We may be a little late to the Arachtober party this year, but it’s never too late to celebrate the 8-leggeds among us. Following the costumed craziness of a Halloween morning at school, some middle schoolers joined me today for a spider hike in the woods. We started in the science room, admiring the subtle beauty of our resident tarantula, Webster. Then we headed into the woods, pausing to flip logs and examine minute webs strung between small branches.web103118.jpg

Most of the spiders we found on webs were tiny offspring hatched this summer, already proficient orb-spinners. Along the stream, fishing spiders spread themselves flat against the ground, perfectly camouflaged. We snared several spiders dangling on single strands of silk, but these evaded us by dropping quickly to the ground and vanishing.

Our final spider discovery was a large web that appeared abandoned, along the path on our way back up the hill. Then we spied a curled leaf at one side, and tucked in it, a lovely marbled orb weaver. She was intent on eating her most recent victim (which looked like it might be another of her kind) and she fixed her many eyes upon us without releasing her grip on her prey. We took her picture and then left her to eat her treat in peace.spider103118a

For more Jemicy arachnids, check out the gallery below:

Mis-placed plants

“But make no mistake:  the weeds will win; nature bats last.”  Robert Michael Pyle

My last post celebrated having reached over 400 identified species at Jemicy. Why, then, would these kids be cheering an effort to reduce that number?


A few weeks ago, this group went for a hike into the far Jemicy woods. I told them only that we were on a mission and brought along a bag, so they assumed that we were picking up trash. “Not exactly,” I replied, “although what we are looking for doesn’t belong here, and we’re going to try to get rid of it. It’s right under a red flag.” We found the flag, but the kids looked around, puzzled. “There’s nothing wrong here – just some grass.” I bent down and pulled up one of the low plants at our feet. It had wide, wavy leaves. “See this? It’s called wavy-leaf basketgrass. We’re not sure how it got here – probably by a seed stuck to someone’s shoe, or in mulch – but it can spread very quickly and keep other plants from growing here. So, do you think we can get every one of these little plants out of the ground and into this bag?” “Yes!”

10-10-18 wavyleaf basketgrass

We hunted and bagged plants until the area was clear, declared our mission a success for that day, and made plans to come back in the spring to check for those that might have evaded us.

Jemicy’s woods, like much of our region, is full of plants that are considered invasive, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture: “non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration, and… likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” The Maryland list contains many species that were intentionally introduced for ornamental or practical purposes – as a food crop, perhaps, or to stabilize eroded slopes. Jemicy’s Lower and Middle School campus has 20 of these, most so firmly established that there is little hope of eradicating them. While many introduced species remain contained and manageable, others “escape,” their seeds carried by birds, the wind, or inadvertent human transport. The effects of these aggressive colonizers can range from shading out native species to trapping them in a permanent stranglehold. While we do have some native wild grapes, most of the “Tarzan vines” that snake up our trees and drape the canopy of our woods are introduced and now invasive species of bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).


Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is a more recent invader whose broad leaves and tenacious tendrils create a thick blanket along the edges of the woods – and whose bright blue berries are eagerly eaten and transported by hungry birds.

robin porcelainberry

Some of these introduced plants bear a strong resemblance to native species. For years I had assumed that the spiky-stemmed, purple-fruited trees growing at Jemicy were the  Maryland native, devils’ walking stick (Aralia spinosa). When I went to photograph them for inclusion on our biodiversity checklist, however, a closer look at their leaf veins revealed that they were instead Aralia elata, an introduced species now regarded as invasive.

I often cite George Washington Carver’s words to my students when we are discussing the value of plants such as dandelions or other introduced agricultural species: “A weed is a flower in the wrong place.” One of the stories that I remember my mother telling about my grandfather was that he inspected for “noxious weeds” growing along the roadsides of farms in Ontario. That term left me with the vivid impression that some weeds were worse than others, defined by our need to manage them.  That “wrong place” is one that allows the plant in question to grow and spread without constraint, where it lacks its native consumers, pests, and environmental controls, and where it impinges on human interests, which increasingly include the value of ecological integrity. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an example of an introduced food plant that can rapidly inundate and obliterate the smaller plants in a forest understory, to the detriment of other species that depend on them.

