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Showcasing Margaret Holtschlag and "BIG Nature Lesson"

"It is like being in harmony with a breeze, so misty," wrote Katie, a third grader. "The trees and the sound of the air and a breeze and the birds are like the sound of music. It is everything. It is nature."

Students explore nature and take away lasting lessons.

Katie is describing her recent experience with Annie's BIG Nature Lesson (named in honor of environmentalist Ann Mason), which is the brainchild of technology teacher Margaret Holtschlag of Ralya Elementary School in Haslett, Michigan. The nature lesson is an adaptation of a project that began in 1998 as "The BIG History Lesson" for fourth graders. The project since has spawned "BIG" zoo, science, and culture lessons; this year, those lessons will reach more than 1,500 students!

"The response from students and parents has been such an inspiration," Holtschlag told Education World. "Children have said that this is the best week of the school year and that they will remember for a lifetime what they have learned."

The group of fourth graders who participated in the initial projects coined the term "BIG Lesson" because they realized that the museum they visited was their "classroom" and that their experiences there were big lessons. They told Holtschlag that they were getting the "big picture" of history by using real artifacts, talking to real historians, and immersing themselves in history.

"Teachers prepare their students for weeks before their BIG Lesson week, and they continue the themes throughout the year," Holtschlag explained. "Children need large chunks of time to sort out this big learning in the real world, and every BIG Lesson day includes an hour of independent time for children. The lessons the teachers do at the nature centers, zoo, and museum are active and child-centered."

The BIG Lesson Program has several essential ingredients:

  • The teacher is the designer.
  • The children have extended time to read, sketch, write, and ponder.
  • The BIG Lesson week is a catalyst for yearlong thematic study.
  • The BIG Lesson is designed around how kids learn.
  • Parents are active participants.
  • Community resources are the teaching and learning tools.
In the BIG Zoo Lesson, students get up-close with a specific animal in more ways than one!

At the museum, the children cherish their "gallery," or independent, time as the most important part of the day. At the zoo, the children study the same animal all week and become very knowledgeable about it -- and very attached to it.

At the nature centers, children find a quiet spot to observe the natural world. They show what they are learning with poetry, essays, drawings, and are eager to share their journals at the end of their observation time.

Students examine artifacts as part of a BIG History Lesson.

"Parents are invited to teach with the teacher and to learn with the children," Holtschlag said. "They write in journals, participate in the lessons, and conduct small group discussions. Their role is not to act as chaperones, but as co-teachers and co-learners."

Curators, naturalists, and zookeepers also assist by teaching expert lessons. Many activities focus on real objects as tools for learning such as real animals, or artifacts of history or cultures. Because the children are learning in the real world and working with experts, they are making big connections and developing a profound sense of their world. Their writing and drawings show deep understanding of the content they are learning, and they carry that beyond their BIG Lesson week.

"I remember a fifth grader who usually struggled with school who gave great attention to a test I gave after his BIG History Lesson week," recalled Holtschlag. "When I asked him about the change, he said that he really wanted to get the test questions right because he had learned about the topic at the museum. Such great motivation from a child who usually showed little! When I ask children two years later what they remember from their BIG Lesson week, they respond with specific facts and with the big picture of what they learned. That really thrills me!"

Photos courtesy of Margaret Holtschlag.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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