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 , “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)
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. (A Gathering of Days)
Studying maple syrup 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.
Read Native American legends about how it was discovered that sap from maple trees could be made into syrup, such as the Iroquois legend of Chief Woksis or the story of Nanabush.
Have students research the syrup harvesting process from its early days of collection in clay and bark vessels to modern-day methods that incorporate reverse osmosis reduction, steam- and oil-powered evaporation, and vacuum systems.
Have students research why abolitionist friends of Thomas Jefferson hoped maple sugar might help end the slave trade. (See The Maple Sugaring Story: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Maple Industry).
Use blank maps of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada to have students show the limited climate suitable for growing syrup-producing trees.
Discuss the concepts of exporting and importing, and have students research and graph which provinces and states are the leading producers of maple syrup.
Learn about the Quebec culture and its “sugaring off” traditions.
Introduce or reinforce the concepts of percentages and ratio. Have students graph what percent of sap is actually sugar. Even younger children can draw forty “pails” of sap to visualize how they are equal to only one gallon of maple syrup.
Help students apply their knowledge of temperature to syrup production. Have them research at what temperature sap becomes syrup and why this can change from one day to the next.
Enjoy reading Newbery Award-winning Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen.
Read and discuss the maple syrup process as depicted in children’s literature, using excerpts from classic works such as Little House in the Big Woods(pp. 117–130), Newbery Award winner Calico Bush (pp. 152–155), and The Birchbark House (pp. 194–208). Have older students compare and contrast the sap collection and syrup making process at the three different periods of American history and locations with which they correspond (Maine, 1743; Wisconsin, 1870s; an island in Lake Superior, 1847 [inhabited by the Ojibwa tribe near Minnesota]).
Have students investigate the health benefits of maple syrup (which not only has fewer calories by volume than either sugar or honey, but is a source of several minerals and even amino acids and proteins).
Experiment with new recipes that use maple syrup as the sweetener. Some worth finding include maple caramel corn, maple marinated chicken wings, and maple baked beans. For additional recipes, see The Maple Syrup Cookbook by Ken Haednon, 2001.
Spelling and Vocabulary
Spelling and vocabulary words range from words for the second-grader (roots, axe, maple, spile) to upper elementary (syrup, sugar, evaporator, production) to even older students (mechanism, hydrometer, commercial, osmosis).
In comic-strip fashion, have students illustrate the sequence of events in the syrup making process.
If you live in a sugar-producing region and have access to maple trees, consider applying newfound knowledge to an attempt at tapping and boiling your own syrup. Another option is to contact area nature centers. Many offer seasonal exhibits you can observe as a family or with a group of other homeschoolers. Be sure to celebrate the harvest with a meal together!
Books and Resources
Read-Alouds or Readings for Older Students
Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson (Newbery Award winner)
A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos (pp. 53–54)
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (pp. 194–208)
Calico Bush by Rachel Field (pp. 152–155)
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (pp. 117–130)
Picture Storybooks for Young Students
Anytime Mapleson and the Hungry Bears by Mordicai Gerstein (Harper & Row, 1990) This book is humorous!
Maple Moon by Connie Brummel Crook (Buffalo: Stoddart Kids, 1997) This book is an adaptation of Native American legends about maple syrup.
Sugarbush Spring by Marsha Wilson Chall (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 2000) This book has some great illustrations by Jim Daly.
Sugar on Snow by Nan Parson Rossiter (Dutton Children’s Books, 2002)
Sugar Snow by Laura Ingalls Wilder (HarperCollins, 1998) Adapted from Little House in the Big Woods.
From Maple Trees to Maple Syrup by Kristen Thoennes Keller (Capstone Press, 2005)
The Maple Sugaring Story: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Maple Industry (Vermont Maple Production Board, 1990)
The Maple Syrup Book by Janet Eagleson and Rosemary Hasner (Boston Mills Press, 2006)
The Maple Syrup Cookbook by Ken Haednon (Storey Books, 2001)
The Missing Maple Syrup Sap Mystery: Or, How Maple Syrup Is Made by Gail Gibbons (Warne, 1979)
Copyright 2008, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.
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Birch Trees on a Snowy Day Resist Art