Members of the Soaring Birds after-school birding club, Dever-McCormack School sixth- graders practice with their binoculars. Twelve students took part in this Citizen Schools program. (All photographs courtesy of the author.)
Last fall, my friend Mary Howard and I volunteered to lead an afterschool birding club for sixth graders at the Dever-McCormack School in Boston through an organization called Citizen Schools. This Dorchester neighborhood school is located on Columbia Point in Boston, which we knew would be a great place for seabirds.
Mary and I are old friends, and we often bird together, sneaking off for a few hours here and there when we aren’t working or tending to our own kids. We’ve done a few Bird-a-thons for Mass Audubon and twitched our fair share of vagrants. Not jaded yet, we’re still able to get excited at watching any birds—even House Sparrows—if they are doing something interesting. Though we had in our heads a vision of ourselves as ornithological pied pipers showing our eager students their first Snowy Owls and Surf Scoters, part of us also realized that we were not totally sure what we were getting into.
The sponsoring organization, Citizen Schools, runs outstanding afterschool programs in low-income communities in seven states. They provide extensive background and support for volunteers like us—including considerable upfront training. Citizen Schools seemed eager to have us, and we were grateful to have such a strong organization behind us. During the training, we listened carefully, taking in all their advice about helping students develop 21st century skills. We attended orientations and learned about how to manage our classroom. They requested a detailed curriculum with objectives and activities timed for each day. But the idea of writing a curriculum for our students was initially befuddling, given our subject. We thought it would be simple. Lesson One: Go birding. Observe birds. Lesson Two: See Lesson One.
Our lead teacher worked with us to prepare the lesson plans and establish objectives for each 90-minute class. She also helped us understand some of the challenges our students faced. Then, just before the first class, she tipped us off that the school was not comfortable with two untrained amateur teachers leading students around the neighborhood looking for birds. Their suggestion was that we go birding, instead, on YouTube.
Not that we don’t already bird when we watch television—Wood Thrush, House of Cards—but birding on YouTube? We pushed back. Birding to us meant being outside and achieving a mental state where you are both focused and unfocused at the same time, and where being distracted can be a good thing. Birding was about the sun and the wind and climbing over the rocks to get a good look at a Ruddy Turnstone. “You need to meet these students first," school administrators advised.
And so we did. We can't say that first class went well. The kids looked at us, annoyed. None of them really wanted to be there. Some let us know that birding was not their first choice for an afterschool activity-or even their third or fourth choice. Fair enough, we thought, when the other options included building robots, making music videos, a Project Runway experience, and investing in the stock market. Birding was nerdy, they were telling us. Who cares about birds? A few decided to ignore us and do their math homework instead of listening. Meanwhile, the school authorities changed the name of our class from “Birding” to “The Great Outdoors,” which was apparently more marketable to students.
Most days there were twelve of them, boys and girls, urban kids in a school that was struggling. Children came from all over the city of Boston to the Dever-McCormack. Not all of them had families to go home to at night. Or safe neighborhoods. Or even clean laundry. In some cases, we worried that a few might not have a good dinner waiting for them. Many of the school’s students had learning differences. Language challenges. And life challenges and stresses that would level most adults. But once we got past the introductions, I could see we might have some fun.
Everyone slouched. “You’re already birders,” we told them. “What birds do you know?”
“Robin?” one girl volunteered. They knew the names of a few common birds, plus parakeet, parrot, penguin, and flamingo-pets, cartoons, and a lawn ornament.
We handed out sketchbooks, bird stickers, and drawing pencils; surprisingly the room lit up. “Art? Huh?” Time to draw and sketch isn’t part of the typical school day. We put up slides of different birds and looked at a short video by bird artist John Muir, and we practiced drawing—noticing the various parts and proportions of birds. We showed them field notebooks from the American Birding Association's young birder contest. We gave the students a rough sketch of a sandpiper drawn by David Sibley. Through sketching, they started to notice how a bird’s feathers are oriented and the postures of different birds. “The drawing was so important to me,” David Sibley has said. “It is how I study the birds.” It is how our students learned the birds, too.
We made slide shows of birds side by side and challenged our students to look for the differences. Scarlet Tanager and Northern Cardinal. Indigo Bunting and Eastern Bluebird. American Goldfinch and Yellow Warbler. Then, more difficult groups: Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, and Ring-billed Gull. Chipping Sparrow and American Tree Sparrow. Purple Finch and House Finch. We talked about field marks, habitat, behavior, and migration. They drew more and even made notes about what they were noticing.
