Earth Day and Interdisciplinary Projects #scichat #engchat

 

On Earth Day my students were lucky enough to Skype with Dr. David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  Over the course of the school year the students have adopted their own mandalas, a square meter of forest space, and made monthly observations.  I work with my biology colleague and the students have been learning how to communicate scientific knowledge to a general audience through informational writing, narrative writing, and poetry.  It’s been a magical experience and one I can’t wait to continue next year.

How did this all come together?

In October 2012 my former colleague Jon Olsen and I read an article in The New York Times Science Times about Dr. Haskell with our freshmen.  The article struck a chord and we reached out to Dr. Haskell on Twitter.  He spoke with the students and eventually we set up a brief Skype session so he could talk about the overlap between the humanities and science.  The Skype session went so well that we decided to use his book as a touchstone text between English and biology this year.  We placed an order for 80 copies of the book and started planning.  We knew we wanted a field study and writing component to go alongside the book and we worked on ideas for the next few months.

In September we introduced the book to our students.  They were a little unsure at first because we were telling them that biology and English would work together during the year, combining our classes at least once each month.  Thankfully, my school embraces interdisciplinary work so they “saw the light” very quickly.

Over the course of the year our current freshmen have read a variety of essays in Dr. Haskell’s book.  In September we broke them into 2 groups of 40 and within the groups broke them into triads.  Those triads worked together all year, finding mandalas close to each other and relying on the buddy system during our field studies.  They observed organisms, practiced using specialized vocabulary, wrote poems, and sat outside during the polar vortex.  We’ve been rained on, sleeted on, snowed on, and now it’s finally starting to warm up.  We’ve seen the circle of life, complete with a dead deer carcass in one mandala and a fierce cardinal defending its turf in another.

Before each class we settled on a seasonally appropriate focus and the students read at least one of Dr. Haskell’s essays.  You can see our schedule below:

  • Sept – perception / selecting & mapping mandalas (preface, April 14th & Sept 23rd): Mike and I chose the same readings and challenged the students to figure out why an English and Bio teacher chose the same ones (without planning it that way).
  • Oct – respect  / identifying a resident organism (March 13th & April 22nd), writing a descriptive paragraph modeled after Dr. Haskell’s.
  • Nov – ecological succession / change / spectrophotometry & color / wavelengths (Nov 5th), writing a poem modeled after a few nature poems we studied in class.
  • Dec – adaptations (structural & behavioral) / breathing / your response to cold (Jan 21st & Dec 3rd,) writing a description of the way the cold infiltrates the human body.
  • Jan – patterns / Kepler’s snowflakes (Jan 17th), studying snowflakes and writing haikus.
  • Feb – habitat / food + cover + water (Nov 15th), creating a photo slideshow and brief description of their mandalas
  • March – equinox / seasonal change, preparing for Dr. Haskell’s visit.

 

You can see a sample of the instruction sheet here.  Each month it changes based on the focus.

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This is one of the best projects I have ever been involved in.  The biology and English combination is pure magic and I love having the opportunity to teach a bit of science communication.

Dr. Haskell took an hour out of his day earlier this week to read some of the students’ writing, look at their Flickr group, and share his expertise.  It was fabulous and I couldn’t ask for anything better as an English teacher!  Thank you to Dr. Haskell!

Interdisciplinary work is the best.  The world isn’t divided into neat little subject boxes like the constructs we model in schools.  Life is messy, subjects mingle together.  But communication, reading and writing, is vital regardless of the field students may choose to pursue. Appreciating the environment that surrounds them is also vital to our wellbeing as a species.

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Slice of Life- March 2, 2013 #slice2013

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Today was the culminating activity for the science enrichment class I am teaching with my biology colleague (and my biology teacher!).  We spent 3 hours traipsing about the woods with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and it was a great time.  We built eco-art, played games, and did some hiking.  It was cold, and even flurried for a good amount of time, but what a great day!

 

But my favorite part of the (freezing) day was on our walk back up to the parking lot.  I had been keeping an eye out for bluebirds, as I have been seeing them for the past few weeks but rarely have my camera with me.  I was thrilled to spot a group of bluebirds a few minutes later and whipped out my camera.  As I started snapping pictures, I got the attention of a few of our students.  They all froze and watched the birds as they hopped from branch to branch.

 

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Whoa!  I’ve never seen a real blue bird before!”, one student exclaimed with quiet glee.

 

“Me either,” a few others responded.

 

At that moment, I realized I was in my twenties the first time I saw a bluebird in New Jersey.  They were forced out of most areas by development and many conservation groups have been working hard to restore the population over the past fifty years.  Now, we are finally getting more of them in Monmouth County.

 

We watched the flock quietly for a few more moments, noting the contrast between the male and female bluebirds, and the sharp contrast between the red cardinal and the bluebirds.  It was a magical few minutes.  The bluebirds are just so bright and look like tropical birds flitting between the winter branches and few stalks of long grass.  They put a smile on anyone’s face!

 

I was so happy to be able to introduce these middle school students to the Eastern bluebird, and hopefully awaken a love of nature in them (even more than our 3 hour winter hike, maybe!).  Nature really is amazing!

 

A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds.  It's hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds. It’s hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

Voices from the Land Workshop

A few years ago I participated in the Voices from the Land project through EIRC/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  Since then, I have been unable to participate in the training for a variety of reasons. But this year, my district sent me to the two day workshop because the project fits in with our curriculum so well.  I was ecstatic, even though it meant driving north, towards NYC, during rush hour. (For the record, a 50 mile journey took me almost 3 hrs this morning.  It took me 1 hr and 10 minutes to get home this evening. Ridiculous.)

Today I spent the day at the offices of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  First of all, their LEED-certified building is amazing!  They have a living biowall, which purifies their air and it just awesome.

 

Inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, the Voices project combines poetry, art, ecology, biology, digital photography, design, collaborative group work, and performance.  We are walking our way through the project, just like our students would.  Today we spent 3 hours in the woods, creating ephemeral art.  Here is my group’s art:

 

Then we did a gallery walk, listening to the other artists’s describe their process and work, taking notes on words and concepts that struck us.  Afterwards, we spent the remainder of the day listening to poetry and writing our own.  Tomorrow we will come together and perform our poetry.  I can’t wait!

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