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Mary Cathryn Ricker

© 2002

Action Research:

Uncovering the Naturalist Writer in Middle School

In any outdoor experience, this reminder of our roots is more than a reward. We belong. And the self-conceived realities of civilization are displaced by those much bigger than us.
By seeing these larger realities we come home to nature. By sharing them, we become naturalists
. -Denny Olson, The Season of Stillness

Your mind is leaping, your writing will leap, but it won’t be artificial. It will reflect the nature of first thoughts, the way we see the world when we are free from prejudice and can see the underlying principles. We are all connected. -Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

What I already know:
Students enjoy using literary elements such as metaphor in their writings. Most examples are rather pedestrian, however unless the student is a naturally gifted writer. Also, students tend to struggle with choosing topics on their own. I have found at this age that students do very well on prescribed topics, but they struggle in front of blank paper when left to choose themselves.

I have also noticed students in seventh and eighth grade developing a strong sense of global justice without much transference of these thoughts to the classroom or community. They will become physically angry when studying the Holocaust, but still call each other names. They are furious about endangered species or deforestation but they don’t recycle their own paper.

Why I am interested in this topic:
Cleveland was awarded a federal grant to integrate the environment and technology into our curriculum. We have used that money to focus our efforts on teaching students to relate to their natural world and to change the relationship among our students and their environment, including neighborhood and nature.

Personally, I am very interested in helping students become better writers, de-mystifying the process for them, helping them to make seemingly insignificant topics significant. Furthermore, I have a vested interest in helping students see themselves as stewards of the earth. I want students to find out that their writing matters, that their thoughts matter, and that their actions matter. When that happens, I believe that students will write and act more thoughtfully.

What I want to know:
I would like to know if my approach to naturalist writing, the naturalist writing a share with them, and my writer’s workshop approach can steer their writing to a direction where they are mindful of their environment in every piece. Whether they write about life science, the world outside a window, from a picture or reflecting about their neighborhood; I want to gauge the degree to which they think in writing from a naturalist perspective.

My plan for the 2002-03 School Year:

I am going to conscientiously coordinate my curriculum and team teach with the seventh grade science teacher. I am going to incorporate writer’s workshop into every class period so that students are writing every class. I will also use naturalist writings within each teaching unit (biography, memoir, etc.) as examples of high quality, thoughtful writing. I will also share my writing with the students on my own observations and my own practice at naturalist writing. The class will work toward publication on pieces and I plan on having guest writers in the classroom speaking and listening to students as the schedule allows
As a way of measuring my plan, I will have students write in a natural setting at the beginning of every month for a set amount of time. Those pieces can be put alongside one another at regular intervals throughout the school year to measure incorporation of thought, literary elements, and environment into writing. At the end of the year, I will have 10 pieces of writing from beginning to end. I can read through random students’ work and measure my goals against an established rubric. As I read, I can also anecdotally measure progress in changing the relationship to the environment.

Annotated Bibliography
Bergon, Frank, Ed. The Wilderness Reader. University of Nevada, Reno. 1980. ISBN 0-87417-250-0
-A collection of essays written by some of the best known writers in naturalist literature.

Cook, Sam. Friendship Fires. Pfeifer-Hamilton, Duluth, MN. 1999. ISBN 1-57025-170-3
-Witty and poignant stories and essays written by the outdoor columnist of the Duluth News Tribune.

Blecher, Sharon and Kathy Jaffee. Weaving in the Arts. Heinemann, Portsmouth. 1998. ISBN 0-325-00032-8
-A decent book on integrating the arts and writing. Easy to adapt lesson ideas, too.

Claggett, Fran, LouAnn Reid, and Ruth Vinz. Learning the Landscape. Heinemann, Portsmouth. 1996. ISBN 0-86709-395-1
-Inquiry-based activities for comprehending the naturalist world and writing from a sense of place.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala, Boston. 1986. ISBN 0-87773-375-9
-An essential writing book that inspires good writing to come naturally through vignettes and excercises.

