hirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.
Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.
I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.
This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.
In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.
Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”.  This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.
So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.
It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.
As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”, meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”. Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.
In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.
Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”. Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.
With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”.
The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.
In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”. The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”. This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.
The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.
Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real’”. In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from. If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.
Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”. These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.
My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.
We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.
One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.
She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school. However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here. That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right. This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 159
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2
 Louv “Last Child in the Woods”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13
 Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 90
 Weintraub “To Life!”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64
 Weintraub “To Life!”
Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.
Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.
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 email@example.com.
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
Wild Words: A guide to integrating creative writing into field-based education
by Becca Deysach
“I’ve always wanted to write but never gave myself permission.”
This sentiment is the one I have heard most frequently since I began teaching creative writing several years ago. I’ve heard it from my college students, patients at a mental health clinic, and empty-nesters who are finally letting themselves do whatever the heck they want.
The more I inquire about my students’ inhibitions about writing, the more I discover that people are afraid they have nothing to say, or, worse, that they will fail terribly at saying what they want. I hear horror stories of returned papers that might as well have been dipped in red ink, and the resulting belief that they were, indeed, better off not trying.
But it’s not true: they are storytellers. We all are. Some creative impulse lives in each of us—it’s part of being human, after all—and for some, the urge to paint or dance or write becomes so great that eventually it overpowers the limitations imposed by well intentioned teachers when they were young. But then it shouldn’t get to that point.
I believe that it is the responsibility of educators to prevent our students’ alienation from their own creativity before it’s too late by nurturing their inborn sense of wonder, curiosity, and creativity, whether our discipline is wilderness leadership, stream ecology, or math.
Good teachers do this in a variety of ways, including inquiry-based learning initiatives, field studies, journaling, art projects, and more. We do these things because they are fun, and we do them because we know that experiential education leads to better learning outcomes.
Creative writing workshops are another fabulous means by which students can engage more intimately with any topic at hand, integrate their learning, and deepen their relationship to their ecological and learning community. The only problem is, the same messages that make so many adults fearful of creative writing also prevent many educators from facilitating creative writing exercises, and students thus lose the chance to get to know forest with the sensitivity of a poet and the precision of an ecologist.
At the risk of making my job obsolete, though, I’ve got a secret for you: anybody can facilitate a writing workshop. All you need is a group of students armed with paper and writing implements, your own creative spark, and some basic facilitation tools.
The writing workshop I outline below is designed with field educators in mind, but the basic principles and format can be applied to any classroom, school yard, garden, or living room context just as easily.
But first, you must know the Rules for Freewriting:
Write the first thoughts that comes into your head. Don’t think, just write!
Keep your pen flowing. Don’t stop writing until the timer is up or the facilitator says, “stop”! If you get stuck, just repeat the word you’re on over and over until something else comes out.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. You can fix that stuff later.
Don’t try to control your writing! Let it take you where it wants to.
Ice-Breaker and Warm-Up
Writing and sharing can make us all feel vulnerable, so it’s important to begin any writing workshop by creating a safe and supportive space. If everyone is new to one another, a name game of your choice is a great place to start. If you are working with a group of students familiar to one another, begin with some variation of the following exercise, tailoring it to your group and your field of inquiry:
Read the following phrases aloud one at a time, and give everyone about thirty seconds to write their response before moving on to the next phrase. Urge your students to follow the Rules of Freewriting as they write.
My favorite smell is…
In my free time…
If I could travel anywhere…
My favorite book/plant/ecosystem/river/mountain/geologic era/invertebrate/chemical/constellation is…
If I could travel to any point in history…
When I grow up…
I come from…
I don’t remember…
Before any sharing takes place, let your students know that there is no right or wrong response to the prompts, and that you encourage them to share even if it feels a little scary, but that everybody has the option of passing at any point. The freedom not to share helps prevent self-censorship while writing, and that is ultimately what we’re going for.
Go around in a circle, sharing responses to one prompt at a time. So, for example, ask everybody read aloud their response to “My favorite smell is….” before going on to “I wonder…” This creates a rhythmic group poem while exposing students to new aspects of one another. I always write and share with my students in these freewriting exercises, as it models vulnerability and helps contribute to a safe and intimate group atmosphere.
Exploration, Observation, and Writing
Once you’ve warmed your group up and they’ve begun to get comfortable with writing freely and sharing, you can move on to a longer exploration and writing exercise. Ask your students to split up and give them a couple minutes to find something in their environment that catches their eye—a rock, a plant, or a natural feature, perhaps. Depending on the type of class you are teaching, you could be specific about how they should focus their attention (“Pick a rock layer that you find intriguing”), or you could leave it open and let curiosity be their only guide.
Alternatively, you could collect some natural objects—a handful of river stones, branches covered in lichen, or decaying bark—and ask your students to each pick one. This may be a better option with younger students.
Once your students are settled in near the focus of their attention, ask them to observe it with most of their senses (taste is usually not appropriate). When 3-5 minutes have passed, ask them to begin a 5-10 minute freewrite that begins with a multi-sensory description of their focus and follows the Rules of Freewriting. Remind them to let their writing take them wherever it wants to go. You will time them.
Give your students a two-minute warning before their writing time is up, then ask them to finish up their last thoughts and rejoin the group quietly when the stopwatch strikes five (or ten).
Sharing and Feedback
Once again, ask students to share their writing. You can also ask students to give supportive feedback to one another’s writing at this point. This encourages students to pay close attention to qualities that make good writing, builds group trust and support, and helps build writing confidence in individuals.
A few of the many things to give feedback on are:
Images that stand out
Interesting questions the writing raises
Any other strengths
Keep in mind that some groups are awkward about giving feedback and will need a little bit of modeling from the facilitator at first.