garlic mustard

During aftercare this week, a student brought something to show me. “What’s this?” she asked. I hesitated, envisioning the chain of events that could follow my response. Paulownia tomentosa, or princess tree, is one of those plants that was introduced here intentionally from eastern Asia, as an ornamental. In the spring, it puts out large, lovely, purple blossoms that sometimes still contain a taste of delectable nectar after they fall. They have large, heart-shaped, fuzzy leaves and interesting boat-shaped seed pods that open to release hundreds of tiny seeds. Once the wind gets hold of them, they can sail for miles.


In the end, after explaining my concern, I let the pod-finder open it and explore the seeds in a place where I thought they would not be spread.  A few days later, I saw the same student pointing out more pods to another child, and explaining what they were. Nature may bat last, but educators hope we have a few innings left to help make up for a few errors.









We’ve reached a biodiversity milestone! Five years ago, in the summer of 2013, Jemicy School joined the Maryland Biodiversity Project, an endeavor founded in 2012 with the goal of documenting all the species of Maryland. When MBP founders Bill Hubick and Jim Brighton asked whether we would like to be one of their featured sites – offering to help us identify Jemicy’s biodiversity, from fungi to fauna, from ant species to plant species, and everything in between – we jumped at the chance. Today, five years later, our site checklist has surpassed 400  identified species. Many more species have been photographed and are under review, but all can be found in our Jemicy biodiversity album.

Documenting new species on our school grounds has become second nature, an integral part of daily teaching and learning. In just the past few weeks, we collected dozens of images and specimens:

The soundtrack to this ongoing bioblitz – heard at recess, during aftercare, or abruptly in the middle of a class – is usually some variation of “Quick, get your camera! I found something!”

Sometimes we make a deliberate and focused effort, as in the seasonal fungi, plant and invertebrate hunts that send the younger students scouring their play areas for new species in specific categories. Among other things, we’ve learned that worms and slugs are escape artists.

Usually, though, the process of locating and documenting our local species is a natural part of how children learn science at Jemicy – by following their inherent desire to explore and discover. It takes little more than the willingness to follow a child to wherever they have made their discovery, to provide oversight for temporary, humane capture and release, and to appreciate every find, no matter how small or apparently common. One experience from our first year partnering with MBP has become a now iconic story shared with each incoming class: A group of 6 year olds coming to science class stopped me on the patio outside, insisting that I photograph ants (that I could barely see) crawling on a single piece of popcorn. I obliged, reluctantly, assuming that this was probably a waste of time. But no – those minuscule, nearly overlooked creatures turned out to be “pavement ants,” a new species record for the project.


Some kids talk about their participation in the biodiversity project the way others might describe reaching a new video game level.  Two 8 year old girls discussing their finds: “I just got a new record for a beetle.” “Cool! I remember when I got my first one – a cute little jumping spider.” They love to scroll through our Flickr album and recall who found what, where, and when, calling out, “That’s my hand!” or “That crayfish almost got me!” The photographic records themselves have become a valuable teaching tool. Printed out as cards, the images are used for sorting and classifying, for comparing to new specimens, for examining adaptations and features specific to different plant, fungi, and animal groups.

Our 5-year bioblitz has yielded a trove of information and revealed some glaring gaps. Arthropods dominate our checklist, and we need to find ways to better document plants and fungi. I have no doubt, however, that the enthusiasm for finding new species that brought us this far will continue to expand our checklist well beyond this milestone, while helping us to recognize the value of documenting all forms of life.


The senses of wonder

“Whatever we touch is touching us.”  Paulus Berensohn

Ten years ago, on an early fall day, I stood at the top of the hill at Jemicy looking down into the woods. The foliage was still thick and green, obscuring much of the activity that I was supposed to be recording. A torrent of kids had just swept past me and disappeared into that tangle of trees, but their voices carried along the stream below and up the hillside. The woods had just opened for recess, and everyone was scrambling to explore, to find animals, and to claim fort territory.


