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Annie’s Big Nature Lesson

Grace, front, and Maizie, students at The Montessori School in Kalamazoo, write in their journals during a BIG Nature Lesson at the Kalamazoo Nature Center last spring.
Rain or shine, outdoors is students’ classroom during the weeklong program

As part of a weeklong program at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, children are expected to sit quietly for an hour observing nature. According to Nature Center educator Elizabeth Rochow, teachers who are new to Annie’s BIG Nature Lesson, say, “Oh, no way!” when they hear this, but teachers who have participated in the program before tell them, “Oh, just wait!”

Much more than a field trip, Annie’s BIG Nature Lesson transplants students from a typical week of school in the classroom to a week in the woods and environs of the Nature Center.

The program is one of several “big lessons” designed by former Haslett elementary school teacher Margaret Holtschlag, who first created the BIG History Lesson in 1999 to immerse her pupils in history by taking them on an interdisciplinary study trip to a history museum every day for a week.

When Jerry and Betty Mason of Kalamazoo learned of the BIG History Lesson, they wanted to create a nature lesson in memory of Jerry’s daughter Ann Mason, who died in 2001. Ann Mason was a nature lover and environmentalist from Clinton County, where the BIG Lesson programs are administered by Holtschlag through the county Regional Educational Service Agency. The Masons worked with Holtschlag to develop Annie’s BIG Nature Lesson (ABNL), which has been offered at the Kalamazoo Nature Center (KNC) since 2007 and is also offered in Lansing, Marshall and Ann Arbor.

Holtschlag, who was named Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2000, has also created “big lessons” for science museums and zoos.

Among the hallmarks of ABNL, which is open to second-through eighth-graders, is its cross-curricular design. “We want them to do all the things they would normally do in their classroom in terms of social studies and math and language and reading,” says Jenn Wright, KNC’s vice president for education, “but they do it around the context of nature.”

The program puts education in a new light for the students, revealing that it’s not just what you do in the classroom, says Rochow, environmental educator and ABNL coordinator at KNC. “I give them lots of ideas of how they can use what they already have to learn in their curriculum,” such as measuring trees to learn about circumference in math.

Teachers who use the ABNL program get two days of training to learn techniques for teaching outdoors and integrating their normal curriculum into nature study. The majority of the time the ABNL class spends at KNC is led by the classroom teacher, so there is great flexibility in what activities each class does. Classes have all of the exhibits and the entire grounds of the Nature Center at their disposal and can use its educational collections, of such things as fossils and furs, for hands-on learning.

Each day includes a one-hour “expert lesson,” taught by someone other than the classroom teacher, often a KNC educator. “It also could be someone from the community. We’ve tried to promote that,” Rochow notes. Teachers have recruited art and music teachers, as well as parents with expertise on specific topics, to lead activities.

For many students, an unlikely highlight of ABNL is a daily nature-observation session, in which they are given stools — and rain ponchos, if necessary — to sit outside for an hour with journals, drawing and writing about their surroundings. Donna Judd, third-grade teacher at Kalamazoo’s Arcadia Elementary, says if you asked her students, “just about every one of them will say their favorite part of the week is hiking to their spot to journal.” After some first-day doubts, they quickly come to appreciate the rare opportunity to have time alone for reflection, she says.

Sometimes children who struggle in the classroom will blossom at the Nature Center. “They get out here, where there (aren’t) four walls, and they have some freedom to move around a little bit, and they’re more active with it, and they settle right in,” Wright says. Kids who can’t seem to sit still at school happily journal for an hour and are “writing stuff that they’ve never written before,” she says. “I think that it really lends itself to different styles of learning.”

ABNL is tailored to meet state education standards, and the lessons learned are meant to carry over to the rest of the school year. “I draw on that week so many times,” says Judd, noting that the direct experience with nature provides a frame of reference that many children have never had before.

Grants and donations from the Masons and other individuals have so far made it possible for approximately 30 area teachers and classes to participate in ABNL each year at almost no cost to the schools. In recognition of this generosity, each class is encouraged to develop a service project to benefit the Nature Center, their school or another organization.

“We really want the students in particular to understand the importance of what it means to give back to your community,” Wright says.

At the end of each school year, KNC staff, participating teachers, Holtschlag and the Masons gather to share the ABNL experiences of the past year.

This past spring Jerry Mason told the group his daughter would be delighted with Annie’s BIG Nature Lesson. “She was genuinely interested in nature and how it impacted our lives. We have a world where we need to encourage understanding of nature, and that would be Annie’s prime interest.”

Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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