By Robert Jeffers, L.A. Audubon Treasurer | Instructional Coach

Western Tanager, July/August 2017, Vol. 83 No. 6

Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, CA

Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, CA

In Los Angeles, June usually means gloom, but it also means contemplation for the city’s thousands of educators. Personally, I carefully look over the school year — successes and defeats, opportunities and challenges. And, this past August after 15 years of teaching, I stepped out of the classroom and moved into an administrative position, which required that I reflect on my work both as an English teacher and also in my new role as an instructional coach. Knowing I would have to support educators in diverse subjects and in preparation before the year started. I read several education theory books, but those avenues provided typically familiar solutions to familiar problems. I needed something fresh, something new. So, I turned to what I spend most of my non-teaching time doing—nature.

Binoculars and note-notetaking guides for observational walks

Binoculars and note-notetaking guides for observational walks

When I’m not teaching, I’m outside, I’m in nature. A typical weekend you’ll find me birding, gardening, hiking, volunteering, so it seemed like a good idea to look to the natural world for some inspiration for how to be a better educator. I started with the professionals I know working in conservation, wildlife biology, and science illustration, like Los Angeles Audubon’s Director of Education, Stacey Vigallon. At length, we talked about how the study of science, birding, and nature lends itself to better scholarship across many subjects, including English. In science and in birding, observation and notetaking comprise essential aspects of both fields – you have to know how to see the difference between the warbler and the wren and you have to know how to record what you see. Seeing and notetaking has applications in every subject, in every endeavor, so when California’s Curriculum Study Commission called for entries for their 65th Asilomar Conference for English Language Arts teachers Stacey and I teamed up and submitted a section, “The Scientist’s Field Notebook as a Pathway to English Language Arts.” With enthusiasm, we were accepted.

Compasses, magnifying glasses, and other notetaking tools for observation

Compasses, magnifying glasses, and other notetaking tools for observation

Our session was one of the most popular and best reviewed of the entire conference and I think that had something to do with the fact that we took a different approach to educating students and provided teachers professional development, because we involved nature. We showed how science and how birding requires observation with your eyes, with your ears, and with all your senses, but it also requires the ability to make connections, to be aware of place in a way that transcends seeing. Understanding the history of a location, the season, and the time of day will help you rule out certain species and it’s this kind of seeing that has an essential place in the English Language Arts classroom. There’s a rich history of collaboration between the arts and sciences, and there’s profit in exploring that history and that link. Through books that helped inform our session like Smith’s How to be an Explorer of the World and Horowitz’s On Looking, English teachers learned not only how people can observe the world around them, but how science and endeavors like birding can help you be a more astute observer and take notes in ways you might not have considered.

L.A. Audubon, Director of Education Stacey Vigallon, speaking to English teachers and conference attendees

L.A. Audubon, Director of Education Stacey Vigallon, speaking to English teachers and conference attendees

Through the scientist’s field notebook, English teachers learned how science can help students become better observers and better note takers. Over the course of the conference, we looked at how drawing in a specific observational way helps us understand our world better and the way we take notes can help us make sense of those observations we’re making. It’s not just English teachers who want new and creative ways to help their students become more aware observers and note takers as we’ve found application for a more scientific approach to notetaking in all subjects from PE to history to math to English. Furthermore, you needn’t be a formal student or teacher by profession to learn new ways to see the world and to record those observations. No matter our work or position in life, becoming better observers can help us make more sense of the world we live in.

Various books about nature and learning how to become a better observer

Various books about nature and learning how to become a better observer

At the end of the conference, attendees learned what I’m continuing to understand more and more: exposure to nature and science not only has a place in the English classroom and beyond but both enrich our understanding of the world around us. As Los Angeles Audubon continues to connect the community to environmental stewardship through birding, stewardship, and education, we should look to our love of birds and the environment as a way to bridge barriers between seemly disconnected subjects and continue to connect our communities in open and inviting ways.

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