A Study for Growing Writers & Naturalists

“Can we have class outside today?” said all students everywhere.

How many times have you been asked that question in your career, and how many times have you said, “Not today.”?

I am kicking myself for keeping them inside all these years.

A few months ago, on my commute home, I listened to a story on NPR about kids and nature. I learned that the average kid spends between 4 and 7 minutes outside.Then a few days later, my mom sent me a copy of the book Last Child in the Woods, so I could read about saving my own child from “nature-deficit disorder.”

Later that day, as I was harnessing my dog up for a walk and getting my son in the stroller, all of these messages about nature collided into one moment, and suddenly I was overcome with a sense of responsibility to take my students outside. But not just as a fun end-of-the-year treat. I felt an urgent sense of duty to put nature at the center of what we would be doing in the last few weeks of school.

Enter Nature Essay Study, a collaborative effort with my colleague Ned. Unlike the children’s literature collaboration I blogged about earlier this month in which my 8th graders worked with 11th grade artists, this was a collaboration between teachers  —  an opportunity for my science colleague and I to work together. Because Ned and I both teach the same class of 8th graders, the logistics were simple. We met a few times during common planning periods to study mentor texts, plan lessons, create the rubric, and eventually grade the essays together! We also planned a double-period field trip with our students at the river.

The Study: Nature Writing

Because this study emerged from student interest and the pure desire to spend time outside (rather than a specific genre, writing technique, standard, or piece of writing) we had to go in search of mentor texts — we weren’t even exactly sure what we were looking for!  Ned came with a huge stack of National Geographic magazines and some climbing journals. We found lots of bits and pieces we loved and would be able to use as mini mentors, but we were not able to find a single mentor text that seemed appropriate in topic AND length for our 8th graders.

Unfamiliar with nature writers myself, I emailed two people — the director of the outdoors program at our school and my uncle, an arborist and avid reader. He had some great ideas:

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 8.50.22 PM

We pored over his recommendations, the recommendations of our outdoorsman colleague, and a few famous nature writers  — Annie Dillard, some of the essays of Mary Oliver — but we eventually settled on the writing of  Bill Sherwonit, a Connecticut-born Alaskan writer whose beautiful, focused prose would mentor and inspire our writers without overwhelming.We found him deep in the Googled rabbit hole of nature writing.

We chose three of his essays, all focusing on one animal or element of the Alaskan landscape (Ned referred to these as “abiotic” and “biotic” elements during his science lessons).

On the first day of the unit, I passed out a simple introductory handout, and then we went outside!

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Here is a brief outline of how we spent the next two weeks:

  • IMG_0934 2We read the mentor texts as readers first. Outside, students sketched details they could perceive with their senses. One day it rained, and we had to finish this work inside.
  • Then we read them like writers. Click here for my students’ observations.
  • While we studied mentor texts in English class, Ned taught the students how to take field notes, make observations in nature, and use field guides.
  • When our mentor text study commenced, we spent a double period at the river. BEST DAY EVER! IMG_0942Students took field notes, jotting down everything they saw, heard, and touched, as well as questions, bits of dialogue, musings, and possible focal points for their essay.
  • Over the next week, I taught lessons on the following techniques that my students and I had observed in the mentors:
    • The UNboring way to incorporate scientific facts into your writing
    • Smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom transitions
    • Description in nature writing
    • “That’s So Deep”: How To Show the  Larger Significance of Your Writing
    • Ned taught lessons in science class on scientific research, using scientific vocabulary, and providing accurate information.
  • We wrote together, conferred, spent a delicious amount of time outside, went back to the mentors, and wrote some more.

The Takeaways

The study happened so quickly and during the busiest time of the year — the last two weeks of school — that I could barely take the students’ pulse. I KNEW they were having fun at the river and outside, but were they enjoying the writing part? It wasn’t until I read their end-of-study reflections that I discovered the pure joy this study had brought them (see their reflections below)…it was also at this time  I  realized my eighth graders had truly grown up and were ready for whatever ninth grade was going to throw at them.

This study was a game-changer for me, too.

  • It let me see another side of students — and let them see another side of me

Knowing a student is an Eagle Scout and letting him teach about the wide variety of plant life that grows in our river basin are not the same thing. For some of my students, truly getting to know them meant taking them outside. Observing them in their element. Letting them observe me OUT of my element.

