“What is a botanist?” Asked students and teachers in early September as we embarked on a long study of botany. Learning that botany is the study of plants, children and teachers considered how one could best study plants.
“By going outside and looking at the leaves!”
“By drawing the trees”
“By getting some books about plants.”
“By finding some plant experts.”
And so we did.
Curious about the variety of plant species living in our neighborhood, students throughout the school ventured through the neighborhood collecting leaves, seeds and sticks. We sorted our collections at school, pressed leaves and paged through colorful guidebooks to identify as many leaves as possible. Looking at a collection of colorful leaves and seed pods upon a white piece of paper made us realize how expansive plant life is.
“I realized that when you look around and pay attention you’ll find more interesting leaves.” -Caroline
“I wonder how many different types of plants there even are.” -Finn T.
“I wonder how many flowers are in the world?”-Tillie
Each day, we returned from our walks with leaves and flowers we hadn’t noticed before. The potential for discovery felt endless. So did the process of identification, which often required consulting several different books to find a leaf’s identity. Being so patient with the process made us feel like scientists doing real research.
As we familiarized ourselves with plant families, we learned to characterize leaves by their shape, margins and size. We learned the difference between flowering and non-flowering plants as well as monocots and dicots. We learned about gymnosperms and angiosperms; seeds and spores. We counted the number of deciduous trees and coniferous trees on our walk to the park. How had we climbed, sat beneath and walked through these trees day after day without knowing their identities? We slowly grew to see the trees differently; as individuals. With this shift in our perspective, we also gained confidence and expertise in identifying a variety of species. With a closer examination of our collections, a flood of questions arose:
“I wonder how the first seed got to the earth.” -Devin
“I wonder how flowers get their color.” – Ken
“I wonder what plants eat.” – Leah.
“The most interesting leaf I found had a leaf miner trail.” -Gus S.
“How did plants evolve for there to be such variety?” Wondered the North Room students. Awed by the monstrous size of horsetails and ferns, the students competed to find the largest leaf and traced the evolution of plants back to the carboniferous period. As we looked closely at the structure of leaves with magnifying glasses, we noted their small veins and considered their purpose. A study of the process of photosynthesis followed, which was read about and acted out throughout the school.
“Why are so many plants green?” We wondered as we looked at the beautiful assortments of leaves we collected each day on walks to and from the park. We soon learned about chlorophyll and the anatomy of plants. We learned about the role of roots and how leaves absorb carbon dioxide as well as how plants communicate with one another.
“Plants send out roots to sense the space around the so they can adapt to their environment.” -Rhea
Inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter, a beloved children’s author and botanist, we sat between the flowers in our garden and quietly beneath trees in Mt. Baker Park and painted what we saw. Like Beatrix, we imagined characters such as Peter Rabbit, hopping into our painted scenes. Children in the North Room wrote stories in the style of Beatrix Potter and put on puppet shows of their favorite stories for the younger grades.
As we read the wonderful literature of Beatrix Potter, we also listened to the poetry of Margaret Wise Brown and Christina Rossetti that so frequently focus their words around the natural world. This poetry inspired countless illustrations and performances. Students in the North room wrote haiku poems to convey the transition from summer to autumn evident by the falling leaves. Big Room students wrote cinquian poetry to describe the characteristics and symmetry of leaves. Children in the Beginning classrooms danced and sang songs about leaves falling from trees.
“The sprinkling rain
falls in sheets of cold wetness
on slight, tinted leaves.”
Curious about the actual work of botanists and what greater purpose their work serves, we visited the the herbarium at the University of Washington and visited with the botanist there. We wondered, “Why would someone want to be a botanist?” “Why is it important to study plants?” At the herbarium, we opened cabinets full of folders containing 23,000 different species of plants from around the world. We learned about the medicinal qualities of certain plants and the peculiarities of others. The botanist there explained how she carefully pressed the specimens to preserve them, which inspired the upstairs children to create their own collections of plants. We worked for weeks to collect, identify and preserve leaves of various types.
“I learned that you can press a plant and keep it for a hundred years.” -Thomas
With the leaves on the trees falling around us, it felt natural to head outdoors and engage with the leaves. The youngest children raked piles and transported leaves along the boulevard with wheelbarrows.
Older children looked closely at the colors of changing leaves and created leaf art in the park with inspiration and guidance from the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy.
Others traveled to Pratt to learn how to make botanical prints with the guidance of local artists. Through the different forms of art created from found leaves, we wondered, “How can we capture the beauty of a leaf?” And, “What is it about leaves that feels so engaging?”
Though our school-wide study of botany will come to end, our newfound appreciation for the complexities of plant life will remain with us throughout the school year and throughout our lives. We’ll likely never walk through a forest again without a curiosity for the trees. We’ll never look at a flower or leaf quite the same way. We’ve all developed an eye for the subtleties of nature. As Rowan put so nicely, the study of plants is never over:
“I liked learning about plants and botany because there’s always more stuff to learn about it. It’s a whole cycle. It never gets old. There’s never an ending. Nature will always be on the earth. Maybe someone one day will find a new plant that no one knows about.”