Monday, October 11, 2010

Changing up Your Lessons this Fall

Autumn is a time of great change and transformation in nature. As a child, I remember the awe I felt watching leaves fall and crunching across them as I walked on the sidewalk. As an adult, I am still in awe of the sights and smells of the season (and I STILL want to jump in the huge pile of leaves, even if it means I’ll have to rake them up again). This week, Joann and I collected resources that tap into this childhood fascination of the changes occurring in nature to teach lessons in many different subject areas.

You can bring these autumn changes into your classroom by using leaves to teach science lessons about photosynthesis, why leaves change colors in the fall, and more. Leaves can also be used in language lessons, art projects, and even math. Look at Photosynthesis: Don’t “Leaf” out Fall’s Most Important Lesson, a collection of activities from Education World for some fun interdisciplinary examples. There is a detailed description of photosynthesis and an explanation of the changing colors in fall, including an easy-to-read version of the explanation for younger students.

Colors in the Leaves describes a great autumn science experiment for all ages. In this lab, students discover why leaves change colors in the fall and why they start out green. It is an inquiry-based science lab using chromatography to separate the colors found in leaves (a spinach leaf in this case). The author of the activity did the lesson with students as young as first grade, but it would be interesting and informative through high school, as the students are learning more about photosynthesis and chromatography. Younger students would need more supervision, since there is acetone and rubbing alcohol involved, but the students wouldn’t need to touch any of the chemicals to benefit from the experiment.

Discussions from these science lessons might lead into a broader discussion of changing seasons. National Geographic Xpeditions has some lessons and activities to help your students explore this concept. Seasons is also a good primary level introduction to why there are different seasons. Students get to model the earth and sun with an orange and a flashlight, a demonstration I remember well from my school days. Sometimes it’s hard to beat an actual physical model of how things work.

Studying butterflies and moths is a popular activity to bring nature into the classroom for a quick and interesting view into life cycles. Metamorphosis is an amazing process for students to witness first hand. There are lots of different lesson plans available online, and it’s probably a good idea to read a few to choose the best parts for your class. Creepy Caterpillars to Beautiful Butterflies is a good second grade example to get you started. As I searched for more examples of this type of activity, I discovered that many metamorphosis lessons use the book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. I came across some very interesting vocabulary discussions regarding cocoons vs. chrysalises from The Butterfly House in St. Louis, “Butterflies emerge from chrysalises, moths emerge from cocoons.” You may or may not know this fact already, but the book has a butterfly popping out of a cocoon, which my 1st grader promptly corrected, so I should have been more prepared! Other recommended and more realistic metamorphosis books are “Waiting for Wings” by Lois Ehlert or “Butterfly House” by Eve Bunting.

As a primary teacher who plans for all the subjects or a secondary teacher that works in a team to plan and present units, you may be looking for thematic units to tie students’ learning together in many areas. Frogs: A Thematic Unit is a good example of how one teacher used the metamorphosis of frogs as a theme to teach many different subjects. When you implement a thematic unit, you are still teaching the same important math and English concepts you always would while you keep it interesting by connecting your subjects to one theme. If you want more frog activities and information to supplement your thematic unit, try the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant page. I need to try to make the origami frog!

Enjoy this time of change in your classroom. By this time in the year, hopefully you are starting to see some positive changes in your students as they begin to learn and grow in your class. (You might even be able to call it a student metamorphosis!) If you have any other autumn teaching ideas or insights, please share. I would love to hear how these types of lessons have gone in your classroom. We will be doing the leaf chromatography experiment soon, and we’ll post the results on the Gateway Facebook and Twitter pages.

~Peggy's Corner - 10/7/2010~


  1. Great ideas for using the nature phenomenons that students are excited about for learning opportunities. I love the changes that fall brings and these lessons are just the thing to celebrate.

  2. I love the changes in fall, too. There are so many different fun ways to bring nature into the classroom. Some of these kinds of lessons are the ones I remember most from my school days. Sometimes it seems like more work to make these connections in our curriculum, but I really think it pays off in student interest, and when the kids our interested a lot more learning happens!


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