Experience Evaluation
People, Prairies, and Plains

Nancy Bolinger
Mary K. Meyer
Garden Plain Junior High School
Box 128
Garden Plain, Kansas 67050

From the first day of the People, Prairies, and Plains Institute in Manhattan, Kansas, in July of 1995, it has been our purpose to create an interdisciplinary unit for use with our middle school students. We wanted an integrated curricular approach to the study of the environment.

We have been successful in that regard. Our social studies teacher taught Kansas history to our middle-level students. They studied the Dust Bowl and the problems with water supply on the western prairie. Students read from John Ise’s Sod and Stubble, and other books, and gained insight about what life was like on the prairie when European immigrants first came. They had first-hand experience with field observation and using their senses to create imagery in their writing. They learned about the prairie ecosystem, selected weeds and wildflowers, food webs, and animal populations of the prairie.

Using our Institute-created unit on the prairie environment, we took our middle school students on an “Environmental Journey Home.” We decided to concentrate on the immediate geographical area: our school grounds, the public park, our wildlife area, along the roadsides and railroad tracks, and on our practice fields. We asked students to keep a journal about “Place” and encouraged them to look at their “place” on the American prairie.

We had to plan our activities in accordance with the weather. We wanted weeds and wildflowers to be in bloom. Students watched daily to see if there were weather changes that would bring about new growth in the environment around them. We found that we didn’t need a special “place” to study and observe. Our students were particularly interested in stories from the Dust Bowl era. This past school year, the weather was so dry in our part of the prairie that drought conditions existed. Pictures of dust piling up along fence posts appeared in newspapers. Newscasters on the evening news talked about the current drought and compared it to the situation in the 1930s. Parents of our students talked about it at the dinner table and at the local co-op. The rain didn’t come, and some wildflowers and weeds didn’t bloom. It was a “teachable moment” for us.

We found journaling about sense of “place” particularly effective with our students. On the day we went out on our “environmental journey home,” students took their journals so they could record sensory images for use in writing. They were particularly fascinated with bindweed and its effects on other plants and with bedstraw and the way it clung to them unassisted. One student said he “wouldn’t ever look at a weed the same” again, and we knew we had raised his awareness. Student interest and enjoyment seemed high during this unit.

There were interesting sidebars to the awareness we developed during the Institute. For example, in our high school sociology class, the journaling method about sense of “place” seemed particularly effective and appropriate when students compared groups of peoples in agrarian and industrial societies.

Another example of a “teachable moment” using our Institute experiences came when middle school students were studying Washington Irving and discovered that he had visited the “great wasteland called the American prairie.” A discussion followed about what he had observed then and what he might think if he could visit now.

We did not realize when we left Manhattan last summer that the things we learned at the Institute and the insights we gained would be put to use in these kinds of unexpected ways, and that our personal awareness of environmental issues had become so strong. At this point we would rate our accomplishments as a result of our reading, study, and experiences at the Institute as: in development, becoming, on the path, maturing, partly there in being effective teachers of environmental realities and issues. We have analyzed our unit and decided on some changes for next year.

We still believe that for our middle-school-aged students, any formal unit should be interdisciplinary.

“We need to return to a more empathetic relationship with 
the living world and learn to see broader patterns, 
processes, and change...How can we understand life by 
breaking it into fragments and freezing it in time?...In direct 
opposition to the trend in mainstream culture toward 
greater specialization, we need to actively promote the 
generalist--the one who sees connections and makes links 
across different disciplines.”

-Helena Norberg-Hodge
Sierra Club

The Kansas Prairie

Nancy Bolinger
Mary K. Meyer

Unit Plan: The Kansas Prairie: What is this place where we live and how did it come to be the way it is?

Overview: This unit is designed for use with 7-8th grade classes and utilizes an interdisciplinary approach for the purpose of teaching factual information about the environmental and social history and the ecology of the Kansas Prairie, and of creating an awareness of “place.”

Cognitive Goals:

Behavioral Objectives:

Time Required: Three to six weeks

Materials, Resources, Equipment: Included in individual lesson plans.



Language Arts Activities
Title: The Art of Observation

This lesson plan is part of a larger unit on the Kansas Prairie. Its purpose is to enable students to use their senses in observing the natural world around them.

The student will read for content and analyze an example of an observation of the natural world.

Time Required: Two days

Materials: Selected readings from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.


Reading 1

READ the following passages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and answer the questions that follow.