In addition, I ask people to refrain from giving “constructive feedback” on all off-the-cuff freewriting. It hardly seems fair to ask people to write whatever spills out and then critique it. Only once a piece has been revised is it ready for suggestions for improvement, and even then positive feedback is just as important.
It’s often most satisfying to end a writing session with a final, short piece of writing. Three-to-five minutes will do, and it’s up to you if you share for this final round. In lieu of sharing the whole piece of writing, you could ask students to share their final line.
A few suggestions for your final writing activity:
Have students pick a favorite line from their own piece of writing and use it as the starting point for another one.
Ask students to write down the last/first/favorite line from their previous piece of writing on a slip of paper, put the slips of paper into a small pile, and ask each student to pick a random slip to use as their first line.
Use one of the phrases from the warm-up activity as a starting point.
Have them close their eyes and listen, then begin by writing what they hear.
Start with “Today I learned…..”
At the end of a workshop, I always like to thank people for their bravery and thoughtful participation. It makes everyone feel good and eager to come back for more.
Congratulations! You’ve just facilitated a successful writing workshop!
Just as writing prompts are meant to be springboards for stories to emerge, the basic writing workshop model I outlined above is intended to be simply a starting point for integrating creative writing into your educational repertoire. Let your own imagination, course objectives, and field of study be your guide as you give your students permission to become the creative writers that live inside of them.
And, in the process, you might just meet the creative writer inside of you.
Becca Deysach teaches creative writing and environmental studies for Prescott College and Ibex Studios: Adventures in Creative Writing (www.ibexstudios.com). She is excited to work with teachers in all disciplines to integrate creative writing into their curricula and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Considering Sustainability Outside of the Science Classroom
by Lauren G. McClanahan
Western Washington University
Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.
Given the titles most often studied in secondary literature classes, one could infer that critical topics such as race, gender, class and culture reigned supreme in the 20th and 21st centuries. From the classics to current young adult fiction, students are transported to worlds where characters are acting in and around specific settings, but the settings are not necessarily the star attraction. The settings provide context, but only as backdrops for the main characters on stage. According to Glotfelty (1996), upon reading the current canon, “you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all” (p. xvi). In secondary literature classrooms, where students study how ethics impact their moral and spiritual lives, “we have fairly well ignored our impact on the natural world or our relationships with it” (Bruce, 2011, p. 13).
The concept of relationships is key. Closely examine any middle or high school curriculum, and you will readily find many topics being formally studied: chemistry, algebra, civics, literature and the like. However, what you won’t readily find is any meaningful connection between them, as often they are treated as separate entities, existing in a vacuum, not simultaneously acting or being acted upon. As educators, we would do well to heed Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology, which states, “Everything is connected to everything else.” The disciplines under study in our schools should not, according to Cheryll Glotfelty, “float above the material world in aesthetic ether,” but rather they must interact, playing a part in an “immensely complex global system, in which energy, matter and ideas interact” (1996, p. xix, emphasis in original).
Ignoring our impact on the natural world occurs at our own peril. Scan any headline and you are sure to find news of storms of increasing severity, toxic oil spills, and the ravages of mining, drought, flooding and famine. Secondary English teachers must come to terms with the fact that we are beginning (re: have already begun) to reach our environmental limits on this planet, “a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems” (Glotfelty, 1996, p. xx).
According to Ecological literacy expert David W. Orr, “Sustainability is about the terms and conditions of human survival, and yet we still educate at all levels as if no such crisis existed” (1992, p. 83). Orr goes on to state, “all education is environmental education” both by inclusion and exclusion (1992, p. 90). By what we teach or don’t teach, we model to our students that they are “a part or apart from” the natural world (Orr, 1992, p. 12). What this implicitly tells our English Language Arts students, which they are receiving in most cases through exclusion, is that “our ecological relationship with our habitat is either a matter of little importance or something only relevant to ‘science geeks’” (Bruce, 2011, p. 13). According to Glotfelty, “as environmental problems compound, work as usual [in the English classroom] seems unconscionably frivolous. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem” (1996, p. xxi).
But aren’t issues of the natural world, the earth and its systems, best left to the domains of science? Why must we feel compelled to study the natural world in the English Language Arts classroom? In this paper, I will attempt to offer a rationale for the inclusion of the environment into the ELA classroom, and offer a plea to the profession that the natural world (and, by extension, the constructed world) is definitely under our purview, and that as teachers of English and composition, we are morally obligated to cast the earth as a main character, for only out of action can environmental justice take root and grow.
What English Teachers Do
As English Language Arts teachers, we may feel that the issues of resource depletion and increasing toxicity are beyond our prescribed scope and sequence. Yet, I would suggest that it is well within our capacity to cross over into territory once claimed exclusively by the sciences—indeed, it is our moral obligation as teachers. According to Glotfelty (2006), we must consider “nature not just as the stage upon which the human story is acted out, but as an actor in the drama” (p. xxi and we humans as “ecologically imbedded rather than immune” (Bruce, 2011, p. 14). Because English Language Arts teachers specialize in questions of “vision, values, ethical understanding, meaning, point of view, tradition, imagination, culture, language and literacy” (Bruce, 2011, p. 14), we can easily cross the arbitrary and human-constructed boundary into the sciences. Questions of vision, values, ethics and culture are, according to Buell (2005), “at least as fundamental as scientific research, technological know-how, and legislative regulation” (p. 5).
Moreover, the English Language Arts perspective “softens” the sciences where discussions of environmental degradation normally occur. One popular point of entry is Aldo Leopold’s (1966) concept of a “land ethic,” in which he states, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community [soils, water, plants and animals]. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (p. 262). His statement is ecocentric (nature-centered) as opposed to anthropocentric (human-centered), and here is where the English Language Arts can find entrée into the sciences. By studying literature and composition in ways that notice both human and non-human species, we promote empathy for all, including soil, water, and air, upon which all life depends (Bruce, 2011). By tackling issues of environmental degradation (or, conversely, celebration), English Language Arts can focus on how humans are affected by human action and on how the whole of biota (including, but not favoring, humans) is affected.
Another natural cross-over point of English Language Arts into the sciences is through the discipline of ecology. According to Dobrin & Weisser (2002), ecology can be defined as “a science that evolved specifically to study the relationships between organisms and their surrounding environment” (p. 9). They define the relatively new field of ecocomposition as a study of relationships: “Relationships between individual writers and their surrounding environments, relationships between writers and texts, relationships between texts and culture, between ideology and discourse, between language and the world” (p. 9). Here, Dobrin and Weisser are explicit in their use of the term “environment,” in that it is more encompassing than merely “nature.” “We mean all environments: classroom environments, political environments, electronic environments, ideological environments, historical environments, economic environments, natural environments” (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002, p. 9). As English Language Arts teachers, we deal daily in the study of discourse (speaking, writing and thinking), and that means studying the relationship between discourse and any site where discourse exists, be it natural, constructed, or imaginary.
Ecocomposition, Ecoliteracy and the “Greening” of English
The curricular responsibilities of English Language Arts teachers can be broken down into two main categories: reading and writing. They can be further dissected into reading different authors and genres, and writing for different audiences and purposes. Critical theories such as race, gender, class and culture have dominated the post-modern English Language Arts curriculum. Two new curricular approaches suggest that place be added as a new critical category. The first is “ecocriticism,” defined as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty, 1996, p. xviii). Glotfelty (1996) explains that “Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies” (p. xviii). Questions such as “How is nature represented in this sonnet?” and “What role does the physical setting play in the plot of this novel” inform the focus of ecocriticism. Whereas ecocriticism is concerned primarily with the interpretation (i.e. reading) of text, a second theory, ecocomposition, is concerned primarily with the production (i.e. writing) of text (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002), understood to include not only the printed word, but also visual and natural texts (or contexts). In this sense, the concept of language (discourse) is broadened, so that “language does not exist outside of nature,” and that language (discourse) is “the most powerful, indeed perhaps the only tool for social and political change” (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002, p. 26). Indeed, following this line of thinking, writing = power.
But how could we best frame a curriculum based upon these two new critical theories of reading (ecocriticism) and writing (ecocomposition)? The broader concept of ecological literacy might be useful for helping to locate nature in the English Language Arts. Orr (1992) suggests that, “Literacy is the ability to read. Numeracy is the ability to count. Ecological literacy…is the ability to ask, ‘what then’” (p. 85)? “What then?” would, according to Orr, be an appropriate question to ask “before the last rainforests disappear, before the growth economy consumes itself into oblivion, and before we have warmed our planet intolerably” (p. 85). One could just as easily ask, “Why should I care?” Or, “How does this affect me?” The English Language Arts skills of close observation and making connections must be brought into practice if we are to adopt an ecological literacy framework. To help us construct that framework, a framework that asks us to step outside of our minds and out into nature, Orr (1992) suggests six principles, or frames of mind, that we would do well to introduce to our students
“[A]ll education is environmental education” (p. 90).
“[E]nvironmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department” (p. 90).
“[F]or inhabitants, education occurs in part as a dialogue with a place and has the characteristics of good conversation” (p. 90).
“[T]he way education occurs is as important as its content” (p. 91).
“[E]xperience in the natural world is both an essential part of understanding the environment, and conducive to good thinking” (p. 91).
“[E]ducation relevant to the challenge of building a sustainable society will enhance the learner’s competence with natural systems” (p. 92).
Although all of Orr’s Principles are useful guides towards an ecological English Language Arts curriculum, the first two are most directly and easily applied through a place-based pedagogical approach.
The Power of Place: Place-Based Writing
A place-based education incorporates the concept of “place” or “environment” as an integrating context across multiple disciplines (Sobel, 2004). Place-based education can be characterized by “interdisciplinary learning, team-teaching, hands-on experiences that center on problem-solving projects, learner-centered education that adapts to students’ individual skills and abilities, and the exploration of the local community and natural surroundings” (Bruce, 2011, p. 21). We can use our local places, environmental issues (and all issues are environmental), and peoples’ natural love of nature, or “biophilia” (Wilson, 1984) “…to improve English education, literacy, and citizenship” (Lundahl, 2011, p. 44). Keeping in mind Orr’s (1992) first two principles of ecological literacy, we can see how a place-based pedagogy is a natural fit for the English Language Arts.
Orr’s (1992) first principle of ecological literacy, that “All education is environmental education” (p. 90) may at first seem hyperbolic, but is indeed accurate. When combined with the pedagogy of place-based education, this principle takes flight. According to Sobel (2004), place-based education:
…is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts…and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. (p. 7)
Sobel’s (1992) emphasis on the cross-curricular nature of place-based education highlights Orr’s (1992) second principle of ecological literacy, which states that, “environmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department” (p. 90). By using local places as sites for linking the arts and the sciences, students make connections, and when students make connections to a place, that place becomes more personal. Place-based writing projects encourage students to more fully commit to a topic, which can allow for a more authentic writing experience. Indeed, “meaningful writing both grows out of and reflects back on a connection with place” (Jacobs, 2011, p. 51). By providing our students with unique, authentic experiences in their own communities, we can begin to harness the elusive quality of “voice,” along with providing authentic reasons and audiences for writing.
