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Success Stories - Tips for Using Step Outside with Your Class

Poet’s and Scientist’s Pond Adventure

By Bryan Bibby Smith - Grade 6 Teacher, Belfountain Public School, Peel District School Board. Originally published by Natural Curiosity.

Curricular Connections:
Adopting alternative perspectives, Biodiversity, Making observations and writing in role, Critical Thinking, Creating a voice in writing, Research for learning, Text forms

Learning Opportunities:
Scaffolded learning opportunities, Multiple entry points, Integrated use of technology

Our Grade Six class made a short walking trip to a nearby wooded area that is home to several vernal ponds.  Vernal ponds provide an interesting learning opportunity as they undergo dramatic transformations over the course of the year.  On several occasions over the past years, the students have visited this area for a variety of reasons, so the area is familiar.

Over the summer I read several of the works by David Sobel on Place-Based, Local Learning.  I learned about presenting opportunities to students in a way which both connects them with the place and inspires their thinking and learning.  This time, rather than calling it a hike, I purposely titled the day’s plan as the “Poets and Scientist’s Pond Adventure”.  The title itself inspired curiousity from the students and many questions were asked about what this event was going to be.

The day before the planned trip we sat in a Knowledge Building Circle and shared our ideas about poets and scientists in general and stereotypical terms.  These ideas and opinions were recorded on a T-chart.  At the end of the knowledge building circle the students were randomly assigned a role for the next day as either a poet or a scientist.  The students were encouraged to dress in role and bring whatever prop they felt would assist them in their role.  The day of the hike saw students arriving in lab coats, berets and scarves, magnifying glasses and feather pens in hand.  Facial expressions, posture and voice accompanied the costumes and props demonstrating that many students had successfully taken the role to heart.

The walk to the ponds’ area was accompanied by excited voices; poets commenting on the wonder of the sunlight through the leaves and scientists seeking to identify the species of fungi on that tree.  Once in place at the meadow area the students were given the opportunity to wander and make observations and explore their surroundings.  I listened to the students and recorded some of their observations and questions.  We moved on after fifteen or twenty minutes and stopped in two or three other areas and repeated the process, again focusing on the questions the students were asking about their observations and findings.

When we returned to the school we had a general reflection time to share thoughts and feelings about the day.  Students commented about how the role they were in changed the way they looked at the area around them.  I presented the questions they asked which I had recorded and invited the students to respond to some of the questions in role as a scientist or poet.  The resulting work showed an amazing variety of text forms and art styles.  Poetry ranged from the classic acrostic poem, through haiku, rhyming and free verse.  Poets had the opportunity to learn about specific poetry forms through small group instruction, the web and seeing various examples in anthologies.  This poetry was accompanied by an equally diverse variety of visual art ranging from watercolour landscapes, impressionistic pastels to realistic sketches.

Similarly, the scientists drew upon their observations to identify a number of animal, plant and fungi species we saw during the adventure.  They used field guides and the web to help connect their recorded observations to species.  In some cases this identification was the first part of a report on the animal in a field guide style; complete with labelled diagrams and realistic field sketches.  Scientists learned about using titles and subtitles to organize reports, how to use different fonts to highlight vocabulary.  Scientists used objective vocabulary to describe their experiences.

From my perspective, my role was that of facilitator, helping to guide the students to the resources they wanted to respond to their inquiry.  Student engagement was high, task focus was good and student success prevailed.

Using the Late November Guide to Begin a Squirrel Investigation

By Stan Kozak

The late November Step Outside arrives and as has been the habit I read sections to my grade 2 students as they sit around and watch the pictures as I make the links.  One line stands out “Gray squirrels are now making their dreys."  Clicking on the word drey brings up a photograph of a leaf nest with a squirrel in it.  New word for me and the kids.

I ask the kids to look for dreys and squirrels on their way to and from school and to count them.  Many experiences come back.  One count comes up with 18 squirrels and 36 dreys over 7 blocks.  What does it means?  One student suggests that each squirrel builds two nests while another suggests that half the squirrels are in their nest.  Further investigation is warranted.

Next day after lunch we plan our squirrel survey.  We will walk the perimeter of the school yard counting dreys that are visible and squirrels and observing any behavior. Even I am amazed at the scope of what this little outing reveals.

Back in class the kids crowd around the computer and I ask them to tell me what we observed and as they do I type it in the order provided.  They point out my spelling and typing errors but I say don’t worry about them until we’re done.  Then on the spot we clump similar content into paragraphs, add introductory and concluding sentences and voila, our squirrel story is done.

Our Squirrel Research

We went on a schoolyard trip to learn about squirrels.  We saw two different kinds of squirrels, the Red Squirrel and the Grey Squirrel.  We counted 18 nests and 12 squirrels.  One was a Red squirrel.

We saw a squirrel in a bird house and one on a nest.  We saw squirrels climbing trees.  Two squirrels were playing in a yard.

We saw them eating maple keys and found walnut shells that had been eaten already.  We found a walnut wedged on a branch to keep it out from under the snow.  One of the squirrels was eating at a bird feeder and another ate seeds from the ground.  It is winter and we saw many squirrels so they must not hibernate.

We like watching squirrels and can learn a lot from them. They are amazing animals.

I print off enough for everyone and we practice reading as a group, then in small groups and then individually.  The students take the stories home to read to family.  The level of interest in this story that we have collectively experienced and prepared is deep.  I enlarge and photocopy the story and put it up on the wall where we meet each day.  I can see weaker readers purposely struggling with the story, working through it weeks after we create it.

Meanwhile the next day three students independently come to school with squirrel projects that they have done with the help of their parents.  They each present their poster board works and these join the squirrel story on the wall.  We’ve experienced “spontaneous learning combustion” interest in learning where students take off, learning on their own.  The recipe, students’ inherent interest in nature, experiencing it outdoors and a link to the formal side of schooling, writing and reading.  And it all started with a one line reference to squirrels building their dreys in the late November edition of Step Outside.