Learning From the Land

Learning From the Land; Teaching Ecology Through Stories and Activities by Brian "Fox" Ellis. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press, 1997.ISBN 1-56308-563-1.143 pp. $23.00

Brian “'Fox" Ellis is a storyteller who has been a teacher, naturalist, and coordinator of the science education program for the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. He is a regular contributor to a variety of education and ecology journals.

Ellis says his two main goals for the book are to provide students with opportunities for adventure and for empathy with wild creatures, and to teach basic science skills in a way that integrates creative writing and storytelling.

The book is comprised of nine stories, each of which is preceded by a comment to teachers and followed by suggested activities. The comments introduce the theme of the story and
give tips on how to personalize it, adapt it, and tell it effectively. The activities are II springboards to creativity" rather than detailed experiments. In this way they differ from those in Keepers of the Earth by Caduto and Bruchac

Some of the activities might ask the students to write a scientific report, poem, or story based on research. Some require the teachers and students to observe nature in a field, a parking lot, or a terrarium, chart their observations, and draw conclusions. The science skills which the activities reinforce are listed at the beginning of each activity, as are the materials required.

The stories themselves are almost all written by Ellis. They are creative non-fiction, a mixture of personal experience and scientific fact, sprinkled liberally with rhetorical questions and opportunities for involvement by the listener. In some cases that involvement might be making the sound of the wind, while in others it might be answering a question or taking part in a mini-experiment right in the middle of the story. Unlike the folktales in Keepers of the Earth, these stories are relatively long. They average about 4 pages, and the longest is 14 pages (the book is 8 1/2" x 11 ").

Subjects covered by the stories include, among others, plate tectonics, geological time, seeds, seasons, migration, the water cycle, the food web, predators and their prey f animal intelligence and metamorphosis.

Ellis discusses anthropomorphism and admits that while there is some in these stories it is limited to that personification which allows the students to better empathize with creatures and build bridges of understanding. Walter the water molecule, Rusty the molecule of ferrous oxide and Nancy the nitrogen molecule are examples that come to mind.

One concern I have is that a lot of auxiliary information is included in the stories. For instance, in the story of Walter the Water molecule! Walter starts out at the bottom of the ocean where he is swallowed by a whale. Three quarters of one page of the four page story is spent on facts about whales: echo-location, how long they hold their breath, what whales eat...
Later in the story Walter sucked into a tree root an we are given a descriptio: of how he becomes a part of the transportation system of the tree and we hear about sugars, starch, iron, xylem and phloem cells.

I'm not a teacher, but it seems to me that it's best to deal with one subject a a time and cover the additional information, which is interesting, in sidebars. I'd be glad to hear from some educator on this one . The bibliography of science and storytelling books was compiled by storyteller /librarian Judy Sima.

The stories, some of enormous scope, use specific examples, relating those examples to the student's life. One must trust the stories, and the author's enthusiasm for the subjects, to tap into children's natural curiosity and stir their imaginations. Educators, both at school and at home, would have to be willing to be generous with their time in exploring these stories. I do think that it would take a special person to put forth the effort to learn the stories for telling, but they can also be read aloud and used as models for teachers' own stories.

The Second Story Review, Vol 3, No. 1, March 1998
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