On an early morning walk one day this summer when I was in Colorado, I came across a wildflower I’d never seen before—at least I thought I never had. Actually, there were 3 or 4 of these bright, white flowers, all growing near one another, each about 10 inches tall with thick, alternating, jagged leaves running the length of the erect stems. Tiny 4-lobed flowers ended in what is called an inflorescence; that is, they opened like an umbrella at the end of the stem.
I had no had no idea what they were.
For a couple of reasons, though, I leapt to the conclusion that they were a kind of saxifrage. But what kind?
I took a photo with my iPhone and even drew a sketch of the leaves and the umbrella and then, at home, spent some time looking at pictures of white flowers in several guidebooks. Discouraging. None of the possibilities was quite right. I was forced to face the truth all botanists know: Focusing on the flower is not enough. I needed to pay attention to the leaves, the petals, the stamen, the ovary, etc. and tackle the wildflower identification key for the Western Slope. And that meant relearning the language of botany. Identification keys use botanical terms, not common parlance. Just saying “the leaves are jagged” or “the flowers form a cap” is not precise enough.
Working my way through the sorting system of the key, I quickly realized I was in the wrong family. What I was looking at was a mustard (Brassicaceae), not a saxifrage.
So it was a lengthy pursuit, but not without its rewards.
One morning while I was at this, sitting cross-legged on the roadside with my camera, the key, and a sketchbook, a doe came upon me in the course of her early morning saunter down the road. I was just below a little rise, so she didn’t see me until she was upon me. As soon as she did, she froze. When I reached for my phone, she moved to the side in an attempt to hide, then turned and bolted.
I love to come upon deer unexpectedly—and this one came upon me the same way. Her appearance on the hill above me sweetened the morning, just about the time I was thinking about quitting the search.
However, I continued to work on it bit by bit, but it was, in fact, several days later before I knew for certain what I had: a common wildflower called bittercress. Cardamine cordifolia is the botanical name.
My identification was confirmed by text in The Flora of Gunnison, Saguache, and Hinsdale Counties—a serious book that has no pictures whatsoever. The final identifying feature was this: According to the author of this definitive treatise on the wildflowers of these counties, the flower head is corymbose, meaning that the outer part of the umbrella matures first, giving the inflorescence a sort of flattened look. The leaves are heart-shaped (cordate), and I should add, sinuous-dentate or irregularly crenate. That is, the leaves are wavy, but toothed, although those waves are sometimes rounded.
Naturally, it wasn’t but a week later that I saw three huge stands of bittercress growing right where bittercress is supposed to grow: in wet places like under a culvert, near a trickle, or in a seep. The isolated patch I found that first morning had simply bloomed earlier than the rest, but now I know that bittercress is, as advertised, common.
Of course, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d just asked someone what this flower on my iPhone was—but that would have taken all the fun out of it.
And, I could have given up, thinking “Who cares? It’s just a flower and identifying it is taking so much time!”
And that, of course, is the connection to my life in an American classroom.
Learning is not always easy; it involves false starts, revisions, and consultations with teachers. It takes longer for some students than for others, depending upon prior knowledge, access to and availability of information, level of motivation, tolerance for frustration—and many other factors.
My wildflower identification quest reminded me that real learning occurs when the student is engaged with a task that is doable, yet involves a little struggle. Not so much struggle as to be impossible (I can read; I did know how to use the glossary to learn those botanical terms!), but challenging enough so the student is proud of her accomplishment.
And I remembered why it won’t do to just tell our kids the answer when they’re stuck. That not only robs them of the victory in the end, but deprives them of competence and real understanding. Instead, we have to plan and sequence our instruction so the students get the help they need—the identification key and the knowledge of how to use it—just at the time they need it.
And, of course, timing rewards that sweeten the whole experience but don’t extinguish the drive to finish.
Effective teaching, in other words, fosters a growth mindset. By engaging students, encouraging persistence, rewarding small victories, lightening the load at just right moment, supplying information in a timely manner—in short, by letting the student learn we teach them to value learning.
It sounds so easy.
Because, as veterans know and new teachers soon discover, teaching involves learning, too. Effective teaching isn’t something you master in a day, a month, a year, even in five years. In fact, if you’re open to it, the learning continues until the last day of your long career. Not because you’re weak, but because you’re strong. Because you aren’t defeated when something doesn’t go as planned. Because you’ve developed stamina and a can-do attitude. Because you’re engaged, you’re eager, and you’re open to the experience of others. Because you’ve got a growth mindset yourself.
Enjoy the quest!
The rewards are sweet.