by Denny Olson

Flathead Audubon and its Education Committee, partner Flathead Land Trust and consultant Region One Fish, Wildlife and Parks, are embarking on a plan to use 7th and 8th-grade education about birds as a portal to a broader concept of “place-based” education.

Montana School Standards, are by definition, generic. They have application across educational systems nation-wide. Their strength is in ensuring basic understandings in students of certain general concepts, and the over-arching idea is to “raise the bar” of education across the United States. The weakness of teaching these standards to the exclusion of any more specific local expectations is that 1) children are denied direct learning experiences with their local world, replacing concrete, direct sensory experiences with abstract, indirect, virtual experiences, 2) they are inadvertently encouraged to take their talents elsewhere when they graduate, 3) many remain unmotivated and disempowered to help solve problems right where they live, and to make solid contributions to “home”, and 4) they fail to form emotional bonds to their “place”, which has been shown to be a positive influence on mental health.

We want to fix that.

The Flathead’s natural outdoors is integral to our quality of water, air, food, human life and enjoyment. Sound research has consistently shown that children and adults who spend significant time in nature are healthier, happier, and smarter. Familiarity with our home “place” is important to our health and happiness through a sense of belonging, and stimulates intelligence and relevant critical thinking regarding making good decisions about our local area. We want to fit bird education into standard core science and arts curriculum to give teachers an interesting, hands-on, unique, in-your-face way to teach concepts about biodiversity and ecosystems that incorporate outdoor field trips.

So, we have tied the Goals and Objectives of the Flathead Bird Education Program to both national and state standards, but also to standards concerned with the place in which they are living and growing. We call those “Place Standards”.

Place-learning has built-in relevance.  Local politics affects us at a much greater rate and intensity than state, national or global politics. Local air, water and food conditions affect us much more than on those larger scales. Local people are the ones with which we must have relationships. Local land and wildlife are what we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste when we walk out of the door.  One rather dominating fact seems to have escaped those of us in the educational community. We are herenow.  So let’s use the here and the now.

And birds are accessible — always here, now. Every citizen of the Flathead should have a sense of where they fit into this wonderful area of the world. Glacier National Park is an obvious, no-brainer. Flathead Lake is a clear, cold, huge recreational and economic treasure. We need to know what makes it tick — its unique biology and the threats to its integrity. Those are the obvious pieces of that wonder. But the entire watershed of the Flathead system feeding water to our Lake treasure is also part of that. Kids, and adults too, need to understand the dynamics of the Flathead forks, Stillwater, and Whitefish river systems, and how their integrity translates to our inland great lake.

How many of our citizens know about the spectacular Sandhill Crane migration stopover in our West Valley, where in October they can stand in one spot and see hundreds of wild cranes filling their senses with wild, raucous rattling calls? How many have witnessed four hundred Swans and thousands of ducks cramming the river and sloughs of the Lower Valley in late March? Who has cruised the roads of that same area in the dead of winter to watch dozens of northern migrant hawks and owls hunting from their perches? Who hasn’t listened to the cacophony of late spring bird song in the river bottoms right next to our towns.?

Place literacy is important for so many reasons. We need to know where our water comes from, and where it goes when we flush the toilet. We need to have a geographic overview of how our yard our neighborhood our watershed, and the world itself relate to each other. These are the things that are prerequisites to making good decisions about, and bonding to, our wonderful place. We are citizens — of a place. Let’s learn about it, and celebrate it.

We could start with birds. Just saying …