January 22nd, 2014
Take a nature walk with author Laurie Rubin in our latest blog post to see how the thinking kids do in the natural world can transfer to their reading and writing skills. Laurie found that the strategies kids use outdoors – making inferences, questioning, making connections, synthesizing information, monitoring for meaning, identifying important ideas – carried over into their reading. Preview Laurie’s book To Look Closely online now, especially chapters 1 and 6.
January 19, 2014
Six Mile Creek, Ithaca, NY
Cloudy, Dusk begins
I step out at 4:30 p.m. on a cold January afternoon and head for the creek. A gentle, light snow was falling all day and I feel its crunch under my feet as I move toward the street to avoid the icy footprints on the sidewalk.
I inhale the comforting smoke of a nearby wood fire and then I hear the crows overhead, flying south to land in a grove of distant trees that I can see from my kitchen window. For the past week or so they have been gathering at dusk to assemble an enormous Chinese paper cut, a black silhouette against the darkening sky.
I soon approach the cement wall along the boat launch site where, one evening long ago, I saw a sparkly rhinestone necklace transform into slug trails glittering in the light of the street lamps, the very trails I write about in To Look Closely. This time it is the five mallards in the creek that catch my eye—four males and one female. Three have their tushes in the air as they forage in the creek bed. The other two swim close by and when one of those opens its bill to emit a loud quack, he evokes images of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard proudly crossing the street in McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. I turn my head for a moment and when I look back, magically, the five turn into nine as four more mallards swim quietly around a small island covered with brown bent-over grasses. I wonder where they sleep at night.
I remember to “look up” as I encouraged my students to do during a minute of silence in the natural world. The tinges of pink and purple in the clouds take me back to the paint-by-number oils I did in middle school, a time when no one taught me to “look up” or “to look closely” and so I mindlessly filled in those colors, never questioning their veracity.
I have the creek to myself today. I walk briskly on the wood-bark-covered path now hidden by the fallen snow and silently thank my neighbor Dan Krall, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell University, for transforming this once-neglected, overgrown creek bank. It has been years now since we discovered Dan one Sunday morning mowing the lawn alongside the path. We thought it unusual that a city employee would be working on Sunday so we approached Dan and discovered that he was responsible for all the new plantings—trees and perennials—and the park benches that had been showing up bit by bit to create this well-tended, park-like neighborhood jewel. He shrugged off our effusive gratitude by saying, “Some people work out at the gym; this is my gym.”
I continue along the path and stop to pull down some seedpods, wondering if they are from a box elder tree. I note that the remaining snow on the tree branches is only on the northern side and that the hairy ropes of the poison ivy vines look innocuous in the winter. And then as I lean into a willow tree hollow looking for animal signs, I am surprised to be thinking about the chewing gum and bright pennies that Boo Radley leaves for Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.
And that’s when it hits me. This is the very connection between literacy and the natural world that I nurtured after years of taking my second-grade students to the stream site in the woods behind our school. Here I am taking a walk and, without planning it, I find myself using the same reading comprehension strategies that I introduced to my students via their experiences in nature.
I am using my senses to smell the wood fire, see the sunset, feel the snow under my feet, and hear the crows, preparing me to visualize when I read. I am making connections with past experiences and with books I have read. Questions emerge about the tree seeds and the ducks. I infer that the snow on the southern side of the branches melted away from the heat of the sun.
When I walk in the natural world, my mind is quiet. I notice what I am thinking just as I asked my students to do when they were reading. “Reading is thinking,” I taught them. But first we practiced the language of metacognition outdoors. We connected a salamander with the discovery of three of the same species under one rock earlier in the year. We used a pile of scat to infer which animal may have been under a particular tree. We constantly asked the question, what happened here?
As I head home just half an hour later, the sky is mostly overcast but a first-quarter half moon shines down on me. The crows are still flying overhead.