Heeding Student Voice
Taking a place-based, eco-literacy approach to the language arts can be a weighty, sometimes depressing task. The new term “solastalgia” describes the “sense of loss people feel when they see changes to local environments as harmful” (Bluestone, 2011, World Changing, p. 449). Reading the headlines today, students must be concerned with a wide array of environmental issues, some which affect them directly (increasing gasoline prices, local flooding) and some of which affect them indirectly (the melting of the polar ice caps). In order to avoid this feeling of eco-nihilism, Owens (2001) suggests that:
Educators have a responsibility to help students resist the cynicism and hyperbordom of contemporary consumer culture…[we must] give them opportunities to testify about what is wrong and what is good about those worlds…[and] provide them with a vocabulary with which they might critique their environments and develop an awareness of what exactly it is…that can make a person miserable, bored, angry, tired, scared, depressed. (p. 69)
This concept of testimony fits nicely into the more personal structure of place-based writing. As Freire (2000) states, the purpose of education is for students to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (p. 83, emphasis in original). To bring about lasting change, both reflection and action are needed; the word and the world are inseparable. Personal experience can often be considered the best evidence when building a rhetorical argument. According to Matalene (2000):
Most students quickly learn that the easiest, safest, least risky method is to keep private and public separate. This seems to me seriously wrong…we should be encouraging many voices, not turning them all into one. Surely, teaching students that they have the right and the responsibility to add their own unique voices to the American conversation is why we teach writing anyway. Surely, we want to strengthen their individual, private voices so that one day they may speak, not just listen, and act, not just watch. (pp. 188-9)
Matalene articulates the fundamental rationale for encouraging students to write from their experience, “It honors their voice, encourages their efforts, and, ultimately, follows Freire’s idea of praxis from reflection to action, to make better citizens” (Jacobs, 2011, p. 51). Certainly, the uniqueness of experience + place = voice. Additionally, when framed within a place-based, ecocompositional curriculum, students are afforded more authentic reasons to read, write, think and take action.
Response to any crisis is often technological, and with the goal of solving the immediate problem. But what if the response to how climate change is affecting the lives of middle and high school students was more reflective in nature, and focused on writing and thinking specifically about place? The following section examines a specific assignment that asked students to look closely at their unique communities and tell their own stories, through words and photos, of how climate change has impacted their lives. This assignment is an invitation to think about something that these students earnestly need to think about, something that is troubling to them, and to, “use English class and writing as a vehicle for discovery” (Ruggieri, 2000, p. 53).
First Person Singular Project: The Marriage of Ecocomposition and Place-Based Education
In my experience as a middle school Language Arts teacher, and now a teacher educator, I often come to the conclusion that my students learn best from, a) studying topics that are of interest to them, and, b) from one another. Thus, I created the First Person Singular project, where I ask middle and high school students to use text (both written and visual, through the use of photographs) to tell a story, in this case, the story of how climate change is having a direct affect on their lived experience. It is my contention that teens (and often, adults) will listen more closely if a story of such immense consequence as the degradation of our planet is told through the eyes of peers.
To begin, I ask students to photograph evidence of climate change that they may see in their own neighborhoods. In Kwigillingok, Alaska, this means photographing the damaging effects of the melting permafrost beneath their homes. In Tsetserleg, Mongolia, this meant photographing evidence of unusually harsh winters. In Burlington, Vermont, this meant photographing local flood damage due to unusually heavy rains. By locating problems in specific places, the project takes on an immediacy and an authenticity that can only be achieved through a place-based pedagogy.
After students have collected their photographic evidence, they are asked to write about what they photographed, and why they think it is a good example of how climate change is affecting their lives. In nearly every instance, the physical manifestation of a changing climate is deeply personal. In Alaska, for example, students wrote about how their homes were sinking due to the melting of the permafrost beneath their feet. Their photos and their accompanying writing illustrated homes that had to be propped up by concrete cinder blocks to remain somewhat level. One student’s essay explained how his community has already had to move once due to shoreline erosion, and he did not want to have to move again. “We can’t leave,” he eloquently stated, “but we can’t stay, either.” In Vermont, climate change looks quite different. Two months before I worked with these students, a hurricane swept up the East Coast, leaving Burlington soggy amidst floodwaters not normally seen so far inland. Several students chose to write about how the destruction of the city’s bike path impacted them. Since bicycles are their primary mode of transportation, they felt cut off from the world when the floodwaters tore apart the path. These stories are perfect examples of how the ecological relationships between humans and their surrounding environments are dependent and symbiotic. Through discourse (in this case, writing) these students were able to shape their experiences, using the power of the word in naming the world around them, and their experiences in it.
After photographs have been taken and words have been written, I ask students to read their writing aloud, into a digital recorder, so that their voice (quite literally) can be heard. I believe this to be the most powerful aspect of the entire First Person Singular project—the platform it provides to literally hear students’ voices. When combined with the photographs, the audience begins to gain a sense of who these students are, as individuals, and why what matters to them should matter to us as well.
All elements of The First Person Singular project (photos, writing, and audio) are then entered into a video production program (in this case, iMovie) to be made into a digital story. For the purposes of the First Person Singular project, digital storytelling can be defined as a multimodal activity combining written, oral, visual and gestural symbols into digital representations, such as videos, short films, feature-length films, or photo montages. Thus, digital storytelling is an ever-evolving method of artistic and academic expression, often told in the first-person narrative form (hence the name of the project). Content is most often drawn from personal experiences that are deemed important by the students involved in their creation. Through this project, students are reminded that the source of their power lies in their own story, in the earth, and the relationship between the two. Hence, students must learn to tap into and trust the truth of their own lived experiences. An example of “First Person Singular: Alaska” can be seen here:
Once students have engaged in a project that has affected them personally, they might feel the urge to take on an issue of local importance—the pollution of their local watershed, the air quality in their particular neighborhood, or the safety of their local food supply. Any number of social-justice themed projects cold be similarly told, using the combination of text and photographs, to illustrate how everything is connected to everything else, and to create a civic competence that tends to be lacking in our schools.[FL1] One recent example is the publication of “Dream fields: A peek into the world of migrant youth.” In this book, migrant youth from Washington state share their stories, through words and photos, of the conditions they find working in the damp fields of Washington’s commercial tulip industry.
