Preparing Teachers for Environmental Education

by Louise Conn Fleming

Abstract: Our teacher education team at our university teaches the junior year methods and assessment to preservice middle grades teachers. Starting Spring 2003 we began using “The Projects” as part of methods instruction. In this paper I will review what educators say about how middle grades students should be taught, why environmental education meets those criteria, explain our program, and share our results.

Most adults in the U.S. have grown up out of touch with the environment, and it appears that the generation in schools today is growing up that way as well. The middle grades, grades four or five to eight or nine, are a time when children are beginning to see themselves as they relate to their world at large. This is a crucial time to focus their attention on how their actions have an impact on other inhabitants of our planet. However, most middle grades teachers, having grown up without experiences in nature, lack both the understanding and enjoyment of the environment and the knowledge of why or how to teach about it.

Our teacher education team at our university teaches the junior year methods and assessment to preservice middle grades teachers. For two years we have incorporated an interdisciplinary education project, requiring an environmental unit and lesson. However, we found that this assignment did not increase our students’ desire to teach their students about the environment. Starting Spring 2003 we began using “The Projects” as part of methods instruction. In this paper I will review what educators say about how middle grades students should be taught, why environmental education meets those criteria, explain our program, and share our results.

What Educators Say About Teaching Middle Grades Students
Middle grades are “the ‘prime time’ for moral development (Breault, 1999, p. 41).” This process can be facilitated by teaching with real life problems which engage students’ imaginations and help them to develop the skills to see perspective. Student projects, which involve students’ getting beyond themselves are a good way for them to develop this capacity.

Students have initiated and organized waterfront cleanups, run an animal shelter, and proposed legislation (Arnold). Not only have these projects enabled students to begin thinking from others’ perspectives; they have also increased test scores. Arnold (p. 30) states, “if high expectations are to be realized, we must empower students to become intellectually engaged, to develop skills, to be responsible citizens who put forth sustained effort.”

Furthermore, students must constantly be making meaningful connections with anything we want them to learn; this means that students must perceive the material as useful and worthwhile. Real-life problem-solving allows an immediate connection: students learn content as they use it. It also gives them opportunity to take initiative, to form judgments, defend them, and learn to think in the best interest of other people than themselves (Stevenson, 2001). “ When curriculum is at its best it takes on something of a life of its own” (Stevenson, 2001, p. 63). That is, students are active, energized, thinking up their own ideas and questions.

“The entire curriculum. . .should be organized around important concepts and questions” that reflect both standards and concerns of adolescents (Jackson and Davis, 2000, p. 43). Focusing on big ideas enables students to think across disciplines, to see patterns, and to understand impacts. They participate in creative thinking, identifying and solving meaningful problems, working with others, communication, as well as learning facts and knowledge in context and as useful tools.

This kind of curriculum challenges and engages students, “tapping young adolescents’ boundless energy, interest, and curiosity”; connecting them with work and issues within their local communities; and encouraging “habits of mind” that make them careful researchers and skeptical consumers of research (Jackson and Davis, 2000, p. 12).

Why Environmental Education for Middle Grades Education
Environmental education satisfies the criteria that middle grades researchers define: it is active and meaningful; it requires critical and creative thinking and real-life problem solving; it involves big ideas and questions; it encompasses many disciplines; its issues have major impact on the world; and its issues require depth of study and evaluation (there are no easy answers.) In addition environmental education can get students involved in their own communities, allowing them to make a real difference as citizens. Environment is something that affects us all and is at the foundation of our very lives.

North American Association for Environmental Education’s report of 2001 (NAAEE, 2001) called for Environment-Based Education (EBE). EBE is using environment-related subjects, across disciplines, to teach knowledge and skills for lifelong learning. It can help produce people who care about the people, creatures, and places around them; who are effective future workers and problem solvers; and who take their place as thoughtful community members and leaders. Results have shown (p. 4) that EBE has increased academic achievement in reading, math, science, and social studies. Additionally, because of its focus on local environment and community, it is interesting and relevant to students. Students are learning better, are more enthusiastic about what they are learning, and are proud of themselves and their school. “When learners are engaged, both achievement and discipline improve, thus helping to create safer schools” (NAAEE, 2001, p. 4).

