Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns field trip report

So I'm back from the Carlsbad day. It was fun and it was nice to meet a few more homeschooling mamas. Shan was happy to meet a fellow female comic book geek and book nerd. The two of them talked about everything from systemic solutions to verbal bullying to "Little Women" vs. "Jo's Boys."

My big relief of the day was that I didn't feel like I had to hide my unschoolyness. In fact, when some of the other moms asked me the inevitable "what curriculum...?" question and I used the "u-word" two of them nodded with understanding! Neither is a radical unschooler but they know what it is and don't dislike the concept. And since I'm not rad yet myself (yet. YET!) it seemed kind of ok. They're all pretty relaxed eclectic anyway with various degrees of planning and enforcing. We had a nice chat about Charlotte Mason and the pros and cons of her methods since one mom is solid CM and another incorporates CM principles. And all of them were big on letting a child follow his/her natural interests and gifts and were living that in their families.

We ended up having 8 kids and 4 moms along while a 5th mom stayed home with most of the toddlers/preschoolers to just play. The kids ranged from 4 (he didn't want to be away from Mom and that was ok, too) to 13. One mom's 16 and 17 year olds stayed home (one had a college lab to be at and the other just didn't care to come along). Shan and the other girl were the ONLY girls, so it's handy that they're the same age and have a lot in common.

The best part of the day was watching the natural interests of the kids. Each seemed to have their own focus as we did things together but they all melded and blended so wonderfully. The 4-year-old was fascinated with every tiny cave pool. The 7-year-old boys were constantly on the lookout for wildlife. The 10-year-olds split into two camps - one that related everything back to the military, seeing the cave as a potentially useful military resource; and one camp (of 2 boys) that viewed caves as a frontier, the cutting edge of scientific discovery and was deeply interested in new discoveries that were coming out of caves. Shan was busy identifying new speleothems while her friend photographed the natural beauty of the cave and even helped Shannen out by taking some shots of formations Shan hadn't noticed before.

The moms were relaxed and enjoyed our own interests without feeling pressured to be "watching the kids" or "teaching the kids." If we heard a question we answered it but we didn't hover, testing their observations or forcing "education" on them. One mom took the lead on the hikes and a mom with a camera brought up the rear with the other two of us floating in between based pretty much entirely on how our legs were doing and what we saw that interested us.

I was the "native guide" for this one since my family knows and loves the Carlsbad cave system and caves in general. For a handful of points of interest I did make sure to stay in one place long enough to at least point it out to everyone walking by and answer questions if they had them. I was also the one to let our "lead mom" know what we could and couldn't get by with given our time constraints (we had a guided tour of some limited-access parts of the cave at a scheduled time to work around). The park rangers had expressed concern that we wouldn't have time to complete the full 1.3 mile trek around the Big Room and still make our tour group but I assured everyone that we could do it easily. I think they saw short legs and assumed a much slower pace than a pack of energetic boys normally runs at.

Our miracle of the day was the bat flight. Due to the drought and oncoming winter, that last few weeks of evening flights have been very small, sometimes as low as 1,000 bats coming out to hunt. Last night, though, we estimated about 20,000 bats leaving the cavern. The park rangers' "official" estimate was closer to 50,000. Despite fatigue (we ended up hiking over 4 miles by the end of the day) we stayed and watched the amazing exodus into the desert sunset. After the first few groups left the cave, I started watching the kids instead of the bats. I watched as each child reached their "OK, I think I'm done with this activity" moment and was amazed at how each one then settled quietly into some other activity that wouldn't disrupt others who were still engaged with the last activity. It warmed my heart to see them not only dedicated to learning, but considerate enough to be aware of others around them. That's no small thing for so many active, squirming boys in particular. Our reward, beyond the normal reward of knowing how awesome our kids are, was to be pulled aside by various members of the public to hear how great our kids are, how well behaved they had been all day, and how much they impressed the people around them. I think the best was from a woman who said, "I've been a teacher all my life. Your kids are homeschooled, aren't they? We never would have gotten that out of a class of kids." As much as that made me want to swell up in pride, it really just made me sad for all of the kids in public school who would LOVE an opportunity like we had yesterday but can't have it because they're in public school.

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