Posted by: jwhiff | October 10, 2010

Learning to Observe

This past week, the focus of science has been noticing and observing carefully.  We still haven’t ventured out to the Inlet, but we do have much to observe and compare right around our school.  I consider our work right now skill development and preparation for when we do venture out.

When Leigh Scatchard visited our classroom last week, she pointed out the things that she noticed when she entered our classroom.  Favorite books.  Hair colour.  Clothing.  Artwork.  She made the point that scientists tend to do this.  They like to take in the world around them through constant study of the details.  The details have stories to tell.

I was quite happy to tackle this skill as a starting point, as I love the idea of the kids focusing and beginning to notice (and hopefully appreciate) the subtle and beautiful parts of nature all around us.  We are lucky to have a small forest right inside of our school yard.  It is taken for granted most of the time, although loved and well used.  Our school is also next to a much less impacted forest area.  A small trail winds through it, but the forest floor is pretty much left alone by humans. So, I let the kids observe both forests to see if they might notice the differences in the life within them.  I required that they make detailed sketches and write notes on one or two types of plants and/or fungi that they have not seen in our playground forest.

What struck me the first time I had them sketch in the quiet, less impacted forest is that the quiet of the forest completely took hold of my class.  I have a class that buzzes with energy that can barely be contained in the classroom.  But in the forest, the silence and focus came without any effort on my part.  Any time a child needed to talk, it was automatically in whispers.  It seemed as if it just wasn’t right to break the silence.

The sketches ranged widely from exceptionally detailed and accurate to quick and messy.  I notice that some children naturally seem to know how to get up close to nature and like to take in something small, whereas others seem taken by the big picture and have trouble knowing how to focus on a single component.  Still others collected quick sketches like they were taking some kind of forest inventory.

The second time I took them into the forest, I prepared them a little more by showing samples of sketches that fit my expectation of sitting closely with one thing at a time, looking at it carefully, and sketching or writing notes with as much detail as possible.  I reminded them of other work we had done in art and poetry which called on the same skills.  I also showed them what I look like when I sketch for detail.

When we went out into the forest, 5 or 6 students were far more restless than the first time we went out.  They couldn’t settle in one spot.  I was not successful in clearing away their restlessness during the half hour or so that we were out there.  I was disappointed that the forest simply couldn’t work its magic.  I don’t want to threaten and I don’t want them to waste their time.  Part of me feels like I need to give more examples, let them practice in a classroom setting, receive some feedback and let them try again.  The less patient part of me wants to change the nature of the activity entirely.  But no…I know that I need to simply persist.  It’s not as though they hate being out there.

By the end of next week, I am hoping that their collection of sketches is extensive enough that they will be able to choose one or two great ones to include in their portfolios.  Ultimately, I hope that they will be able to take the step into reflecting on the stories that the details tell them.  I don’t want to push this one, even though it is really the point of the whole exercise.


  1. Re silence – It may have been the forest and it may have been the task. I’ve found that when students – be they elementary level kids or student teachers – are asked to look intently at something and sketch it, an intense and lengthy silence can settle in that is quite wonderful. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is almost magic. It is something you would hope all one’s students could experience. There has also been the situation, most recently with a group of teachers from Korea, where the guys in the group had no time or respect for the activity and took everyone down a notch. I’ve reflected on how the activity could be better framed to capture the outsiders so that all could experience that concentrated scientific and inspection and reproduction. Maybe one could actually be explicit about that goal of immersion.
    Have you seen the work of Andy Goldsworthy, the artist who works with natural materials on a huge scale? Now there is intensity and patience! There is a wonderful movie of his work. It’s too long to show it all to an elementary class, but a piece of it might impress them. I have a big book of his work that might be something the class would find interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: