The Value of Creative Teaching
Place-based environmental education through the lens of art and creative writing
by Tess Malijenovsky
lace-based environmental education is taking front seat inside and outside classrooms across the country in part to prepare future generations for the environmental challenges they’ll face ahead. That is, climate change, natural resource competition, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and rampant species extinction. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them.
This is why we mustn’t undermine the value of creative thinking in outdoor environmental education. While our education system tends to emphasize critical thinking skills for good reason, sometimes the critic within must be silenced for the improvisation of ideas and solutions: In a study published by PLOS ONE journal, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring and conscious control were suppressed in jazz musicians playing improv. Despite differences in the analytical- and creative-thinking processes in the brain, however, both entail a sophisticated application of knowledge.
Nature-themed art and writing exercises are ways for educators to elicit creative thinking in students when teaching environmental education. What’s more, nature illustration outdoors, for example, can break through learning barriers and focus the attention of students from diverse backgrounds and learning levels while delivering life science lessons, as witnessed by Straub Environmental Center’s executive director, Catherine Alexander.
Alexander recently spent a day at the Little North Fork of the Santiam River with 20 elementary-aged summer campers studying and drawing the plants, fungi, and animals surrounding their beautiful setting in an old-growth ecosystem. The students, representing a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, took their seats on mossy patches of sunlight, encapsulating science concepts in a portrayal of their immediate watershed environment.
Imagine a children drawing an osprey. As she focuses on her drawing, the child listens to her teacher talk about the length of the bird’s wingspan, the purpose of its long, sharp talons, what it eats, and where it lives. According to the brain lateralization theory that more divergent thinking occurs in the right side of the brain, listening while drawing helps distract and relax the student’s inner critic, expanding the reach and flow of new connections in her mind. Less intimidated or hypercritical in the art-making process, the child’s attention focuses on the charismatic creature she is drawing and learning about. The art lesson unravels into an engaged science lesson about the osprey’s ecological niche and life cycle.
“Art is more than a pastime,” says Alexander. “It can be an enabling portal for a number of academic subjects. The summer campers reminded me that art can have rhetorician value for students with learning disability or for whom English is not their first language. It can be a powerful equalizer and high-interest segue into all kinds of educational pursuits.”
One free, online resource to help educators tie art and creating writing activities in life science lessons to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards is the “Toolkit for Educators,” developed in partnership by Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and Straub Environmental Center. The toolkit provides teacher-tested life science lessons plans that use Honoring Our Rivers (HOR) with the corresponding learning standards.
The HOR anthology, a program of Willamette Partnership, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, encourages students to fall in love with rivers and express their connections to them creatively – through art, photography, poetry, stories, and foreign language – in hopes of naturally cultivating the next generation of watershed stewards for the Pacific Northwest species and communities who depend on these vital systems.
Educators who integrate river-watershed-themed art and writing activities into their lessons can not only stimulate the creative minds of their students in an engaging educational way but give them an opportunity to be published statewide by submitting their work to HOR. The program also hosts student art exhibitions and student reading events across Oregon.
Educators can also learn more about nature-themed art instruction at HOR’s upcoming workshops at the Coastal Learning Symposium this Oct. 14 at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Teachers have the power to encourage the creative capacities of our youth while addressing the increasing disconnect between children and the outdoors. HOR exists to help them accomplish this feat. For more information, visit www.honoringourrivers.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tess Malijenovsky is the coordinator of Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, a program of the Portland-based conservation nonprofit Willamette Partnership. Prior to moving out West, Tess was an environmental journalist and the assistant editor of Coastal Review Online in North Carolina. She studied Creative Writing and Spanish at the University of North Carolina Wilmington