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The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

August 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

In the middle of May, I moved halfway across the country, to a state I’d never been to, to play at a wetland with five- and six-year-olds. After three long days in a car, I landed in Boulder, Colorado. I moved into my tiny studio apartment across the street from Colorado University, and jumped into training with the folks at Thorne Nature Experience.

Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. Though I’ve taught and been involved with Environmental Education for the past six years, I’ve only worked for one organization. North Cascades Institute had been my home as far back as I can remember, and when I realized that I wanted to try my hand at teaching, it was a logical place to start. And then I stayed. I used to joke that I’d never leave. And that was true until I finished the M.Ed program through North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University this past March. I decided it was time, though I was (and still am) deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest, to get some experience elsewhere.

Elsewhere, it turned out, was a city with 300 or so sunny days every year. (I’m really more of a rain person.) Thorne is a pretty cool place. They’ve been around since 1954 and are located on a beautiful piece of “open space” land just east of Boulder proper called Sombrero Marsh.

-9“Come look, I found something! It’s in my net!”
-1No nature center is complete without plenty of dip nets for catching macroinvertebrates! Most commonly we find damselfly larvae, although early in the summer we found quite a few dragonfly nymphs and on one field trip a huge bullfrog tadpole!

I was a little nervous about moving to a city that sits higher than 5,000 ft, after living for my entire 27 years at or within 1,500 ft of sea level. But where Bellingham has hills all over town, Boulder is flat. My commute to work is 4 ½ miles and I can bike there no problem in about 30 minutes, half of it on the Boulder Creek Path that runs east-west all the way through town.

» Continue reading The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

5.18 GOG Big Rocks

Red rocks in the mountainous west

July 7th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

In May, toward the end of a road trip, my mom and I found ourselves in Colorado Springs for a couple days. While looking for things to do while we were there, I stumbled across the website for a park with some amazing rock formations.

Garden of the Gods park was set aside as public land in 1909. At that time, it was designated as a city park that would “forever be known as Garden of the Gods,” would not allow any “intoxicating liquors to be manufactured or sold in the park, no buildings except those necessary for the park to function,” and would “forever be open and free to the public.” Pretty cool. In 1972, it was recognized as a National Landmark.

Now, it’s filled with tourists, locals, climbers, and boulderers (you know, people bouldering…I may have just made up a word…). Since we were staying with some of my mom’s friends who live literally right behind the park, we were able to take the less crowded back trails for most of our walk.

#1 - Kissing Camels   This formation is called “Kissing Camels”.
#2 - Nesting AreasBirds have made homes in some of the holes in the sandstone. This is evidenced by their white droppings that stain the rock below.

» Continue reading Red rocks in the mountainous west


Nearing completion

March 17th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The M.Ed program through Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute has several different parts to it. Though it evolves and changes every year, the general format for the past eight years has been to spend part of the summer in the Bellingham area tromping around the mountains and Puget Sound, living in North Cascades National Park at the Environmental Learning Center for a full year, then move back to Bellingham and take classes at Western for the final two quarters.

Right now I’m ending my final quarter of the graduate program. And I’ve finally gotten an idea of what a traditional graduate program looks like.

Being a Back-in-Bellingham Grad Student

We have five required classes these last two quarters, plus an elective. In the fall we took courses about the psychology behind practicing conservation and a conservation mindset, reviewing and reflecting on the foundations of environmental education, and environmental discourse. Winter quarter we took a class on assessment and evaluation, and one to help us prepare for our capstones—our big final presentations that take place in the week before graduation. For my elective, I’m doing an independent study that complements my capstone project.

Moving back to Bellingham has been a big change from going to school up at the Learning Center. Some of it has been challenging for me—not having mountains literally in my backyard, being around so many people, city noises and distractions. But there are also some really great things that I missed while I was in the mountains. I love being able to ride the bus and walk everywhere. I love the farmer’s market. And, even coming from a shy introvert like me, it’s nice to be able to meet new people and make new friends.

Most of our classes these final two quarters have folks other than just the cohort. It’s a nice reminder that there are other people out there with other experiences, who haven’t been living in a tiny bubble for a whole year.

Leaves2Andrea, Cait, Lindsay, and Liza playing with a pile of leaves on Western’s campus after class.

What’s Next?

Along with all the school stuff, most of us are also looking ahead to what comes after school. Re-entering the job market after spending nearly two years playing in the mountains and spending a lot of time just learning can be intimidating at times. When I’m able to calm my brain down a little, though, it’s also really exciting. I’m looking at job descriptions for education and program coordinator positions and realizing that I have all those skills. These are jobs I’ve looked at in the past and felt I wasn’t qualified for. It’s such a validating feeling to know there are so many possibilities. But with broadening possibilities comes the question, “Where do I start?”

Well, I like to start small and get my bearings before jumping to deep into something new. I’ll be hanging out in Bellingham for the spring and then moving to Boulder, Colorado for the summer. I’ll be teaching kindergarteners and fifth/sixth graders for a nonprofit at the base of the Rocky Mountains. A brand new ecosystem for me to sink my teeth into!

Leading photo: Cohort 12 goofing off at a fall potluck.

Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Passionate about writing since childhood, Ryan served as Chattermarks editor during their year-long residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Ryan continues to enjoy writing for the blog.



the shack 1

The Shack

January 6th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

I’m a nerd, always have been. I’ve never been one to shy away from that. I’m a music nerd, a book nerd, a Doctor Who nerd…and growing up with parents who are all about “the nature,” I’m also a nature nerd.