As I watched and tried to determine the best way to follow the children featured in my research, a new student joined me. She paused, scanning the woods, watching her new classmates disappear into the brush. Assuming that she was feeling daunted by the wildness of the scene before her, I was just about to offer to accompany her down the steep hill when she turned to me, her eyes wide.

“How,” she gasped, “did this place get to be so amazing?”

I discovered later, after interviewing this student with her parents, that she was awe-struck, expecting to find a recess environment similar to her old school. There, her choices consisted of an asphalt pad and a manicured soccer field. It didn’t take long before she was fully, physically engaged in the activities typical of the Jemicy woods recess setting: collecting and trading goods, constructing shelters, meandering along trails chatting with friends.

Expressions of wonder may happen in a split second or last much longer, in response to a single encounter or one that is ongoing. Whether expressed verbally, with a wide-eyed gape, a smile of pleasure, or through intense mutual scrutiny, they represent unparalleled learning conduits. JJ Gibson, who developed the theory of affordances, explained it this way: “An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective.” This is never more evident than when observing children in a state of wonder, fully immersed in and attentive to the relationship of that moment, especially when it involves the sense of touch.


The students that I teach may have difficulty sustaining focus with certain learning tasks. When holding a snake or other animal, this is not an issue. Handling requires constant awareness and assessment of both parties, the location of their bodies and the negotiation of movement between them.  The animals that share my classroom are therapeutic, providing not only opportunities for curiosity, amazement, and enhanced learning, but also for highly focused empathy.

The same goes for the animals that we encounter outside – usually amphibians or invertebrates such as insects, worms and crustaceans. Their touch on our skin creates unaccustomed sensations – slimy, tickling, or clingy – that remind us to respect their otherness.

A few weeks ago we brought in some milkweed that had fallen over by a sidewalk at school and was in danger of being trampled. There were many monarch caterpillars still feasting on it, and we decided to let them safely go through metamorphosis in our classroom visitor tank. Last Friday, they began to emerge, one by one, but so quickly that we could never catch them in that amazing moment of transformation. One of the kids suggested taping my phone to the tank and doing a time lapse:

Later that morning, still more adults were ready to release:

The final monarch to emerge seemed in no hurry to fly. Instead, it rested calmly, clinging to eagerly offered nose launchpads, eliciting gasps of “It tickles!” It fanned its wings slowly a few times before lifting off and fluttering quickly toward the south, its final delicate touch leaving an indelible memory.










Back to school

321337_164792200264953_1175651_nThe first day of school is always momentous, whether it’s your first as a student or your thirty-first as a teacher.


Jemicy’s first day of school this year was a scorcher. The few moments we spent exploring outside required short hops from one shady spot to the next. Still, those spots held the magic of new discoveries.

Under logs: Dozens of nightcrawlers the size of small snakes -“Worm City!”


In the milkweed bed: “1,2,3,4…… 15 monarch caterpillars!”

monarch caterpillar

Along the bank of the tiny pond that the wet summer left below the soccer field: “A frog! Tadpoles! Dragonflies!” For licorice lovers, there was plenty of Perilla to sample.

Under a rock: “Weird bug!”

Platydracus maculosus
Platydracus maculosus


During recess, we sought shade under a small cherry tree. One person spotted something fuzzy on the ground – a desiccated caterpillar. This discovery quickly led to another unfamiliar caterpillar curled by a rock, then a leaf-like planthopper, a picture-winged fly, some foraging ants, and an orange-headed leafhopper – all under the sparse canopy of the cherry tree. Several of these discoveries turned out to be new species for our biodiversity checklist, including a new county record!

“This,” declared a new M Grouper, “must be the Tree of Life.”

The rest of the week delivered more new sensations: monarch butterflies emerged and flew in greater numbers than I ever recall seeing before; striped oakworm caterpillars were caught scurrying through the grass, praying mantises prowled along walls and shrubs, a tiny saddleback caterpillar hitched a ride into the classroom on a potted fern; sassafras leaves announced their fall color change; a toad shared space with potential dinner companions.

Such an auspicious beginning to a new school year, and every bit as memorable as a new lunchbox.


50 plants

“Why will we ever need to know this?”

