Teacher Comments

Nature Journaling for Successful Learning and Exploring Sierra Nevada Teacher Institute: Summer 2009 Cathy Harkness

Prior to meeting John (Jack) Muir Laws, I had taken two other nature/scientific journaling classes in college where the focus of each class had clearly been on how accurately I could (or could not) make my drawings look like the actual object I was trying to represent.  It was frustrating to say the least, always contending with an inner critic who had a quick word to say about how my drawings looked nothing like those of the students who sat next to me (the critic didn’t care that many of the other students were art majors, and I wasn’t).  Along with the feedback I was getting from my professors, I knew that my art was sub-par.  My professors tried to teach us techniques that would improve our artistic abilities– and to a certain degree they did –but in the end it was clear that the people who got the most out of these classes were the ones who had previous art experience, and they got the good grades on their final drawings to prove it!. What was even more infuriating– besides working my tail off on my final project only to be awarded a grade way lower than the art major students –was that the goal of the class seemed to be to teach us how to accurately copy drawings out of scientific illustration books.  The meaning of the process, the importance of scientific observation, and all of the fun had been taken out of nature journaling. Meeting Jack opened my eyes to what nature journaling really is, and taught me its importance as a tool for enhancing observation skills, memory, and enjoyment of nature.  I met Jack in the spring of 2009 at an environmental education conference where he was the keynote speaker/presenter for the weekend.  I had the pleasure of taking two of his nature journaling workshops that weekend, and then returning to my students on Monday full of passion for implementing what I had learned.  The rest of the school year I threw out my scheduled lesson plans, made each student a book of blank paper, and hit the trails executing the activities that Jack had taught me that weekend. Taking Jack’s “Watershed Dynamics and Journaling” workshop this summer opened my eyes more fully to the importance of how nature journaling can transform the way students respond to and interact with the natural world.  Nature/scientific journaling has also, and perhaps more importantly, redefined what being a “good” naturalist/teacher means for me. I had previously believed that I would be a good teacher if I could memorize all of the flora and fauna of the Redwood Forest, and download all of that information into the brains of the hundreds of fifth and sixth graders that passed through our school each year.  I furiously would scan and cram information from guidebooks into my head right before class.  At home, many evenings were spent conducting internet research on all of the questions students had asked that I couldn’t answer.  I believed that it was important for me to look smart and help the kids memorize all of the facts that I wasn’t able to memorize myself.  It left me feeling like a lousy teacher on the days when I didn’t know the answers.  What I didn’t realize at the time is that kids don’t care about hearing me discuss the factoids of the forest as much as they care about observing and exploring the forest for themselves- especially through the process of nature journaling. As described by Jack, there are three important reasons to do nature journaling with students.  The first is that nature journaling helps develop better observation skills.  Unlike what I did in my nature journaling classes in college, the end goal of nature journaling is not to make a complete, and “pretty” picture.  The goal is to record -through writing and sketching- data about the natural object or place that you are observing.  Secondly, nature journaling trains the brain to look again and again for more detail, and observations that were not previously noted.   Nature journaling trains young scientists in the most fundamental skill of the scientific method: how to make accurate observations and take effective notes.  The third reason that nature journaling is so important, is that it is fun for kids (and teachers too!).  Kids are natural explorers, and they are naturally curious.  If we, as adults and teachers, pump their minds full of facts and answers to all of their questions about what they see in nature, we hinder their natural instinct to be curious and sit still, as well develop their own observations, questions, and answers. It wasn’t until I was on a nature journaling hike with Jack and a few other teachers in Mariposa Grove that I fully realized the significance of nature journaling, and the positive impact that it can have on our students.  Jack led us in an exercise where we got to take on the role of students and observe a Giant Sequoia tree.  As part of the exercise, we were supposed to ignore all previous knowledge we had about Giant Sequoia trees, and become specialists in a particular sub-topic of the tree, using only our observational and journaling skills.  After we came back together to share our individual findings, we realized that we had become experts in this tree not by reading a guidebook, or hearing a naturalist talk to us, but rather by using our own observational skills.  The tree had been our teacher, and all we had to do was tune in, using the process of nature journaling. Although nature journaling can be a very positive, educational, and rewarding activity for students, it can also be a time of high anxiety for those students who have a strong inner art critic, or those who have suffered the recourse of a thoughtless and critical teacher from their past.  Therefore, it is very important to critique students’ nature journal differently than you would actual ART.  The key to remember when critiquing students’ work is that successful nature journaling occurs through the process of enabling students to see nature more deeply, with more detail, and being able to record that data.  Emphasis on making good art or a pretty picture should be reserved for art class. It is important to give positive feedback on students’ work, and it seems natural to be most drawn to the aesthetically pleasing pictures.  It is far too easy to dole out praise for the most attractive pictures, commending how pretty or realistic they are.  This admiration only elevates those students who are comfortable in their drawing skills, while squashing the confidence of those who are already less confident in their artistic abilities. It is more important to give feedback that exemplifies how thoroughly or insightfully the data were collected.  When critiquing students’ journal work, it is imperative to give equal feedback time to journal work of all artistic levels. When used effectively, nature journaling is an essential and impactful tool for developing scientific observation skills, recording accurate data, and building confident explorers of the natural world.  As teachers, it is our duty to support students in their scientific quest.

Sketched Moments: Camp Green Meadows  Blog Sierra Nevada Teacher Institute: Summer 2009 Jacqueline S.

In July I spent two weekends on a teacher training workshop organized by the California institute for biodiversity/ to learn how to incorporate scientific field journaling into a science curriculum. I got some great ideas for journaling exercises that I will try with the classrooms at N’s school. Two of the teachers at the training were John Muir Laws and David Lukas who are both incredibly knowledgeable about the Natural History of the Sierra. I would highly recommend this workshop if you are interested. During the second weekend the whole group went hiking in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite and I was introduced to the concept of Whooshers and Goshers. Whooshers see an interesting thing in Nature, check it out and are off to the next interesting thing. Goshers on the other hand, see an interesting thing and spend some time watching that thing. Then they find something else, but after two hours they can still see the parking lot. As you can imagine, having kids, I spend my life at their pace and not so much mine. I am often following their interesting things, except perhaps in the grocery store. And A, well, he is frequently well ahead of me no matter what we do. I took an opportunity to be a Gosher that weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.