Eden C. Stein
When school begins in late summer it will be the ideal time to observe and write about the trees in all their lush greenery. Students can learn to identify trees that are on their school’s grounds or in its neighborhood including the leaves, bark, and overall form. Meanwhile, they can read a brief informational text on trees which can also serve double duty in the language arts classroom to teach skills such as note taking. The students should be shown some high-quality sample pages of nature journals to get an idea of what the teacher is looking for. Mind mapping (notes that include word, images, and lines to illustrate connections) would be a great use of nature journals to connect what they read about with what they see. A short hike could be taken near the beginning of the school year as it is an excellent team building exercise. If it is possible to climb a hill or rock formation, then time can be spent at the top of the peak writing short poems such as haikus about their observations. Students could engage in an “Eagles Eyes” type activity where they sketch and describe what things look like from far away. Other writing activities from How to Teach Nature Journaling include “Poetry of Place and Moment,” (151) in which techniques such as sentence starters and alternating between external observation of nature and internal observations of thoughts and feelings are used; in “Zoom in, Zoom Out” (47) students draw an object in magnified, life size and distant scales and could also expand the drawing with written descriptions at each scale.
As fall progresses it will be fascinating for the students to compare how the trees they are now familiar with differ in the manner in which they transition as seasons cycle. Obviously, we can compare and contrast conifers to deciduous trees but also look more closely at our maples, oaks and beeches in addition to other trees around us. With the rich New England fall foliage we are in the perfect time and place to integrate an art project, possibly painting or colored pencil or pastel work with the writing of poetry. Students could choose two trees to compare and contrast in an essay in order to integrate the necessary core standards for literacy. The Cherokee legend “Why Some Trees Are Always Green”10 would be appropriate to accompany this study. Students can also write their own legends about why leaves turn colors!
While winter may be a more challenging time to spend time outdoors, it is certainly possible to go for a walk around the neighborhood on a sunny day. Students can inspect buds and observe patterns of branches that are hidden during when the foliage is full. We can also observe snow and ice and its effects on trees from the comfort of our warm classrooms. Bruhac and Caduto’s Keepers of Life book has a guide for a “Conifer Field Excursion”11 which can be used on a winter walk in order to help identify some of the treasures of winter. Following a New England snowstorm is the perfect time to introduce students to Robert Frost’s classic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”12 Students could also search for their own winter themed poems. Winter is also the perfect time for students to participate in survival book clubs which are described below.
By springtime students are thrilled to go outside for a break from their school day routines. In our district it is possible to take a field trip to an agricultural school that has a maple sugaring operation to actually see sap being boiled down and learn about the production of maple syrup, an important historical and present-day natural resource for our locality. Students can use all their senses to compare pure maple syrup with “Log Cabin” in a blind taste test. The teacher can tell the traditional Abenaki maple syrup legend in which Glukabe changes maple syrup to thin sap because of the gluttony of the people.13 This legend can be used to review the analysis of a short tale for a theme, or as a starting off point for students to write their own legends. All the students can read Chapter 12 of Loise Erdrich's The Birchbark House, “Maple Sugar Time,” about Omakayas’ experience with maple sugaring in the traditional way from The Birchbark House and compare it with the modern method used by local farmers as well as a higher tech method on larger scale farms which are viewable on videos.
Another focus for early spring can be on urban animals, who are typically quite active during this period. Students should be able to observe squirrels and birds such as robins, sparrows or pigeons in an urban or suburban setting. The students could study the poem “Experiment to Me” by Emily Dickinson14 and have fun analyzing the short verse’s literary elements including theme. Egrets may be familiar to some students because of the proximity of our city to the shoreline; “The White Egret” by Paul Janeczko15 is a good example of concrete poetry which can be used to inspire students to write concrete poems about their favorite urban animals (more on this below). In one of our outdoor classrooms, Cercis Canadensis, the Eastern Redbud, is an early bloomer. With its beautiful magenta color and edible blossoms, it is a tree that students can easily learn to identify and remember. Directly outside the classroom window is a huge Fagus Sylvatica Purpurea that is approximately 300 years old. Students are interested to know that the remodeling of a church to our school building was done around this tree that will probably outlive us all. Our nature teacher from the local high school teaches us how to estimate the tree's age, identify the seed pods and understand damage to the elephant skin-like bark. It is hoped that other teachers who use this unit or portions thereof will identify similar interesting points about their own school’s natural landscapes.
Every effort should be made to find a group of daffodils so students can experience firsthand the magic of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”16 Students can plant daffodils earlier in the year that would be in blossom now. At this point it would be ideal if students can go outside for one class per week to witness the rapid changes spring brings to the natural world. This period should overlap with April which is National Poetry month and an ideal time for students to study a few specific forms of poetry and to try their hand at them using something from our time outdoors as a starting off point. As the school year draws to a close students can observe the trees they have visited previously in full foliage and write tree poems. The Gingko Biloba, a tree with ancient history is great to explore the sense of touch with its leathery fan-shaped leaves, and the poem “Willow and Ginkgo”17 has a plethora of figurative language to explore along with the allusions to life in an urban area which students might identify with. “Oak After Dark” by Joyce Sidman18 is written from the perspective of the oak tree; “Night Spider’s Advice” from the point of view of the Spider (16) and the charming “I Am a Baby Porcupette” (18) quite obviously from that of a porcupine. Students can write poems from the point of view of either flora or fauna, or alternatively address their poems to the plant or animal of their choice. All the poems students have written in their journals will also be used for one of the unit’s culminating projects.
Sample Lesson - Hike in a Local Park with Poetry Writing
Students will become comfortable with the idea of spending time in nature.
Students will take a local hike and have fresh air, exercise, and get to know a local park.
Students will practice observational skills and write or draw their observations.
Students will learn to write a form of poetry.
Weather appropriate clothing for hiking
First aid kit for emergencies and including any medication needed by students
Snacks appropriate for the class
Nature journals and pencils
- The teacher will need to spend some time planning this hike, taking a practice hike and finding additional chaperones to accompany the class.
- The class should be thoroughly prepared for how long the hike will take and what type of clothing to wear.
- The class can hike, preferably to the top of a small peak where there is a view. If there are any special natural features the teacher can point these out.
- At the top students are directed to find a particular tree, plant, or other artifact to observe, describe and draw.
- The students are encouraged to turn their prose writing into poetry by using figurative language.
- Back in class students can revise their poems and illustrate them for wall display.