Arboreal Inquiries

By Eve Pranis

"Teachers are often intimidated by feeling that they should know the names of trees and other outdoor plants," reports K-5 science specialist Christina Siry from urban Pittsfield, MA. "But we've found that more learning occurs when the kids have a chance to first observe, explore, and describe plants on their own."

Christina, along with the art teacher, second grade teachers, and the school librarian, hatched a plan to make trees a special focus for investigative science, art, and library projects throughout the year.

First, teachers invited each second grade class to adopt a tree, then brainstorm names for their selection based on student observations. Before voting as a class on a final name, students wrote paragraphs "stating the case" for a particular name (ladybug tree, for instance). "Whenever possible, we try to engage students as investigators," says Christina. When her students go out as tree sleuths, for instance, she and the art teacher provide partners with cards to guide their observations and thinking. The front sides challenge students to compare three trees and search for a particular characteristic (the smoothest bark, for instance). The backs of cards typically feature guiding questions that spark further inquiry: Can you think of ways to measure this tree? Can you find anything living in the bark?

"By not being tied into learning names up front, the kids seem to make more detailed observations," explains Christina. Back in class, students use their thoughts and observations to introduce their trees to peers. "The fact that other students tend to respond with their own confirming observations, such as 'I noticed that leaf type too,' has helped to encourage presenters," says Christina.

The reporting doesn't end the process, but offers more fuel for investigations. For instance, some students theorized that tree trunks grew in width, so they decided to measure circumference monthly. "After the kids realized that we'd need to measure at the same spot each time, we decided to mark the bark at about student height," explains Christina. Another time, curiosity about buds prompted the class to examine and describe a bud in late fall, then tie a string nearby and revisit it every couple of months to see if it had changed. Leaf collections and subsequent leaf rubbings led to an exercise in classifying leaves by vein type: parallel, pinnate, and palmate. "When the children selected trees to use for bark rubbings, they sought those with special trunk characteristics, such as evidence of old branches and variations in the pattern, so they and their classmates could later match up their rubbings with the real things," says Christina.

The many tree-related objects students brought in -- seeds and seed cases, a bird's nest, and interesting twig shapes -- inspired a sort of hallway museum, explains Christina. "We mounted items on card stock and labeled them for display." In art class, students even turned one batch of fallen forked branches into simple looms for weaving grasses, leaves, and other natural materials.

Good Tree Reads
Here are some tree-related books recommended by Christina and other teachers featured in this issue: Crinkleroot's Guide to Trees by Jim Arnosky, The Folklore of Trees and Shrubs by Laura C. Martin, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, My Favorite Tree by Diane Iverson, Sky Tree: Seeing Science Through Art by Thomas Locker, A Tree is Growing by Arthur Dorros, A Tree is Nice by Janice Udry, A Tree's Tale by Lark Carries.

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