August 13th, 2009
The outdoors is not just for science classes anymore. Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, offer some ideas for allowing students to discover nature through writing, sketches, and poetry. Children have a natural curiosity about colors and change and harvesting this energy makes for “joyous learning” and creates artist-writers with keen observation skills.
As teachers of writing, we recognize the benefits of extending our classrooms into the great outdoors – whether that is an urban, suburban, or rural setting – and allowing our students to rediscover the intricate complexities of nature with eyes of the artist-writer. With great joy, students take their nature journals to sketch, record observations, create poetry, or to write simple truths. Often such excursions outdoors occur in the spring, when teachers and students are itching to answer nature’s invitation. One of the advantages of keeping a nature journal throughout the school year is to be able to compare the subtle or sometimes more dramatic changes that occur with each season. There is as well, a comfort in knowing that change is expected, accepted, and can be quite beautiful.
We’d like to suggest two books that can serve as mentor texts to set the stage for a study of color in nature. Nature’s Paintbox: A Seasonal Gallery of Art and Verse by Patricia Thomas (2005) explores the seasons with specificity of color and word. Beginning with winter, penned in black and white, Thomas recreates each season with extraordinary description and insight. Her craft is filled with specific nouns and verbs, hyphenated adjectives, use of ellipses and dashes, variations in print, and wonderful rhymes and rhythms. Consider her extraordinary explanation of the pastel colors of spring:
baby-chick, baby-duck colors…
soft colors, showing slowly,
perhaps so the surprise
of color in a black-white world
won’t hurt your eyes.
Red Sings from Treetops: a Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman (2009) explores how colors paint the landscapes differently depending on the season. Notice how the writer paints green:
Green is queen
Green trills from trees,
clings to Pup’s knees,
covers all with leaves,
Green is tired,
crisp around the edges.
Sidman’s text invites the reader/soon-to-be writer to savor words such as dolloped, squishy, lustrous, cerulean, sequined. Her use of alliteration, personification, exact adjectives, onomatopoeia, colons, ellipses, and hyphenated adjectives make this text desirable for any age level.
Invite your students to compare and contrast both the text and the artwork in these books and think about ways the authors’ observations of the seasons could help them to shape their own thinking.
As students participate in their “outdoor” classrooms, a few guidelines will make their experience more rewarding and productive. Here are some practical tips:
- Take a tour of the area students will be using and talk about some possibilities for keen observation.
- Invest in clipboards for your students so they can write in their books while standing or even leaning against a post or wall.
- Visit local paint stores to acquire sample color strips that students can use to match the subjects of their observations to a specific shade.
- Model how they can study one object from several vantage points. It would be a good idea to do a sketch here as well and include some labeling (You can share this drawing when you go back inside)
- Tell them you will be observing them, perhaps taking candid shots for a “Nature’s Walk” bulletin board display or to be included as black-and-white prints for their own nature journals. You could also create a videotape.
- Perhaps suggest trying to write in the persona of the object the writer is describing (My Light by Molly Bang, Sierra by Diane Siebert, and Voices of the Wild by Jonathan London are some good mentor texts for this purpose).
- Consider a rule of no talking in the outdoor classroom. Students should save the talk for inside when they are able to compare notes, drawings, and interesting observations and descriptions.
Searching for specific hues and tones satisfies the natural curiosity about color that children have from an early age. It helps students develop specificity in their writing and fosters a deeper appreciation of the world around them. It is joyous learning!