Cultivating Writers

By Eve Pranis

While literature can inspire gardening projects and investigations, growing and observing plants can also motivate students to create their own stories and tales.

Weaving stories from plant experiences evokes students' emotional connections with their environment and helps them (and their teachers) clarify and reflect on what they understand. While creating stories may sound like language arts, the young writers surely learn about and practice what scientists do. Scientists, after all, must be imaginative, capable of organizing and communicating a lot of information, and must be open to different stories to explain the natural world. As Mary Budd Rowe, former education professor and science teacher observed, "Science is a special kind of story-making, with no right or wrong answers -- just better and better stories."

The following profiles highlight how some teachers have inspired students to exercise their imaginations and writing skills.

Getting to Know Trees

"Through in-depth observations at an arboretum and on our school grounds, my fourth graders constructed their own understanding of the 'story' of maple trees," reports Newton, MA, teacher Barbara Butterworth. Her students examined trees and wrote about changes -- in twigs, flowers, bark, and so on -- during three seasons, and set up systematic observations to answer questions they had. Throughout the study, says Barbara, the class discussed the range of ways, beyond mechanical measurements and observations, in which scientists perceive and describe the natural world. "We discussed how emotions, imagination, and the ability to see things metaphorically are important to the nature of science," she explains.

After reading a book that included illustrations, cultural information, and poetry about trees (The Tree by Judy Hindley), Barbara's students asked if they could make their own book to capture some of what they'd learned and feelings they had about the trees they'd come to know. Each student researched a species of maple, then used their field experiences, journal entries, and research to write a paragraph about the selected tree. The facing page included an ink and watercolor drawing and an original poem.

"The kids' writing was truly inspirational, revealed their deepening understanding of concepts, and helped me identify misconceptions," remarks Barbara. "A paper and pencil test could never have uncovered that much."

Rainforests Revealed

"During our year-long rainforest study, my fifth graders played the role of both poet and scientist and explored how each sees and interprets the world around them," explains Essex, VT, teacher Sue Miyamoto. Before weekly visits to a university greenhouse, Sue's class discussed similarities between the skills that a writer and scientist uses. "The students began to appreciate that both poets and scientists are careful observers who ask questions, notice and describe the world in great detail, make comparisons, and communicate their observations to others," Sue explains. They also discussed differences: A scientist is more restricted to physical realities, while the poet can use more imagination and fantasy, for instance. When Sue's students visited the greenhouse to explore and record their observations and impressions of the plants and environment, they alternated the role of poet and scientist.

After examining different poetry techniques such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration, and reading various literary accounts of rainforests, students brainstormed metaphors for rainforest habitats. Each student picked a metaphor, then used it as a main image for a poem.

As a culminating project, each student created a realistic rainforest fiction story that reflected accurate habitat and environmental conditions and included both plants and animals. "Tying the writing activities to an inviting plant-rich context enhanced the writing and helped students appreciate the skills different people use to gather and communicate information about the natural world," she observes.

Healing Through Plant Stories

"After hurricane Hugo hit, I presented a workshop session for parents and kids to evoke some of their tree-related memories and stories, hoping it would help them cope with the loss and devastation from the event," reports science educator and ethnobotanist Lin Frye, from Chapel Hill, NC. Parents broke the ice, says Lin, reminiscing about trees they'd planted and nurtured or otherwise associated with. As students began to share their memories of favorite trees and expressed feelings of sadness at losses, Lin had them write or draw their stories, and recorded them on tape to send back with parents. "We were all a bit overwhelmed to realize the deep relationships and rich memories many of the kids had with trees," she recalls.

Although these tree stories were elicited following a disaster, Lin contends that routinely evoking plant and garden memories can help kids enrich their connections to the natural world. She recommends inviting students to interview family members, neighbors, and one another about their memories and everyday associations with plants, then to recount the stories dramatically or through writings and drawings. "This kind of connection is vital for cultivating sensitive environmental stewards," she explains. "Besides, because kids see the world so differently than the rest of us, it's important to capture their perspectives."

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