To Look Closely by Laurie Rubin is a must-have book for teachers. And frankly, for parents and caregivers as well. The premise of the book is that children need nature. Not just for the adventure, the fresh air, the freedom they experience when they play outdoors, but for the observation skills, the practical applications of working outside, and the critical thinking skills that are unleashed when children (and all of us really) are taught about and within the natural world.
To Look Closely is a guidebook for teachers. It is practical, advising how to take a group of children into the woods to investigate nature on a regular basis. But it is also a story. A story about Rubin’s experimentation with a nature-based model of teaching, and a story about the children whose lives she touched in her work. It follows one of her second grade classes through a year of their lives; a year of traipsing out to the small stream bed by the school to study, observe, record, and enjoy the environment. She shares her missteps and mistakes, her own growth as a naturalist, and her student’s evolving thoughts and work.
I found out about this book because Rubin is a retired second grade teacher at my son’s elementary school. My son, now in second grade, is benefiting from her legacy at the school. In addition to her nature-based education model, Rubin was the force that brought the Trout in the Classroom (TIC) program to the school. TIC is a locally supported program where classrooms are given a tank of trout eggs. They study them over the year as the eggs hatch, grow, and become adult fish. The classes then take the fish to a local stream in the spring and join in releasing them. My son is lucky enough to be participating in this program this year, and is pretty excited about it. (Though I admit, I might be more excited than he.)
In reference to the TIC program, Rubin says “Seated around the trout tank, we have many opportunities to practice our observation and questioning skills as we watch the fry grow.” This is the essence of the message in To Look Closely. By observing nature, by paying attention to our surroundings, by asking questions, and by seeking out the answers, we become critical thinkers. If the teacher is flexible, is able to guide the students in their question-asking, and is willing to stretch their own education, then all the better. Throughout the book, Rubin gives example after example of her students learning and growing and becoming scientists in their own right.
To Look Closely also advises than just one teacher in one classroom educating students is not enough. Rubin calls on local science experts, parent volunteers, and community colleagues to make her work happen. Children need community. It does indeed take a village. She also cites numerous books that she uses to teach her kids which intertwine with her teaching; Poppy and Rye by Avi, several by Jim Arnosky, Byrd Baylor’s The Other Way to Listen, Cynthia Rylant and Jane Yolen classics, and of course the handbook for concerned environmentalists parents, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, among many others.
Rubin goes on to discuss how nature study can feed into literature, math, writing, and all manner of science studies; which is what makes the whole thing brilliant. I believe Rubin’s model is a good one. Let's push it even further; keep the structure of the public school system, but send those kids outside every day to observe, study, and learn. Let's balance out all that indoor time with exposure to the real world that goes on just outside those doors. There are many ways to build children into critical thinkers, but a nature-based study program holds endless benefits and opportunities for all students.
My favorite part of the whole book is at the very beginning. Rubin’s first tip on how to implement this program in your classroom (or with your kids) is to become a naturalist yourself. I’m glad she didn’t save this tip for the end! Not only will this make you a more empowered and educated person yourself, but an adult who watches the world, can sit and observe nature, slows down to pay attention to what is around her is truly what children need to see. They do what we do. And if we are looking closely at nature, then they will too.
The payoff of it all is clear. Rubin writes that by spring her students "no longer rely on me to show them the way...From the minute my students step on to the grass until they walk back inside the school, they are on the lookout! They need no more coaxing or encouraging. As a matter of fact, they are unstoppable."