Toward an Environmental Justice
As teachers, regardless of grade level or discipline, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Why?” Why do we do what we do, and what results do we hope to see because of it? The answer, I believe, lies within our belief that it is our moral and ethical obligation to do so, to model for the citizens of tomorrow how to think creatively, holistically and put their learning into practice. We want our students to eventually outgrow their need for us, to trust their own experiences as valid, and continually learn from them. Personally, I would add that I do what I do because of my own biophilia, or love of life—all life—in its myriad forms. I want my young daughter to have the same ecological opportunities that I have had—to come face-to-face with massive glaciers, to share a meal with a nomadic Mongolian family, to see the Milky Way on a clear, cool night, to experience autumn in New England, to hear an orca breathing. And I don’t just stop at my own daughter—I want every child, regardless of place—to have the opportunity to experience environments and cultures that are different from their own, before those environments and cultures disappear.
So, where do the English Language Arts fit in? Why the emphasis on “greening” the humanities? According to Jensen, “Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words can be used as weapons in service of our communities. Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words should be used as weapons in service of our communities” (2012). Some say that literature should be apolitical, and that the English classroom (or any classroom, for that matter) is not the place for politics. Well, thank goodness Rachel Carson wasn’t apolitical. Thank goodness Mark Twain wasn’t apolitical. Jensen (2012) states it well:
I would not be who I am and I would not write what I write without having learned from some of my elders who refused to believe that writers should or can be apolitical or neutral or objective. The truth is most important, they said. It is more important than money. It is more important than fame. It is more important than your career. It’s more important than your preconceptions. Follow the truth—follow the words and ideas—wherever they lead. Words matter, they said. Art matters. Literature matters. Words and art and literature can change lives, and can change history. Make sure that your words and your art and your literature move people individually and collectively in the direction of justice and sustainability. They said literature that supports capitalism is immoral. A literature that supports patriarchy is immoral. A literature that does not resist oppression is immoral. But you can help to create a literature of morality and resistance, as each new generation must create this literature, with the help of all those generations who came before, holding their hands for support, just as those who come after will need to hold yours.
Lauren G. McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in English Education and is currently Professor of Secondary Education at Woodring College of Education, Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. As a former middle school teacher, her interests include how student voice can be used to inform audiences about how climate change is affecting those in ecologically sensitive areas. Her series of “First Person Singular” video projects include students in Alaska, Vermont, and Mongolia.
I learned early on that storytelling is one of the most important tools for teaching science. If you think about it . . . what is science? Science is an attempt to understand the universe.
A well-told science story does three important jobs: It brings facts to life; it makes abstract concepts concrete; and through the virtual reality of storytelling, it walks listeners through the process of scientific inquiry.
Children are curious about information and science facts if they’re presented in an intriguing way. Historically, teaching science education meant spending an inordinate amount of time memorizing facts. Facts are important, and storytelling is one of the most effective ways of delivering them. But if you stop with facts you are not teaching science. Science is a verb, an activity, not simply a body of knowledge.
Ideas such as the food web, evolution, the water cycle, and animal adaptation are examples of the “big picture” ideas that are critical to understanding modern science. But if you stop with concepts, you still are not teaching science. You are building a necessary conceptual framework for ordering and understanding facts. Again, science is something you do, a way of asking questions and seeking answers.
Storytelling can be used to introduce or implement all of the science standards. Though it is obviously a prime example of language arts and science communication skills, I often include mathematics problems in the science stories to emphasize the importance of mathematics in science education.
Science-process skills are the methods or strategies that scientists employ to discover and understand the story of the universe. A good story involves the listener in many of the strategies of gathering the facts of the story, making predictions about the outcome, and checking their hypothesis against the unfolding details of the tale. Also, you can use a story to make abstract concepts personal and tangible. Important facts can be conveyed within a dynamic context so the facts stick; they have more meaning and impact
Let me share a short story that will show you what I mean.
Starting with a Story
When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my favorite biology professors was a man whom I only remember as George. At 94 years old he taught an occasional class. Because his father had also been a biology professor at Oberlin College, George had grown up on campus. Botany was his specialty and he spent his entire life studying the flora and fauna of northeastern Ohio.
Once a month on Sunday afternoon, George led a hike in the arboretum. Every month that I could be there, I was. He meandered through the arboretum telling stories about whatever plant caught his fancy.
One Sunday afternoon as we were walking in the flood plain of Plum Creek, he stopped next to an ancient cottonwood. This huge tree was almost a meter wide and maybe 30 m tall. He leaned against this giant tree and said . . .
When I was a seven-year-old boy, my father told me that cottonwood trees had a unique characteristic: If you break off a branch and stick it in the mud, it will sprout.
When my father told me this I thought, “Poppycock! If you break off a branch it is dead. A dead stick will not sprout.” Note that I did not say this; I have more respect for my father than to openly dispute him without a bit of evidence, but I did not believe him.
A few weeks later I was walking through the arboretum when a huge storm blew in. I love those Midwestern summer thunderstorms. As the clouds roll across the Great Lakes they pick up steam, literally. You can see the dark clouds gather in the distance as the winds start to blow and you know the heavens are going to open. Most kids might run home, but not me. I love the crack of lightning, the roar of thunder, and the warm rains that pummel the earth.