By the third class, we got permission for a brief outing. Somehow, we’d earned some trust and would now be allowed to venture into the wilds of Columbia Point with our charges to do some actual birding. We’d spotted a community garden next door to the school in a vacant lot. Would a handful of small raised beds offer productive birding? The lot was weedy, filled with trash, plastic bags, and broken glass.
We arrived early that day and threw some seed around the lot, hoping to interest anything other than House Sparrows. Dandelions pushed up through the cracked asphalt, vines had overtaken the chain link fence around the perimeter, and a few scraggly trees struggled to free themselves just outside the fence. At one end of the lot, there was the well-fertilized backyard of a local church, complete with faded pink plastic wading pool collecting rainwater, and a good-sized ornamental tree. We saw a Blue Jay, a Tufted Titmouse, a House Finch. Maybe it wouldn’t be fruitless.
We told the kids we were going outside. Most cheered, a few groaned, but they quickly lined up, and we filed out into the school parking lot. Almost immediately a young male hawk flew low over the group, giving everyone great looks. "Red-tailed Hawk,” we let them know. They watched the bird glide and noted its belly band. That was our first class bird. We quickly passed out pairs of donated binoculars and gave a lesson in how to use them, trying to get the students to focus on the Ring-billed Gulls and pigeons on the school roof. The football players in the field, however, were more interesting.
When we got to the vacant lot, we broke into three groups. One student scanned the perimeter and pointed to a tree where a bird was hard at work. “A woodpecker,” I said, but it was too big to be a Downy. Binoculars revealed a beautiful Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Obligingly it hung around while all the students came over and tried to train their tiny binoculars on it and notice the white flanks and the golden wash of its feathers.
More birds. Song Sparrow. House Sparrow. White-throated Sparrow. American Robin. And suddenly out of nowhere, a gasp as an American Kestrel swooped in chasing a flock of starlings, then took off. Northern Mockingbird. Northern Cardinal. Then an Eastern Kingbird on the roof ridge of the church—only much later did we realize how rare this sighting was at this location at that time of year. I stood with a student as we noticed the bright white edge of its tail and its breast, the dark head and straight-up posture.
Then one of our students started to wander off, just what the school was afraid of. “Naomi, come back!!” we yelled, but she ignored us. Irritated that one child could potentially ruin all bird walks for everyone for the rest of the semester, I ran across the broken glass toward her. “Miss, Miss, I see a bird. It is all brown. On that tree. What is that?” She pointed. I looked.
Brown Creeper. We used photocopies from bird coloring books to help students get started with their sketches and encouraged them to take field notes on what they observed birds eating and doing.
I motioned for everyone to come over to see the bird, and, again, a wonderfully cooperative creature let everyone practice with binoculars. They noticed the bird’s coloring, the curve of its slender bill, its lovely habit of sprightly spiraling up tree trunks. They sketched and made careful notes. When we got back to class, they added to their sketches from memory, enhanced their field notes, and created a class life list. We talked about what we’d noticed and then they lined up again, this time for their buses.
Noticing is not on the official list of Citizen Schools’ 21st Century Skills, a list that includes communication, innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving, The 21st Century Skills are areas of emphasis that align with national educational standards and goals and are meant to support the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ;and Mathematics) initiatives that are driving so much of education reform. From tiny preschool classrooms all the way through college distribution requirements, we are, as a nation, urgently asking students to think more like scientists and engineers—even if we aren’t always clear about what that means and even if we haven’t developed fundamental skills of scientific observation and data collection.
We managed to spin our class as developing a hybrid of problem-solving and communications skills so that we could pass muster. Over the course of the class, we managed to prepare our students to talk about the birds and birding skills with which they’d become acquainted for the end-of-year science fair, but I’m not sure what we were doing was technically part of STEM goals, 21st Century Skills or Common Core frameworks.
The activity of American schools seems designed around a fairly narrow idea of what attention is. William James, one of the founders of American psychology, talked about attention as the exclusion of extraneous information. Attention, he wrote, “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others” (James 1890.) This is exactly what we ask of students when we ask them to pay attention—we want them to direct the limited attentional resources they have to the task we set before them. We want them to focus on the teacher and the assignment. We set out objectives to help them focus and exclude anything else. And at the Dever-McCormack and in many other public schools across the country, students are asked to do this at least four to six hours each day.
