Connect, Explore, Engage through Phenology

Connect, Explore, Engage through Phenology

Unit Title:

Connect, Explore, Engage through Phenology


Phenology is the study of seasonal and cyclical changes in nature. In this Unit, students will follow in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold and his children by closely observing the natural world around them, connecting those observations to the seasonal changes in their landscape, and developing an appreciation for the dedication of scientists like Leopold. They will Connect, Explore, and Engage with nature through poetry writing, technology-assisted exploration, and phenological observations.

Grade Level:


Lesson author(s):

Skylar L. Primm,

Instructional Materials Needed (if applicable):

Devices: Computers or Mobile Phones with Internet Access

Websites/Apps: Siftr, Nature's Notebook

Materials: Field Notebooks and Writing Utensils, Poems for Shared Texts ( is a good resource)

Wisconsin Standards for English Language Arts Addressed (ELA Full Document or Literacy in All Subject Areas Full Document):

Production and Distribution of Writing
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Range of Writing
Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Standards Addressed (Full Document or searchable spreadsheet):

Connect: Curiosity & Wonder
Ask questions about patterns and cause and effect relationships in natural and cultural systems observed outdoors daily, seasonally, and over time.

Investigate and analyze one’s own curiosities about patterns that emerge from outdoor exploration to develop new questions, draw conclusions, or formulate new ideas or solutions.

Explore: Natural Systems Emphasis
Investigate short-term and long-term impacts of change and adaptation in natural systems.

Evaluate how feedback loops impact natural systems over time and predict adaptive strategies.

Evidence of Need:

Informal observations of student field journals and student data from standardized tests.

Evidence of Success:

Students will be able to conduct their own regular phenological observations and add observational data to the online Nature's Notebook citizen science platform.

Inquiry Experience 1: Outdoor Poetry Writing Marathon

Setting and Estimated Time: Outdoor Space (preferably with a trail) / 2+ hours

Learning Target:

I can write poetry inspired by observations of the natural world and the writings of others.

Formative Assessment:

Each student will share one piece of the day's writing out loud at the end of the writing marathon.

The teacher(s) will collect the students' field journals/writing notebooks for review and formative feedback.


0. Prior to the date of the lesson, the teacher(s) should become familiar with the concept of the Writing Marathon, as detailed by the National Writing Project. The teacher(s) should also (a) select the route that the class will be traveling, including likely places to stop and write, (b) select at least one poem to share at each writing stop, and (c) make enough copies of the poems for each student.  

1. Explain to students that they will be participating in a Writing Marathon today. Discuss what that means (using the article linked about and associated handout for reference), and ensure that everyone has a field journal/writing notebook and writing utensil before heading out.

2. Take the students outside! At each stop, gather them in a large circle before handing out copies of the poetry selection and reading it aloud. Then, instruct them to write poetry for 5-10 minutes (using your judgment as to the appropriate length of time), taking inspiration from the poetry selection and their observations of the natural world around them.

3. At the end of the writing period, have the students gather their things and move on to the next stop.

4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 at each Writing Marathon stop.

5. At the final stop, or back in the classroom, gather students again into a large circle for sharing their work. Have each student select one poem from the day to share out loud. Instead of applause, feedback, or commentary, instruct the audience to simply thank each reader.

6. As a closing, I like to have the students shout, "I am a writer!" together to emphasize the fact that everyone is a writer, regardless of how "good" they may think they are at it.

7. Collect student notebooks for formative feedback.

Inquiry Experience 2: Siftr & Phenology Journaling

Setting and Estimated Time: Classroom and School Site / 45 minutes to 1 hour (first time) / 30 minutes (subsequent times)

Learning Target:

I can closely observe a single spot in nature over time and note phenological changes.

Formative Assessment:

Each student will post a seasonal image from their phenology spot to Siftr, with an answer to the question "What changes have occurred since your last observation?"

