In defense of the small and ordinary

 William (7th) records observations of his biocube for Nature Writing, a middle school English Language Arts seminar.

William (7th) records observations of his biocube for Nature Writing, a middle school English Language Arts seminar.

Novelist and writing teacher Anne Lamott keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk. When she is stuck or overwhelmed, she looks to it for comfort and order:

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

There is something about framing a small part of the world that paradoxically invites an expansive, seemingly limitless exploration of it. Writing teachers like Lamott have known for a long time that divergent thinking often happens most productively within rigid guidelines: a structured prompt, a well-defined form, a given number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Leave some choices wide open; foreclose other possibilities. The wandering brain longs for something to grab hold of as it explores. Even the wildest games have rules.

And it’s not just the structure, the limits, the frame: it’s also the size. It matters that Lamott’s picture frame is one square inch. A bite-sized scale makes possible a comprehensiveness that’s otherwise unfathomable.

That’s the idea of the “biocube”: a twelve-inch cube set down in nature to facilitate the recording of biodiversity. We tried this exercise in my 6th and 7th grade Nature Writing seminar today. A piece in Smithsonian Magazine explains the rationale:

Twelve inches by twelve inches by twelve inches, the cubic foot is a relatively tiny unit of measure compared to the whole world. With every step, we disturb and move through cubic foot after cubic foot. But behold the cubic foot in nature—from coral reefs to cloud forests to tidal pools—even in that finite space you can see the multitude of creatures that make up a vibrant ecosystem.

Led by our biology teacher Ashley Gam, students assembled and then placed their cubes in different locations outside our school building. The exercise was meant to train our observation skills, to focus intently on a manageable window of the natural world, and to try to make sense of what we saw.

 Emily and Amanda (6th) place their biocube in a bush outside school.

Emily and Amanda (6th) place their biocube in a bush outside school.

After students recorded their observations (using magnifying glasses and rulers for precise data collection), we returned to the classroom for reflection. I added a few prompts but let kids write about whatever inspired them:

  • How does human disturbance affect biodiversity?
  • What interactions between living things did you observe? Pollinators, predation, herbivory?
  • How would you describe the different relationships in your mini-ecosystem?
  • What memories, thoughts, images, or questions come to mind based on what you saw?
  • Anything else you’d like to write about based on what you observed

We wrote silently for fifteen minutes and then shared out some of our observations about the value of the activity. Torin (7th) noted that the bright blue frame encouraged us to see with new eyes ordinary things we walk by everyday. The work my students did certainly bore that out; they made connections between disparate objects, crafted memorable imagery and analogies, reflected on their place in the world, and drew insight from their observations into the broader human condition. William (7th) used his notes to write a poem about decaying leaves and human civilizations through the centuries.

In the final five minutes of class, students set goals for “next steps” – what they’ll do with the things they saw and wrote today.

I can’t wait to read their work.