Children were taken hostage in Russia, thousands died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bombs were detonated in Palestine and Israel. All of these events have occurred while I have been an environmental educator at IslandWood. How these events define my role as an environmental educator may seem obscure at first, but they are actually paramount to my decision to devote my life to this career.
I began to question the value of environmental or outdoor education last September when I read reports of the hostage crisis in Russia. Children were sacrificed for political gain while I was preparing to teach children about ecosystems. My career choice and what was needed in the world did not seem to be congruent. I could not see how what I was doing was alleviating suffering and dissipating hate. I wondered why it is important to teach children the abiotic parts of an ecosystem when there is a current of hate running through our society. Through this ongoing monologue I realized what role I want to play in environmental education. I want to help children build relationships and a sense of community in hopes that they will leave their experience with me a bit more likely to make positive choices.
I do not believe that children should grow up thinking that the environment is the world’s greatest problem, and it is their duty to save it, which some refer to as the ‘gloom and doom’ approach. Personally, I think that social problems have greater potential to exterminate humans long before we have a chance to kill the planet. The point of this polemic is that I believe children should be taught the value of treating everything with respect, which includes the natural world.
My role as an environmental educator is to teach about the environment, both natural and human-made, and to help others see and value the relationships in and between both. At IslandWood I spend a significant part of 4-day School Overnight Program discussing communities, those in a watershed or ecosystem, our group’s and their home community. Mornings begin with a focus question, which I have altered so that they are broader and can have answers that apply to the students’ own life. For example, “What is an ecosystem?” becomes “What is a community?,” so that human and natural communities can be discussed. The final question of the week “What can I do to make the world a better place?” can have myriad answers that connect their experiences at IslandWood and their lives back home.
I think that the experience of being outdoors in a small community can change people’s lives in extraordinary ways. The setting removes familiar pressures and attitudes, the people often feel freer to be themselves, and the experience is interesting. The combination of environmental education in the outdoors has had a great role in bringing me to this point in my life. I have lived, worked and studied in small communities in nature and believe that I am a better person because of it. I have facilitated these experiences for others and am consistently amazed by its impact. Patience, tolerance, respect and gratitude are virtues that can grow from environmental education, and I believe that these virtues are what is needed to save the world.
Julie Corotis is a graduate student of the IslandWood School on Bainbridge Island, Washington.