“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 9: Digging Through the Brambles


by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

At last writing, I’d decided to explore a place outside for the curricular content which was embedded in it. I planned to do a natural science inquiry, and decided to also look for social studies and creative writing curricula units there based on an area near a dog walk. The area is fenced off from the dog walk, and has entrances to several animal runs along its edge. At its outer edge, this undisturbed area ends at a sharp precipice on the edge of a working quarry. Now, my job is to turn this place into a lesson that will release and exploit the curricula embedded within it.

I’ve decided to start each discipline the same way, a casual exploration and discussion of the animal runs. The discussions will direct the students into each of the three disciplines. First, though, an operational definition of what I’m calling animal runs. If you walk on a path that has tall grasses, shrubs, or other plants parallel to it, every now and then you’ll notice small, oval or round openings in the wall of vegetation. They vary in size from awfully small to large enough for a cat to crouch through. If you look beyond the entrance, and can see, this is probably a run. Exploring further, you can find signs of particular places animals go, but this takes patience and skill to locate in many runs. In others, the paths are clear to the eye.

So, I’ll assume that some runs will only be observed as entrances, with no particular destination other than safety. Others may reveal some indication they travel to a destination. And, in the best of all possible situations, one will have a clearly defined path. When I see one of these, I’m thrilled. (If you are observing in a place where large mammals, deer-size, live, then the runs are true paths that you, yourself, can use to move from one place to another. And learn a lot about the animals who made them.)

So, here’s how I’ll build my curriculum for each discipline. I’ll start with science, since that’s what I know best. Since I want this inquiry to focus on transportation, after the casual observation, I’ll call up the observations reported on runs, and ask what students think animals use these runs for, and use this to get ideas out for consideration, and then to suggest students organize into groups to word a science inquiry question and design an investigation.

Science standards I’ll focus on are: (Central Focus) Design a scientific investigation to answer questions or hypotheses. (Most ‘hypotheses’ sections in publishers’ materials ask the student to formulate an hypothesis about something she has never experienced. Hypotheses are formulated after many question-driven inquiries suggest them. I think we’re best to work with questions. They perform effective work.) (Supplemental Focus) I’ll also see that their experiences partially support the standards: Analyze data, while being mindful of observer and sample bias; Acquire information from print and not-print sources, including the Internet; and Describe cause and effect relationships in biological and physical systems. I could also include the standard, Collect sufficient data to investigate a question, clarify information and support analysis, but think there will be lots of uncertainties in their data.

So, I’ll have them do the casual observation on the runs detailing any evidence of animals or animal movement they find, develop a clean inquiry question, design their investigation to answer the specifics in their question, collect and analyze data, then interpret their data and communicate their inferences to the rest of the class in a symposium. There may be next steps that emerge from the reporting, and we’ll have to decide what to do about them at that time. Given the importance of their work to their understanding and comprehension of science and science inquiry, extra time, and perhaps an extra field trip, may be worth it.

Creative writing standards I’ll focus on are: (Central Focus) Write a narrative piece that establishes character, a situation, plot, point of view, setting, and conflict using a range of strategies to create dialogue, tension, and/or suspense. (Supplemental Focus) I’ll also see that their experiences partially support the standards: Engage the reader by establishing context, creating a persona, and developing audience interest; Include sensory details, personal thoughts, and feelings in developing topic or plot and character; Write sentences that flow and vary in length; and Revise writing to improve clarity and effectiveness by adding relevant details, changing or rearranging text, as suggested by others.

After the casual observation, we’ll report our findings and brainstorm the possibilities embedded in them for story plots or elements. My expectation is that, because they started with concrete referents, their stories will emerge easily, with significant detail. For this unit, I want each student to write a story, so I’ll group them for all the other work but the writing of the story. They’ll first share their thoughts in group, then write a synopsis of the story as they see it. Then, in groups, they will sell their synopses to the rest of the group, receive feedback, and use this to assess any changes they feel they’d like to make to the story. As they work on their stories, I’ll ask which of the Central Focus elements they would like advice on, and I’ll do a lecture/discussion on that piece. In groups, students will share progress made, ask for feedback, etc. The stories have a 3,000 word limit, and do not have to be finished all the way to the end. (At the end of the unit, if several stories aren’t finished, then I’ll arrange time for students who would like, to finish their writing.) When all stories are complete, we’ll share them, either as readings or as written documents.

Social Studies standards I’ll focus on are: (Central Focus) Understand how human modification of the physical environment in a place affects both that place and other places. (Supplemental Focus) I’ll also see that their experiences partially support the standards: Understand how changes in a physical environment affect human activity; and Understand fundamental geography vocabulary such as concepts of distance, latitude, longitude, interdependence, accessibility, and connections.

After the casual observation, we’ll take a tour around the humane society neighborhood, and through the quarry to see what ‘runs’ we find there. Then, I’ll divide the class into three large groups who will focus on human modifications to the environment at the site which affect that place and other places. One group will focus on the animal runs, another on the quarry, and the third on the streets and roads around the humane society. We’ll use communication and transportation as topics which will coordinate the three groups’ work. At the end, we’ll build a communication and transportation map of the area which will hold relevant information for each use.

You’ll notice that my description of the social studies unit is the briefest of the three units. Think of that fact as an analog or metaphor for what our teaching is like when we’re asked to teach content we’re not prepared for. We don’t have enough synaptic connections among neurons in our brain to raise up words that provide detailed descriptions of our thoughts. And we subsequently don’t pass many understandings on to our students. The best way I know to build these synaptic pathways is to start in the real world, engage real things with our bodies and senses, and connect them to concepts and understandings already housed in our brain. Perhaps we should talk more about this.


jimphotocroppedThis is the ninth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here.