As I was walking along Plum Creek a strong gust of wind snapped off a branch from a cottonwood tree and it stuck in the mud. I thought, “Aha! This is my chance to prove my father wrong.” I came back each day for five days to gather evidence. Sure enough, after the third hot summer day it started to wilt. Because of the heat it was losing more water than it could absorb; evapo-transpiration is the scientific word for tree sweat. By the fifth day the leaves were curled. This branch was dead.
I went home and told my father he was wrong, and I had the proof. My father calmly listened to my interpretation of the facts. He said, “Son, you’re jumping to conclusions. You need to collect more data.” He told me to go back to that tree every day for the next 10 days, write down what I saw, and then tell him what I thought. Being a good son, and wanting to be a good scientist, I went back to that stick every day for 10 days.
Sure enough, after five more days the leaves started to uncurl. After seven days they started to plump up, to fill with fluid. By the 10th day the stick was indeed alive. I wanted to know why or how, so I carefully dug down around one side of the stick. I saw the small sprouting roots that had begun to grow. So, my father was right. Cottonwood do have a unique characteristic in their ability to sprout if you plant a stick in wet earth. It’s called regeneration. This is why cottonwood and willow are very important tools in preventing erosion. Streamside stabilization projects use willow posts and cottonwoods to help hold the stream banks in place.
I’ll never forget this idea because, you see, this giant cottonwood tree that we are standing next to is that cottonwood stick I watched wilt 87 years ago. Obviously, my father was right because that stick has grown into this huge tree.
And now having heard the tale, you will never forget that cottonwoods are able to regenerate either.
Making Stories Work for You
While the story is still fresh in your mind, make a short list of some of the facts you learned from this story. Which major concepts stand out for you? What are the science-process skills modeled in this study of the cottonwood? (At this point in a performance or workshop I often ask the audience to turn to a partner and answer these questions aloud. Obviously this is difficult in an article! But before you read on, please take a moment, read back over these questions, and make a list, at least a mental one.)
Through George’s story we have collected data about transpiration, root growth, and regeneration. We have formulated the hypothesis that sticks cannot regenerate and then designed an investigation to prove or disprove our theory. We have drawn an incorrect conclusion and collected more evidence to discover the truth. We have learned about trees but more importantly we have learned the process skills we need to learn about the unfolding drama that is the story of the universe. To paraphrase an old proverb, we have been given fish for supper and a net for catching all the fish we desire.
Think about it another way: Do you remember what your third-grade teacher said on November 4, nineteen hundred and . . . whenever? Do you remember stories that you heard when you were a child? If you have something important to say, put it into a story! Stories are like the glue that helps things stick. By giving facts an exciting context, they are more meaningful and more likely to be remembered.
Stories can make abstract theories concrete by bringing the listener into direct experience with the concept. The food web is not just an idea in a textbook; it is what you had for lunch. The water cycle flows through your blood streams. Storytelling engages listeners in the scientific process through the suspense and virtual reality that a good story creates. Students make discoveries along with the author or main character in the tale. You can tell stories from your life and experience, or you can dramatize important discoveries in the history of science. Even works of realistic fiction, if grounded in good science, can be written or told to illuminate a concept, introduce a chapter, or prepare students for a science experiment.
Having said all that, I’ll say something more: If you stop here, it isn’t enough.
Students must be energetically engaged in the activity of designing investigations and conducting research. After listening to this story about the cottonwood, what questions does it raise for you? How could you design a study that would find the answers? Go ahead and conduct this investigation. Remember: Science should be a verb!
After a recent retelling of this story, one student’s hand shot into the air immediately. When called upon he asked if this ability to regenerate was true of other trees. I asked what he thought. Several students’ hands shot up. They discussed different trees that might regenerate. One child said, “We could plant sticks from different trees and see if it was true.”
This is the other important role of storytelling in science education. A good story can motivate listeners or readers to want to become scientists. Think about it . . . who were the professors or teachers who inspired you to pursue this field? I’ll bet they were all good storytellers.
What are your stories? How can you share your discoveries in a way that could inspire and instruct your students? What are some of the classic tales of science that you remember from your education?
One of my favorite anecdotes from history is about the smallpox vaccination. Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids did not get pox. He found that they had been exposed to a germ called cow pox. This allowed milkmaids to develop an immunity so they were not affected by smallpox. From this discovery he developed a vaccine that saved thousands if not millions of lives.
Another of my favorites, though tragic, involved Marie Curie. She discovered radioactivity and opened the doors to the new science of nuclear physics. She would wear radioactive jewelry to dinner parties as a conversation piece. She later died from cancer because no one knew of the dangers of radioactivity. These are just two examples of classic tales you could tell.
In any discipline from astrophysics to molecular biology there are great stories about the scientists and their discoveries that you could dramatize. If you want to invigorate your teaching, tell your students the stories of science and the scientists that have inspired you. Tell the tales of the universe and your students will gain a deeper understanding of science facts, concepts, and methods.
Cherry, L. (1990). The Great Kapok Tree. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Ellis, B. (1997). Learning from the Land: Teaching Science Through Stories and Activities. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press.
Frasier, D. (1991). On the Day You Were Born. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Haven, K. (1994). Marvels of Science; 50 Fascinating 5-Minute Reads. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Leopold, A. (1970). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine Books.
Muir, J. (1994). The Wild Muir. Yosemite, CA: The Yosemite Association.
Reed-Jones, C. (1995). The Tree in the Ancient Forest. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications.
Yolen, J. (1987). Owl Moon. New York: Philomel Books.
What Makes a Good Science Story?
The most important scientists have all been good storytellers. Think about the scientists who have had the most lasting contributions to our understanding of scientific principles and the way things work. They have all been great writers and storytellers.