This hit home for me as I read V’s essay, and was surprised to find myself featured in it. Here is an excerpt:

Getting to the river after what felt like an hour long bus ride, I find out, much to my dismay, that I had gotten Ms. Marchetti as a supervising teacher. I thought to myself, “Oh great, I got the teacher that has the least experience in the wild.” I quickly went down to the river, still disappointed.  I walked ahead of everyone else wondering if she would even let me jump from rock to rock, or rock hopping as it’s known to the locals.

Still not paying too much attention to Ms. Marchetti, I jumped in the water. It was very, very frigid to say the least. When people asked me about it, being the natural tough guy I am, I said, “It’s not even that cold, you should hop in!” but I knew that going to scout camp and being taught how to keep your body temperature in cold water was the only reason I wasn’t shivering to death. I started swimming around in the rapids, being careful where I was. They can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I soon had to hop out, because my friends had gone looking for another group to join up with.

After I hopped out, I could tell Ms. Marchetti was really excited to be at the river and wanted to know about the types of birds and plants that were surrounding us. She  started out with pretty standard questions like,“What type of tree is that?” or  “What type of flower petal is this?”  but then she started testing me on my knowledge with tougher questions like, “What type of bird is that across the river?” I knew it was a European starling due to where it was located on the river and how the flock was flying. One was obviously able to tell she was genuinely interested in the river. She then started to make small talk. That was when I saw something I had never seen in her. She actually cared about me as a person and not just as a student.

Can I cry now, please? 🙂

Brave, river-drenched V, proudly hoisting his found stick
  • It provided an alternate space for students who have trouble focusing and writing in the classroom

There is a reason kids ask to have class outside –- it’s easier to breathe, to think, to be out there. The other day I asked my students to write about their ideal writing space –- be it a quiet room with a window and lots of natural light or a spacious kitchen table with a bowl of popcorn. For some the ideal writing space is outdoors, where the spaces to think and write are generous and the scenery inspiring.

Here’s what two students had to say about the experience of going to and writing at the river.

I think the most helpful thing for me was actually going to the river. I think I should start to try to do it more often. Not going to the river but actually experiencing what I write about. MUCH like Roland Smith who is actually known for living in the countries and environments that he writes his books in and he will research a book for years before starting it. -V

Actually going outside into the wilderness to experience this moment first hand [what the most helpful thing in this study]. Because you could have just [told us to] write a experience [we]] have had in the past that [we] remember really well. But instead you wanted [us] to experience something so that we could write about it and have a really good memory so that we could add lots of detail and be very specific which helped me out a lot. -Martin

  • It reminded me that writing IS and SHOULD BE more active

    A lot of writing happens at a desk, but it doesn’t have to. Many famous writers are known for writing as they walk. There is something about the rhythm of walking that draws out ideas and inspiration. Some of us provide bean bag chairs or invite students to sit in window frames or empty corners of the room, but why does the space in which we write have to be limited by our classroom walls? Writing is as flexible an activity as running – it’s free, and you can do it anywhere. All you need is paper and a writing utensil.

  • It showed me that nature writing does matter. Here’s what a few students had to say about that:

The big message I would like my readers to take away from this piece would be to never take anything for granted. That might sound a tad cliche, but nature is a beautiful gift that we have been given. A lot of the time we don’t realize how much nature, or trees to be specific are there for us. Yet they never seem to ask for anything in return. -Lilly

After writing about nature myself, I think writing about nature is a very important part of writing. If no one wrote about nature, nature would be viewed as nothing but cruel and unforgiving. I love nature, and I especially love it when nature is depicted as more beautiful than it already is. -Lane

Before we did this study, I didn’t really care about nature and being outside period. But by being outside and taking the time to stop and pay attention to my surroundings, and things that were going on I learned things. Before, we went to the river I didn’t know what a gar was and anything about it. So just by being outside I learned about something and saw something I had never seen before. It also reminded me of memories as a child that I never really thought about. – Jarrett

Is it just me, or do these student sound like adults? I think nature has a way of bringing out the best in us — in all of us.


Do you let your writers write outside? What are some ways we can incorporate nature and the outdoors into our writing studies? What nature writers do you know about and love (help me expand my mentors for next year!).

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett






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