Greater Black-backed Gull with field notes. About a third of our students were Spanish-speakers, so we encouraged them to take notes in both English and Spanish.
Focused attention is a central feature of human cognition. Psychologists called this kind of focused attention endogenous attention. Endogenous attention is intentional. You focus on something specific-something you want or need to know more about and shut everything else out. You are like a laser, and the tighter your beam, the better. You are engaging your endogenous attention when you are having an intense conversation with a friend on the subway, losing yourself reading a book, or carefully watching a single bird at your feeder. In work, in school, in everyday life, we are asked to produce a sustained and narrow focus.
But there is another kind of attention—exogenous attention. When you are in a noisy school cafeteria, you are focused on trying to hear the people next to you. Yet somehow, you can hear it when people to whom you are not paying attention say your name from across the room. Exogenous attention lies just beneath your radar until it bursts through. It is that odd chip note you hear in a parking lot, even while you are talking on your cell phone, which then turns out to be a Prothonotary Warbler in Massachusetts in May.
Birders know the difference. When we search for Cackling Goose among a large flock of Canada Geese, we intentionally shift our attention from one goose to another until we find something that matches what we know about the smaller bird-smaller beak, shorter neck, different posture. By contrast, among a flotilla of Double-crested Cormorants, a Brown Pelican will catch our attention immediately (Macaluso and Doricchi 2013).
Research suggests that there are ways to enhance or improve endogenous attention—repeating or practicing various tasks, engaging in meditation, and playing video games, especially first-person shooters (Posner 1980). Various studies have looked at the effects of action video games on attention, which appear to offer "remarkable enhancement in the ability to efficiently deploy endogenous attention" (Hubert-Wallander et al. 2010). These studies say that video games can improve selective visual attention, object tracking in the field, visual short-term memory, the mental rotation of objects in space, and the speed and efficiency at which gamers can switch from one task to the next—something known as attentional shift (Boot et al. 2008). Such improvements are possible because endogenous attention is a function of the more plastic parts of the brain, particularly a group of nuclei interconnected with the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and brainstem, which are associated with functions such as attention, motor control, cognition, and learning. Bigger basal ganglia can make you a better gamer and maybe a better student, a more effective scientist or engineer, or a more productive worker.
If video games can improve attention, why not birding? Might birding also have a positive impact on our basal ganglia? The skills that action video games demand of the gamer are not terribly different from those that birders use. Anyone who has tried to sort out individual hawks in a massive kettle during migration knows how valuable it is to be good at tracking objects in the field. Birders looking for warblers need well-developed selective visual attention skills when trees leaf out early or a wave of Yellow-rumps interferes with that Cape May you’re stalking. Many of the good birders I know have spectacular selective auditory attention skills as well, easily pulling out the high thin song of the Blackpoll Warbler from a dawn chorus and then finding the bird. Short-term memory skills help birders relocate birds when they look away and remember roosting spots and favorite berries as well as nests. And identifying birds in flight when they are mere silhouettes against a bright sky demands that we do a lot of rotating objects in space. With practice, birders learn to do all these things quickly and efficiently, switching from one task to the next, because what we see is rarely more than a glimpse.
Northern Mockingbird field notes.
While video games—and maybe birding—can improve and enhance endogenous attention, it is not so clear that you can do the same for exogenous attention. Exogenous attention is thought to be a more automatic process that takes place in subcortical brain structures, which are generally viewed as “minimally plastic.” But while that may seem to be the case in adults, it isn’t true of children whose subcortical brain structures are still developing.
The two kinds of attention—endogenous and exogenous—are engaged in a dynamic tango that is not well understood on the neural level, or even psychologically. Exogenous attention allows novel or salient information to transiently interrupt goal- directed behavior. These interactions affect our experience as our goals and intentions compete with the attractions of the surrounding environment over milliseconds, seconds and minutes (MacLean et al. 2009). When our exogenous attention gets too active, we talk about being distracted.
What I find most pleasurable about birding is the noticing. Noticing is the throttle between these two kinds of attention. Open up that throttle a little when you are birding, amp up some of your receptivity and senses, and you are going to hear more, see more, and experience more. The moving pile in the leaf litter will get noticed enough to turn into a Wilson’s Snipe. The 30th white heron of the day will suddenly shock you with its gray lores and turn into a Little Blue. And the song you thought was a bug will be that elusive Grasshopper Sparrow. Exogenous attention is your best tool when you are birding because that is what allows you to find the unexpected, the bird you were not seeking or expecting to see—the Black-backed Woodpecker, the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, the Gyrfalcon.
