Maple Syrup: A Tasty Unit Study
- Monday, February 09, 2009
Does cabin fever have you wondering why you ever decided to homeschool in the first place? Does the 3 feet of snow outside your door feel more and more like an insurmountable wall? Would you be willing to sacrifice a mocha latte for just a teensy sign that spring is on its way?
Presenting (drum roll, please!) . . . a unit study with the potential to bring a multi-age group of learners closer to gain new knowledge of science, history, geography, math, and more: The Maple Syrup Unit Study.
The late winter months of February and March are an excellent time to anticipate the miracle that is spring, nowhere else better demonstrated than in the brief season of maple syrup harvesting. As Advent is to Christmas, the flowing of sap brings promise that spring is just around the corner. The collection of sap for the making of maple syrup has long been a family affair, with men, women, and children joining together in both the work and celebration. As Janet Eagleson explains in The Maple Syrup Book (Boston Mills Press, 2006), “Sugaring was a time of hard work but, as the family sat and talked while they waited for the sap to become sugar, also a time of bonding, bringing people together in the first warm weeks after a long winter.”
Likewise, the study and experience of maple syruping as a family today can draw parents, children, and siblings closer together.
"How beautiful, how beautiful! The land went up and down, with snow everywhere, unbroken except where the little road wound through. But then there was another little road, going into the trees. And another. She stood still, wondering. The tracks went around—over there and over there—in a big circle, and ... She stood staring. Every tree was hanging with bright buckets. And every bucket had a little pointed lid like a cap. Once she had seen a picture in a book at school.” (Miracles on Maple Hill, pp.12–13)
Descriptions of the maple syruping experience often have been depicted in literature and can be found in Newbery Award winner and honor books, Miracles on Maple Hill, A Gathering of Days, and Calico Bush, as well as in beloved titles such as Little House in the Big Woods and The Birchbark House. In recent years, juvenile fiction and nonfiction alike have seen excellent additions to the subject as well. For those who appreciate quality illustrations in children’s books, the topic of maple syruping will rival any other. Be sure not to miss Jim Daly’s illustrations in Marsha Wilson Chall’s, Sugarbush Spring.
One of the greatest advantages to this study is its potential to be enjoyed by people of all ages. Students of various ages can all glean information from read-alouds of the same material. Projects that address differing academic needs and incorporate the acquisition of knowledge and skills in areas such as chemistry, botany, nutrition, economics, mathematics, American history, and literature can be assigned to younger and older students. While your second-grader is drawing forty “pails” of sap to visualize how much is needed to make one gallon of syrup, your fourth-grader can be coloring in maps to show the limited climate suitable for growing syrup-producing trees, your eighth-grader can diagram and describe in writing the biology of maple sap flow, and your eleventh-grader can research how the process of reverse osmosis relates to large maple sugaring operations. A maple syrup unit study lends itself easily to the family who prefers hands-on life experiences and using “real” books to textbooks.
“Although, in memory, sap runs fast the actual accumulation is drop by drop, and slow.” (Catherine Cabot Hall in A Gathering of Days, p. 54)
Studying maple syruping provides a great opportunity to focus on the values of hard work and patience, because maple syrup does not come about without the combined efforts of both. Through both fiction and nonfiction, the images of families and friends tapping trees, collecting sap, and boiling 40 gallons of it just to make a single gallon of syrup is an apt demonstration of working together and diligence: “He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread . . .” (Proverbs 12:11a)
In teaching a unit study on maple syrup, consider using some of the following objectives.
Have students draw, trace, or identify the four types of maple leaves that produce syrup-making sap.
Explain to younger children that as living things, trees need “food.” Sap is the food that nourishes a tree’s roots, branches, and leaves.
If you live in a sugaring state or province, record daytime and nighttime temperatures throughout February and March. Graph them and predict sap season’s beginning and end.
Have students draw a diagram or write an expository essay explaining the biology of maple sap flow.
Have older students learn how hydrometers are used to check sugar density.
Have older students explain the process of reverse osmosis and how it relates to large maple sugaring operations.
Discuss the ecological principles of syrup making and how to be a good steward of God’s gift of maple trees.
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