Friday, January 14, 2011

Nature Observations

"In the 20th century, to stop rushing around, to sit quietly on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf... I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen."
~ Federick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

In many of my posts, I encourage you to slow down and observe the world around you. I further ask you to encourage children to draw what they observe in addition to the usual writing that happens in schools.

As adults, we are often afraid to draw. How many people have you heard say, "I can't draw a straight line?" I'm sure there are many reasons we internalize these ideas- perhaps drawing wasn't valued in our homes and schools so we never put any time into it. Maybe peers mocked our drawings as a teenager. Whatever the reason, drawing takes a back seat to the "more important" skill of writing. Imagine for a moment, however, that you have a language disability or language is not your first language. How does school feel for you when you have to constantly use words to convey what you know?  What other ways might you want to convey your knowledge? Music, dance, acting, drawing?

Harvard researcher Howard Gardner proposed a theory that there is no one kind of intelligence or IQ, rather multiple kinds of intelligence or knowing. As a young teacher, in response to my teacher training and my own intuition about how kids learn, I always tried to include multiple ways of demonstrating knowledge and competence in my classroom. When I later learned about Multiple Intelligence Theory, I felt re-affirmed and set out to include more modalities in my teaching such as storytelling, movement, and acting. While I think each of these activities has value in the classroom at different times, today I want to focus on drawing in the science classroom.

One key to science investigations is the ability to look closely and notice important details. Whether setting up a traditional experiment using the Scientific Method or a more open-ended investigation about the caterpillars in your garden, the ability to look closely, note details, and record data is important. Certainly, using words and numbers is important, but sitting still, looking closely, and drawing the details forces the observer to really notice specifics.

One of the graduate courses I teach for Lesley University is titled, Science in the Elementary Classroom: Teaching With Evidence. When I teach this course, drawing is always part of the work I ask my students to complete. Not surprisingly, many of these adults are uncomfortable drawing. I encourage them to talk about their discomfort and write about it in their science journals. Not everyone suddenly loves to draw, but nearly all come to see its value. Here's what two students from my last cohort wrote in their journals (quoted with their permission):

(Referencing some field work we did in class) "...I decided to take a walk over the bridge and that is when I noticed a pine tree growing on the side of the stream. Its roots had grown around a rather large rock. I have always been fascinated by the way a tree can seemingly grow out of a boulder. I immediately started writing and sketching. It was peaceful and relaxing and I was noticing things that I had never noticed before. I have walked by similar pine trees hundreds of times but I never observed how smooth the bark looks and feels. I never noticed the small, budding pinecones or the way the pine needles are grouped together in small bunches of five needles each."
                                                                                                  ~Tracy Dean

"I am also learning through this course and my times observing in a 5th grade class how reflection and drawing are important. I am actually starting to feel more comfortable when we are asked to draw. I am finding that in certain situations I want to draw instead of write which was not the case prior to this class. I wonder if this is how many children begin to feel after they overcome their anxiety with drawing."
                                                                                                      ~Tracy Thorne

Tracy Dean described how looking closely and drawing helped her learn things she had previously missed. Tracy Thorne recognized the value of drawing and wanted to draw more often. Her comment suggests that there are times when drawing is more effective than writing. For some, drawing may be easier than writing. Or perhaps a picture can better convey the information. Either way, the opportunity to draw extends the learning.

To learn more, I recommend these books:
This book offers in depth directions and examples.

This little book includes essays by four different experts. Two that are especially appropriate to this post are titled, Writing as a Window into Nature (by Jobnn Tallmadge) and Teaching Nature Journaling and Observation (by Clare Walker Leslie).

And this one is more suited to adults who wish to start a nature journal, though children will be inspired by the art (I used it in my classroom).

How many of you have tried nature drawing with your children or students? How about just for yourself? If you haven't, will you? Why or why not?

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