Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Natural World in Winter: Nonfiction, Poetry, and the Common Core

According to Intellicast, at least half of the country if not more is covered in snow right now. For specific depth of snow coverage, you can look at their website. Are your students outside today? What is your school's policy about outdoor recess? In my town here in New Hampshire, if it is above 18 degrees, the kids are outside playing.

If you are in one of the areas with snow cover, how can you turn your snow into a teachable moment? Get your students outside! No science exploration in the classroom can take place without inquiry and experimentation. But really, no science exploration about the natural world should take place only inside the walls of the classroom.  Get your digital cameras, binoculars, and clipboards, and get your students outside. The following suggestions can be adapted for students in K-8.

You don't need to live in a suburban or rural area either. Is there a park in walking distance of your school? Do you have a trees and grass on the property of your school? Do trees line the streets nearby your school?

I would recommend first taking your students outside and having them list what they see in the natural world. What sticks out above the snow? What do they notice? What looks "different?" When you get back to the classroom, have them share their observations. Next, have students pose questions that they have about winter. What birds, insects, and animals do they normally see in the warmer weather (think squirrels, right?)? Who did they see on their walk? Who did they not see? Where are those creatures now? What do they do in winter?

Next, you might want to explore some of the following books, that illuminate what animals, insects, and birds do during the winter time.

I suggest doing a Duet or paired reading Melissa Stewart's nonfiction picture book Under the Snow and Kate Messner's fictional picture book Over and Under the Snow.  Each book delightfully demonstrates all of the action that takes place in winter above and below the ground. They even discuss some of the very same animals, which makes it ideal for comparison and contrast. You might want to have students watch the video Melissa has on her website about where her ideas come from, which models the kind of scientific inquiry we want to foster in the classroom.

As a follow-up, explore Joyce Sidman's extraordinary new book, illustrated with linoleum block prints by Rick Allen, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold. For a fully-developed exploration of all the possibilities this book presents, check out the Classroom Bookshelf entry on it written by my colleague Erika Thulin Dawes. Winter Bees is written in a format familiar to Sidman devotees. Each two-page spread presents a poem and a nonfiction paragraph that further develops the scientific concepts and information explored in the poem.

Finally, you might want to explore trees in winter. What are the trees on your school's property? How can you tell when there are no leaves? Carol Gerber's simple Winter Trees, illustrated by Leslie Evans, can be your guide. Students can use the short poems and simple illustrations to identify trees by the shapes of their trunks and branches.

Once you have explored these texts, have students pose questions about what they learned. What sparks their curiosity?  Do they have questions about specific animals? Differences prompted by the books? In Winter Bees, Sidman describes the active honeybee hive working together to keep one another and the queen warm. In Over and Under the Snow, we learn that the bumblebee queen is alone in the winter. Write them first on their individual clipboards, then share as a class and post the questions on chart paper.

Next, have students go back outside and look for evidence of what they learned. What do they see that they did not see before?  What differences do they observe with the naked eye? Have them document their observations in writing, by drawing pictures, and by taking photographs. You might want to do this over several days and if possible, at different times during the day. If they can't see differences, that's okay, too. Much of what the books suggest is that animal activity this time of year takes place underground where we can't see!

Finally, have students create something to demonstrate what they have learned about the natural world in winter. You might create a class mural the depicts your school property, street, or a nearby park and what animals and insects are doing "over and under the snow." You might create a class book, adopting Sidman's structure of using a poem and a nonfiction paragraph to share information. Working with your art teacher, you can adopt Allen's linoleum print-making. Work with your school librarian or computer teacher to digitize the book and make it available to the community via the school webpage.

After writing this post, I added the words "and the Common Core" to the title.  I haven't talked about the Common Core Standards. But everything that I suggest you do matches up with the CCSS standards for reading fiction, nonfiction, and writing new texts. The CCSS are not test prep! Taking several days or even a week or two to do this work in language arts or science, or the two combined, is a wonderful way to explore both CCSS standards and Next Generation science standards about animal adaptations and the connection between animals and their habitats. You can be creative and student-centered and meet the standards far more effectively than if you only do curriculum-as-test-prep. So for those who might not find this post without a Common Core reference in the title, I hope this helps.


  1. wonderful post; we need to talk about CC and the assessments -- but for now lets read really good, and well-paired, books.

  2. It's clear that The more we do interesting things with nonfiction, more we are meeting standards. Your suggestions are inspiring.

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