Weaving Together Writer’s Workshop, Reader’s Workshop, and Land Ethic in ELA9

Posted on July 10, 2017


10 July 2017

I am really excited about the new school year now. I’ve recently returned from Baraboo, Wisconsin, where I attended the second Building A Land Ethic Conference hosted by the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate the idea of Land Ethic in the ELA9 course. Now that I’ve got a plan, I can’t wait to meet my new students and get started!

To me, Land Ethic is one of the most important values that should be part of education across the curriculum. Why? Because, in the words of Aldo Leopold, one of the “founding fathers” of wildlife ecology, in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

In this time of ecological devastation and climate change, I want to help my students see that land is a community to which they belong. To do this, I’ve decided to use two essential questions throughout the year to focus our thinking:

“How are characters shaped by their place?” and/or

“What ‘signatures’ do the character write on the land and community?”

Another reason that I incorporate land ethic in my courses is for the physical, emotional, and mental benefits that time spent in the outdoors can bring, such as increasing students’ attention, creativity, and critical thinking. Since 1998, my work with the Leopold Education Project has shown me time and again how much and how deeply students can learn about literature, ideas, and themselves by re-connecting with the natural world. By incorporating concepts of land ethic, I can make assignments that get my students outdoors.

From 1999-2012, I used Land Ethic as a unifying theme in my ELA11 American Literature course, and I have example after example of multi-genre projects and reflections from students that explain how the outdoor assignments helped them relieve stress, find beauty, experience joy, and think deeply. As a matter of fact, one of my concerns about using the MAISA curriculum as I worked with it the first year was, “How can I bring outdoor experiences and Land Ethic back into the ELA classroom?” As much as I love the curriculum, I was frustrated at not being able to weave in the Land Ethic piece; I knew that it was something I’d return to once I understood the curriculum.

This year, the questions (above) about place, along with, “How can I increase my fluency, stamina, depth, and range as a reader?” will be the essential questions of the ELA9 course. Here is how I’ve laid out the course for the year:

In Unit 1, Writer’s Workshop: Narrative, we’ll explore narratives in memoir, fiction, poetry, essay, and graphic memoir/fiction, asking as we read, “How are characters shaped by their place?” and/or “What ‘signatures’ do the character write on the land and community?”As writers, we’ll explore place, sensory detail, memory, and emotion as we think about our own relationship to place and write our own narratives.

In Unit 2, Reader’s Workshop: Independent Reading, I’ll raise the essential question, “How can I increase my fluency, stamina, depth, and range as a reader?” Throughout the year, we’ll reflect on evidence of growth in these areas, culminating in a product/presentation about our growth as readers at year’s end.  Beginning with the second unit, I will have an expectation of 30-60 minutes of independent reading EVERY day, all year.

In Unit 3, Reader’s Workshop: Reading Fiction Strategically (Short Novel), we’ll explore how George and Lenny, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Esperanza in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street are shaped by their places and/or what “signatures” characters make on the land and community where they live. As they read, students will notice and note evidence that is pertinent to answer one or both of the questions in a literary essay.

In Unit 4, Writer’s Workshop: Literary Essay, students will use the evidence they have collected during their reading in Unit 3 to make arguments about the effects of place on the characters and/or the effects of the characters on the land or community in a work of short fiction.

In Unit 5, Writer’s Workshop: Basics of Argumentation (Critical Reading of Marketing and Media), students will explore media of Place, looking for arguments being made regarding land, land health, signatures on the land and/or the land’s effects on people.

In Unit 6, Writer’s Workshop: Personal Essay (argument), students will write about a belief they hold as part of their Land Ethic. The Land Ethic essay will be the culmination of the student’s thinking about place. The final two units will focus on Independent Reading.

In Unit 7, Reader’s Workshop: Informational Reading (text features and structures), students will explore text features and structures to identify a perspective on and/or bias about a place, author, book, or series of interest as it applies to titles they add to their Someday Reading list.

In Unit 8,  Writer’s Workshop: Researching A Trend, students will return to the Essential Question of Independent Reading, “How have I increased my fluency, stamina, depth, and/or range as a reader?” They will do primary research in their own learning artifacts in addition to the research they did in Unit 7 for Someday Reading, and they will create and present a product that represents their growth as readers.

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While I am excited about helping my students grow as readers and writers, I am also aware of them as human beings and as members of the land community. As a Leopold educator, I must echo Henry David Thoreau in asking, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

As a teacher and as a human being, the concept of Land Ethic is of utmost importance to me, because the health of the land is critical to the survival and well-being of humanity. By incorporating Land Ethic into ELA9, I can foster the land ethic of young people, not by teaching them what to think, but by teaching them how to think–through inquiry.

As a teacher-facilitator of the Leopold Education Project, I have been committed to cross-curricular conservation education for decades, and it actually pained me to leave it out of the ELA9 course last year. I am feeling a LOT better now, as I look forward to the first run-through with my new, improved, place-based MAISA units.

I’ll be writing more about the 2017 Building a Land Ethic conference in future posts; I am waiting for videos of keynote sessions to be posted online. If you’re interested, I have written about LEP before: All-School Interdisciplinary Unit: Why Land Ehic?; Answering The Question: “What the [bleep] does American Literature have to do with nature?!?!; When Eddy Met Edward: A Story of LIFE-ALTERING Professional Development (No, really!); and Teaching At the 21st Century Intersection of LEP, NWP, and IB: People, Pedagogy, and Planet.

If you are interested in incorporating Land Ethic concepts in your classes (and I hope you are considering it!), you can contact your LEP state coordinator to find or schedule a workshop for teachers to learn about Leopold, land ethic, and cross-curricular conservation education. If you’re in my local area, I’d be thrilled to do a workshop for teachers. For those beyond my local area, I’ve listed the contact information for my friends, Gail and Kim, the LEP state coordinators for Michigan and Ohio, respectively, below.

Gail Luera, LEP Coordinator MI

University of Michigan-Dearborn


Kim Kaseman, LEP Coordinator OH

Environmental Educator

Toledo Botanical Garden


Send an email; tell her I sent you!

This is the 8th post in my series on ELA9. The links to earlier posts in the series are below:

#1 Growing Readers–Through READING!

#2 Organizing the Archive for Research

#3 What’s here? What am noticing?

#4 Artifact Analysis: Finished Book Lists 2017

#5 Photo Essay: Artifact Analysis

#6 Artifact Analysis: Daily Lesson Plans

#7 Rip-Roaring Ready To Go with Independent Reading

The image featured in this blog is Jim Pfitzer, performing his beautiful and moving one-act, Aldo Leopold–A Standard of Change, at the 2015 Building a Land Ethic Conference in Baraboo, WI. I took this photo.