My third graders have informal homework on the weekends. It is not something I can check or test or monitor, but it is key to their writing. The assignment is this: “Look at the world with the eyes of a writer.” We don’t really get started on this until October; we need time to understand what it means– to study how authors “look” and then to examine what they do with what they see. “Look” is one of the first words that children learn to read and spell. This word is their first clue to going deeper into the reading and writing life. And this year I am learning along with my third graders how key “looking” is to science.
I started outdoor science this year as my own experiment. I knew it would build my science instruction, but I’ve been amazed how science has integrated writing and the comprehension skills essential to deep and thoughtful reading: predicting, asking questions, setting purpose, checking for details, tracking information, and inference.
Our school sits on a city block. We are lucky that we have so many insects, birds, shrubs, and trees to examine and explore. I had no idea how much was out there. The strawberry-red doors of Fox School open wide as we spill out onto the sidewalk that has become an extension of our classroom. Out we go with clipboards, pencils, hand lenses, and eager curiosity. I laugh now when I remember how I hoped we would see something (anything!) the first day we went out.
We often start with an experiment or a scavenger hunt or a question. But this is just a way to a way to get us started. When I don’t know the answer to a question, we find someone who does. One day Mary Gwen noticed that huge numbers of dragonflies were flying high above the ground. We lined up and went to ask Ms. Brown, the fifth grade science teacher, why this might be so. She hypothesized with us that perhaps a cold front was coming and they were hunting mosquitoes. The next day, children confirmed this prediction as they came into the room.
In this first short month, we’ve seen countless monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico, cicadas, dragonflies, earthworms, and ant colonies. We have found lichen and moss and mushrooms in the rain. We’ve seen the tiny droplets or rain cling to the gossamer silk of spider webs. We’ve dropped sticks, and watched them travel, in gullies of water just after a storm. We’ve collected seeds and leaves and rocks. The children tape samples to index cards and label them. They add them to the basket of field guides that sits on the window sill of our classroom. We are looking and seeing and naming and, yes, loving our world.Most of these photographs were taken by Lorraine Fisher.