Recently, I wrote that perhaps our wisest approach to distance learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year is enrichment only. My earnest and amicable argument here is that if we try a continuation approach to distance learning, we'll end up with fewer engaged students now and larger gaps when we return than if we were to pause on the curriculum and figure out how to fill in the gaps once we're back to in-person schools. After all, we're bound to have gaps when we return to in-person schooling, so we may as well create consistency in those gaps. Plus, there are real experimental insights that we can gain in the meantime focusing on an engagement-first, enrichment-style curriculum.
To help make sense of and implement this approach, I'm providing a sampling of ideas here on the blog. The others are:
- 20 for 20 (Social Studies, ELA, Gr 4-12)
- Introduction to Nature Study (below)
- Counting Grass Blades…Seriously! (Math)
- What If? (Learning strategy, study skills)
Introduction to Nature Study
Hello, students! Today we're going to conduct a nature study — right from the place where we live. This might seem like a weird idea if you live in a town or city — “Nature's far away from me!” you might think — but that's actually going to just make the assignment even better. Remember: challenges are fun! 🙂
Here's what you'll need:
- Something to write on — a few pieces of scrap paper are fine, but a spiral notebook or journal is even better. Also, make sure you have something hard to write on because you'll be doing this while you're outside.
- Permission from your parent or guardian to go outside — make sure you know the exact boundaries of where you're allowed to go and where you aren't — or, better yet, a parent or guardian to go along with you (psst…have them do this assignment too!).
- An awareness of the social distancing guidelines in your community (e.g., remain six feet from others, do not use playground equipment, etc. — these guidelines vary by locality).
- An hour or more of uninterrupted time.
- Proper clothing for remaining comfortable outdoors for this length of time.
Step 0: Embark!
Armed with the materials listed above and with the appropriate parental permission or participation, head into your natural space! Whether you're heading to the patch of sidewalk in front of your building, or a nearby park, or a piece of someone's yard, head out with anticipation for doing something truly original: heading into everyday nature for the sake of observation.
Step 1: Observe
At first, we're just going to look at the natural objects in the space we've selected for our nature study. I recommend doing so for 5-10 minutes apiece. Here's a list of things to look at:
- The clouds (laying on your back is a good idea for this)
- A patch of grass, or a shrub, or a bush
- The characteristics of any trees near where you live — and examine each tree individually
- A pet — yours, someone else's — and its behavior
- A squirrel, or chipmunk, or bird — its behavior, its physical characteristics
- Insects — ants, flies, mosquitoes (they're already out in Michigan!)
What you're trying to do with these observations is just that: observe! Take in the details of natural objects within your sphere of life. What do you notice, what do you wonder, what do they remind you of?
Step 2: Take notes
Now, think of yourself as a sort of detective taking in the scene of a crime — except in this case, the scene isn't a crime, it's the bit of nature you've been taking in these last minutes. Now, on your paper or in your notebook, do the following:
- Write today's date.
- Describe each of the things you've observed. For help with these descriptions, you may wish to use the following prompts:
- I notice…
- I wonder…
- It reminds me of…
(Thank you to John Muir Laws for his book The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, within which he suggests these prompts.)
Step 3: Sketch
- Finally, enrich your notes with drawings and sketches. Don't be a perfectionist here — just try your best to represent the things you've observed.
- When you head back inside, consider adding color.
Bonus 1: Do more nature studies!
Nature study is a habit that has been taken up by human beings all across the ages. More than a hundred years ago, an amateur naturalist named Edith Holden kept an exquisitely illustrated notebook (click on that link and then click “Look Inside” or the book cover to see some examples of Holden's nature study notebook). More recently, Clare Walker Leslie kept a journal with sketches of what she observed in nature (again, click on that link and then on “Look Inside” or the book cover to see some example pages). I've included some snapshots of their pages below.
Bonus 2: Reflect
There was a time once when nature study was a regular part of the school week for students. For example, English educator Charlotte Mason used to insist that nature study is an important foundation from which to engage in any scientific learning. In most schools today, such work is infrequent or missing.
- In your opinion, should the school day be adjusted to provide weekly time for students to engage in nature study? Explain.
- What's the point of doing something like a nature study? What skills do you develop as you engage in things like this? What knowledge do you gain? What mental health benefits do you develop? Explain.
How this assignment targets student motivation
As I've written elsewhere, student motivation comes down to five key beliefs: credibility, value, belonging, effort, and efficacy.
The above assignment, which based on my current constraints cannot be required or graded, is likely to be completed by many of my students because it intentionally targets the beliefs.
- Credibility: For this one, it will be useful to share a video of yourself conducting a nature study — be enthusiastic, remember the P in CCPR — and/or include an example of a page from your nature study book. (More on that example page in Effort and Efficacy.)
- The Bonus 2 reflection exercise gets students thinking about and articulating the value of an assignment like this. Responses to this could be written and/or spoken (and where possible, use your chosen discussion/video platform for making that writing and/or speaking collaborative). The second prompt especially is aimed at helping students to internalize the habit of finding value flexibly — the same mechanism that makes Hulleman's Build Connections intervention so effective.
- More immediately, this exercise targets the value belief by playing to natural value boosters like curiosity and intrigue — what observations of nature can we find hiding in plain sight?
- You'll also notice the bit where I say, “It's even better if you live in a city or a town where nature isn't as obvious.” In that case, I'm playing to the innate desire for challenge.
- Belonging: As you carry out this assignment and start receiving examples of the assignment from students, see if you're able to share out example pages from students' notebooks. The more diverse the student examples that you can share, the more likely it is that you'll key in to students' sense that this assignment “fits” with their sense of who they are. (A sense of “fit” is a large part of what belonging is about.)
- Effort: By providing an example video or page from your own nature study, you're making clear to students what good effort looks like here. A key idea of nature study, however, is that it's not meant to be competitive or structured. The core task is enjoyment of the details in the natural world — knowledge-building and product creation are secondary pleasures. And don't underestimate the incredible, life-shaping power of helping students associate effort with pleasure!
- Efficacy: Again, your example work will make it clearer to students what success looks like, as will the share of diverse student examples as this project unfolds. What you want is for students not to associate this with a certain artistic aptitude or natural environment. Be generous and specific with praise of diverse nature study work products.
This can be treated as a single day, week-long assignment, or as an extended project — say, “Observing the Movement of Spring into Summer.” An emphasis on artistic school could make it fit an art class, or creative writing could make it fit an ELA class, or the biology of our home environments could make it fit a science class.
I encourage teachers and students alike to enjoy the process. I thank Charlotte Mason for her work 120 or so years ago in laying out the core principles of nature study, and to those authors whose works are mentioned above for their further examples and instructions. I also thank my wife, Crystal Stuart, for leading our children in learning like this around our home.