It was Day 1 of our “50 Plants in 20 Days” identification challenge that takes place in the last weeks of school. I had started off by asking my 4th graders to look around and name any plants they already knew. “Grass?” suggested one.

That’s when I got that question. Most teachers hear it sometime (or many times) in their profession. I remember posing it to my math teacher in high school. “Because you never know when you might need to…uh… solve a differential equation,” was his unconvincing response.

So when I got that question on Day 1, I paused, then said, “I don’t know exactly how you might need to know these particular plants in the future,” I said. “But you might want to.”


I pointed toward the wooded expanse where I knew he and his friends enjoyed spending recess. “What do you call that?”

“The woods.”

“Do you know the name of anything you see?”


“Can you name some things you enjoy doing there?”

“Collecting buckeyes. Building forts.”

“What if you knew what a buckeye tree looked like?”

A pause. “Oh… I get it. I’d make my fort underneath it, so the buckeyes would fall right into my fort!”


This naming challenge is structured around affordances – opportunities for meaningful interaction with one’s environment. Can the plant be smelled, eaten, played with, climbed on? Can an encounter with it cause discomfort? Does it have parts that can be counted, admired for their beauty, or disliked for their invasive habits? Does it attract pollinators, repel pests, or cling to your clothes? Can you think of a way for this plant to be meaningful to you?

One of the best hooks to hang an identity on is a plant’s story.  Once you know that multiflora rose was imported as a “living fence” to substitute for barbed wire during a time of metal shortage, it is hard to see those thorny stalks as anything else.

mf rose.jpg

Other stories appeal through pure folklore. Does your chin turn yellow when you hold a buttercup under it? Obviously, you love butter.

Stories sometimes change from one year to the next; we can create new ones as we experience the plant together. White pine trees became known this year as “pollen bombs” when the kids watched me detonate a branch by shaking it.  “Susan and Joe” (Black-eyed Susan and Joe-pye weed) moved into the neighborhood, settled in a new perennial garden, and produced lots of little Susans and Joes.

Taste and smell seal the deal for instant recognition. If a plant has scented or edible parts, its identity becomes one with that sensory encounter. Sourgrass, spicebush, garlic mustard, mulberries, mint, serviceberries – each has a place in the shared experience of our schoolyard, and the memory of its appeal passes along through its common name from one group to the next.

Honeysuckle, of course, is a classic  favorite. Once a child locates a patch in bloom, others swarm like bees to collect the nectar. One of my favorite parts of these seasonal rituals is observing how eagerly experienced kids transmit lore to newcomers. “Go like this. Pull on the end of the honeysuckle and a string comes out with nectar. Or, just suck it out.”

On Day 20 of the plant challenge, there was a final group field test. Students used the annotated field guides they had created and were encouraged to share their ideas with each other before writing down their identifications. I watched them examine and analyze leaves, review the stories they had heard, ask to smell or taste a leaf, and discuss possibilities.

“That is so poison ivy – see the three leaves?”

“But it has thorns, and white flowers.”

“Oh, right – then blackberry? Poison ivy doesn’t look bad for you, but it is, and blackberry looks bad for you, but tastes good.”


“What about this one with the camo bark?”

fresh bark

“I think it’s sycamore – like, I’m sick of camo and I can’t take it any more!

At the end, when the class had successfully identified all 50 plants on our list, I paused on the hill overlooking the woods. I reminded them of where we had started a few weeks ago – “grass?” – and asked, “Now what do you see?”


“Multiflora rose, redbud, tree of heaven, princess tree, box elder, clover, plantain, honeysuckle …”

“But aren’t there more than 50 kinds of plants at Jemicy?” someone asked. “When can we learn the rest?”

On the last day of school, this question means Objectives Met.


Flower Power

Spring has been a long time getting here this year. I was so used to snowflakes blowing by my classroom windows – just last week! – that the sight of petals sailing past took awhile to register. What? Some tree had already bloomed, and I failed to notice?


I took a hike along the Gunpowder River, searching for spring ephemerals. The floodplain, usually filled with color at this time, seemed drab. And then, one by one, they caught my eye.

A later hike through the serpentine barrens of Soldier’s Delight turned up a similar delay in flowering. Still, the small bursts of brightness in this dry landscape were well worth the hunt.

