On a recent Saturday, Leigh Ashbrook went for a walk at the Schuylkill Center, sauntering through our pine grove, one of everyone's favorite features at the nature center. She spied one of her students, a preschooler walking with her family in the grove.
“She was so excited,” Leigh told me over the phone, the new way we connect in these pandemic days. Leigh hasn’t seen the girl since we closed on Saturday, March 14. “But we blew kisses to each other, when normally we’d be hugging. Her mother told me her daughter felt deeply connected to the grove, so her parents felt they had to go there.”
That’s the latest reason the Schuylkill Center is here for you – to give you an oasis of greenspace from the tsunami of viral news.
Leigh teaches in the Center’s Nature Preschool, and is lead teacher in the Sweet Gum classroom, our classrooms mostly named for “S” trees – sycamore, sassafras, sugar maple, etc. While she’s been a teacher in our preschool for only two years now, she has roots at the Schuylkill Center that extend back into the 1970s, when, fresh out of Temple with a Bachelor's degree in anthropology, she interned at the Schuylkill Center, even living there in River House, the large 19th century Victorian, our original nature center, that housed staff and interns from the 1960s into the 1990s.
Currently living in Lafayette Hill, she was raised in Roxborough, growing up on Lyceum Avenue “only a few blocks down from Bob’s Diner,” naming one of our town’s favorite landmarks. She went to Levering School back when it was a public school, and proudly asserts “I am a product of Philadelphia public schools.”
During her time at Temple, “I was doing research for a paper and found an Audubon magazine.” Thumbing through it, “I was enchanted-- I had no idea there were so many kinds of birds.” She “sent away for a subscription to Audubon, and when the magazine came, tucked inside was a welcome letter from the Wyncote Bird Club. A friend and I went to a meeting, and I got hooked. They were so excited that someone was interested in birding who didn't have gray hair, so members would pick me up and take me on field trips and lend me their binoculars.”
Her 1975 internship launched a now 40-year career in education. She taught at Miquon School for more than 20 years, returned to the Schuylkill Center in the 90s to get her Master’s in environmental education, and was a long-term substitute for Philly’s public schools as a science teacher. She kept her ties to the Center all these years, serving as both one of our weekend naturalists and a summer camp counselor. She’s now one of the Center staff’s best birders, one of those who lead our biannual bird counts, someone the staff leans on when they see a bird and need it ID’ed.
Of course, there are birds everywhere in her Sweet Gum room, from stuffed toy birds to pictures of birds – and feeders hanging outside her classroom window, where chickadees and blue jays visit and where the students serve as citizen-scientists sending data to Cornell University’s Feederwatch program.
She says birds “develop their observation skills, a great skill to have for work in science or even art. I ask them, ‘What do birds need to stay alive?’ and they start learning about habitat, food, water, shelter.”
Here's why she loves teaching at Nature Preschool, where the kids are outdoors every day. “As we were walking one day,” she recounted, “there were many, many sparrows around us, and I asked the kids if we should try pishing.” All birders know about pishing, but to the uninitiated, it involves making a slurry “pish, pish” sound that calls birds, especially sparrows, closer. “They all nodded yes because they knew they had to remain silent. So I pished, and the sparrows came closer and were flying all around us.” The kids were mesmerized. One girl couldn't take it anymore; she called out, “This is the coolest day ever!”
Another exciting moment was supplied when male and female pileated woodpeckers, one of the largest birds in our forest, came to the suet feeders outside her classroom. With their dramatic coloring – black and white with a stunning red crest – the kids were smitten.
Like all of us, Leigh is trying to keep busy in these quarantined times, “working feverishly with all the preschool teachers to create some online activities for our students,” a project that went live just this week. She’s also taking walks every day, down to Fairmount Park, over to the Schuylkill Center. Like all of us, she is hoping the world returns to normal soon, and for her, normal is being allowed to hug her happy students at Nature Preschool.
And enjoy the birds frolicking at the Sweet Gum feeders.