Close Encounters

"Kids get hooked on trees when they have a chance to get to know them up close and explore the threads of history that trees share with us," says environmental consultant Hannah Bartges from Lancaster, PA.

Every fall in the classrooms she serves, third graders wrap up a unit on plants by selecting nearby trees to adopt, then uncovering clues to the trees' identities by noticing buds, leaf features, bark, and so on. Observation sheets with questions (Does the leaf feel paper-thin, thick, waxy, fuzzy, sticky, or smooth? for instance) help students zero in on identifying characteristics. Later, the kids compare their responses with descriptions of local specimens and learn about their folklore.

To preserve students' precious leaf specimens, Hannah lays out strips of clear wide mailing tape, sticky side up, on desks, securing the ends with more tape. The slight overlaps between strips are not obvious in the final product, says Hannah. Students arrange their leaves on the sticky tape, then finish the job with a top layer of tape. (They sometimes use just one thin strip to make leaf mobiles and necklaces.)

Meanwhile, her keen observers also notice bird nests, bugs, and other creatures that call their trees home during different seasons. Curious about how trees affect the environment, the youngsters compare air temperatures under trees with those in other locations. The youngsters even manage to capture the sounds of spring sap flowing by listening with stethoscopes.

Throughout the year, the third graders keep journals with their observations, art, and tree-related folklore. "I've been moved almost to tears to watch how the children's treatment of the trees and their observation skills change from their first journal entry to the time they share and 'introduce' their tree to the class later in the year," says Hannah. As they add to their own journals, the kids also have an opportunity to read copies of the journals of students from previous years who have adopted the same trees. "Students develop a camaraderie and are able to learn more by noting what has changed over time," says Hannah. "It's amazing how many of our fifth graders return to their adopted trees, write about them in the memoirs they do before leaving the school, and want to know each year which third grader adopted their tree."

Hannah is delighted to share her self-designed tree key, complete with folklore, with other teachers. To request a copy, send $4 to cover copying and postage along with your return address to Hannah Bartges, Bucher Elementary School, 450 Candlewyck Rd., Lancaster, PA 17601.

Native History Connections
When possible, Hannah makes links to the third grade history curriculum, which focuses on Native Americans. Here are a few highlights.

Ash: Sioux Indians used ash wood to carve peace pipes and, when they smoked them, asked the spirit of the tree for wisdom and guidance. Other tribes hung their cradles from the strong ash branches.

River birch: Native Americans used this wood to make canoes. They also cooked the aromatic "wintergreen" sap into an ointment for relieving sore muscles.

White oak: The acorns were used as an important food source in a raw form or cooked and ground into flour.

Sycamore: These were "pathfinder" trees because people knew they could find water if sycamores were in the forest.

Sweet gum: Many tribes chewed its sap for sore throats and coughs, but the Cherokee were the first to use the sap as a chewing gum.

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