nature writing: the winter visit

With my grade 7 class, I've been doing nature writing throughout the year, visiting a nearby forest between our other units. I developed the idea after having read The Alphabet of Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing, a collection of essays on nature writing experiences with students. I have consciously avoided giving the project any kind of slant, environmental or otherwise, instead focusing the experience of sitting alone in a forest and reflecting about what it is like to be there. We have collected some techniques in our literary studies -- imagery, simile, connotation, syntax choices -- and there has been some experimentation, including writing monologues from the point of view of trees and the use of some poetic techniques.

Students are given a specific task during the visit -- something to encourage observation and/or reflection -- and an assignment is due a few days later. Before we did the first one, I gave out some quotations about nature for us to reflect upon, did some in-class practice with landscape photographs and gave them  a sample of my own. We did one in August for summer and one in October for autumn: last week was the winter visit.

It was a perfect day: it had snowed a few days before so the tree branches were lacy white, but it was only -2C (28F) so they could take their gloves off to write a little. The rule is that they must be alone and they must be quiet for the 20-30 minutes we spend there. This time, I gave them a box on a page and asked them to write as many words and phrases as they could about what they saw, heard, touched, thought and felt. The minimum was 20 words, but most of the class wrote 50+.

The words they chose started with the obvious -- cold, white, silent -- but as they looked closer they started looking for words to describe the the texture of snow, the quality of the clouds and the iced-over sea, the interaction between the trees and the snow, and so on. On the bus ride back to the school, students compared notes chatted about the changes to the place we had been to twice before.

I could see from the assignments submitted that the sparseness of the winter landscape challenged them to look more carefully and consider their own feelings and attitudes more carefully. One student speculated on why winter was so beautiful when it is so uniform; another thought about being depressed in the winter and used the forest scene as a way of expressing that. Many pieces compared winter to the other seasons or talked about the cycle of the year.

I evaluate these pieces based on two criteria: Content and Language Use. (We use the IBO MYP criteria.) Content involves having relevant details and showing a level of insight and sensitivity. The language use involves correct language usage, but balances that with trying to use a variety of words and sentence structures for a specific effect. While I've avoided applying the Organization criteria so far, I was happy to see many students using the paragraph structure we've been practicing as a way to link ideas and supporting details. When we've finished, I plan to make a book or a poster with snippets of their writing assignments throughout the year and some of the photos I've taken.

The next observation will still be winter here in Finland, and so I will take them into a place in the city and do a similar assignment with them there. In the spring, I plan to do 2-3 trips.

Does anyone have any experience with middle school nature writing? For larger classes with less flexible travel opportunities, how might teachers give students access to nature?