Determined not to miss another spring beacon, all my classes went outside this week to find flowers. Like a swarm of famished insects, we descended on the dandelions and violets, the ground ivy and dead nettle, the peach, serviceberry, and crabapple trees. We looked for specific colors, smells, textures, and tastes, compared structures, considered the effects of landscape changes and recent weather.

Several classes dissected flowers to find their reproductive parts, the prominent pollen-laden anthers and tiny hidden ovules. We cut open fruit to see what characteristics the developed ovaries of angiosperms had in common, and which were different.

I realized by the end of the week, when I was searching our biodiversity Flickr album, that my photographs containing flowers were rarely about the flowers themselves, but more often featured an insect, with the flower that it was pollinating  given little, if any, notice. And yet, flowers are clearly essential, their attractive qualities vital to perpetuating their own and others’ lives – including ours. We usually take for granted the fruits of their labors.

seed question

So here, along with this seventh grader’s food for thought, is a collection-in-progress of some of the flower (and pollinator) power found at Jemicy in the past several years.


Location, etc.

A thick blanket of snow muffled the usual sounds as I walked outside on this first morning of spring in Maryland. And then, from a protected perch among the holly boughs, came the distinctive, 3-part song of a cardinal that was quickly answered in kind from a neighboring tree: “LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION!”

A late snowstorm can’t deter the territorial instincts so prevalent among birds this time of year. I watched both male and female cardinals take turns making forays out from the holly trees to the bird feeder, then dash back to protect their space from intruders. Whether they had already begun nest-building before the storm is uncertain, but they must have selected an ideal location worth defending.

The housing market for cavity nesting birds took a hit this winter in the Jemicy woods. Powerful wind storms brought down several tall trees with hollows that had provided snug nesting sites for local chickadees, tufted titmice and bluebirds. We try to help remedy this loss by building and installing nest boxes around campus every year in early spring. This also gives us the opportunity to more closely monitor the progress of different birds as they raise their families.


Sometimes these houses are co-opted by other animals with their own nesting needs. When we were checking old boxes this week (Rule 1: always knock first), we found one stuffed full of dried leaves and other nest materials. Something was moving around inside: Chipmunk? Mouse? Flying squirrel? We carefully closed the box and left the new resident’s identity a mystery.

Pileated woodpeckers develop much of the real estate that is sought after by cavity nesters. Once a desirable location is identified, a thorough inspection must take place. These bluebirds seemed to have a difference of opinions about this particular site. The male recommended it enthusiastically, hopping in and out, encouraging the female to step in for a tour. She, however, was not convinced, and flew off after a cursory peek inside.

A pair of doves made their decision more readily. After sitting together quietly on a branch by a lake, the male hopped over to a nest that appeared to have been constructed last year by a different bird. It was a neat cup of mud and grass such as a robin might build, but the doves had added a few extra twigs – the perfect renovation. The female dove stepped in and settled herself comfortably into the nest, while the male sealed the deal by giving her a good preening.

doves 4


Flitting about just over their heads, a mockingbird protested loudly. Had he already claimed this location? The doves were oblivious to his noise. Meanwhile, hopeful sparrows positioned themselves prominently for their own call and response ritual. As soon as one song finished, another sounded off. One young sparrow seemed to find this frustrating; every time he would open his beak, another nearby male would steal his song space. He finally let out a quavery burst of song, then left to try his luck in other territory.



February is a good month for cravings, especially sugar. Flocks of robins and cedar waxwings descend on trees and vines that still hold fruit. Acrobatic bluebirds snag berries on the wing. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers leave rows of holes to do what their name implies.

Jemicy kids follow suit. Sugar maples are uncommon at school, so instead we pay a visit to the red maples (Acer rubrum) and box elders (Acer negundo) that are plentiful on our campus. Maryland’s sap flow is unpredictable and often brief; a stretch of temperatures below freezing at night and above freezing during the day rarely lasts long enough to deliver much sap unless you can collect from large numbers of trees. Last year, we arrived in mid-February with our spiles and buckets only to find that the trees were already beginning to flower. This year, we watched the forecasts closely. Well in advance of the proper temperatures, we had prepared our repurposed yogurt buckets and fashioned bamboo spiles.

