I ring my chime to get the class’s attention and ask them to return to the carpet squares and ‘Show Five’. Once seated, I announce that we are about to begin the first Science lesson in our unit about trees. I pick up two branches and ask a quick question, “Who can point out something that is different about these two branches?” “One is longer.” “One is rougher.” “So, you noticed that it’s possible for trees to have many different things about them. Let’s take a closer look at the tree here at school.”
Many years ago, I discovered a great line of books, Scholastic- A First Discovery, that I often use as a resource in the classroom. The prominent feature of this line of books is the picture with the overlying plastic page that extends the concept with layers of illustration. One of these books is titled The Tree. While it is out of print, it is readily (and inexpensively!) available on eBay. It has a great section on structure (amongst many other subjects!) that provides me with guidance as I teach this unit.
I start the instructional piece with an interesting fact. “People who study trees for a living are called ‘dendrologists’. Let’s practice that word…den..drol..o..gist.” “Dendrologist” “Each part of the word means something. ‘Dendro’ is Greek for ‘tree’. ‘Ologist’ is someone who studies something. So dendrologist is someone who studies…” “Trees!”. “With this unit, we’re going to be dendrologists!” I give this terminology to deepen the experience and give them an important identity as we study. I keep it to one Science term, though, to keep things simple.
“Do you think the shapes of tree mean anything?” “Nope..nothing.” “No idea!” “Did you know that the shape of a tree’s branches is called a crown?” “Whaaat?” “Yep, and this crown is what gives the tree it’s shape. A tree that loses it's leaves is called deciduous. Practice that word with me 'de..cid..u..ous'. "Deciduous!" Some deciduous trees, like birch, have a crown that droops so snow can't weight the empty branches down in the winter. Other trees are evergreen. What do you think that means?" They're green forever?" "Exactly right! It means they never loose their needles- like the pine tree we have at school. It looks like an upside down ice cream cone because they grow from the top down. This makes each level of branches smaller than the one below it. That gives it a strong structure so it can grow high and reach the sun.” Since the objective of the lesson is observing the trees in our environment, I end the instruction here. I will go deeper in teaching the specific terms about tree structure in the next lesson. This activity provides a good starting point to the unit, as well as integrating the concept of shape, an important part of the Math CCSS.
“It’s time for us to go outside and look at trees in our environment. Based on what we know about it, where is a good place to start?” “On the playground!” I use the chime to dismiss the students by table group to line up at the back door.
Once they line up, I say, “Let’s review some rules first. First, walk in the assigned area. Second, stay on the ground. Third, be gentle to the environment and each other.” We straighten our line as I use hand signal to remind them “Lines are…” “Straight” “And…” “Together” “And..” Calm”. I prepare several clipboards and recording papers and have the students pair up. This activity provides them with an ideal opportunity to observe, record, and discuss the trees they find because it keeps the activity implementation simple. When we arrive outside, I model what I would look for by thinking out loud “How do I find out the shape of a tree? Let’s look up! I’m going to draw what I see.” I show how I look for a familiar shape- a triangle, for example- to help me sketch out the tree.
• First, observe the tree.
• Next, look for a familiar shape.
• Then, begin to draw the shape you observe.
• Last, repeat this with two other trees.
I dismiss the pairs to observe and record three different trees. The lesson is about locating the trees and not identifying shapes for assessment purposes. Consequently, I'm not asking them to label of the shape, just a quick sketch. The sketches essentially act as a pass/fail formative assessment because they showed mastery over the material by looking in the right place and finding, observing, and recording trees accurately. The process takes about ten minutes by design since we now have an adequate amount of examples. I give them a one-minute warning with a hand clap pattern. We line up again, checked our form (“straight, together, calm”) and head back.
Once we are back in the classroom, I have the students gather the recording papers. “Let’s share some of the shapes we found in the trees.” “One of our trees was a triangle.” “We saw one that looked like a circle.”. As each idea is shared, I add it to a list I write on chart paper- both as a quick review of our observations and to extend the shape concept. After all ideas are recorded, we review the contributions before posting it near the Science area so the students could refer to it during future Science lessons or drawing/writing activities.