Wednesday, April 27, 2016

paulownia tomentosa

Paulownia tomentosa is a tree imported to the US from China that escaped into the wild.  Its lavender blossoms make it stand out in the forest this time of year in Arkansas and across the south. In fact, as I walked across the school campus yesterday, two teachers were admiring paulownia growing in the forest that surrounds the school and asked "what kind of trees are those?" Adults and children learn best when our senses awaken us and our lessons are drawn from real life and from the real world.

The day before yesterday, two students found a sick salamander and created a habitat for it, hoping it might recover. It did not, so yesterday morning, they asked if they could dissect it. I helped by supplying an x-acto knife for scalpel, pins for holding the skin aside and a board on which to pin the parts.

It was an unplanned opportunity for learning, and the excitement made the whole class seem like a single beating heart. They speculated as to the cause of death, but found the very tiny organs hard to identify. When the tiny salamander body was in shreds and they could learn no more from it, they asked if they could make a coffin and have a burial ceremony. So two students came to wood shop where I was cleaning and asked if they could build a tiny box.

As the students were reflecting on what they learned, choosing who was to do what, and planning the ceremony, I asked about the quality of the lesson, and why they were so excited about it. And the answer of course was that instead of it being planned for them, it was a lesson that arose spontaneously from their own interests and within the matrix of real life, involving the use of all their senses. At one point in the dissection, the smell of the salamander was so strong they left the room for a time, overwhelmed by their learning experience.

The role (and the power) of the senses is to confirm the reality, the relevance, and the importance of learning. The chart below is from Barbara Clark's book, Growing up Gifted and illustrates "how the effects of environmental stimulation strengthen the brain at the cellular level, leading to enhanced ability to learn and create."

The sight of Paulownias in the forest opened the curiosity of adult learners. A number of people in our local community have said, "Oh, the wisteria is blooming," not knowing that it's too early for wisteria and that paulownia blossoms are the same color.

Learning from the real world excites the curiosity and learning capacity of children in exactly the same way. The chart explains how some children become easily recognizable as "gifted," and why so many do not.

If we know that simple fact, and can accept it as real, why would we allow the proponents of standardized testing to isolate our children from the productive use of their senses? American education has become senseless and thereby ineffective. In fact, it's worse than that. It kills our children's natural curiosity and at the cellular level destroys their ability to learn and to create.

The formula for effective learning is simple. Invite the students to do real things. Engage their senses through music, the arts, wood shop, laboratory science, theater, field trips, and all those things that were whittled away to create schooling based on standardized tests.

Make, fix, and create. Extend toward others the capacity to learn likewise.


  1. Trivia: Pawlonia wood is used in Japan to make rice storage boxes since it is naturally insect-resistant.

  2. This is one of your better essays. Do trees escape? It's an interesting metaphor. I do know that they are being farmed commercially to supply, mainly, the Asian market. By any chance have you come across any escaped Camphor trees in your region. I've found reference that they naturalized in the USA in the 19th century.

  3. Perhaps naturalized would be a better term for the paulownia's introduction to the forests of Arkansas than escaped. But then biologists are beginning to accept the fact that trees have more kinship with man than had been previously assumed: that they have a consciousness, and self-consciousness that poets knew of long before science would admit.

    My trees of Arkansas book does not show Camphor as being wild in Arkansas.

    BTW, the Trees of Arkansas book says of Paulownia, "Native to China but planted and escaped..." So perhaps my use of the term escaped was the correct one.