Road-tripping across Arkansas.

On the drive to Colorado, we crossed Arkansas and stuck to I-40 all the way. First came the spectacular border crossing of the Mississippi River in West Memphis. Then came Forrest City and Little Rock, followed by Conway (where we stopped to spend the night), Russellville, Clarksville, Ozark, and Fort Smith. The little people colored their maps as I chanted out local wildlife to keep on their radar.

GEOGRAPHY: Using maps as guides for questions

Using highway map to answer questions about Arkansas (PDF)
Key to highway map and lesson plan (PDF)
Make mystery picture postcards lesson plan (PDF)
Rivers and water resources lesson plan (PDF)
Rivers and counties map activity (PDF)
River boundaries key (PDF)

NATURE STUDY: The ivory-billed woodpecker

As we drove through Arkansas, I remembered having read about a Arkansas scientist’s controversial ivory-billed woodpecker sighting back in 2005. A documentary film about “the God bird” sighting offered us a chance to hone our critical thinking skills- not to mention learning a little more about the fabulous ivory-billed and its close cousin, the pileated woodpecker, who lives in the woods near our Alabama yard.

Max colored the pileated woodpecker as I recapped the controversy over the sighting. Critical thinking skills were duly exercised. We explored the woodpecker’s natural habitat, and debated whether climate change or human development had more to do with the woodpecker’s demise. The never-fail Cornell ornithology hub offered a map listing possible encounters with ivory-billed woodpeckers since the 1940’s and NOVA boasted a focused and thoughtful video on the sighting controversy.

The sad part of our ivory-billed woodpecker exploration came later- a few days later as we sat by the fireplace, watching the embers, burning scissor-scraps of remaining vacation brochures. Laying on his stomach, pencil working its way through the college-ruled lines of his journal, Max turned to me and said, “Mom, all the stuff about the woodpecker makes me sad.”

“Why?” I wondered.

“Because I don’t know if I want to be a scientist anymore.”

Not seeing the connection, I asked him to explain.

“Well,” Max began, hesitating for just a second, “That one scientist in the video could not believe in the ivory-billed sighting- and he said it was because he was a scientist. And I felt sorry for him when he said that…”

“Hmmm…. but we can’t always believe things just because we prefer to believe them, Max.”

“Yeah, but if being a scientist means you can’t believe in fantastic things anymore, I don’t want to be a scientist. I want to believe in things that make me happy- things that might even be impossible.” His voice trailed off as he leaned over his paper to write again.

I tried to tell him that many scientists believe in fantastic, impossible things- that science is the poetry of the universe and life at the cellular level, that beauty need not be sacrificed to the dull standards of evidence-gathering. But I knew he wasn’t really listening- his pencil never paused long enough on the page. And I knew, somehow, that his concern deserved more than a standard reply.

In retrospect, maybe I should have told him that the tension between hopeful imagination and rationalistic materialism exists in every field and career path- that this tension is a facet of every modern life more than a fact of the scientist’s life. And that it is only while teaching my children that I find myself free from it….

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