Connecting to Content and Curriculum
Integrating Journaling Into Longer Lessons
Some of the richest rewards of nature journaling can emerge when the practice is a springboard into further inquiry and learning. Although every journaling activity on this site can stand alone, each can also function as one phase in a longer lesson that meets specific learning goals. We can guide students to build on the knowledge they gained while journaling through continued research and follow-up activities and, in doing so, deepen their understanding of key concepts and ideas. We find that students are most engaged when journaling is just one part of a longer learning experience, and students participate more enthusiastically when they know that their own observations will contribute to the group’s learning process. Students’ journal entries can tie into longer lessons or units. This makes the practice of journaling feel real and important, not just like busywork.
Begin With Journaling & Focused Attention
Choose phenomena carefully to tie journaling experiences into longer lessons. If we were to tell a group of students to “go journal about plants,” they would likely produce a range of entries. One student might journal about a flower; another, a tree. Some students would focus on drawing plant parts; others might observe patterns of growth. This would not be a bad experience, but it would be hard to use these disparate observations to engage students in learning about a specific topic or science concept. By contrast, if you invite students to compare two different kinds of oak leaves, all the students will share the same experience. This balances structure with student autonomy; each student makes observations of plants, decides what to record, and makes drawings and descriptions in their own journal. At the same time, the class generates a focused set of observations and questions about the structures of oak trees and leaves that can be used in discussions and further learning.
Basing lessons on shared experiences is a way to support inclusion and access. If learning discussions emphasize or require prior knowledge, students who have had prior relevant experiences will have an advantage in the discussion, whereas those who haven’t may be left out. When understanding is built through discussing shared observations all students had the opportunity to make while journaling and observing the same phenomenon, every student can contribute to the group’s learning.
Engage Students in Discussion and Meaning Making
“Why might this kind of oak have very small, thick leaves with spines, while this one is much thinner and wider?“ “What could have caused the pattern of the big patch of dandelions right around the sprinkler head?”
Engaging in discussion and making explanations deepens our understanding of natural processes and science concepts. When we make an explanation, we’re starting to play with ideas and process information. We integrate what we know and what we’ve observed to try to figure out how or why something is happening. Actively trying to figure out how something works or why something happens often brings students to the edge of their understanding of natural processes and science concepts, and creates a “need to know”—an excitement to learn more. Each of our journaling activities includes discussion questions that invite students to make explanations about what they journaled about. Choose discussion questions that will lead students to connect their journaling to specific concepts and science ideas you want them to learn.
Listen to Student Ideas and Thinking
If we were to ask students who have compared different kinds of plants, “What were some of the differences between the two plants? How do you think those structures help the plants survive?” they might respond, “Well, we noticed one of the leaves was really broad and thin, but the other one was tiny and really thick and tough. We know plants need their leaves to get sunlight, so how would being really tiny and thick help the plant survive? Hmm, maybe if it’s really thick and tough, insects can’t eat it as easily. Or maybe even though the individual leaves are tiny, there are a lot of them, so they can still get enough sunlight?” During this discussion, students will need to look back at their journal entry and review their observations. They’ll also need to use their current knowledge of science concepts (specifically, the survival needs of plants, and how plant structures work). This “productive struggle” is a key step in the learning process, leading to deeper understanding and retention of ideas than students would reach listening to a lecture. These discussions also reveal students’ current understandings of key concepts and ideas to the instructor.
Offer Content to Build Conceptual Understanding
Students’ initial explanations about the observations they made while journaling reflect their current understanding of science concepts and natural processes. Coming into contact with new ideas and concepts can take students’ thinking deeper. As students discuss their explanations, we try to notice: Where is the edge of their understanding? What are they struggling to figure out, and what will they not be able to explain with their current scientific knowledge? What will help them build on their explanation and understand what they are seeing? Our goal is to share information key science concepts that will help students explain and understand what they observed during the journal activity.
For example, after students compare plant leaves, we might share information about how plant structures aid their survival in a variety of environmental and weather conditions. Sharing ideas about the process of transpiration (the process of water evaporating from plant leaves, which is slowed by having thicker leaves), adaptations for evergreen and deciduous trees, or how needle-shaped leaves can prevent freezing and water loss in winter, would all shed light on students’ initial explanations and give them more depth of understanding of what they noticed. This also contributes to students’ understanding of broader science concepts, such as how organisms’ structures help them survive in their environment, and how specific patterns and similar structures can occur across ecosystems (all Disciplinary Core Ideas highlighted by the NGSS). We might share content with students ourselves, in the classroom or in the field, or have students engage with a resource—a field guide, a local expert, or the research available through reliable online sources. Then, we offer time for for students to apply their new knowledge by communicating about what they learned, doing further research, or using that knowledge in a new context or discipline.
Sequencing Lessons and Activities Around a Theme
You can structure journaling activities and longer lessons around any topic or common theme. For example, you are teaching a unit on pollination, you could start with a comparison of two flower types and follow that up with a comparison of the behavior and flower preferences of two pollinators. Then you could diagram and dissect flowers with the activities Inside Out and Nature Blueprints. Students could also make a map of a nearby meadow or vacant lot with a key showing different types of flowering plants, then tally the numbers of pollinators using different parts of the study area. Finally, students could create an infographic containing observations of a local plant and research about its pollinators. These journaling activities, interspersed with discussions and engagement with key science concepts concepts, form a deep learning experience focused on plants and life science concepts. There are many possibilities for structuring extended lessons and sequences of journaling activities, and the table on this page lists some examples of learning goals and the phenomena and activities that would help students reach those goals.