Conservation properties provide excellent outdoor classrooms. To give students the opportunity to contribute to their community and learn about local natural history, our school partnered with eight local conservation properties on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Students researched the eight properties and produced a collective guidebook based on what they had learned.
Rather than producing a typical, narrative guidebook, students wrote a Quest for each of the properties. The collection of Quests was published as a guidebook. A Quest is a treasure hunt–style poem in which the writers lead the visitor to special places on the property. The poems have movement clues to take the visitor from place to place and educational clues that teach about aspects of each property. The writing experience allows students to research unique features of a local property, demonstrate their knowledge in a poem, and share the information with people in the community.
The idea for the project grew from a meeting of environmental education professionals, including both school teachers and conservation property educators. The managers of the properties wanted to bring students to their sites. I wanted my students to have a chance not only to learn science, but also to practice audience-specific writing. Writing a guidebook for the properties seemed a great way to encourage natural science research and at the same time provide students an opportunity to write for a specific audience. One of the environmentalists in our group had written a Quest as a result of a workshop that she had attended, and she thought that it would be a great format for students to use. She had a copy of a book of Quests written for the New Hampshire/Vermont area, which we examined for ideas (Glazer 2001).
I offered the opportunity to my students, and the other science teachers at my school announced the project to their students. Students from several classes filled out a form to volunteer as small teams of two to four. Some conservation properties had volunteered to participate. Students also indicated interest in properties that I had not thought of, so I contacted those properties to see if they would be interested in participating in the project. Not one organization declined. Each group happily provided a mentor, and I matched student teams with mentors and properties based on interest. The process of finding and matching student teams to properties took a couple of weeks.
Student teams researched the properties in a few visits, then wrote and tested Quests over a few additional visits. I worked with older high school students who drove themselves, but bus or parent transportation might be needed for younger students. The entire project took a couple of months. The following steps can help students to stay organized and on track while developing their own Quests (these steps worked best for our students).
1. Gather background information
Student teams should first learn the history of the group that manages the site. What are the group’s goals and missions? Is the conservation property organized around a particular idea? For instance, Mytoi Garden is a local, Japanese-style garden with an excellent collection of specimen plants. Therefore, our Mytoi Quest includes observing these plants (Munn and Munn 2007). Many properties have background literature available that students can read for ideas, and the mentors at the properties can help students find specific factual information to include in a Quest.
For example, the Mytoi Quest directs visitors to “Continue down the steps and past the golden bamboo, / No pandas live here, not even a few. / Take a right at the bamboo and sticking up tall, / Is a Japanese Cedar whose needles are green, even in the fall. / This tall cedar is different from before, / It can be as wide as twenty feet, which is hard to ignore. / Its reddish brown bark peels off in long strips, / But please don’t pull it, it hurts the tree when it rips.”
2. Survey the property and make initial observations
As students begin to think about designing a Quest for a property, they should walk around the property and note places or specimens of interest. I left this step very open-ended, but teachers could require that very specific things be included in the Quest. For example, if a class was studying plant biology, the teacher could require that certain plants be the focus of the Quest. Or, if students were studying the concept of microenvironments, students could be required to find several specialized ecosystems as the focus of the Quest.
Additionally, the teacher could require that cultural aspects of a location be included in the Quest, stipulating that the content include how humans have affected the site. For example, our Long Point Quest includes, “The Wampanoag Native Americans used this land for firewood, / Until the European settlers acquired it for use. / Now the Trustees of Reservations keep it for us to enjoy, / And to serve as a wildlife refuge” (Munn and Munn 2007). Quest writing is a creative method for providing evidence of what has been learned, and a teacher could really choose to focus the process on whatever content needs to be addressed as dictated by both personal choice and by national, state, and local curriculum frameworks.
3. Determine the theme and sites to include in the Quest
Once students have noted several places of interest at the property, students then evaluate the list of places and determine whether or not the Quest should have a theme. For example, the Native Earth Teaching Farm is “run in seamless harmony with the Earth,” so that Quest includes visiting the composting area by saying, “You’ll also see the tall, wooden Greedy Guy, / The keeper of the compost heap. / Compost provides good soil for planting, / He’ll take anything that you don’t want to eat” (Munn and Munn 2007).