One of my favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I first read it in sixth grade, and then again as an assignment during my first summer of graduate school. I love the way this book is written, like you’re reading someone’s nature journal. I love the stories he tells and the images they conjure up in my mind. I loved reading about this far away ecosystem, so different from the only one I’ve ever really experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.

Last winter I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Madison, Wisconsin. Hmm, Wisconsin. Never been there. But something went off in my brain. On a whim, I googled Aldo Leopold and realized why my brain had jumped—his shack, the geographic location of A Sand County Almanac, was about 45 minutes northwest of Madison. I called my dad. “We should go,” I said. “Come on, when will we get another chance to see Leopold’s shack?” He didn’t need much convincing. “Let’s keep this in mind so we can plan our flights around it,” was his response.

Fast forward to the end of August. My mom, my dad, and I are driving to a little Wisconsin town called Baraboo. We’re on our way to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. It’s hot outside. Our rental car has fancy air conditioning and we’re all glad for it. Us Pacific Northwesterners aren’t used to this weather.

Arriving at the Aldo Leopold Foundation campus, we walk around the native vegetation and an outdoor classroom building, then head into the office. The woman at the front desk gives us a map and explains how to get to the nearby Leopold property. I see a picture of Estella Leopold, Aldo’s youngest child and the only one still living, and wonder what it must be like to be Aldo Leopold’s offspring. Estella lives in Seattle and I was fortunate enough to meet her once at a gathering of the Natural History Network.

inside the leopold foundation buildingThere’s a small museum with writings and artifacts from the Leopold family. Photo by the author
bench with plaquePlaque by the entrance to the Leopold Foundation building reads:
Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm
has been designated a
National Historic Landmark
This property possesses national significance as the outdoor laboratory for Aldo Leopold’s pioneering work from 1935-1948 in wildlife management and ecological restoration, and as the inspiration for his seminal work, “A Sand County Almanac.”
National Park Service
United States Department of the Interior

» Continue reading The Shack

santa cruz surfers

Pelicans and palm trees

September 23rd, 2013 | Posted by in Adventures

I decided to start my summer break right away. Three days after moving back to Bellingham from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, I was on an airplane headed to California. My adventure landed me in Santa Cruz at the home of some good friends. While they were “being adults” and working all day, I was free to explore.

My first evening there, the three of us walked the two blocks from their house to the beach. Win! Monteray Bay stretched out to the horizon, the water a slightly darker shade of blue than the sky. Fog was starting to come in from across the water. The air was warm but breezy enough to keep it from being too hot.

I remarked that whenever I’m in California it surprises me to see palm trees everywhere. For the most part, the other plants look familiar to me—firs and pines, junipers, leafy shrubs, and an assortment of colorful flowers. But palm trees? They just look so strange.

palm treesPalm trees line the streets and adorn peoples’ front yards. Photo by the author

A flock of birds flew over the water in our direction. I assumed they were gulls but as they drew closer I realized that they were definitely something else. “Pelicans,” one of my friends commented. Of course! I thought. Their long bills gave it away, but I had never seen them outside of the few times I was in Florida as a kid so I hadn’t expected to see them here.

» Continue reading Pelicans and palm trees

panorama at desolation lookout

Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

August 25th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

I met them on August 1st. Twenty bright new faces arrived on buses and vans at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. As they walked quietly out of the vehicles, sleepy from early morning pick-ups at high schools from Bellingham to south of Seattle, I could tell right away that they were older than the rest of our Youth Leadership Adventures participants this summer—mostly because 90% of them were taller than me…

These 16-18 year olds from western Washington and Oregon had been selected for our Science and Sustainability program. They were about to spend 15 days in the North Cascades—11 days backpacking and canoeing on Ross Lake, followed by four days of staying at the Learning Center and camping in Marblemount, all the while studying science, sustainability, leadership, and community.

backpackingBackpacking down Ross Lake. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students
practicing canoeingThe students practicing their paddling strokes before loading the canoes. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students

» Continue reading Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

diablo lake

Saying goodbye…for now

August 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Today is my last day of living at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center—my home since the spring of 2010 when I started working for North Cascades Institute as a Seasonal Naturalist. It’s also my last day as Chattermarks Editor, a post I’ve held since last September. Two big changes, and I’m not very good with change. I’m working on it. I know that the only constant in life is change, and I’ve become pretty comfortable with spontaneity over my past three years of teaching fifth graders in the woods. But bigger life changes are different from changing a teaching plan or trying to rein in unruly students. A year ago, when I wrote my first Chattermarks post as Editor, I knew this change was coming. I knew that eventually my year of living here as a graduate student would end and I would have to move back to Bellingham. But it’s still bittersweet.

playing musicLindsay and Nick playing music on my front porch, fall 2012. Photo by the author

Over this year I’ve grown as a student, a writer, a naturalist, a teacher…and so many other things. I saw my first-ever chainsaw carving competition. I’ve backpacked almost 50 miles in eight days with eight other people. I submerged myself in the ice cold glacial waters of Diablo Lake on my birthday—in January! I’ve seen a baby bobcat, heard barred owls nightly and pileated woodpeckers daily, and been woken up by thunderstorms so intense I thought the sky might actually fall on me. I spent two months on crutches. I wrote a children’s book about a science fairy who travels through space and time and I’ve journaled my way through three moleskin notebooks. I have shared more of myself with my cohort than I probably have with any other group of people.

chainsaw carvingChainsaw carving at the Sedro-Woolley Fourth of July celebration! Photo by Liza Dadiomov

» Continue reading Saying goodbye…for now