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 third Science lesson in our unit about trees. To engage the students, I sometimes start the lesson with some movement because it provides quick engagement. “I want everyone to roll up in a ball on your carpet square. Next, I want you to sit up. After that, get up on your knees. Last, stand up and reach your arms up! What are you?” When no answers come up, I share, “You are a tree, from baby to grown up! Let’s explore this more...”
For this lesson, I revisit the book titled The Tree. I choose this book because the first several pages provide a nice detailed description and illustration of a chestnut tree’s life cycle. The benefit of this particular book it that the plastic pages provide layered (literally!) illustrations that are naturally engaging.
• “First, the chestnut was a seed. Notice the shell that surrounds the seed for protection.”
• “Next, the seed sprouts roots and grows into a seeding, a baby tree.”
• “Then, it becomes a big tree that grows more pods containing more seeds.”
• “Last, these seed pods drop, plant themselves in the ground, and become another….” “Tree!”
I often stop and trail off instruction to assess if the students absorb a simple concept. In this case, the cycle description was fairly familiar and accessed some prior knowledge so it moved quickly. “This book describes a chestnut tree. We don’t have that variety at school. We do have a pine tree though.” I show them a picture from the internet (actually, it’s this lesson’s image!) that illustrates a pine tree life cycle. To make processing the stages easier, I labeled them with numbers, 1-5. “We’re going to go outside and work to find the different stages of a pine tree and collect the parts that are practical to bring back. We don’t want to pick a seeding because that would kill it. Part of learning about nature is to respect it so we’ll leave it alone so it can grow into a big tree. We’ll stick to things we can carry, like a seed or a pine cone.”
What they don’t know is that I will have a surprise for them in the classroom. My husband is a horticulturist as he’s been experimenting with growing conifers at work, so he brought me a tiny pine tree. I realize that I’m fortunate with the variety of trees in my current school’s “backyard”, along with other resources. When this hasn’t been the case, I take the opportunity to collect examples from vacation, friends, neighbors, friends and neighbors on vacation, etc. and save them for future lessons. This initial instruction is designed to be quick and establish a foundation so know what to look for when we go outside. “It’s time for us to go outside and look for things that show the different stages of a pine tree. Based on what we know about it, where is a good place to start?” “Everywhere!” 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 remind them “Lines are…” “Straight” “And…” “Together” “And..” Calm”. I have the students pair up to provide them with the ideal opportunity to observe and discuss the things they find because it keeps the activity implementation simple and social, more engaging for this age.
When we arrive outside, I model what I would look for by thinking out loud, “How do I find parts of a tree? Let’s look up! How about down?”. I find a pinecone and say “The pinecone was part of the tree’s life cycle so I’m going to collect that. Let’s look for other things.” I dismiss them to explore the school yard for evidence of a pinecone’s lifecycle. During this lesson, I make sure to take pictures of all the resources we collect and use so we can put them in the Science Center and refer to them during this- and future- lessons.
The collection process is so much fun! It takes 8-10 minutes for a focused search (they tend to wander- physically and mentally!) so I gather them with a bell to return to the classroom.
Once we are seated together inside, I ask, “Can anyone share what they found?” “I found a pinecone.” “Let’s look at our picture again. What stage was the pine cone?” “Maybe 4?” “That works. Did anyone find something else inside the pinecone?” “I found a seed, I think.” “What stage is a seed?” “Number 1!!” I focus a bit on this line of questioning to help them better understand the purpose of a seed- the very beginning of a tree's life- and how the pinecone surrounds it as protection so it can root to become a tree.
As I collect these specimens, I put them along the bottom of the easel as a kind of visual timeline. “Since we all observed the adult tree, can we put a picture of one in its place?” “Yes…” “Now, we agreed not to pick baby trees, so we didn’t bring one from outside. But guess what? I have one- called a sapling- that you can observe, close up!” I take a minute to carry it around the room and show each student before I display it next to the huge pinecone we found. The addition of the sapling completed our life cycle example, so we put it near the Science Center for future lessons and moved on to the next activity.