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy “Yike!” and splashing into the water. Incredibly, this amused me, and, incredible, it amuses me still. As I walked along the grassy edge of the island, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water. I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mudbank, water, grass, or frog. Frogs were flying all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.

He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as it snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

From your reading of the first selection from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, find and cite two examples of Annie Dillard’s observations that appeal to each of the following senses:



How does Ms. Dillard seem to feel about what is happening to the frog?

What do you think has happened to the frog?

Reading 2 Read the following passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and answer the questions that follow:

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. “Giant water bug” is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown beetle. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs--all but the skin--and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice. This event is quite common in warm fresh water. The frog I saw was being sucked by a giant water bug. I had been kneeling on the island grass; when the unrecognizable flap of frog skin settled on the creek bottom, swaying, I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants. I couldn’t catch my breath.

Question 1: What happened to the frog?

Question 2: How did this seem to make Annie Dillard feel?

Field Trip Observation Sheet

As you walk around, sit, and observe,
Look For:

Jot down your observations.


Language Arts Component
Journal Writing
Week one:

Day 1:	Review function of journal writing
	Discuss “sense of place”
	Topic:  Look around your “place.”  Tell about it.
Day 2:	How did you come to be on your “place?”
Day 3:	Who was on your “place” before you?  What were their characteristics?
Day 4:	Discuss the art of Observation.  Using brief sections from Sand County Almanac 
	and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, discuss sight, movement, sound, texture, smell, 
	feelings, relationships to surroundings, etc., in relation to observing the natural 
	Topic:  Using your senses, describe a natural component of your “place.”
Day 5:	Read and discuss “A Borrowed Place,” “On a Dusky Pond,” and “Where the 
	Willows Grow” from Prairie Chronicles by Mike Blair
		Direct students to observe their specimen while on the field trip before they 
	photograph, draw, or pick.
		Journal entries will be observations while on field trip.

Week Two:
Day 1:	What is your larger environment?
Day 2:	What are your natural boundaries?
Day 3:	What animals live with/around you?  Are any in danger of extinction?
Day 4:	What trees are native?  Which are naturalized?
Day 5:	What plants are native?  Which are naturalized?
	* For this week, students may need to consult research sources.

Week Three:
Day 1:	Where do you get your water and energy?
Day 2:	How did your place get to be the way it is?  (Historical)
Day 3:	What is your responsibility at or to your place?
Day 4:	Student’s choice.
Day 5:	(Assessment)  What have you learned as a person and as a student?

PRAIRIE LANGUAGE: An activity for “The Prairie and the Dust Bowl,” an interdisciplinary unit for social studies, science, and language arts for junior high students.

During a field trip, students are asked to pick a grass, a weed, or a wildflower to take back to school.

Procedures in the classroom:


1.  One noun					Weed
2.  Two adjectives				Green, Yellow
3.  Three action (ing words)			Growing, Reaching, Shining
4.  Four word phrase				You have a right
5.  One synonym for line one (noun)		Dandelion

----------+ly Insistently ----------+ly Forcefully ----------+ly Obstinately A sentence (May include two adjectives, The starburst dandelion a noun, verb, adverb+ly, and/or grows undauntingly through a prepositional phrase) the grass. Noun! Sun! Noun! Life!
Pattern: Noun Weed Verb, Verb, Verb Roots, sprouts, reaches Prepositional Phrase from the earth Prepositional Phrase through the crack Prepositional Phrase by the door Noun! Dandelion!

Science Activities:

Wildflower Field Trip

The field trip is best taken after a rain in the spring for a variety of wildflowers to be in bloom. A fall field trip is best for identification of prairie grasses. It is not necessary to leave the school grounds if there is a ditch, wildlife area, waste ground or other area that would contain prairie wildflowers or weeds. This field trip can last for several days or be just one or two days.

Following is a list of activities the students could do on the trip.

  1. What is the common name for this plant?
  2. What is the color and shape of the flower? (pea shaped, composite, heart shaped petals etc.)
  3. Draw the shape of leaves.
  4. Where was the plant found? (roadside, waste area, wildlife area etc.)
  5. What other organisms would depend on this plant? (deer for food, insects for pollen, place to live, birds for seeds etc.)

    Later the student can look for the following:

  6. What are other common names for the plant?
  7. What were some of the uses of this plant by the Indians and Pioneers?
  8. What is the scientific name of the plant?
  9. Why do we need scientific names for plants?
  10. Is this a native plant or one brought here from another country?

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