Using Nature Writing to Develop Analytical Skills
This process has students closely examine objects in nature and then use the same observational tools to improve their analytical writing skills.
In my AP Language & Composition classes, most of my students have the requisite skills of reading comprehension and basic structure for analytical writing. However, they generally fall short on the depth of their analysis sections: the evidence and commentary portion of the AP Language rubric. Most students can find evidence, but explaining the important elements of how that evidence proves their point or why the author made the rhetorical or compositional choices they did tends to stymie students.
This difficulty arises because analytical thinking and writing is a complex process that requires a child’s cognitive skills to be appropriately developed. Before students can be asked to analyze, they must first learn how to observe and inquire. There is no better way to learn the astute skill of observation and observational compositions than through nature writing.
Analytical Writing Process
On a chilly October morning, I took my AP Language & Composition classes outside with their notebooks and pencils. I had them find space well away from each other (and without their phones, of course) to sit and observe an object in nature. Students often feel giddy, and their energy surges outside of the classroom, in part because being outside is freeing, and an assignment like this is less stressful than the majority of the rigorous analysis of the coursework.
In this case, our school has plenty of natural features: trees, grass, and dirt for them to observe. I have also done this activity in classrooms that are in the middle of urban settings by bringing in plants, rocks, leaves, and other elements of nature. Nature is subtle, and observers must be still and silent to truly grasp the details and nuances of their subject.
To set up the assignment, I tell students that this is an anticipatory lesson or mini-lesson to prepare them for something else, like analytical writing. Generally, the nature writing activity takes between 45 minutes and an hour, and it provides a nice transition into more complex analytical writing pieces. I may, for instance, have students complete nature writing on a Monday and then delve into the more analytical elements throughout the week. Ideally, regular time in nature followed by these activities allows students to get into the writing and thinking space more efficiently. The more teachers can do it, the more detail-oriented the observations become.
Observation: The goal, like any good nature writing, is to first observe. It is difficult to provide an analysis of anything if we do not fully understand it. Learning how to observe natural elements helps students look at the nuances of their subjects. I first ask them to come up with 20 adjectives or phrases to describe the object they’re focusing on.
At first, many offer broad observations like “The leaf is yellow.” But as they spend more time and run out of obvious things to say, the observations become more nuanced and even beautiful: “The leaf is a heart with veins receding in size from the central stem.” The observations are a natural part of the analysis where the student is gaining familiarity with the subject.
Questions: After writing 20 descriptive statements or observations, they then write 10 questions about the observations. Many are scientifically based, like “Why do leaves turn yellow in the autumn?” or “What happens to this leaf after it snows?” Some are more profound: “What did this leaf do to contribute to the world?” Kids love to learn and ask questions about what they are observing, and this is the next logical step in understanding their environment.
Answering questions: After my students have crafted 10 inquisitive questions, I have them posit their answers to five of their favorite questions. The answers may be very scientific: “The leaves turn color because the creation of chlorophyll has stopped and the leaf is essentially suffocating.” Others may be more imaginative: “The autumn fairies move through the trees and paint the leaves the color of the season in preparation for old man winter.”
Some teenagers prefer the philosophical anecdotes: “The leaves are only small elements of the oxygen production that the Earth needs, but if they all stopped doing their jobs, there would be no life on the planet.” These creative expressions begin to connect to the analytical element of their brains when they respond to their own inquiries of their observations without being held to a “correct” answer.
Writing explanations: Finally, I ask them to explain the answers to three of the inquiries they posited. Some students may explain how photosynthesis works and what happens to the leaves when it stops for autumn. Others will explain how nature fairies all work together to shift seasons for the larger entities of the natural world. And others will develop a response fraught with deep philosophical wisdom.
This explanation element is the heart of analysis and a demonstration of how they have the cognitive capacity to write analytically. They have essentially primed themselves for the development of analytical writing through a low-stress, high-engagement activity. Now, these students are ready to take the same approach to a text as they did in their nature writings.
Application to text: When we come back into the classroom, students then use the same observational tools they used for their nature inquiry and apply them to a close reading of a text. I ask them to perform a close reading of a text, observe 10 elements of the writing they think are interesting, ask five questions of the text, posit responses to three of those questions, and pick one element to explain in a paragraph. This progression gives students a concrete understanding of what they are essentially being asked to do in analytical writing—the same cognitive function we did in nature writing.
I’ve found that students are less likely to be consumed with finding the “correct” answer and more open to expanding on their own insights and interpretations of the text. This assignment effectively moves students into an inquisitive state of mind rather than focusing on a “correct” answer or checking boxes in a rubric. The skills they learn go beyond writing and develop a mindset of inquiry that they will be asked to use in postsecondary writing and critical thinking for life.
If we want students to improve their analytical skills, then developing the foundational skills of observation and inquisition should be paramount. All students could benefit from spending more time observing their world and less time trying to decode it or find the answers in black and white. Let the kids’ natural inclination for seeing the natural world guide them. To build analytical minds, take them outside.