Last weekend, Pamela and I counted birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count and entered our data online and in our nature notebooks. We even made the obligatory watercolor. Until we painted, I had never noticed the light turquoise rim around the eye of a mourning dove.
Somehow, nature notebooks and watercolors have merged into one and the same. Guilt over having done only one watercolor this year has bugged me--and we didn't even put it in the notebook. We have made regular entries whenever we studied a topic (like painted butterflies, ladybugs, and camellias), all in markers. When I didn't have a study planned, the notebook collected dust. When I posted the pictures on Facebook, one wise friend opined that "we all have our favorite medium for drawing and do our best work with it." I think we will try other media and see what Pamela likes best. I have a feeling markers will win the day because she likes vivid colors and fluidity.
Charlotte Mason saw these notebooks as "travelling companions and life records wherein the 'finds' of every season, bird or flower, fungus or moss, is sketched, and described somewhat in the manner of Gilbert White" (Page 223). While I gloss over peers mentioned in her books, another brilliant friend emphasized the need to know who exactly Gilbert White was! White, an eighteenth-century naturalist, gardener, and priest in Hampshire, England, "observed things closely in their natural state" rather than "dissect and examine in detail the animal or plant before them; dead, cut off, out of it’s natural environment, there, on their table or desk" (Tony Grant). White kept regular, dated records of his locale so that he understood the life cycles in his habitat. If you peek into his book, you see occasional pictures and a great deal of description based upon years of careful observations like the ones Pamela has been making (and her wisterbuds are from watercolor pencils).
Since White and children differ in developmental levels, Mason scaffolded the study of nature. The source of these notebooks was the nature walk, an artful blend of atmosphere, discipline, and life, "Every day's walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb" (Page 55). As soon as children could draw, they kept a nature diary illustrated with dry brush drawings. Over time, they form relationships with things in nature and "know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation" (Page 236). As the writing skills develop, children "keep records and drawings in a nature notebook and make special studies of their own for the particular season with drawings and notes" (Page 219). In later grades, they focus on knowing what to expect in a particular habitat, know the parts of different things, keep lists of birds and plants, and supplement their personal knowledge with carefully chosen books. In upper levels, their work begins to fit into branches of learning typically seen in schools gleaned through field work and scholarly books, instead of textbooks.
Because of Pamela's aphasia, I'm not sure how incidentally I can teach scientific vocabulary. Mason avoided dousing the joy of nature walks with a flood of scientific blather with beginner nature notebookers. Teachers threw in a word here or there, but too much jargon would make it harder for children to store up common knowledge needed to understand formal instruction in later years. The ultimate aim is for them to "know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends" (Page 237). Books and occasional object lessons and microscope work supplement outdoor study. To give Pamela a framework, we are going to document signs of spring and note the life cycle of the neighbor's wisteria right now.
One thing you may notice about Pamela's nature notebook is the imperfect writing mechanics, especially in this world of beautiful lapbooks. Now, I am not knocking lapbooks at all, just illustrating a distinction. From a Mason point of view, we aim for notebooks to represent where our students are in their understanding and we hope for it to be a product of their hands, minds, and hearts, grammar glitches and all. If I mined notebook entries for writing lessons, Pamela would figure that out, robbing her of the joy of writing. Mason wrote, "Certainly these notebooks do a good deal to bring science within the range of common thought and experience; we are anxious not to make science a utilitarian subject" (Page 223).
A nature notebook records where she is today. If we peek into where she was two years ago--when we were wrapping up speech therapy a la the Association Method, we can see the progress from stilted, repetitive language to something more free and original. Mason pointed out, "The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature notebooks, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These notebooks are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc." (Page 236).
I also wavered back and forth between wanting to keep my own notebook and feeling guilty because Eve Anderson, a thirty-year veteran of teaching PNEU schools, discouraged teachers from making their own entries during a nature study lesson. I began to think of my class of one student who loves to draw and writes with ease, albeit with a few errors here and there. Pamela really doesn't need me to supervise each and every step of making entries. Why not keep my own notebook? I shared that decision with friends on Facebook and a homeschooling friend wrote that she does the same. It helps her to be in the role of a fellow learner, easing the way to share pencils and paints and discuss color choices and observations. So, I am going to try keeping my own notebook, side-by-side with Pamela.
My friend Jeannette Tulis faced a similar dilemma. She taught a co-op class with 17 first graders and never had success with dry brush watercolor for the fine motor skills of her crew were not developmentally ready. They spent most of their time indoors but did head out on particularly beautiful days. Even though she didn't perfectly line up with a Mason nature study program, she met the number one objective of a Mason science program, to inspire awe and wonder: "Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value" (Page 224). Tulis wrote, "I was delighted by the spark I saw in many of my students’ eyes as we learned together of the intricacy, wisdom and wonder of God’s creation. And that, in the words of several of my students, was truly cool!"
P.S. If you want to understand why nature notebooks are so valuable in teaching children many things, including science, check out Carroll Smith's keynote presentation on nature study. Be prepared to be inspired and have fingers itching to head straight outdoors and observe and record!