Additionally EBE develops skills in how to make choices, how to investigate problems, how to produce solutions. Students do not just learn about; they research and experiment, use the scientific method, solve real-world problems, and implement and oversee community projects. Students also develop leadership and team-work skills. They participate in democratic processes, deal with complex issues, and contribute positively to their communities. Students learn to work with others and to care for other people and the natural world.

Our Program and Results
Our junior middle grades block is entitled Middle Grades Methods and Assessment II. In
the block we have the students for six hours, two days a week for the first seven weeks, and then they have a field experience for eight weeks. We have blocked together planning, assessment, and methods. As a team we have decided to model what we teach our students to do. As research on middle grades recommends, that involves plenty of active learning, problem solving, and integrating of subject matter.

My colleague and I are both avid environmentalists. Because we realize the necessity of passing on love of nature and an attitude of conservation, we want our students to teach their students about the environment. After experimenting with asking our students to do an environmental project, we realized that they lacked experiences to enable to teach in any depth about anything environmental. I suggested to my colleague that we incorporate the “Projects” as part of their methods instruction, and that semester we finished with Project Wild. The students responded very well to it and, when they were asked to develop and teach lessons as part of their workshop, they presented lessons that were far superior to what they had done in their environmental unit.

In Spring 2003, we taught Project Learning Tree, Project Food, Land, and People, and Project Wild. Once again, we were struck by the quality of the students’ lessons. We followed this instruction with the environmental unit. We required them to incorporate material from at least one of the Projects, and this assignment, too, had improved in quality. Students demonstrated more knowledge and seemed to enjoy doing their presentations. The rest of the class, as participants, also enjoyed the lesson. These results gave us the feedback that we needed, in order to continue using the Projects in our methods instruction.

An unintended piece of positive feedback came at the end of our semester, following the students’ field experience. We require our to develop a portfolio of their field experience. My colleague and I, with the field supervisors, meet with the students individually to discuss their portfolios. This time, included in every student’s portfolio were their certificates. Many of them said how excited they were to begin teaching the materials. If we had been convinced before, this was the proof: we would continue incorporating the Projects into our methods instruction. Fall 2003 we did just that and found similar results. Our students can’t wait to teach environmental education.

Ideas for Long-Term Results

Although our initial results are very good, two ideas would help us to improve our long- term results. The first idea would be to correlate the Projects with our Ohio state standards. Ohio leaders of Project Wet, Project Wild, and Project Learning Tree are working on that very idea. That would help preservice teachers not only to look for opportunities to implement the materials with their students but also to integrate them into their entire curriculum. A second idea would be to follow up on our graduates to get them the support they need either to implement the programs or to expand them. We could also encourage them to attend workshops in the other Projects and to tackle environmental projects at their schools or in their communities.

The Projects are a perfect match with middle grades education. Teaching preservice teachers, using these materials, supplies them with actual information and activities to use with their students. It raises their awareness of environmental issues as well as their desire to use the materials. Hopefully their follow-through as teachers will impact a new generation of citizens who understand and appreciate nature and apply that knowledge in the world and in their communities.

Arnold, J. (2001). High expectations for all. In T. O. Erb (Ed.), This we believe. . .And now we must act. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Breault, R. A. (1999). Morally responsive teaching. In C. W. Walley & W.G. Gerrick (Eds.), Affirming Middle Grades Education (pp. 38-60). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York: Teachers College Press.
The North American Association for Environmental Education, & The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. (2001, October). Using environment-based education to advance learning skills and character development. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Stevenson, C. (2001). Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory. In T. O. Erb (Ed.), This we believe. . .And now we must act. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.