Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Worm Grunting and Fiddling: Passing on Information

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals
which have played so important a part in the history of the 
world, as have these lowly organized creatures.
-- Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould,
Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on their Habits, 1881

What would our lives be like if we took earthworms seriously,
took the ground under our feet rather than the skies high above our heads, 
as the place to look, as well, eventually, as the place to be?  
It is as if though we have been pointed in the wrong direction.
-- Adam Phillips, Darwin's Worms, 1999

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that like the student scientists in my class, I did not know a whole lot about worms before we began investigating them.  The temptation was strong to learn as much as I could about them before launching into our explorations, but in our constructivist environment, I wanted to learn with my students to fully share in their discoveries and think more deeply with them before turning to more "accepted" modes of knowledge...books and the internet.  Many of my students think that these are truly the go-tos to get truthful information, that if they read it or see it on the computer, these things must be so, they must be real.  In our preliminary discussions about information - where it comes from and how it is shared - the idea that the truth lies somewhere outside of themselves is certainly present.  Even though the students themselves have done so much to create their own knowledge about worms, they weren't really conceptualizing themselves as knowledge generators/disseminators. 

One morning, I decided to put out a provocation.  I put out printed pictures for them to look through and think about as tools to create and share knowledge.  The pictures ranged from images of Stonehenge, sanskrit, adinkra symbols from West Africa, an eye, cave art, a Native American dancer, illuminated manuscripts, a small child's hands kneading bread, and hands laying brick - things that people use (or used) without electricity, computers, publishing, and technology.  They were invited to pick and choose images that spoke to them, to write a little something about how these objects were created and how they acted as vehicles for human ideas and understandingWhat they discovered was that we all use our senses and our bodies as tools to share information - in the past, in the present, and certainly in the future.

T:  A tool is something you can use to do something. 
L:  A voice is a tool that can pass knowledge.
B:  Dancing is a tool. You can use your body to share stories.
S:  Your movement can show what you’re thinking.  
T:  Knowledge is made with our bodies. 

N:  The most important tools we use are the mind and the body – the mind to think and the body to function. 
E:  Art is a way of sharing knowledge. Hands can sculpt.  They can paint.
L:  I use my lips to breathe in knowledge.
I: I use my hands to make crafts.
E:  In my body I have muscles that help me climb.  When I climb, it helps me see in a better view. 
D:  I observe.  I use my eyes to observe by looking at stuff.  You use your mouth to share what you find with a friend. 
F:  Art is like a book. 
O: I use my hands to draw, as a tool, to write, to crawl, to make hand prints, and to hold things. 

Once they saw that they themselves are knowledge creators and brokers (which they have been all year long, of course), it was time for them to think about a form of present-day knowledge that does not necessarily come from the educated class or from books.  That's were worm grunting comes in.  

The children had already generated ideas about what might bring worms to the surface.  One day they'd discovered a lot of worms up on Sabot's blacktop after a storm, and theorized about what might have caused it:

As I mentioned, I had done my best not to learn too much about worms, but admittedly, soon after this discussion, I did happen upon an interesting video about worms that captured my attention:  worm grunting in Sopchoppy, Florida.  Two bait shop owners have used knowledge passed down from generations to keep their bait shop flourishing and supply those who fish with the worms they needTo keep this knowledge alive within their community, they have created a Worm Grunting Festival.  The video below was shown to the class one afternoon.  Despite the distractingly overwrought epic music in the introduction, it helped them think more deeply about how and why a good idea can be transmitted:

Worm grunting comes from a long American oral tradition and has been the subject of serious scientific inquiry.  It doesn't require any elaborate tools but does rely upon the transmission of knowledge about how and where to bring worms to the surface.  The primary idea behind this technique is that the vibration created by humans mimics the sound that moles make when searching out their favorite wormy meals. 

When the children were asked the reason behind creating a Worm Grunting Festival, many understood the connectionthe importance of passing information on to the next generation.  "It would be important to help you survive," one student remarked.  "Fish are food and you need worms to help you fish for food."  Because I had found this video on the internet, I asked them if they could trust that this was truly a real technique that worked, and together the class decided that they themselves would have to prove it.  

Pippin Barnett, Sabot's own Caretaker and Artist-in-Residence, had been kind enough to lend us a worm bin full of red wigglers for our worm investigations, and now we called upon him again to help us give worm grunting a try.  

Sadly, we did not conjure up any worms with Pippin, but we did test the technique of rubbing metal on a wooden spike and could feel the strong vibrations under our feet.  The vibration radius was quite surprising - we could feel it as far as about 12 feet or so from the spike. 

The following day, F's mother came in to join us.  Her grandfather used a very similar technique, but he called it worm fiddling, and it required the use of a saw with a wooden stake.  As Angela W. explains in the video below, her grandfather also used a different fiddling technique - cutting down a sapling, cutting notches into it, and then rubbing a stick along the grooves to create the vibrations, which would extend throughout the sapling's root system.  We will certainly give this a try another time.  

What the children are learning through these exercises is the necessity of sheer trial and error to create knowledge - to take an idea and use their bodies to test it for themselves - the scientific method at work.  We will continue to test certain variables in our investigations - trying out different locations on the Sabot property, grunting during a dry spell, after a rain, using different tools and techniques - and then hopefully we will share this knowledge with others, once we ourselves have fully explored this fun and unusual skill set.  

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful illustration of constructivist education.

    P.S. Would it be possible to use both initials to differentiate the children with the same first initials?