In the Schoolyard: The Tale of the Tape

We are starting — or rather, re-starting — an occasional web series with author Herb Broda, whose books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors encourage teachers to take advantage of the natural surroundings around their schools, whether it’s a concrete slab parking lot, or woods and a stream. “The schoolyard can provide a powerful change of pace and place for enhancing instruction,” he says.  In this series Herb will share activities that can be taken directly into — or out of — the classroom and engage students across the content areas. For this first activity, all you need is a leaf and a piece of paper.

The Tale of the Tape

Process skills cut across conDSC03639tent lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.

Here is an activity that focuses on two process skills that are integral to developing  writers and critical thinkers: observing and describing. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.

What you will need: masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a two or three foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.

Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.

When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list.

Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.

This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.

Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.

Step outside and try the Tale of the Tape. Treat yourself and your students to a change of pace and place!

2 comments October 22nd, 2014

Blogstitute Post 7: Nurturing Future Stewards of the Earth

This is the last week of our Blogstitute and we end our summer PD event with this great post by Laurie Rubin, author of To Look Closely: Science and Literacy in the Natural World. Laurie provides a great list of resources about animals, nature, and scientists to inspire all budding readers to take a closer look at our environment and to find peace and inspiration under every rock. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Patricia Maia.

Last week I noticed an old rock pile on my way back from a birding walk near our country home. Feeling lucky to find a new supply of flat rocks for my perennial garden, I picked one up to carry back with me. When I turned it over, I was even more delighted to discover two light-brown furry cocoons. Eager to know what kind of insect would emerge (I was thinking moth), I positioned the rock at the edge of the deck, planning to examine it every day.

I wish I could report that I have been turning over rocks from a young and tender age. Not so. Instead it was only in my fifties that I embraced the natural world with all my senses, alert to the ever-changing landscape of trees, flowers, insects, and birds in my neighborhood. Perhaps that is why I became passionate about connecting my second-grade students to this same world, hoping to give them the head start I never had.

As I watched my students’ connection to the natural world gradually transform into concern, I looked for opportunities to nurture future stewards of our planet. When I searched for biographies for an annual study of peacemakers, I included books about conservationists and environmental activists. I wanted to provide models of real people working to preserve our natural heritage. I read aloud picture books about Rachel Carson, Harriet Hemenway, and Marion Stoddart, who worked, respectively, to ban DDT, outlaw trade in wild bird feathers, and stop paper mills from polluting our nation’s rivers.

Recently I was looking for a picture book to read to my five-year-old granddaughter about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who—after witnessing the deforestation of her homeland—launched the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized women to plant trees. I discovered many more stories about women scientists and activists, which in addition to promoting respect for the natural world provide a powerful resource to inspire girls to enter careers in science.

Two books about Maathai emphasize her activism. Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008; grades K–2) tells her story in simple text while Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low Books, 2010; grades 2–5) recounts a more detailed portrayal that highlights her extraordinary path to education and activism as a woman. Both have colorful, engaging illustrations. Read these books to inspire stewardship of the natural world and peacemaking.

“‘Once you are aware of the wonder and beauty of the earth,’ she scribbled in her journal, ‘you will want to learn about it.’” This is one of the many direct quotes Laurie Lawlor includes in her book Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (Holiday House, 2012; grades 3–5). Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the detrimental effect of pesticides and inspired our modern environmental movement. The warm tempera and ink illustrations by Laura Beingessner will draw your students into the wonders of the deep sea and the authenticity of soup kitchens and DDT trucks. Read this book to inspire persuasive writing and stewardship of the natural world or to illustrate the use of primary source documents.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, by Margarita Engle with pictures by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt & Company, 2010; grades 1–3), is written in the first person and tells the story of how Maria Sybilla Merian, born in Germany in 1647, used her observations of insects, flowers, and amphibians to reveal the natural process of metamorphosis. She helped disprove the prevailing belief in “spontaneous generation”—that butterflies (called summer birds), moths, and frogs were formed from mud. Ahead of her time, through her notes, sketches, and vibrant paintings, she became a significant contributor to the field of entomology. Read this book to accompany a unit on insect life cycles or to introduce nature journaling or the inquiry skills of observation and questioning.

Another book about a woman ahead of her times is The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in southern California and became the first woman to graduate with a degree in science at the University of California in 1881. She researched trees that can grow in the desert and developed a plant nursery that ultimately established San Diego’s Balboa Park, known today for its enormous variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Read this book for a unit on trees or deserts, or a companion read with Wangari’s Trees of Peace. (Beach Lane Books, New York. 2013. Grades 1-3.)

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists, written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications, 2000; grades 4–8), is a chapter book that chronicles the lives of Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall, as well as the aforementioned Carson and Merian. Comstock started a movement to bring nature study into public schools when she wrote The Handbook of Nature Study. Hamerstrom’s studies of prairie chickens showed that the conservation of habitats was crucial to the survival of animal species. Rothschild was a world authority on fleas and planted 120 species of wildflowers to bring back the butterflies that were dying out. Goodall, known for her work with primates, still lectures around the world in support of animals and their habitats. This is an important read, especially for girls, about women throughout the ages who have made significant contributions to science and conservation. Use this book for literature groups focusing on biography or environmental activism.

P.S. Pleased as I was to join the community of “girls who look under rocks,” by day two my precious cocoons were gone, most likely eaten by one of the many birds that come to our feeder each day. What was I thinking? The more I learn about the natural world, the more there is to know!

13 comments July 7th, 2014


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