teaching her glorious living lessons."

Connecting toward a Viable Future...

Amid such challenging times as these, I am heartened by the many writers, storytellers and poets who serve to keep alive this spirit of passion and hopefulness. Thom Hartmann reports in Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight that science is now essentially "proving the existence of something it once thought disproved: the living nature of the universe and the interconnectedness of all things." Thom explains that there is a theory in physics regarding wave mechanics, when applied to the creative power of human positive thought, which could conceivably extrapolate to such a synergistic effect in consciousness that "80,000 people all believing only in love will be enough to change the planetary reality." What a difference love--and hope--make! "...for this end the [seeds] have been perfecting themselves all summer, snugly packed in this light chest, a perfect adaptation to this end — a prophecy not only of the fall, but of future springs. Who could believe...that the world would end..., while one milkweed with faith matured its seeds?" Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersal of Seeds

The Last Word...is yours, along with the connections that any of these thoughts open out to you. Perhaps some idea excites your synaptic resonances, reminding you of a connection not mindful recently, but suddenly available to you, with its ecstatic "Oh, I see! It's like..." And if I have excited-- or irritated--some place in your present world view, then I am pleased to imagine that I may have contributed to your creation of another Pearl of Wisdom.

Connections: Bibliography

Brown, Jr. Tom. Tom Brown's Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness. New York: Berkley, 1987.

Burke, James. Connections. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1995.

Byrd, Robert. Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey. New York: Dutton, 2000.

Cornell, Joseph. John Muir: My Life with Nature. Nevada City: Dawn, 2000.

Crowell, Sam, Renate & Geoffrey Caine. The Re-Enchantment of Learning. Tucson: Zephyr, 1998.

Elpel, Thomas. Participating in Nature: Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills. Pony, MT: HOPS Press, 1999 www.hollowtop.com

___. Direct Pointing to Real Wealth. Pony, MT: HOPS Press, 2000. [Thoreau quotation, pg. 3]

Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Waking Up to Personal and Global Transformation. New York: Random House, 1999.

Healy, Jane M., Ph.D. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds — and

What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Hines, Anna Grossnickle. Pieces: A Year in Poems & Quilts. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Shure, Myrna, Ph.D. Raising a Thinking Child. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Wolf, Aline. Nurturing the Spirit [in non-sectarian classrooms]. Hollidaysburg, PA: Parent Child Press, 1996.