Every content area has its own unique set of knowledge, skills, and values, but there are certain process skills that cut across content lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.
Here is an activity that puts special emphasis on the process skills of observing and describing.
What you will need: Masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a 2- or 3-foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf at the top. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.
Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.
When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.
Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.
This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.
Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.
Copyright © 2015 by Herb Broda