Monday, June 3, 2013

Nature Observation and Description: Crash and Burn

Well, it's my own fault for not having planned carefully.

An evening expedition to the field overlooking the valley turned out well. The boys were well fed and excited to be going to Rancho instead of bed at bedtime. The light was beautiful, we saw deer on the path right away, and I had brought the laptop for Tai to type on. He went to town, figuratively speaking.

A morning observation was kind of disastrous. It was cold, we didn't have the laptop, he started complaining and I started nagging, and the project started to fall apart. One observation too many, maybe.

Then came revision. My mistake: I had only said observe and describe. I didn't suggest anything specific: look for colors and textures, note what's in the fore, middle, and background, notice how the light changes, notice what's the same and what's different at different times of day.

The original purpose was just that: observe and describe using sensory detail, metaphor, and live verbs. It wasn't (originally) going to be about accuracy, about making a point about how the same place is different at different times of day, about how the place makes a person feel, or about noticing how the quality of light affects a landscape. Those were layers that I added afterwards, and for which I had not prepared Tai.

So when I asked Tai to revise for these things, he balked. He balked for more personal reasons, too, but on a pedagogical level, it was my bad for not laying enough groundwork.

Nevertheless, the resulting three paragraphs with some sentences combined aren't bad. I was hoping for a sort of conclusion, but we may have to abandon ship before we get there.

So here's a better version of what we did:

Before Writing:
Do a couple of observation/sentence exercises.

Play with metaphors and similes.

Talk about how a place can be different at different times of day; how the feel of a place changes and what might cause those changes. Talk about favorite times of day. Plan to visit a place at three different times to observe and record how it changes. Look at paintings or photos that show such changes, note the similarities and differences, colors, imagined sounds, etc. Monet's haystacks are a good place to start. Notice light, shadow, level of activity. Talk about how things "feel".

Go Write
Your writer will write two or maybe three paragraphs about a place at different times of day. They can also write an additional "meta" paragraph--a paragraph about their paragraphs (or a conclusion, if you will). They should know this in advance. The goal is to convey "what a place is like" in two or three different states by showing (with specific sensory details and live verbs) what changes and what remains constant.

Pick a place (or have one ready) and take a field trip. Have prepared a list or a chart, if you think it will help: sounds, colors, textures, background, foreground, etc. With sounds, especially, it might be fun to note what's dominant and what's almost inaudible--this often changes dramatically.

Write. Your writer can make lists, fill in a chart, write paragraphs, whatever works. Tai made a list of sentences. Suggest that your writer to close his eyes to listen and smell. Encourage him to reach for a metaphor. Bring a camera and take photos or video.

Return to this place and do the same thing. Note what changes and what stays the same. Maybe after the second/third observation, use a highlighter to show what has changed.

Pick favorite sentences and observations. If there are no metaphors or similes, see if you can make one observation into one.  Congratulate yourselves on a job well done.

If your writer has written a list or a chart, now is the time to make those into paragraphs. Later this week, I'll post an idea about how to make this easier.

A general observation can help give shape to the paragraphs--make them more than a list of observations. For example, how does the place make the writer feel? Which time is the writer's favorite?

With the goal of sensory details, showing change, and possibly conveying "feel" in mind, have your writer go through the paragraphs or notes and decide if anything needs to be added, or could be dropped or changed.

Do a sentence combining exercise. See if that works with anything your writer has.

Maybe add an opening sentence in the front to locate your writer/reader: How did your writer arrive here? Where is this place? Where is your writer standing/sitting? What time of day it it?

Send the draft to a trusted reader who will ask questions and offer specific props, and not just praise your writer to the skies.

Make changes so that the piece will answer the questions, if you think the questions are good ones.

A closing paragraph, if you want one, can address what the writer likes/hates about the place, an observation about the nature of change (kind of sophisticated for an elementary school age kid, tough), an opinion about the project...something that answers the question, So What?

If you visited a park, try sending the piece to the parks department or to the city or whatever organization maintains the park.

Or your local newspaper?

A blog is an obvious choice if you have one.

Choose photos to accompany the piece, choose a cool font, arrange it all beautifully, and print and send it to a relative or friend.

Put it in your family nature journal.

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