I believe that Rachel Carson changed the world in the first few pages of her landmark book Silent Spring (1962). Her modern parable about pesticides and the absence of songbirds in the spring helped to write new laws and radically transformed our relationship with the wild world. Her story took you inside the dilemma of a toxic environment and the long-term implications of what was then acceptable behavior. Her story, like the writings of Stephen J. Hawkins, Stephan Gould, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, and others, can give you a front-row seat on scientific discoveries.
Through their stories you feel like a voyeur, looking over their shoulders as they fumble through their mistakes and stumble upon the truth. A good science story needs this sense of immediacy, this in-the-moment insider’s view. Think about some passionate moment in your work as a scientist or science teacher. This passion and enthusiasm is important to the writing and telling of the tale.
Like all good stories you need well-defined characters. Who was there? Help us get to know something about these people and their motivations. You need a clear setting. Where were you? Describe the place using all of your senses; take us into this unique moment and specific location. You also need a dynamic plot with a sense of mystery or surprise. What happened? What led to your discovery? What did you learn from your mistake or success? Take us step by step through the questions that led to the research, the methods you used, and your “Aha” moment, when things clicked for you. Let the reader or listener share your sense of discovery. Use this outline to build your tale.
Recreate the moment. Exercise your science vocabulary while defining terms with explanatory clauses. If young children can memorize the Latin names of dinosaurs, they can certainly learn science vocabulary if they hear the words in a meaningful context. The truth is they will never learn these words unless they hear them in a meaningful context.
Interrupt the story to ask questions, engage the audience as guinea pigs in your experiment, or have the audience members choose a partner and tell each other their hypotheses.
When the story is over create a space for them to process the ideas, ask questions about the outcome, and internalize the concepts. Challenge them to design and conduct follow-up studies.
If the story motivates students to be active participants in scientific inquiry you know you have a great story!
How to Tell a Tale
What do storytellers do to bring the story to life? Who were your favorite professors, teachers, preachers, and politicians? What techniques did they employ to hold your attention?
Different personalities tell stories differently. The most important thing is to find a presentation style that suits your personality. With this said there are a few general techniques to consider:
• Use your voice to create characters, express emotions, and experiment with pacing, tone, accents, and sound effects.
• Use your body language, facial expressions, and gestures to convey the unspoken and reinforce the words you are speaking.
• Use your imagination and all five senses to be in the tale as you tell it. The more real you can imagine it, the more real it becomes for your audience even if it is a work of fiction.
• Involve the audience with simple rhetorical questions or complex sing-a-long songs. Within the body of the story allow them a chance to discuss a prediction or formulate a hypothesis.
Engage the audience as a partner in the telling of the tale. Use your voice, body, imagination, and the audience to tell, not read, the story. Beyond technique, the most critical element is your passion for the content. If you can tell the story in a manner that conveys this excitement, your contagious enthusiasm will be the key to a successful telling. [/password]
Abstract: In the contest of ideas, environmental educators put themselves at disadvantage by not availing themselves of the tools of humor. From satire to ridicule to comedy, the ability to connect through humor shouldn’t be overlooked. Humor has often been looked down upon by environmental professionals. Many environmental scientists, advocates, and educators view “Environment” so seriously that “having fun” with it would be “inappropriate”. This puts educators of all stripes at a disadvantage. Opponents of environmental education regularly use ridicule and satire to degrade the message and demean the messengers. Environmental professionals are often portrayed as purveyors of “gloom and doom” and their pronouncements the ranting of Cassandras. These comments often come clothed in mean spirited jest. Willingness to take up the tools of humor simply means leveling the playing field. This paper addresses how humor can inform; approach serious subjects humorously, and can be incorporated into different environmental education forums.
There’s a story that goes back at least until the early 1980s. It is a take off on the biblical story of Creation. It is usually titled something like “God and the EPA” or “God and the Environmentalists”. Instead of God being able to create the known universe at will and on His timetable, He finds himself stymied at every turn by the requirements and concerns of various Heavenly bureaucratic agencies and angelic environmental interest groups. When it becomes apparent that impact assessment, public comment and review, and many of the other things we take for granted as normal in the environmental community are going to stand in His way, God creates Hell. Although it is a funny piece and sure to draw a laugh from a great range of audiences, environmental audiences often miss the underlying message: that processes and protocols that lie near and dear to our heart and are looked at as good, right, just and even dare I say Holy, are infuriating to others in society. In subtle ways, environmental angelic surrogates in the Heavenly Host are subtly mocked and presented as a bit “fuzzy”. The story brings to light a very important point that is often overlooked; those who control the discourse most often control the outcomes.
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In the contest of ideas, environmental educators often put themselves at disadvantage by not availing themselves of the tools of humor. From satire to ridicule to good natured comedy, the ability to reach through humor shouldn’t be overlooked. The use of humor has often been looked down upon in formal and informal environmental education. Many environmental scientists, advocates, and educators often view their subjects as so serious that it would be inappropriate to “have fun” with them. It is often forgotten that humor often provides a tactical advantage in discourse. As Neil Postman pointed out in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, we live and work in a society where many interpret veracity from the level of entertainment derived from the presentation.
This entertainment mentality clearly puts environmental educators of all stripes at a disadvantage. Opponents of environmental protection and education regularly use ridicule and satire to degrade the message and demean the messengers. Environmental educators are often portrayed as purveyors of “gloom and doom” and their pronouncements as the ranting of Cassandras. What makes it worse is that these comments often come clothed in mean spirited humor. Look at the language used by Ron Arnold, James Watt, Fred Singer, and other past and present enviro-skeptics and wise use activists. When they are not attempting to draw doubt to the underlying science, they are using satire, ridicule and the darker elements of humor to attack the intellect and motives of the proponents of environmental protection.