Again, the teacher may supply the theme so that it is aligned with certain curriculum needs. Students should then narrow down their lists of possible locations to the ones to be included in the Quest. Depending on the size of the property, students might choose 8–12 locations for a Quest that will take 30–60 minutes for a visitor to complete.
4. Make a map of the property
Student teams should next draw a map of the property. They should focus on the area of the property that will be included in the Quest. As they work on their map, students should begin to think about the best way to move around the property. Are there paths or trails, and how do they connect? What will be the final location? The Quest does not necessarily have to end back at the property entrance.
5. Determine the order of the Quest and the Quest Box location
Once they have a feel for the property, students should decide the order in which they would like visitors to view each location on the property. Students should also work with the managers of the site to determine a location for the Quest Box that will be found at the end of the Quest (see Step 9 for what is included in the Quest Box and the top of p. 38 for a picture). Arrangements will need to be made for maintaining the Quest Box. Since our Quests were written for managed properties, we arranged with the properties to have someone from each organization periodically confirm that the box is in place. Otherwise, a student or teacher might need to volunteer to maintain the box.
6. Write movement clues for the Quest
Movement clues guide the reader from site to site within the property. It is easiest for students to write movement clues while walking through the property. Movement clues should include specific information such as distances (e.g., steps or meters), directions (e.g., left, north, toward the road), and landmarks (e.g., pathway, sign, big rock). Movement clues can be written as couplets. For example, students developed navigation clues for the trails at the Great Rock Bight Preserve, a recent acquisition of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. “Continue down this road until blue and yellow cross, / And to your right you will see a stonewall covered in moss” (Munn and Munn 2007).
Director of Martha’s Vineyard’s
Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
Suzan Bellincampi says, “The
Quest program has brought new
people to Felix Neck and helped
repeat visitors to see the
property in a new, exciting way.
The Quest offers a burst of fun, a
sense of purpose, and a chance
to learn about our community’s
special places! It was important
that students worked with
professional mentors to develop
the Quests, so that students
could connect with a place and
person and then share what they
felt was unique and notable with
others in the community. It will
be a long-term legacy for both
the property and the students.”
Visitor Heather Thurber says,
after doing the Long Point Quest
with her family, “What a
wonderful time learning and
enjoying the natural beauty of
our island as a family.”
7. Write teaching clues for the Quest
Students should next write teaching clues. Once the reader gets from one location to the next, students then teach the visitor something about that location. These clues could be written either at school, home, or the property. The clues can be written as couplets as well, and they can include information appropriate to the theme of the Quest. Since the Native Earth Teaching Farm is focused on farming, the Quest includes “Follow your nose to the pigs, / They are important on the farmland. / Pigs till the planting plots and eat this three-leafed plant, / That’s hazardous to man.”
The Quest should then be put together to include: a movement clue to get a visitor from the parking lot to the first location, a teaching clue about the location, a movement clue to the next location, a teaching clue about the location, and so on. An example of a combination of clues can be seen in the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary Quest. Wildlife management is part of the Sanctuary’s mission, and consistent with this, the Quest reads “On the right, after 30 steps, there will be, / An osprey nest for you to see. / Gus Ben David, maker of the stands, / Keeps his eyes on the osprey, and the sanctuary lands. / DDT was once a threatening mess, / Now the osprey lay safe in their nests. / But a lack of fish for them to spy, / May reduce the ospreys that we see fly.”
8. Modify teaching clues to make puzzle clues (optional)
Once students have a draft of the Quest, they might want to make the Quest a little more challenging. Students might choose to alter parts of the teaching clues so that they are fill-in-the-letter style puzzles. Our Polly Hill Arboretum Quest takes place at a not-for-profit horticultural institution and botanical landmark, and is in puzzle form (Munn and Munn 2007). The final location of the Quest Box is by a “stone bench.” At the end of the poem, rather than reading directly “stone bench,” each of the letters in “stone bench” instead corresponds to a numbered blank (1–10). As visitors do the Quest, they are prompted by clues to fill in plant names found on the identification tags at Polly Hill Arboretum. For example, when the visitors fill in the name “s-a-m-i-s-e-n” to solve a movement clue in the poem, there is a #1 under the first blank to indicate that the letter “s” is the first letter of the final Quest Box location, and so on. A property like the Polly Hill Arboretum with a lot of named locations or specimens works well for this type of Quest.
