Urban Schools and Environment Education

by Alison Swain
IslandWood Graduate Student/ Field Instructor

T3his past fall, an IslandWood instructor gave me the
advice that a teacher can only take her students from the
place they are coming from.  Through weeks of teaching environmental education to students from public and private elementary schools across the Seattle area and Washington peninsula, I thought little about this statement.  Instead, I focused on the prescribed curriculum.  Perhaps I did more team building with one group and in-depth water quality with another; but ultimately, the curriculum and content was on par for each group.  This past week, teaching seven students from an under-resurced, urban elementary school, environmental education as I had practiced it stopped dead in its tracks.  Or so I thought.

After receiving the Friday morning briefing establishing the elementary school’s lack of organization, structure for students, and underserved background, I acquiesced that I may not hit “Nature’s ABC’s” the first day.  I did not anticipate one student planting himself outside the Gear Room, head buried in his knees, refusing to move or even voice his concerns for a half an hour.  I did not anticipate the ingrained reaction of five of my seven students to shut down (no movement, no verbal communication, no eye contact) when they experienced emotional, physical, or personal discomfort.  I did not anticipate the silence of a solo hike to be a poignant teachable moment or the game of camouflage to be a revolutionary way to experience nature.  I certainly did not anticipate the impact of a single salamander.

At the end of a week characterized by the challenge of melding my teaching to situations previously unanticipated, I was left with several questions for reflection.  The first: “Is the game of camouflage environmental education?”  In terms of meeting my students where they were coming from, the answer is most certainly, yes.  Seeing all seven of my students run without hesitation into the woods, which were previously full of bugs, discomfort, dirt, and fear, to hide became my most effective means of encouraging my students to get into the nature.  When I tried to relate the game to animal adaptations, a student immediately chimed in, “Like what?”  As we discussed and they discovered and named several adaptations of local animals, I knew I had them engaged and thinking about the natural world.

c.windAt one point in the week, I thought to myself, “It is a good thing that community is part of our mission statement because I do not know how much my students are learning about the environment.”  Reconsidering the definition of environment and the successful movements that are changing the ways Americans and industries use resources, I realized that creating community is a necessary component of environmental education.  The interconnectedness of the community of our team and the natural world became clear when we stumbled upon a salamander while hiking along the side of the Marsh.  Some of my students stared, surprised and awed by the creature.  Others pushed and reached to pick it up.  The reachers and pushers calmed as we quietly observed the salamander’s behaviors and discussed its habitat.  Finally, we talked about whether we should pick up the salamander.  My students came to a group consensus that we should not.  It was my turn to stand by, awed by the deep sense of care and blooming connection to the natural world as my students watched, unmoving, the salamander slowly lope off the trail to find cover.  The last boy to pass the spot where the salamander had hidden delicately poured water from his water bottle near the spot, so that, as he told me, the salamander could find water to keep his skin moist.  Our team’s salamander moment is just one example of the profound power of a community committed to caring for each other and the environment.

As the week continued, I encouraged each of my students to look outside of herself and take into account the greater whole by teaching my students through natural consequences about the choices they have and how those choices affect the entire group.  At different times that greater whole was the salamander at the Marsh, ecosystems we studied, and our team.  Empowering my students with the idea that they had choices and asking them to use these choices throughout the week taught them an extremely important element of environmental education: each person possesses the power to choose his path and that path effects the natural world and human communities.

For the final activity of our week together, I revisited a blindfold walk as a lead-in to a short solo hike. At the end of the solo hike, students were to write a letter to themselves recounting what they had felt, learned, and loved about their week at IslandWood.  As each student walked down the path silently stopping at each solo hike card to consider the statement or question, I knew that these students had connected to the environment around them.  Simply by being comfortable walking alone on the trail, they had absorbed many of the lessons of the week.  At the end of the solo hike, as students went off-trail to find their own space to write their letter, I witnessed yet another success.  These students had attained a level of comfort with their natural surroundings.  At the beginning of the week, my students were afraid, uncomfortable and seemingly out of their element.   Today, they had learned that moving silently was often rewarded by an awe-inspiring moment of witnessing an animal in its environment.  On the final day, this moment entailed observations of a pileated woodpecker at work on a snag and for over half my group, a mention of the salamander as something they will always remember.

As for myself, I was finally forced to consider the advice others had given me.  I learned to meet my students where they were coming from and find a balance, an understanding, where we all could engage in our environment for the week.

Allison Swain is a field instructor and graduate student living and teaching environmental education at IslandWood’s campus on Bainbridge Island, Washington.