From the Field— “I Matter! A Systems Approach to 3rd Grade Field Trips”

Jennifer Wagar, Far Hills Country Day School, Far Hills, New Jersey
Grade Level: 3rd Grade (ages 8 to 9)
Faculty: Jennifer Wagar, Jennifer Bastable, Gemma Keremedjiev

Background: Building a School Butterfly Garden

In the summer of 2010, I attended The Cloud Institute’s EfS Curriculum Design Studio and rewrote our Monarch Butterfly Curriculum to integrate systems thinking. Although monarchs are still the stars of our curriculum, our third grade team really wanted the students to learn that they have a real and genuine influence on the systems in which they are a part: they do matter and can affect change!

Several years ago, we began raising monarch butterflies in our classrooms to enhance and liven up several “beginning of the year” curricula with hands-on learning experiences (e.g. math; measurement and observation, journaling, non-fiction reading). Naturally, this led to the creation of a butterfly garden at our school and a desire to incorporate lessons from the garden further into our curricula. 

Shortly after beginning our "monarch" project, the third grade teachers created a field trip for our classes to visit Schiff Nature Preserve, which is roughly four miles from our school. In addition to being a third grade teacher at Far Hills Country Day School, I am also a part-time environmental educator at the Schiff Nature Preserve in Mendham, New Jersey. In fact, I live on the preserve full-time.

The Preserve is a great opportunity for our students to connect their school activities with the real world. Third graders just LOVE being outside. Our field trip to the Preserve is a way to spend the day building a strong sense of community among the teachers and students during the first month of school. In addition, we get to explore and interact with a monarch’s natural habitat. 

Learning in the Field

Brainstorm poster of our "I Matter" curriculum at the 2010 EfS Curriculum Design StudioIn our past field trips—before I attended the EfS Curriculum Design Studio—our field trips involved: a slide show presentation on the life cycle of the monarch; a game regarding monarch migration; a craft showing the life cycle; and a short hike. This year we designed from a systems perspective. We placed emphasis on the connection between the preserve and our own school butterfly garden. We encouraged students to use the knowledge from their garden at the nature preserve, and to reflect on how the preserve changed their thinking about the school garden. 

We still began the trip with a short slide show about the monarch’s lifecycle. However, we focused more specifically on milkweed as a local habitat and host plant for the larvae (caterpillars)— rather than a generic presentation of the cycle. As we began our hike, which lasted nearly three hours, we explored the diversity of the landscape (forest, meadow, wetlands, pine tree stands, etc.) and how diversity makes life possible. Along the way, we spent time learning common vocabulary and participating at strategically placed field activity stations. The activity stations included: 1) the monarch’s lifecycle; 2) using estimation when counting the number of butterflies in a tree (we used photos of hibernating monarchs); and 3) a fun monarch butterfly “airplane” activity where we discussed monarch flight and butterfly migration. 

As we moved from the forest into the meadow, we visited patches of milkweed to look for caterpillars, chrysalides, and other insects that make milkweed their homes. We spent time hypothesizing why the other insects (aphids, milkweed bugs and beetles) were the same color as monarch butterflies as well as why we weren’t finding very many caterpillars. 

Unstructured Exploration

One other important note is that we specifically factored in time for unstructured exploration by the students. We believe this holds great value towards developing a true environmental ethic as well as generating student-led discussions and research ideas. During this time, we observed several species of butterfly, caterpillars, a few snakes and even a baby box turtle. 

We ended our trip back at the nature center with some time for reflection. The students used a graphic organizer to jot down three things learned from the day and used this to write a “Friendly Letter” thank you note to the preserve.

This was such a natural start to our year and it felt good. While we were advancing our Social Studies curriculum, we were also building a sense of community among the students. Their learning experience was hands-on, genuine, and exciting. They were naturals at systems thinking…maybe because they are used to being a part of something rather than trying to “run the show.” We all learned so much. 

Exploring the Essential Question: Do I Matter?

As a result of our field trip and reflection time, the kids realized that they do have true influence on their school environment (garden and classroom). This realization lent itself to our larger goal of creating community within and across our classrooms. Students realized that their ideas can be turned into action. I heard one student comment, "even grown-ups will do what we think is right". Our role as teachers was to help our kids grasp how the difference they make in their small circles ripple out and deeply influence the greater world. This was a VERY big enduring understanding for the kids to wrap their brains around—an idea which may take an entire year for them to fully begin to grasp. That they feel and see they matter is the first step!

Interdisciplinary Component: Curriculum Connection

This community building expedition further advanced our Social/Emotional Learning Curriculum. In addition, we touched upon other grade level objectives: Math (estimation and observation) and Language Arts (“Friendly Letters” and paragraph writing). 

Learning Opportunities from the Field: What We Would Do Differently

The beginning of the school year was fraught with stress and "to do's"; it was hard to make social studies the priority (because it was new). As a team, we didn't really have much time to get together to discuss the unit before we launched into it. There are inherent problems with doing that. Getting to the assessment was difficult. We ended up assessing via discussion rather than a written piece. 

While we didn’t meet our main tangible goal of creating a work plan for the garden in the fall, we plan to pick up where we left off in the spring…remembering that our monarchs will soon be migrating back!