I went to the Bronx Zoo today.
I’ve been going to that zoo for about 50 years, including an annual trip with my students each year.
Today was very different from all those other visits.
Not only was it the first time in my 55 years that I went to that zoo by myself but, thanks to arriving very early for a professional development session that was to start 90 minutes before the zoo opens, I was the only human not employed by the zoo on the premises for a good hour or so.
I arrived so early the animals were still in their overnight quarters. Only the peacocks shrieking their distinctive call let me know animals other than mundane Bronx rats and pigeons were around.
As I wandered around the grounds I saw sights that have been there for decades but that I had never noticed when crowds of humans or other animal distractions focused my attention elsewhere.
Today I noticed the skill with which plantings have been placed to disguise the moat that keeps the lions from the humans, or how those plants have thorns and other disincentives for humans trying to get to the lions.
Later on I learned from a zookeeper that should a lion or other animal likely to be dangerous to humans escape the first priority is to kill the animal, not capture it because failing at the first attempt to capture would likely have dire consequences.
A few moments later the lions were released for the day and the male let out a roar designed to warn other male lions away from his harem. It was the first time I’d heard a lion roar at a zoo and I realized how fortunate I was there for this early morning ritual.
And as I walked around the bend I noticed the skillful way that zoo architects 50 years ago arranged the angles to simulate the African savannah so well that beyond the lions you could see their typical prey prancing in the grassland behind them.
I watched four camels come around the bend from their sleeping quarters, eye me briefly, then, one-by-one in rhythm, as if putting on a well-rehearsed show, bend front legs, then rear ones so that each body lowered to the sand pit in which they had been standing. When the last camel was squatting, all four simultaneously rolled over onto their right sides and craned their necks toward me, reminding me of how my dog used to show submission and seek petting.
I saw a very young giraffe seem to dance with pleasure, tripping over mom’s legs, as mom and two other adults stood with necks fully extended so their mouths could trim the canopy of overhanging leaves
A lot of teachers I know complain about the professional development they receive. I complain about some of the PD I receive.
Then there are days like today.
Of course, I made the day more interesting by making the effort to arrive early, but I wouldn’t have done so if it were just going to be another school-based drone & moan session.
But it took more than a change of venue to make this PD special.
A smart, knowledgeable zoo educator taught about two dozen of us about animal adaptations to desert life by letting us observe desert animals, discuss our observations and draw conclusions from the discussions.
Later on, at the Bronx Botanical Garden, two educators led us through an examination of desert characteristics, how deserts are created, and some of the adaptations desert plants have, and what those adaptations do for the plants.
Then we got to get out hands dirty and, despite being taught how to prevent it, occasionally stuck as we transplanted succulents and cacti.
It was interesting, creative, collaborative and highly engaging. We taught each other and we learned from each other, we asked questions and had to think about the answers. Can you figure out what a cactus’ spines do besides protect the cactus from predation?
The best part? No one told us what to teach, how to teach it, or in what sequence. We were trusted to figure that out for ourselves.
I realized what good things happen on those too rare times when teachers are treated like intelligent human beings.
And I was reminded that its good to treat students like intelligent human beings, too.
Tomorrow we study rocks!