Writing

Progress in science has depended heavily on writing, reading, and communicating. Writing is an excellent way for a scientist, or anyone else, to explore one's own understandings of a topic, to clarify thinking, to develop and extend ideas, and to exchange ideas with other people. Most important to students, using writing as a process for learning is a strategy that works well in science. And one of the fundamental skills in science, observation, is closely linked to writing skills. Student writing is powerfully stimulated by opportunities to write from direct observation. And the process of writing down descriptive language seems to feed back into the sharpening of observation. Likewise, the writing of the Rainforest Connection draws much of its vibrancy from observation of the natural world. Below is an excerpt from a book that has little to do with rainforest, but shows how the teaching of writing and of observation are vitally connected. Student ideas for writing are generated most easily from their own concrete experiences with materials, living or non-living. Similarly, students most easily construct their own understandings of science from their own observations of the natural world. Robert Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974, William Morrow & Co., pp. 184-188) wrote about the links between teaching writing, observation, and the development of ideas:

He'd been innovating extensively. He'd been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn't. They just couldn't think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn't have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she jsut couldn't think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they'd confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn't bluffing him, she really couldn't think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn't think of anything to say. A silence occured, and then a peculiar answer: "Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman." It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn't understand why, if she couldn't think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. "You're not looking!" he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypothesis. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn't looking yet and somehow didn't understand this.

He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide.

She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn't stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don't understand it."

Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

He experimented further, in one class he had everyone write all hour about the back of his thumb. Everyone gave him funny looks at the beginning of the hour, but everyone did it, and there wasn't a single complaint about "nothing to say."

In another class he changed the subject from the thumb to a coin, and got a full hour's writing from every student. In other classes it was the same. Some asked, "Do you have to write about both sides?" Once they got into the idea of seeing directly for themselves they also saw there was no limit to the amount they could say. It was a confidence-building assignment too, because what they wrote, even though seemingly trivial, was nevertheless their own thing, not a mimicking of someone else's. Classes where he used that coin exercise were always less balky and more interested.

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn't have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

Journals: Many teachers involve students in the RFC project by asking each to become an expert on an animal species, keeping a journal or assembling a booklet on their species. Some have used just mammals, while others have offered a variety of choices including insects, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, as well as mammals. Some might wish to extend the possibilities to trees, fungi, ferns, small flowering plants, epiphytic bromeliads and orchids, and so on.

The RFC "Mammal Directory" is now organized to be a source of information for students in grades 5 and up, providing expert material on particular species that are mentioned frequently in the RFC journal entries. Information on "dangerous" organisms is also found in the "Background" section under the heading "Dangerous?" and "Night Walks." More material will become available as the new season gets underway.

As students develop their own areas of expertise, they can be asked to keep a journal, and to share with their classmates in brief presentations. They can also direct specific questions to Dr. Willis by e-mail, and she will do her best to respond helpfully. A culminating class project could be the assembly of a book on the class knowledge of rainforest species.

A great alternative or extension activity is to have each student become an expert on a local species, one that can actually be seen by the students, again to be reported in journal form. This time, however, the journal has at least four components:

  1. what the students learned by observation of the organism,
  2. what questions and hypotheses were stimulated as a result of observation,
  3. what was learned through a search of literature through library or web resources, and
  4. how the ideas and concepts regarding this species relate to the general principles in the curriculum framework.

For example, when the class is studying the concept of life cycle, they could use examples from "their" species to develop fuller understandings of life cycles in general.

This could be done in Jersey City, where the species might be gray squirrels, house cats, pigeons, starlings, sea gulls, ants, dandelions, sycamores, Norway maples, and others that can be observed directly. It could be done in Sparta, but the species ought to be different: chipmunks, robins, red-winged blackbirds, hemlocks, goldenrod, termites, deer, and black bears, for example. In any case, student observations would be a critical component that greatly increases student ownership of the expertise.

A great class project that is long-term and works well in cities or elsewhere, is "Project PigeonWatch" from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. Your class can join for a small fee, and receive a data collection packet to participate in a nationwide project. It is also related to "Project FeederWatch," another great set of observational activities. And for those of you who are good at catching butterflies unharmed, or who just want to know more about where some of the butterflies go when they disappear from your area, try "MonarchWatch."