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Blue sky classrooms
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It seems as though the public schools get a lot of criticism these days, but then I’d be willing to bet that people have been complaining about schools as long as schools have existed. Certainly, some of the criticism of schools is warranted and schools could use improvement. There is, however, a good argument to be made that that we are asking our schools and their administrators and teachers to teach things that we, as parents, should be teaching to our children ourselves. Quite honestly, I’m not qualified to teach my children chemistry, music, or computer science. By the same token I know of no one more qualified to teach my kids the values, ethics and morals that I consider important.

You might wonder what the above has to do with the outdoors, and the answer is one of those philosophical answers like “everything” or, “nothing at all”. When I was learning from my dad to fish, I didn’t realize that what I was learning was far more than simply how to bait a hook, cast a fly, or play a fish. Of course, the empirical “how to” information was the obvious part that I was learning and my immediate goal was to be able to put lots of fish in the creel.

Subtly, however, Dad was also teaching us to enjoy the columbines, shooting stars, and other wildflowers along the stream, as well as the brilliance of sunlight striking dew drops in a spider’s web. Dad enforced a rule that his father had taught him. We always took a rest after lunch and sat back on a sand bar or meadow or even a midstream boulder to watch a red-tailed hawk drift overhead or laugh at the squirrels as they scampered through the limbs above. We marveled at the construction skills of the laborers who had built rock support walls for a road on the side of a sheer canyon. When I first heard about a bird called the dipper or water ouzel, I swore it had to be some kind of joke like hunting snipes with a burlap bag. But during our afternoon breaks, I learned that there really is a bird that flies down into the water and walks along the stream bottom.

I suppose there is a sort of natural evolution that outdoor addicts progress through. It used to be very important that I return home from my fishing trips with a limit of fish. I guess it was some sort of proof that I really was a mighty angler. The same sort of “dead meat” philosophy pervaded my hunting efforts also, and for a time, I measured my success in hunting by how many dead critters I brought home. Slowly, however, that philosophy changed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but through example, Dad was molding my progression as an outdoorsman. Instead of bringing home 30 fish and putting half of them in the freezer, Dad would say that he really wasn’t too keen on eating frozen fish and would suggest we bring home only a dozen and release the other fish unharmed..

The emphasis in my outdoor education began to shift from how to properly cast a fly to topics such as why I should use a fly that imitates a stone fly in rocky, tumbling water or a fly that imitates a grasshopper in a grassy meadow stream. Eventually, we began to discuss the ecology of a trout stream and how everything was inextricably tied to everything else. I began to ask questions and seek the answers in books. Entomology books taught me the answers to my questions about stream insects and soon I turned to books on trees to identify the tree that had bark that smelled like vanilla. Then came books on flowers, weather, geology and natural history.

My trips afield were history lessons from old mining ruins and archeology lessons from arrowheads and old Indian camp sites. I learned geology by dragging home some fascinating rocks instead of dead fish. Astronomy and navigation were learned from observing the night sky around the evening campfire. And when man began to put artificial satellites into the sky, I began to understand about the physics of it all. Lessons in geography and political science evolved from questions like ,“Who are these Soviets who put up the Sputnik satellite?” Why did they put it into orbit? Or, “How come we Americans are trying so hard to catch up?”

Such information wouldn’t really help me in the spelling bee at school or in working out an algebra problem, but what the “blue sky” classrooms taught me was far more important than memorizing formulas. I learned that knowledge was fascinating, fun, and even valuable, just for its own sake. I learned to love learning and learned values that aren’t taught in textbooks. I learned to love blue skies, clear streams, and green forests and the creatures that live in them. While I was in school, I learned skills that are necessary to survive in today’s world, but in my blue sky classrooms I learned values from my parents, the values that make the human race different from all the other creatures on Earth. I doubt if any other creatures on this planet enjoy a sunset and wonder who might have made it and why.

The next time you get a chance, take your kids, or your grandchildren, outdoors and share with them the lessons and values that you think are important ones. Use the blue sky class rooms to teach our children the kinds of things that our school system can’t teach and shouldn’t teach. The Good Lord gave us some magnificent classrooms to teach in, if only we’ll use them.

Until next week,

Tight Lines