The point is that willingness to take up the tools of humor simply means leveling the playing field. This paper addresses how humor in its different forms can be used to inform, how to approach serious subjects humorously, and how humor can be incorporated into different forums. Regarding the conference theme, “Casting a Wider Net”, adding humor to the arsenal of many environmental educators and the ability to defend oneself from the “meaner” forms of humor would certainly expand the scope of environmental education. To paraphrase the apocryphal dying actor “Dying (or talking gloom and doom) is easy, Comedy (or using humor to educate) is hard”.
So, one might ask the question, “What is humor and how do we use it?” There are six or seven basic definitions to the term humor. Humor is:
• The trait (personality characteristic) of being able to appreciate and express the humorous
• The quality of being (or not being) funny
• The liquid parts of the body (still related to the topic in that medieval medicine believed the outer disposition or personality was dependent upon the balance or imbalance of certain essential body fluids)
• One of these four essential humors in medieval medicine
• A characteristic (permanent or temporary) state of being
• A message designed to evoke laughter or
• A good mood.
Why is the use of humor important and powerful? The more painful and/or complex the concept, in the right hands/using the right words, the more powerful the opportunity to teach using humor. Consider the moments of highest tension or grief in ones own life: a birth, a death, a pressurized educational or work situation. How often is resolution or at least momentum changed by the challenge of humor? The medievalists may have been on to something when they spoke about balancing the humors; for humor itself helps to restore balance in discourse.
How can humor be applied to the processes of environmental education? First of all, there is only so much planning that can be done. Even the most skilled professional comedian utilizes the moment and the setting to provide opportunity for comedy to happen. Robin Williams is a master of this as was once again demonstrated during an appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” (June 10, 2001). Being amongst students, he often broke into “professorial” riffs, including a masterful one on the history of comedy (“far back in time, two Cro-Magnon were looking down a hill at a group of Neanderthals. The one Cro-Magnon said to the other ‘How many Neanderthals does it take to light a fire? None, they don’t have it!’”). Humor/comedy is often for educators an opportunistic enterprise. Very often, it can resemble a verbal form of the Japanese martial art Jujitsu. Those who ridicule environmental academics and teaching are often themselves in superior power positions: politicians, leaders of industry or labor, columnists or journalists with regular access to media outlets or “experts” underwritten by moneyed interests.
Think about some common critics of environmental regulation and education, and the great opportunities for ridicule and satire. The U.S. Department of Defense comes readily to mind. Despite the fact that they are arguably the strongest military force in the world, they feel overly constrained by current environmental regulations and they and their allies in Congress have been pushing for exemptions. Imagine the fun one could have with the concept of the U.S. Army being held up by the black footed ferret, the gopher tortoise or some other endangered species. Rep. Tom DeLay is on the record as referring to the EPA as Nazis; think of the imagery that could be used turning this vile comparison on its head. It is important to remember that those who control the terminology often control the discourse and win the argument before it begins. Consider the success that the Wise Use movement has had in labeling acts of vandalism as “ecoterrorism”. It has transformed in the minds of many often minor criminal acts into something seriously subversive and dangerous to the society as a whole.
The use of humor in environmental education does not always have to be defensive or used to ridicule. Consider the sheer wonder of the natural things that surround us. Nature can be pretty funny. Once again to reference Robin Williams, he did a marvelous routine in his standup days on the platypus as proof that God gets stoned. Almost anyone who truly tries to explain the wonders of life and the universe must see a thousand amazing things a day in nature, but even more amusing things. I explain to my students that if we are ever going to really understand how to protect species and their habitats, we must get inside their heads (as best as humanly possible). For instance, when one drives in the southeastern United States, one regularly sees dead armadillo by the roadside. Here is a creature whose ancestors roamed the Earth 60 million years ago, yet is being wiped out by the thousands along lonely stretches of southern roads every summer. I proceed to explain how this can happen by getting down on all fours and invoking audience participation to demonstrate that last few moments of an unlucky armadillo’s life. It is guaranteed not only to evoke laughter but to teach the audience that evolution isn’t fast enough to keep up with technological change.
Every day presents us with opportunities as educators to take what unfortunately may be boring subjects and transform them not only into something that entertains, but teaches. The sci-fi author Harry Harrison referred to one of his characters as being a “stainless steel rat in the wainscoting of society”. We can not simply rely on tradition pathways to deliver information and increase knowledge, understanding and commitment about the environment. I’m not advocating turning teaching into standup comedy. On the other hand a little humor, like chicken soup, couldn’t hurt. As was pointed out in the NEETF/Roper report Understanding Environmental Literacy in America, the levels of understanding and commitment to environmental sustainability in this country are astonishing low. As educators we should be willing to stretch ourselves to “make fun” of serious subjects with that most subversive of goals: to teach.
Eric Fitch teaches in the Environmental Science Program, Dept. of Biology and Environmental Science, Marietta College, Marietta, OH, USA 45750
Coyle, Kevin J. (May 2004) Understanding Environmental Literacy in America: And Making It a Reality Washington, D.C.: NEETF (National Environmental Education & Training Foundation
Fitch, Eric J., 2004, National Security and Environmental Protection: New Realities in American Public Policy in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review (Vol. 6, Issue 1): Worchester, MA & Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Postman, Neil, 1986 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business New York, NY: Penguin Books
Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner, 1971 Teaching as a Subversive Activity New York, NY: Delta Publishing
Williams, Robin, June 10, 2001 (originally aired ) Inside the Actors Studio Exec. Producer/Host James Lipton, Director Jeff Wurtz, New York, NY: Television Program
Williams, Robin (1993) Robin Williams – Live at the Met : Producer Troy Miller. 60 min. Lionsgate New York, NY: Videocassette