Quick Tip Tuesday: Essays on nature

February 8th, 2011

In her book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Kimberly Hill Cambell shows how short texts engage a wide range of middle and high school students. In a chapter on essays she laments that essays are often overlooked in English classrooms, when they shouldn’t be. “…The essay is first-class literature deserving of time and attention in middle school and high school classrooms for both content and craft,” Kimberly writes. “Essays provide an opportunity for students to debate what is fact and what is fiction. They offer an alternative to those students who don’t embrace ‘stuff that isn’t real.’ Essays can also be used to teach specific reading skills such as locating information, summarizing ideas, and making connections among concepts.” In this week’s Quick Tip, we lifted a section from her essay chapter that focuses on nature writing.

I want students to understand and appreciate the power of writing about nature. In support of this we read essays on nature and do our own nature observation and writing. We read several examples of nature essays, noting the author’s focus on small-scale or broader-scale observations. We also examine the author’s emphasis on sensory details: how does the author help us, as readers, see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste what he or she is describing? Typically I utilize the learning logs, detailed earlier, in support of this close reading, but this could also be taught as a single lesson or even a literature circle assignment, which would allow for the use of varied nature essays.

Teaching Strategy: Observing Nature
After we have read several nature excerpts, I invite students to use their own skills of observation, to spend some time “poking around.” I borrowed this term from Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (1995), who writes in her essay “Winter Creek,”

“The kind of poking around I am interested in advocating must be done outdoors. It is a matter of going into the land to pay close attention, to pry at things with the toe of a boot, to turn over rocks at the edge of a stream and lift boards to look for snakes or the nests of silky deer mice, to kneel close to search out the tiny bones mixed with fur in an animal’s scat, to poke a cattail down a gopher hole.” (33)

Moore’s quote is our starting place for a discussion about what we can observe, and where. I was fortunate to teach in a rural town, where many students had access to wooded areas that were made for poking around. But some of my students lived in town, so we discussed the value of observing in our own backyards.

The homework task was to poke around outside for at least twenty minutes. Students could choose to focus on a very small area or consider a broad area. The goal was to be specific, like the nature essays we had read. I asked students to focus on what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and, only if safe, tasted. I encouraged them to take a notepad or sketch pad with them to capture their descriptions but let them know that their written reflection on their poking around would take place in class. I assigned this homework on a Thursday, and it was due the following Thursday so that students would have plenty of time to complete it. Each class day I checked in with students, inviting those who had done their observations to share their experiences to encourage those who had not yet poked around.

On the day the observations were due, I provided in-class writing time to respond to the following prompts:
1. Reflect on why you selected the observation site you chose to “poke around.”
2. What did you see, hear, feel, smell, and (if applicable) taste?
3. What did you learn from this observation? In your reflection, refer to the nature essays we read and include quotes or ahas that support your observations.

After twenty to thirty minutes of in-class writing, students shared examples from their observations. I was stunned by their attention to detail, as the following examples illustrate:
“The trees’ black, naked, knotty branches have lost all of their elasticity. They loom into the bright, blue sky as if they wanted to prick or at least tickle it.”
“After a green, lavish summer life, the grass blades have now turned yellow, dry and rough.”
“The panorama of the sky stretches above me like the wardrobe of a rich woman, rich midnight velvets and diamonds. Blue unto no blue under itself the sky… is spattered and dabbled freely with multicolored stars, the ‘gigantous’ black silhouettes of pines tower above my head, like one-dimensional ink blots upon some artist’s work of three-dimensional perfection.”

In addition to powerful descriptions in their observations, students’ in-class reflections are evidence that they connected their own experience with the nature essays we had read, particularly Thoreau’s Walden. Claudia wrote in her nature observation about the ways nature adapts, describing a tree with barbed wire sticking out: “This wire must have scratched him for a long time, so he decided to make it a part of himself.” She writes in her reflection, “All the things [in nature] adapt to the circumstances they live in and work together in a coordinated, brilliant balance Thoreau was aware of nature and tried to live as part of it. He balanced his life by simplifying it, going back to the rhythm of nature.” She goes on to quote from Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

This two-part assignment sets the stage for our continued exploration of essays. Students “own” essay writing in a new way. They understand that essays can be about what we observe as well as what we learn from our observations.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

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