Gruchow, Paul. Journal of a Prairie Year. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 1985. ISBN 0-8166-1426-1
-A year of thoughts recorded by the author inspired by his mid-Western landscape.

Henricksson, John, Ed. North Writers, A strong woods collection. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 1991. ISBN 0-8166-3671-0
-Another volume of collected naturalist writings, but this one focuses on writers of Minnesota’s and the mid-West’s landscape and natural history.

Krieger, Barbara Jo, Paul G. Saint-Amand, and Robert W. Emery. Dialogue and Discovery. St. Martins Press, New York. 1996.ISBN 0-312-08086-7
-A wealth of essays and topics across the disciplines as well as thoughtful written discussion of the process, product and reasoning behind encouraging writing across the curriculum.

McMillan, Victoria E. Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences. Bedford Books, Boston. 1997. ISBN 0-312-11504-0
-A book that tries to tackle the inherent difficulty of high quality academic writing in the midst of high quality biological study. Strong focus on academic writing, little to say about naturalist writing.

Olson, Sigurd F. The Meaning of Wilderness. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 2001. ISBN 0-81663708-3
-A compact collection of essays and speeches from a legendary naturalist and champion of the wilderness.

Pechenik, Jan A. A short Guide to Writing about Biology. Longman, New York. 2001. ISBN 0-321-07843-8
-A functional book for the biology writer who is looking to inform a reader. Useful for academic writing, but not as helpful for naturalist writing.

Penrose, Ann M. and Steven B. Katz. Writing in the Sciences.St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998. ISBN 0-312-11971-2
-A book that focuses on common science writing, especially the research report.

Tchudi, Stephen N. and Margie C. Huerta. Teaching Writing in the Content Areas National Education Association, Washington, D.C. 1983.
-This book provides support for the notion of writing across the curriculum and presents projects and assignments to make it successful.


Creative writing:

Mt. Hood Loop*

Rise up, Mountain!
Above me, heady, dizzying
as I revisit your crumbled, trampled path
soft, under my feet.
Kicking up your past
I leave a cloud-trail of dust for others
to follow through.
Until the haze
settles on rocks
in your melted snow
streaming down through your foothills
still glistening
and blushing from
the heat you’ve captured
With our immense face,
soaring, still…
I slow to a meander.
The dust stays settled
While the water and I
wander away
taking what we could of you
with us.

 *Inspired by the Landscape Assignment given in Anne Lowe’s Best Practice Demonstration


This is the place**

I have called my own even though it never belonged to me;
the place
I would eagerly wait for leaves to fall;
the place
that would soften light before it came into my bedroom window; and
the place
I have to leave.The branches cut through the leaves, brown and gray, aging. Each leaf pressed as a green mosaic against the Crayola sky, blue. Of all the time I have lived here and loved this century old Maple tree, this is the first time I can remember lying directly under it just to stare at it. Not lying there for the purpose of day dreaming, not waiting for a ride, or relaxing while my tongue explored the lot in my mouth left vacant by my morning’s dental visit.

I simply continued lying there, looking up, looking through those branches and past those leaves and trying to pull that blue sky down on me. The weight of it could not feel nearly as immense, as suffocating as leaving this house, leaving this tree. If I managed to pull so well that the sky came Chicken-Little-style-tumbling- falling-crashing-careening down on me would that sky grab every leaf and every branch on his way down to me as a way to cling to what he had and where he lived, just as I am doing?
Could I absorb it all then? Could I take it with me when I leave for the last time? Take with me every ounce of the blues, and the green, brown, gray of smooth young branches growing out to mature on their own while anchored along the veined, wrinkled, rough, nested trunk I was seeing. Then could I leave my childhood home, or would I still feel cut off?

**Excerpt from a work in progress thanks to the Sharon Lapensky’s Best Practice Demonstration Lesson, Beyond the Boring.