On Valentine’s Day, we were delighted to find most buckets filled, and before the temperatures soared into the mid-70’s we had managed to get about 4 gallons of sap. While this would not result in more than a half cup of syrup, the entire tapping and evaporating process was well worth it. Every child claimed to be able to taste the sugar in the liquid dripping from the tree, and as we boiled the collected sap in the classroom, we naturally had to sample it periodically as the sugar became more concentrated.

By the end of the sugaring week, several box elder trees in the recess area started seeping sap from splits and broken limbs caused by winter ice damage. The sap fermented as it accumulated on the bark, attracting numerous insects: ants, flies, beetles, and even butterflies.

The butterflies were eastern commas (Polygonia comma), the first of our spring butterflies, and the earliest I had ever seen. The attraction to fermented sap reminded me of a similar phenomenon that I had seen in New Zealand, where red and yellow admiral butterflies would cluster and feed on oozing tree trunks. In fact, red admirals apparently preferred fermented tree sap or fruit to flower nectar. Honeybees, (an introduced species in New Zealand as they are in the US) often joined them.


During the sap flow, I was also taking a weekend beekeeping class. My winter insect deficit had induced a craving that was slightly appeased by listening to Steve, our instructor, talk for hours about social insect behavior and biology, and about early spring nectar sources.

During the second class, he demonstrated how to extract honey, pausing every so often as he slid his knife over the drawn comb to lick a drip from his fingers.

A stray bee appeared from somewhere in Steve’s equipment and flew around him. He chuckled and assured us that the bee would surely be accompanying its honey back home. That urge to collect sugar, whether to feed a colony or one’s own sweet tooth, is hard to deny.

Insides out

Some of the most challenging things to teach in biology are those that we can’t easily see. Maybe they are microscopic, at the cellular or molecular level. Or, they exist in an inaccessible place, such as inside an animal’s body. Finding ways to bring such concepts to life, to create projects that animate and demonstrate their relevance is a vital part of teaching.

Back in my grandmother’s time, students of natural history kept meticulous notebooks detailing their observations and reflections.

In her “National Biology Note-book” completed by my grandmother in high school, a preface explains the importance of developing inductive reasoning skills through structured laboratory exercises rather than using the “verification method” of simply memorizing facts. While facts are quickly forgotten, asserts the author, “training the young mind to see accurately and think clearly” should result in deeply-ingrained scientific habits of observation and logical reasoning.

To find amoeba or paramecia, the note-book suggests, scoop some old leaves from a stagnant pool, boil up a hay infusion, and see what shows up. The same strategies work 100 years later. And, if DNA had been known in those years, I bet they would have used the same “pea soup” extraction that we do today.

.dan extraction

Working at the elementary level, I am always searching for fun projects that can help teach anatomy. Last year, students made life-size skeletons from recycled materials while learning the name for each of the bones. Related learning opportunities often arise serendipitously. We recently decided that it was time to disinter the squirrel that we had buried in the pine woods last fall, and carefully collected the bones. We are now in the process of reconstructing the squirrel’s skeleton, naming the bones as we go.  It’s a treasure hunt for puzzle pieces.

This year in the younger classes we are focusing more on the “squishy bits,” the internal organs. We are taking a comparative approach to this project, so that we can understand how the same or similar organs look and function in different organisms. To do this, we are creating “Operation” games; each student selects an animal, researches and draws its internal anatomy, and then cuts the organs out carefully from a recycled pizza box.

Because we have also worked on creating simple electric circuits, we are wiring the animal anatomy boxes so that, as in the classic Operation game, each organ must be removed very carefully so as not to set off an alarm buzzer.giraffe operation

When my grandmother graduated from high school in 1909, she wrote an essay entitled “Learning by Doing,” in which she described a progressive philosophy that would soon inform her own practice as a teacher.  I’m not sure what she would think of all the new-fangled technologies that I am using with my classes, but I hope that she would see them fulfilling the final words of her essay: a child “who formerly could see nothing in anything now sees something in everything…”