The teacher(s) will collect the students' phenology journals for review and formative feedback.


0. Prior to the date of the first lesson, the teacher(s) should become familiar with the Siftr tool and set up a shared Siftr for their school's phenology data.  (See the HM Phenology Siftr for an example, and feel free to copy it.) The teacher(s) should also pre-select some questions to guide student observations at their phenology spots. Several examples I have used in the past are saved to this folder on Google Drive, and may be freely adapted.

1. The first day of phenology observations will take the longest. Students will need to set up accounts on Siftr and connect to your school's shared Phenology Siftr, and establish the spots they will be observing for the year. You can facilitate both by tapping into student leaders who are good with technology and/or familiar with the campus.

2. Instruct students that they will be taking devices outside for the purpose of taking photos and brief notes about their phenology spots. The majority of their observations will be written down in their notebooks (with differentiation as needed). Take them outside to establish their phenology spots and begin their observations. Have them spend 15-20 minutes sitting and observing. They can use the questions you provided as a guide for observing their surroundings and reflecting on the changes they might expect to see throughout the year.

3. At least monthly, have students return to their spots to spend another 15-20 minutes sitting and observing, with a particular focus on any changes they might observe. The Siftr is intended to be updated less frequently, perhaps seasonally or bimonthly.

4. If possible, after students return to the classroom, display the full Siftr map so that all students can see the location of their classmates' phenology spots and the changes they are observing.

5. Collect phenology journals monthly for formative feedback.

Inquiry Experience 3: Nature's Notebook

Setting and Estimated Time: Classroom and School Site / 45 minutes to 1 hour (first time) / 20 minutes (subsequent times)

Learning Target:

I can collect quantitative phenological data that contributes to scientific research.

Formative Assessment:

Students will submit weekly data through the Nature's Notebook website or app, either through their own accounts or through a shared teacher/classroom account.


0. Prior to the date of the first lesson, the teacher(s) should become familiar with the USA National Phenology Network and its Nature's Notebook tool. The USA-NPN provides extensive tutorials that are useful for both teachers and students. Especially for the first lesson, the teacher(s) should print paper data sheets for students to use. This will allow the teacher to quality check the data before entering it.

1. Establish your school as a Site in Nature's Notebook, and select 6-8 individual Plants (trees, shrubs, etc.) to observe throughout the year. Ideally, these Plants will be located near where students are already collecting qualitative phenology data for Inquiry Experience 2.

2. As a whole class, watch the “Introduction to USA NPN and NN” video. Have students discuss the video in small groups: What are your main takeaways? How does this format for phenology observation differ from your past phenology work? Explain to the whole class that today you will begin our own long-term monitoring project with the USA NPN and Nature’s Notebook.

3. Assign each small group to observe a Plant for Nature's Notebook. Walk them to their spot, and provide them with the phenophase definition sheet, phenophase photo guide, and datasheet for their species. (These are all provided by Nature's Notebook.) Have them first review the details about their species (appearance, range, special considerations) and then collect phenophase data. At a minimum, have groups collect yes/no data, but encourage them to go beyond that and discuss the intensity/abundance categories and reach consensus for where to mark each.

4. After gathering back together as a whole class, have each small group share their species, its location, other relevant details, and their phenophase observations. As a class, discuss similarities and differences among the observations that were shared and assess any inconsistencies in the data.

5. Ask each small group to develop a monitoring plan for ongoing, weekly observations of their Plant, including who will be responsible. Ask each field team to discuss what they expect to observe the next time they go out, and to record this hypothesis for comparison with their later observations.

6. Enter the students' data on Nature's Notebook or train students to do it themselves.

7. On a monthly basis (perhaps aligned with the Inquiry Experience 2 observations), check in with students to ensure that they are following up on their monitoring plan. Encourage them to continue generating hypotheses about what they will observe in the future, and to compare what they are observing with what their peers in other groups are seeing.

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