9. Create a stamp design
At each property the Quest Box hidden at the end of the Quest holds a stamp for visitors. Students can purchase stamp-making materials and design a small stamp to go in the box. Students will also need to include an ink pad for the stamp, and perhaps a notebook and pen so that visitors can leave messages. The design for the stamp should reflect the theme of the Quest or something about the property. Visitors may stamp their guidebook, just as they would stamp a passport, as evidence of completing a Quest. The challenge for visitors would then be to collect a stamp for each of the eight properties in the guidebook.
Before Quests are made available to the general public, they should be tested. Mentors at the properties can help with writing educational clues, suggesting locations on the property that might be included, testing the Quests, and providing general support for students. Mentors can also make students aware of safety concerns on the property.
In our case, participating properties sell copies of the book created from our project, and the sales go to benefit the properties. Our book is also available at local bookstores and through the publisher. One advantage to having all of the Quests in one book is that once visitors complete one Quest, they may then be motivated to visit other properties so that they can complete all eight Quests. Thus, one property can essentially promote visitation of all of the other properties. Participating properties appreciated this collaboration.
Although we chose to publish our Quests in the form of a book, Quests can also be made available individually at each conservation property. Each of our Quests includes a background section for the site with hours of operation, fees, directions, a brief history of the site, and rules that include any safety concerns. For example, the Native Earth Teaching Farm Quest information states, “do not chase the animals” and “do not move the gates.”
Modifying the format
Creating a Quest is a way of learning more about a place. What is chosen as the focus of the Quest can be determined by either the teacher or students. A teacher may have a specific learning objective, and the Quest could be used to meet that objective. Quests could also be written in an interdisciplinary fashion. For instance, a science-oriented Quest could also include a historical focus or an artistic focus. The writing portion of the Quest might be done as part of a language arts class.
Our Quests were written by small groups of students, but an entire class could write a longer Quest as a group project. Pairs of students might each be responsible for one movement and one teaching clue. Teachers might have students who want to do independent studies, and a single student might work a whole semester, visit the property several times, and work in more depth with a mentor to develop a Quest.
I had photocopied a booklet with the above information to serve as a guide for my students as they wrote their Quests. In retrospect, a journal would have been a good way to keep track of the project. A deadline could be set for each of the steps, and the teacher could evaluate progress and provide feedback to students directly in the journal. Students could get a grade on both the journal and on the final written Quest. Language arts teachers within the teacher’s school may even have a specific evaluation or rubric used for writing that could be incorporated into the project. Our project was done by students interested in preserving our environment on a voluntary basis, so I did not give formal grades for the work.
Benefits of Quest writing
Students enjoyed being able to direct their own learning by choosing the locations included in the Quests and taking ownership of their research. Additionally, students were able to work with science professionals from our community conservation properties and share information learned with people in our community. The resulting Quests are actively used by visitors to the sites.
Students had to learn to write very specifically and deliberately as they tried to guide the readers of the Quest from location to location. This kind of specific, deliberate writing is used frequently in science.
Quest writing has a flexible format, which can be tailored to meet an individual teacher’s needs and objectives. In the same way teachers might use their laboratory space for students to learn science and a lab report format to provide evidence of learning, teachers might instead choose to use a conservation space in their community to teach a set of concepts and use a creative-writing approach to provide evidence of learning.
Natalie Munn (Natalie_Munn@fc.mv.k12.ma.us) is a science teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
There are a number of Questing programs being developed around the country. One of the most established of these is the Valley Quest program of the New Hampshire/Vermont area
The author would like to thank Martha’s Vineyard Times for supporting the project and Steve Glazer of Vital Communities for providing outstanding guidance in the process of Quest writing. This project was primarily funded by the Toyota TAPESTRY Grants for Teachers program (www.nsta.org/programs/tapestry).
Glazer, S. 2001. Valley quest: 89 treasure hunts in the upper valley. White River Junction, VT: Vital Communities.
Munn, N., and K. Munn, eds. 2007. Quest Martha’s Vineyard. Vineyard Haven, MA: Martha’s Vineyard Times Press.