July 6 dawned bright and clear, a beautiful day, not too hot, not too cool, and most importantly, not rainy. What a relief! I was scheduled to teach a workshop with 12 kids, and the weather cooperated perfectly. Our classroom was the outdoor pavilion at North Mountain Park Nature Center in Ashland, Oregon. Our sketching arena was the nature center's natural area with two ponds, Ashland Creek, a reconstruction of a Shasta Indian umma (bark-covered dwelling) and the semi-wooded flood plain along the creek. Perfect.
This was my first go at teaching kids the Observing Nature class, and although I was nervous about it, I was also relieved that I was getting the opportunity with this Reading Camp, led by Debi Blair and Max Schmeling and sponsored by the Oregon Writing Project for 4th - 8th graders. Part of a week-long event, the kids would participate with the Klamath Bird Observatory, which was banding birds during the week, among other projects. I was to start the week out for them with instructions on how to observe the natural world around them, then sketch and journal what they experienced.
Teaching the half-day class would give me valuable insight on the workbooks I had been creating for area nature centers. And since I am scheduled to teach local teachers/naturalists how to teach the course, it greatly relieved me to get first-hand experience. I had been working from detailed notes sent to me by CeCe Bowerman, at the Deer Creek Nature Center in Selma, Oregon, who had used one of the workbooks to teach a similar class, so I knew what to expect and had lots of good advice on how to effectively teach it ~ but DOING it is a whole 'nother thing.
I didn't tell Debi or Max that I hadn't taught the class yet (one Nervous Nelly was sufficient) , so they were perfectly confident that I knew what I was doing.
Miraculously, my previous experience stood me in good stead, and we were all pleased with the results ~ and the kids were prepared to sketch and journal their way through the rest of the week. They were a great bunch of youngsters, ranging in age from 10 to 13 or so. And they were all eager, responsive, and well-mannered (well, a little goofy at times, but hey, that's kids!).
I started them out with the typical Right-Brain exercises I teach in my adult classes. Age has utterly no effect on results as long as the student can understand the instructions, so their drawings looked identical to those of beginning adult students. No surprises there.
They drew oak leaves and bones, then I passed around a collection of interesting natural touchy/feely items for them to examine: fuzzy mullein leaves, prickly pine cones, cottonwood fluff, porcupine quills (poked through a file card), plaster tracks, horsetail (Equisetum) pieces ~ also called scouring rush by pioneers and miners who used them to scrub pots ~ and a number of other fascinating items. These sparked curiosity and questions, and we had a lively discussion as things passed from hand to hand.
Although they didn't draw them, this exercise centered and focused the kids, who were intrigued and interested in the various objects similar to things they might find to draw later in the session.
We worked our way quickly through the rest of the workbook, which featured good journaling examples, how to use the magnifying glass and a lid to show enlargements, and what should go on a journal page. They examined a page showing insects, spider, flower, and plant diagrams with parts labeled with their correct names, plus a page of skulls showing a squirrel, raccoon, otter, muskrat, great horned owl, deer, and woodpecker skulls, plus an owl pellet ~ all items they could conceivably find in this area. Those had parts labeled, too.
Finally, we reviewed the Question Page, listing questions they could ask themselves about a subject to help get them started on their journaling: "what ate part of this plant?" "what is this insect doing?," etc.
Now they were ready to cruise. We handed out a magnifying glass and a 1½" plastic lid to each student (the lid was to make a circle into which they would draw a magnification they observed), and made sure they had pencils. Students from Ashland High School had come to help and to supervise groups of students in order to earn community service credits, and Max took a group as well. Each group went off to find a spot to settle down in and observe, sketch and journal.
At this point, I tidied up the mess and put away my natural history items, then went out from group to group to visit each student at work, making suggestions, reminding them of their objectives, helping them identify what they were looking at, and sharpening pencils. I was excited to see how they threw themselves into the exercise, sketching and drawing intently.
One group was lucky enough to spot a blacktail doe leading a new fawn past them. The same group also observed a gray fox trotting down the trail with prey in its mouth (there is some dispute as to whether it was a bird or a piece of red meat). You can read about it on their journal pages.
The sketching sessions were each 20 minutes long. Between the first two sessions, Debi, who had sketched along with them, talked for a couple of minutes about ways to observe and and journal. We broke for snacks after the second session, after we had admired all the artwork and journaling. Some of the students read their journal entries out loud for us. The kids were really courteous during the readings and the show & tell ~ I didn't hear a single unkind remark about drawings or writing. For the third sketching session, Max and Debi and I decided to send them out to draw a "mystery item," writing 3 or more clues to help others identify their subject later.
I photographed the journals after the final session, but I may have missed a few because parents picked up their kids punctually and may have made off with some of them before I had a chance to take a picture. Debi got me permission slips from all the parents for photographing their kids and their journal pages.
Max and Debi and I debriefed after they'd all gone. That's when I told them I hadn't taught the course before, and to my gratification they claimed they thought I'd done it many times previously. Very nice people to work with! We discussed improvements that might be made, and a few surfaced: the magnifying glasses should be on strings which the students would hang around their necks ~ one of the plastic lenses got badly scratched, and I had seen one being fished out from under a boardwalk.
And I decided the supervisors should have a checklist of things to help students with (what should go on each journal page; don't forget the magnification; put name, date and location up in the corner, etc.), so they could be a positive influence rather than simply herding the kids to and fro. They had done a great job, everything we asked of them, but I think they would have enjoyed a more active part. Still, all in all, it was a resounding success. Thanks Debi and Max!!!
I'll be teaching teachers to teach this class in two or more workshops in August (see my workshop website). I've now incorporated all I learned in teaching it myself into their workshop workbook (that's its cover above), and include lists of things they might use as nature items to focus their classes; ways to present them; equipment they'll need; resources for finding supplies; course objectives; a guide and checklist for the supervisors; a simple, oral evaluation sheet to run past their students; a permission slip template to get permissions for photographing the students and their work for use in newsletters, and much more.
I'll be teaching ~ elementary teachers, nature center volunteers, high school teachers, and whoever else is interested ~ the half-day Nature Observation class just as I presented it to the students. They'll be asked to complete all the exercises, including going out to sketch, just as the kids do. This will give them valuable insight on how they can teach their own classes. But they'll go out for only one sketching session since we'll spend the rest of the session going over techniques, exchanging insights and suggestions, and discussing the course objectives, managing supervisors, the evaluation, etc. I'm really looking forward to this.
And now, here are the journal pages of life along Ashland Creek, as observed and recorded July 6, 2009, by twelve naturalist/students.
And finally, the page Debi sketched alongside the students. It was in doing this page that she noticed tiny, remarkable egg cases on the underside of the leaf, which prompted her to suggest to the students that they watch for their own small miracles.
As they say, "a good time [obviously!] was had by all."
To join me on a virtual sketching trip, download a travel sketch-journal here. I add tutorials to them so you can learn the techniques and details you see in the sketchbooks.
My former workshop students asked me to upload my workshop workbooks to make them available to everyone. So you can also download a workbook and give yourself a workshop! Enjoy!