My relationship with Groundhog Day is complicated. On the one hand, I like this small piece of attention to the natural world. At what other time does anyone think about the adventures of groundhogs or any other rodent-sized earth dwellers? February 2 is one of only two holidays devoted to the natural world (the other is the much less popular Arbor Day). And of course I love Groundhog Day, the movie, with its whimsical look at a serious topic—the years of work it can take to get a life right. (Just how long was Bill Murray forced to wake up to “I Got You, Babe”? By this hilarious count, 33 years and 358 days.)
But on the other hand, I have some serious issues with Groundhog Day. It’s a little mashup holiday that rolls together snippets from different times and places, a day that shows why, if you care about nature, mashup holidays are probably a bad idea. This one gets the animals wrong, it gets the climate wrong, and it may just be getting children wrong as well.
Take my experience with kindergartners. There I was in 2005 in Grass Valley, California, living in the beautiful cedar and pine forest of the Sierra foothills. At the bottom of my street sat a wonderful public elementary school. The previous year this school had won the California Distinguished School Award for its academic excellence. Only about 20 schools out of 500 get this honor.
Needing some quality kid time that fall, I decided to volunteer one afternoon a week at the school. I was placed in a kindergarten class helping a wonderful, kind young teacher gather the small fry from playtime into storytime, then on to recess and to snack. I joined in with finger paints and Legos; I gave consolation and received kisses (the kisses finally ending my career as a volunteer when I got a recurring stomach flu so violent I nearly landed in the hospital).
Like any kindergarten, the curriculum of this one followed a holiday schedule: first Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then Groundhog Day. And during storytime on February 2 is when it hit me: something’s not quite right here!
There they were, eighteen small but hugely sincere faces gathered in a circle around Miss K, staring up at her in wide-eyed wonder while she read to them about the groundhog who peeks out of his burrow on February 2 looking for his shadow.
I looked around at the classroom. On the walls were the usual construction paper cutouts—red hearts for Valentine’s Day—and children’s drawings. Nothing about the natural world was spotlighted in the classroom. It wasn’t the wonderful young teacher’s fault. She was only following the guidelines she’d been given about what kindergartners are supposed to learn.
I looked out the windows to the playground ringed with hurricane fencing. I knew that just outside the fence flowed a creek covered by a small bridge. But the gate to the bridge was padlocked, and the tall fence carefully shut off all access to the creek. It had to be this way for health reasons. The creek flowed down from the nearby Empire Mine State Park, a peaceful, pine-wooded haven of hiking trails—and leftover mine tailings. Creekwater throughout the area was contaminated with toxic minerals leaching out from mines dug a hundred years before.
The children wouldn’t be able to explore in the creek or touch the rough bark of incense cedars. They wouldn’t be taught to watch closely while insects burrowed through duff in the ground next to their school. Their feet wouldn’t even touch grass or soil, not even during recess, for the huge flat playground was completely paved with asphalt. The story about the groundhog, in other words, was just about the only information about the natural world that these children were going to get during school hours.
And it wasn’t even information. It was a legend from another time and place—medieval northern Europe—where the climate was colder and where some animals, none of them found in these children’s lives, actually slept through the winter. And it was a legend that grew a North American layer about groundhogs over its original layer of bears or serpents or badgers, who apparently were the first heroes of the story.
But as I looked around that circle of small faces, I saw that none of them knew this was a legend. None of them could tell that this was a story to be enjoyed for the story’s sake rather than a story that gives immediate knowledge of the natural world. At five or six they don’t yet know the difference. So eighteen children sat rapt before Miss K; eighteen pairs of wide-open eyes eagerly awaited the next page.
I couldn’t stop the thought: And this is what award-winning education looks like. It was education that had gotten the climate wrong, the animals wrong, and the children wrong as well. By feeding the students a pablum of anachronisms about the natural world instead of teaching them to sink their hands in mud, to feast their eyes on the colors of tree foliage, to recognize poison oak and name the first wildflower in spring, this brand of education disrespected the students. It inculcated a story from another time and place instead of encouraging the students to observe grasses or flowers or woodland using their own eyes, their fingers and toes, their ears, their skin. It treated the children as if they didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or synthesize the results of their own observations.
Now there is a place for legends. I might argue there is even a place for legends in public school. But when the only attention to the natural world comes through legends—when the only stories told about animals are about animals the children will never see, doing things those animals don’t normally do—something is seriously wrong with the curriculum.
That moment more than any other turned me into an advocate for place-based education. Only an education that teaches children how the natural world in their own area really works can prepare people for addressing the biggest crisis we now face: that we in the industrial world are using up the Earth’s gifts faster than they can be replenished. Only an education built on the evidence children gather from their own experiences of water and dirt and birds and leaves and mud can prepare them to make good decisions, as adults, about the future of this world. Only by building their own relationships with the creatures and soil around them will they begin to appreciate how strong yet delicate, how intricate yet supportive this web of life on Earth is, and how vital their own actions are in making sure it continues for generations to come.