Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
The U.S. National Park Service has been on the forefront of my mind lately. On National Trails Day, celebrated nationwide on the first Saturday in June, I’m spending a couple of hours volunteering at a national park an hour away from my home. Next fall, my second graders and I are going to spend six weeks immersed in a unit that investigates the NPS’s rich history, beauty and scientific wonders. Planning the unit has been a joy but has also doubled the size of my travel bucket list. And signaling the beginning of summer, in the past 48 hours alone, four of my rising fourth-grade students have sent me pictures proudly showing off their “Every Kid in a Park” pass.
Highlighting public parks, family adventures and the joy that accompanies spending time in the great outdoors, these three books will ignite a contagious classroom curiosity and sense of adventure.
You Are Home by Evan Turk
Truly an ode, Evan Turk’s words and artwork showcase the beauty—grandiose and minute—that is found in the country’s national parks. From full-page spreads highlighting the majesty of well-known parks (Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde) to spreads zooming in on animals or plants found in lesser-known parks (Biscayne Bay, Great Sand Dunes), it immerses children in colors, textures, and perspectives found in the natural world. The lyrical prose touches on various aspect of the parks, ultimately reminding readers that the parks belong to everyone and upon visiting, “you are home.” The majestic artwork, historical note, labeled map and intimate second person narration make it a memorable and inspiring read-aloud.
- National Park Art
One cannot help but to be struck by Turk’s richly colored pastel illustrations conveying the grandeur of the parks. Visit Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and show your students Turk’s early sketches and behind-the-scenes photographs. Give each student a 12 x 18 piece of black construction paper. Provide gem- and natural-hued construction paper and oil or chalk pastels. Print out several photographs from various national parks. Let each student choose a photograph, and use it to inspire his/her park artwork. Hang the photographs and completed artwork to create a wall of majesty.
- Individual Park Research
There are 58 national parks. Look at a U.S. map of the park locations. Each park has its own website. Let each student choose a national park. Tell them that they have one week to become the classroom expert on their chosen park. Keeping in mind students’ age and abilities, create a project rubric outlining the information that students need to know. This project was a fantastic way to introduce beginning research skills to my second-grade classes.
- Further Reading
Expand the project by reading more books celebrating our country’s National Park Service. Start with Barb Rosenstock’s The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks, and then over the next few weeks read Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon, Annette Bay Pimentel’s Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service and David Domeniconi’s M Is for Majestic: A National Parks Alphabet.
Camp Tiger by Susan Choi, illustrated by John Rocco
As his family heads to Mountain Pond for their annual summer camping trip, the young narrator explains, “As soon as we get back from camping, we go back to school. My brother is starting fourth grade and I am starting first grade. I don’t want to be a first grader.” They are setting up their campsite when a tiger emerges from the woods, approaches the family and inquires about an extra tent. The tiger and little boy form an immediate bond, and together they engage in a myriad of outdoor adventures. Initially trepidatious, the little boy gains self-confidence and boldness with each new experience. Without a trace of didacticism, Choi weaves a fantastical and sensitive story that will resonate not only with children’s imaginative and inquisitive natures but their feelings and fears as well.
- Plan a Camping Trip
As a class, make a list of local campgrounds. Use a state map or Google Earth to pinpoint their locations. With younger students, brainstorm a list of supplies that they will need pack for a weekend camping in the woods, and then help them draft a weekend schedule. Remind them to consider the weather when deciding what to pack. Gather around a classroom “fire” and teach them a few campfire songs. Let older students work with partners to create an entire camping itinerary. Give them a loose budget and encourage them to research tents, stoves, food, backpacks, sleeping bags and other camping essentials. What will they make for their meals? How and where will they store their food? Do they need to make campsite reservations or buy a camping license? What are they going to do during the day? Some students may want to plan a camping trip in another part of the country. Students will create a multimedia presentation communicating the details of their camping trip.
- Sensory Creative Writing
When the boy buries his face in the tiger’s fur, he observes, “He smells like sunshine and pine needles.” Gather several natural materials and essential oils. I used lavender, rose petals, fresh pine shavings, rosemary, orange peel, cloves, eucalyptus, peppermint, basil, sage, fresh moss and spruce. Make a few different combinations, and put them into individual mesh bags. Numerically label the bags. Using a graphic organizer, students will smell the bags and then journal or simply list words or memories that the scent of each bag evokes. After they have smelled every bag, students can choose their favorite scent and use it to drive a creative writing piece.
- Growing Older
Reread the sentence “All summer, things my mom used to do for me—like make my bed in the morning or fold up my clothes—have become things that I have to do myself.” Ah, so important! Ask children to start brainstorming things that their mom and dad for them. Make a class list on chart paper. Lead a discussion that will give children an opportunity to reflect on these things and which things they can start doing independently. Encourage them to pick one or more of the jobs and try to do it by themselves. When a child successfully completes a task, write his or her name next to the respective task on the class chart. I had initially intended to do this reflection activity with just my younger grades, but I think it was probably more important for upper elementary-age students.
- Book Flight
Read aloud Judith Kerr’s classic, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Compare and contrast the two stories. Similarities and differences abound!
If I Were a Park Ranger by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Patrick Corrigan
Opening with the directive encouragement, “Imagine serving as a park ranger for U.S. National Parks!” this nonfiction first-person narrative informs children of the many duties and delights that come with territory when one chooses the career of park ranger. Touching on various aspects of the job, including an educational path and the history of the NPS, the text and illustrations work together showcasing the various tasks (including designing exhibits, giving costumed tours and updating the park website) that can be part of a park ranger’s job responsibilities. Giving a human element to the national parks and conveying a significant amount of information through succinct and approachable text, it’s an ideal and effective read-aloud.
- Environmental Stewardship
One of the most important responsibilities of park rangers is to “protect the land, the plants, the buildings, and the wild animals in my park.” Write the phrase “environmental stewardship” on the board, and unpack the root words with children until the class has collectively created a definition explaining the concept. Discuss what would happen if people do not take care of the parks and wildlands. On a piece of chart paper, write the question, “How can we be good stewards of the environment, and what can we do to encourage others to do the same?” Read the Leave No Trace Seven Principles to the class. Ask students if they can think of areas in their daily lives that need stewardship. Discuss practical ways that the students can be good stewards of these areas, and then let them design posters or brochures that remind others to do the same.
- Junior Ranger Program
The National Park System has a wonderful Junior Ranger program with various downloadable booklets that let children learn about different aspects (fishing, archeology, historic preservation, biology, etc.) of national parks. Order physical books or download and print PDF versions, and let students choose a book that interests them. After they have completed the activities, they can send or email their completed booklet and earn a Junior Ranger badge or patch. This activity is an excellent option for early finishers. Let students work on the books in spare time throughout the entire year, and keep track of the number of badges and patches earned by your class.
- Connect with a Park Ranger
Reach out to local parks and inquire if a park ranger can come visit your classroom. Invite students to prepare questions and choose one or two students to lead the interview. Another option is to schedule a Skype session with a park ranger that works in a National Park that is in a different part of the country.