Noticing can be developed, especially by practicing observation, taking field notes, and sketching. Birding is learning to notice, and as such, it offers educators a remarkable way to build fundamental skills that might make science richer and more interesting for young students. Noticing is fuel to questioning—and not silly questions, but interesting ones. What are the mirrors of a gull’s feather for? Does Brown Creeper compete with White-breasted Nuthatch for food or territory? Does temperature affect migration?
Noticing successfully also demands that you learn to put quick conclusions on hold in order to observe completely. Not long ago, I watched a dark bird soaring over Fresh Pond in Cambridge. A fellow walker came up and pronounced that it was a Red-tailed Hawk. Though the large dark wings, the white head, and distinctly white tail were clear as day even without binoculars, I could not change her mind. Noticing means letting details you might otherwise exclude take a turn on center stage for your consideration before you dismiss them.
As birders, we know: noticing can stretch and build attention as if it were a muscle. Noticing is not only about what you see or hear. It can also be a model for how to read and how to learn. My daughter’s brilliant high-school English teacher once said that learning to read poetry was really learning to notice. The specific words. The line break. The odd choice of metaphor. When we take students birding and encourage them to observe, we are helping them to learn how to manage the throttle. And in some cases we may be offering a different—and more effective—way of learning than what might be available to them in school. Open the throttle just a little, and new information presses in.
Toward the end of our semester, the days grew shorter, and our students grew extremely good at noticing. We walked over to the Harborwalk in a cold wind one afternoon to look for seabirds. They were quickly picking out adult gulls—they could even identify Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed gull feathers by their mirrors alone. We watched to see if one species preferred clams over crabs and which gull was most likely to bully others, and started to learn a little about juvenile plumages.
That day, we were there for sea ducks. The birds obliged in big, active rafts: two scoter species, Common Eider, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser. We noticed how the Buffleheads bounced along with the chop, how the Eider sang in a chorus, how the Goldeneyes’ heads shone in the light and how tightly they swam together. The Red-breasted Merganser had a different kind of bill, and it sat lower in the water than some birds. The Long-tailed Duck seemed skittish. We watched the birds dive and feed and come up with small fish. We watched how fast and low the White-winged Scoter could fly.
Birding. Sketching. Noticing. Our students gorged on new knowledge. They got to go outside, which is a rare thing in an urban school, and they had a lot of fun, we think, something that is in short supply during the packed school day. In our rush to impart essential skills for the future we can sometimes forget that there is nothing wrong with recreation and fun. Many of our students were in school from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm many days. Many had long bus rides in Boston traffic. I worry that our nation is so worried about creating the next generation of innovative problem-solving collaborators that we forget that fun and being outside and noticing can be important, too.
We bought gently used field guides on eBay and gave one to each of our students to take home at the end of class. “You are birders,” we told them again.
And they were.
M.F. Badger is a birder and freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She and Mary Howard volunteered in the fall of 2014 with Citizen Schools to lead an afterschool bird club at the Dever-McCormack School in Dorchester and are planning to do it again soon. They are happy to share their curriculum plan with other birders interested in working with students in Boston-area public schools (firstname.lastname@example.org). To learn more about volunteering with Citizen Schools, please visit their website: http://www.citizenschools.org.
- Bird Note, Interview with David Sibley. http://birdnote.org/show/david-sibley-sketching-and- painting-impressions
- Boot, W. R., A. F. Kramer, D. J. Simons, M. Fabiani, and G. Gratton. 2008. The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica. 129 (3): 387–98.
- Hubert-Wallander, B., C. S. Green, and D. Bavelier. 2010. Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games. WIREs Cognitive Science. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/wcs.116
- James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
- Macaluso, E. and F. Doricchi. 2013. Attention and predictions: control of spatial attention beyond the endogenous-exogenous dichotomy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 685. PMC. Accessed April 11, 2015.
- MacLean, K. A., S. R. Aichele, D. A. Bridwell, G. R. Mangun, E. Wojciulik, and C. D. Saron. 2009. Interactions between endogenous and exogenous attention during vigilance Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 71.5: 1042–58. PMC. Accessed April 11, 2015.
- Posner, M.I. 1980. Orienting of attention. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 32 (1): 3-25.