Exploring Our Urban Wilderness

A second and third-grade teacher helps his students discover the natural world in their urban environment

By Mark Hansen

Illustrator: Julian Rohn-Capellaro

Illustration:Julian Rohn-Capellaro

My students’ home terrain consists — at least on the surface — of houses, streets, schools, and stores. Like many urban kids, the bit of unpaved, unfenced nature my second and third graders have access to is the domain of blown trash, sewage treatment smells, and “stranger danger.”

But even the most beleaguered of cities have hidden and not-so-hidden pockets of natural resilience. In Portland, we have the Columbia slough, a heavily polluted ancillary channel of the Columbia River that most of my students have been warned to stay clear of. It’s not a pristine wilderness, but it’s a wild space within our city that has provided many opportunities for my students to connect with their environment.

Several years ago, I set out to explore both the concept of watersheds and the wild spaces in the slough with my students.

I wanted to bridge the gap between science curriculum and local communities. Ask students what they know about the impact of deforestation on animal habitats and if they offer any answers at all, I’d wager they are more likely to bring up the Amazon than the impact of urbanization and industrial agriculture on the songbird populations in their own communities. This lack of grounding may help explain why critical ecological issues like global warming, groundwater pollution, and deforestation seem so remote to most children.

I wanted to help my city kids gain an organic connection to questions of environment and a concrete understanding of how ecosystems work. In previous years I felt I had squandered the learning potential of my school’s patch of urban wilderness and reinforced my students’ dislocated and disconnected sense of their natural surroundings. By studying the slough and the Columbia River watershed, my students have gained a sense of their impact on the world and how the choices they make — literally — trickle down.

Exploring “Place”

During my first years of teaching, I walked with students around the community, exploring the public housing project where many of them live. I wanted them to get a sense of their part of the city and how it fit into the larger urban landscape. I wanted them to have a very local and personal understanding of the forces that had shaped the community. I had them draw maps and write the stories of the busiest corners.

I wanted them to find the links between their own stories — of getting into trouble, of moving into a new house, of climbing with their baby cousins, of arriving from a different country, of finding new friends — and the stories they read about the history of Portland. This kind of connection across time can be daunting for most eight-year-olds, but my students made startling connections between the recent arrival of some students from Mexico and the African-American families who moved to our neighborhood during World War II.

We made 3-D plans of what our part of the city would look like if they were in charge of the massive Hope VI urban renewal project now underway. They composed poems to their favorite plum trees and fire hydrants and wrote letters arguing for their preservation when the bulldozers came through. They paid homage to their favorite places and voiced what they thought was lacking (accessible shopping, a library, a clinic, rooftop gardens). Teams designed ideal neighborhoods, which we presented to city planners and families in the community. I wanted them to think rigorously about the constituent elements of a healthy and happy community. What does a community need to function? Which features are absolutely necessary?

I evaluated them on the plausibility of their communities, whether or not people actually could and would want to live there. I invited architects and planners from the Housing Authority to explain the criteria they were using to redesign local public housing. My students debated whether a redesign was even necessary if it would mean that local residents would be displaced while the reconstruction was happening. Fantasy plans for large houses with swimming pools began to give way to more community-centered features like parks, “old folks houses,” and “a bigger school!”

Cecil* even convinced his group to pare down the size of housing, because “you don’t want to have to clean all that.”

Mapping Flora and Fauna

As I rode my bike around the neighborhood one day, I remembered LaTia arguing for “more nature, like wild animals,” in our neighborhood. I’d agreed with her notion, but her planning team had ultimately dismissed nature as a low priority. Our focus was steadfastly “urban.”

I decided that we would map the flora and fauna of our neighborhood. I wanted students to start identifying the wild features where they live . We walked the neighborhood again, noting the kinds of trees that grew in parks and in people’s yards, looking for wildflowers in the brambles by the railroad tracks. We revisited work they had done in second grade on the animals that inhabited the neighborhood. I had them return to their maps and add places where plants grew untended and where animals might live. The crucial development in our ecological study of the area came when a little blurb in the newspaper tipped me off that a new bike trail had opened a few blocks from our school, allowing access to the Columbia slough.

I had taken for granted that my school lacked access to natural and wild settings. Early in my career, I had worked with suburban fifth graders monitoring a stream near their school, but it seemed impossible to expose my urban students to hands-on field science. I realized that there was no excuse for keeping my students cooped up in my class reading about the workings of some fictitious, abstracted watershed when they could walk five blocks to the wetland that drains our own watershed and get their hands dirty.

I wanted my students to learn about the ongoing negotiation between the world of trucks, houses, and pipes and the world of trails, nests, and sloughs. I wanted them to see that they lived in both of those worlds whether they stepped into the latter or not. I wanted them to apply their scientific and civic understandings of their world in complex ways to address the notion of sustainability. I wondered if a sense for the ecological processes taking place in the watershed would broaden and tie together their sense of the processes at work in our “built” neighborhood.

I wrote a letter/permission slip explaining to our families that there was a paved and frequently used path we would use, that we would not be in the water, and that children would be under direct supervision at all times. I also took the opportunity to invite them to join us in becoming slough scientists. Every single family responded positively, and a handful of brave parents said they would do what they could to come along.

Before our first trip I tried to explore what my students already knew about the slough. They thought that it was stinky and polluted because it is so close to the sewer treatment plant in our neighborhood. They thought the water was poisonous and that there were a lot of weeds there. All of what they said was negative. It was clear that part of our project needed to focus on rehabilitating the reputation of this little patch of wild space. I wondered how kids whose only immediate experience with nature was so grim could possibly maintain an optimistic outlook for the future of the environment. I wanted to foster an ecological sensitivity and concern while staving off the pessimism that your average unit on the prospects of global rain forests can instill.

