Hooked on Nature
I looked across the stuffy room at 25 twisting, turning 6th-grade heads. It was early September and the days in our "open window" classroom were difficult to endure, especially at science time. By this time of the day in a Tennessee autumn, the children were tired... and so was the teacher. Making the lessons in our science book somehow interesting was virtually impossible.
I had discussed this problem with other teachers and they echoed my belief that it was difficult to "get anything done" at this time of day. They, too, scheduled science in the afternoon--and usually ended up feeling they had cheated the kids out of what should have been the most activity-filled subject of the day. There had to be a solution, we agreed. But what could it be? It was impossible to stop all the announcements that seemed to continually interrupt our lessons late in the day. It was just as impossible to do anything about the late-summer heat and the non-air-conditioned rooms. How could we end the day with science on a high note, rather than on the extremely low one we were closing with now?
One weekend, I was browsing through a bookstore and happened across a book about nature activities. Now, I had always incorporated such "activities" into my science classes, but these usually had been of the run-of-the-mill variety, such as keeping leaf and insect collections, mapping out cloud charts, and making terrariums. The students seemed to have fun with these projects, but I always wondered if there was something else. Our science texts had various experiments, but our science materials at school were not very extensive. To do the experiments, I usually had to gather items from home and haul them to school.
As I thumbed through the pages of the book in the bookstore, I began to conjure up images of how these nature activities could easily become part of my science class. Not only were there exciting ideas I had never thought of, but there were also hobbies and games that could bring life to what was now often a boring exercise.
I purchased the book--The New Field Book of Nature Activities and Hobbies, by William Hillcourt--and spent all of a Sunday afternoon poring over its many suggestions. I weeded out those I wanted to avoid (I didn't care much for the idea of rigging a stick with a stiff cord for catching poisonous snakes, for example), and by Monday I was keyed up and ready for science class to begin.
When that time finally arrived, I told the class I wanted them to line up and quietly follow me outside. The sun was quite warm, but the kids were glad to be going out where, if nothing else, there might be a breeze. I had read over many times the section preparing for the first activity. I planned to begin the lesson that day outside and continue it for several more days, alternating from inside to outside the classroom. There would be one writing lesson involved, but that would come on the final day of the activity... and it would be done outside!
Despite the humid, near-90-degree temperature that Monday afternoon, the nature activity was a hit. It was all about plants and how they help us and animals. We had a short game called a "Nature Memory Hunt" involving the plants around the playground. I had the students then name an animal that might live somewhere in the grass or trees.
This went on for several minutes. The sun was still beaming down and I don't recall the slightest breeze. Yet neither do I remember anyone complaining. We were making scientific observations. The class was enthusiastic. We were having fun talking and observing. We were outdoors.
We took what we learned about plants and habitat (I was able to introduce a new term as we played our game, a term that wouldn't have been covered in our textbook for many chapters) into the classroom and spent the next two days designing ecosystems (another new term) where certain animals might live. We returned to the playground on Thursday with our drawing pads to sketch the field and mountains behind our school. We sat there in the hot afternoon sunshine and talked about rabbits, meadowlarks, and grasshoppers. We were actually doing science. We were not just reading about it. The students were doing things that were actually fun--and that had turned the end of these hot, languid days into a pleasant, stimulating time. Moreover, my class was learning. So was I.
We returned to the outdoor "classroom" on Friday, and I asked the students to write a paragraph or two about what their week had been like in science. Their eagerness to start writing was, in itself, a marked departure from the usual Friday-afternoon level of enthusiasm. I couldn't help thinking how different this Friday was from the previous one. We had spent three of the five days outside doing science and playing games. Quite a contrast to the stuffy classroom where I felt nothing was being accomplished.
As we strolled toward the school building, I was studying the massive clouds building above the mountains to the North. I thought I detected distant thunder.
"Look at those pretty clouds!" one girl exclaimed.
"What kind of clouds are those?" asked a boy nearby.
"Is it going to rain?" said another student. And a fourth asked, "Can I do a drawing of those big clouds?"
I had never heard 6th graders so fired up about something that was, essentially, natural science. And it was just five minutes before the first dismissal bells would start ringing. I didn't want to put out the fire, so I quickly suggested that when everyone got home, they go outside and make some sketches of the large cumulonimbus clouds. (I had introduced yet another term that was still buried deep in the pages of our science text.) On Monday, we'd see what everyone had drawn and (I was recalling seeing a section in my nature-activities book on clouds) we would plan to go outside each day the following week to observe cloud structure and record our findings.
Needless to say, clouds made up our "course of study" all that next week. And, as things turned out, it proved to be an extraordinary week for clouds. The winds from a near-hurricane-force tropical depression moved up across the South toward East Tennessee, bringing lots of interesting cloud formations. On Monday, we sketched high, thin cirrus clouds that seemed to be stuck to the deep blue September sky. The kids were surprised to learn that those clouds were very high (higher than the big jets fly) and that some folks called them "mare's tails" and looked for them as a sure predictor of weather changes within the next day or two. One student wanted to know more about hurricanes. So, as we sat in our big circle, cooled by a steady breeze from the South, and sketched mare's tails, we talked about hurricanes and how they never hit in our part of Tennessee, only in places located near the ocean.
"Have you ever seen the ocean?" asked the girl who had noted the cloud formations the week before (probably a budding scientist), and the class was off again on a torrent of talk and questioning that included Florida, hurricanes, and past seaside vacations.
There was no end to the possibilities for learning science in these conversations. I could see that the students were eager; it was up to me to keep the fire going. I knew I could extinguish it in a hurry by going back inside and traveling through the science text, page by page. After a couple of years of trying to teach science in the "traditional" way, I finally had made this discovery. A book about nature activities had been the key, one of dozens on the shelf waiting to do the same for other teachers.
This is the strategy: Use your science text only as a reference tool. Check and make sure you are covering all the state requirements as outlined in the state curriculum guide. If you don't have a copy of your state's guide (which is usually nothing more than a list of objectives each grade should meet), ask your principal to get you one. Then, equipped with the curriculum guide, plan out your science lessons. You'll be covering the guide plus lots more by adopting the activity approach. But remember one thing: You must take the kids outside as often as possible. That's what seems to grab their imaginations and coax out their active participation.
During the winter, when the days are cold and the playground is muddy, you can still make periodic visits outside, if only as far as the parking lot or walkway. (This is a great time to study the slant of the sun's rays and talk about solar heating.) By using wintertime nature activities, you'll be setting the groundwork for some tremendous spring nature activities that will have much more depth and meaning for the students with this seasonal preparation.
The list of nature activities available is practically inexhaustible, and these types of lessons are, of course, cost-effective in days of tight budgets. Some of the possibilities include: nature photography, bird and bird-song identification, bird nesting boxes, feather collections, animal habitat, animal-track casts, insect collections, insect "safari," butterfly collections, crickets and temperature, moths and caterpillars, dip netting for water life, plant study, wildflower calendar, dried flowers, making a herbarium, field observations of trees, transplanting trees, leaf rubbings, leaf prints, rock collections and mineral study, weather forecasting, stargazing and constellation study, making a home weather station, telescopes, and sundials.
You are limited only by your imagination. And your students will no longer be limited in their pursuit of the science that is all around them.
George E. Archer is a teacher at Jellico Elementary School in Jellico, Tenn.