I asked what they wanted to know about the slough and they offered: “Is the slough safe?” “What will we see there?” “Do people live there?” “What animals live there?”

I added my own questions, letting them know that I was learning here, too: “How is our neighborhood connected to the slough?” “How does it feel to be there?”

The Urban Wilderness

Following the little map in the newspaper, we crossed the busy trucking lane that separates my school from the slough and entered a thriving urban wilderness. It’s a complicated terrain, unlike any notion of wilderness I had ever entertained, completely consistent with the contradictory landscape I described above. Some kids were still reluctant to go, writing in their science notebooks that they anticipated it being “smelly and nasty.”

The slough drains our watershed, and contains a curious mix of occupants. It is home to both Portland International Airport and endangered western painted turtles. There are small mountains of stacked shipping containers and low, marshy islands that hide Great Blue Heron rookeries. Coyotes and deer skulk along the railroad tracks, passing thick stands of cottonwood trees and acres of Subarus and Toyotas fresh from their berths in tanker ships.

The slough was also home to Vanport, Oregon’s first large African-American community, which was destroyed by a massive flood in 1948. I was aware of the enormous contradictions of the Columbia slough’s landscape, but I had yet to connect them to my school’s neighborhood or to my own curriculum.

On our first few trips, fears about bad smells and danger abated as we spotted red-tailed hawks, woodpeckers, and raccoon tracks only a few yards from the railroad. We noticed tall Douglas firs that had a mysterious vine creeping up them and evidence of beavers chewing on some of the willows near the water. We saw a city landscaper working in a dirt field near the train tracks and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was seeding the area with native grasses to keep the soil from washing into the slough when it rained. On the bridge over the slough we noticed an interesting bird in the water that “looked like a stork,” according to Laney. Camille wasn’t convinced so she consulted the bird guide her dad had stowed in her backpack. It turned out to be a Great Blue Heron. Jabari and some others discovered coyote scat with evidence of rabbit fur. Mallard ducks swam away as we tromped down toward the shore one day, trailing some startled ducklings. Students began to fill their journals with lists of our sightings.

I was as astonished as the students were at the abundance of animal life. I started to ask them to reevaluate their connection to the watershed: What did it mean that there was an ecosystem in our area healthy enough to support predators like coyotes? Was the area really even part of our “neighborhood” if it had so many animals in it? We were, after all, residents of a city. I was in no rush to answer these questions, because I believe healthy disequilibrium is at the heart of critical and scientific thinking. And frankly, the kids were not prepared to think that way without a lot of science instruction and time to mull over the issues.

I first asked kids to reflect in their journals about how they felt when they were in the slough. Some answers were negative:

“I was bored and I don’t like walking so far,” wrote Matthew.

“My mom said I can’t get my clothes dirty, so I’m not going next time,” Attiana wrote.

Some could not find enough exclamation points:

“I was really happy! I’m going to take my brothers there on our bikes!! And maybe I will show them the coyote scat!” wrote Angel.

Some students began to connect their actions to the state of the watershed. Tiana wrote the following:

Today it was raining and I am mad because Mr. Hansen said if it rained we can go back to school, but he lied. But I am having fun. Five minutes ago we saw some frogs and for now we saw one lizard. . . . Now Mr. Hansen is talking to those kids about our toilets, saying whatever you do in the toilet will go down to the slough sewer place. I didn’t like it here [at] first but now it is like part of an interesting place. I think we should find a way to make sure the water stays nice, not toilet water. I think the slough shouldn’t be so dirty from the city and the cars. These trucks are too loud. Where are they going? Where do all these animals come from? They better stay away from the trucks. We could clean this up. Bye.

Tiana’s answer wanders, but I hear her trying to find herself in this new environment.

My students were beginning to understand the relationships that structure our environments, both built and unbuilt. They were beginning to think in terms of systems, a skill they can then apply to other frameworks, as Ibrahim did in his science journal:

The reason I like nature is I like to collect information and details when we go on trips. I think that the city is our habitat but instead of rabbits there are cars. The cars need gas for their food and they need the streets and parking lots for their shelter. That’s why there are gas stations in every part of the city.

Ibrahim was thinking of the city as a place with features that can be explained by the connections between them. I doubt he would have made those connections if he hadn’t gotten so close to the rabbit warrens in the brambles of the slough.

As the year drew to a close and we went on our last trip, I asked the kids to return to our original questions about the slough and reflect on how their thinking had changed. Some had little to say. A few said a little about seeing animals, which was fine, but didn’t say much about themselves or the connections that they found. Many kids echoed Marta, who wrote:

I changed a lot. I like nature a lot. I learned about plants and birds and the city environment. I used to hate to get dirt on me, but now I don’t mind. I will be a scientist.

I was most touched by Cortney, a girl who had been initially reluctant to explore our watershed and had shown little interest in finding her place within it. She wrote, “I learned that nature is not just a thing. It is something that you discover.”

I wish Cortney had written more, because I was heartened to hear that she was more engaged than she had appeared. And she was right on target: Nature is not just a thing that can be learned in a year, and neither is a city. They are both about discovering relationships over time, many of them very personal and very local.

* All students’ names have been changed.

Mark Hansen (mhansen@pps.k12.or.us) teaches at Clarendon Elementary School in Portland, Ore.