The Value of Creative Teaching – Art and Environmental Education

The Value of Creative Teaching – Art and Environmental Education

The Value of Creative Teaching

Place-based environmental education through the lens of art and creative writing


by Tess Malijenovsky

lace-based environmental education is taking front seat inside and outside classrooms across the country in part to prepare future generations for the environmental challenges they’ll face ahead. That is, climate change, natural resource competition, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and rampant species extinction. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them.

This is why we mustn’t undermine the value of creative thinking in outdoor environmental education. While our education system tends to emphasize critical thinking skills for good reason, sometimes the critic within must be silenced for the improvisation of ideas and solutions: In a study published by PLOS ONE journal, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring and conscious control were suppressed in jazz musicians playing improv. Despite differences in the analytical- and creative-thinking processes in the brain, however, both entail a sophisticated application of knowledge.

Nature-themed art and writing exercises are ways for educators to elicit creative thinking in students when teaching environmental education. What’s more, nature illustration outdoors, for example, can break through learning barriers and focus the attention of students from diverse backgrounds and learning levels while delivering life science lessons, as witnessed by Straub Environmental Center’s executive director, Catherine Alexander.

Alexander recently spent a day at the Little North Fork of the Santiam River with 20 elementary-aged summer campers studying and drawing the plants, fungi, and animals surrounding their beautiful setting in an old-growth ecosystem. The students, representing a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, took their seats on mossy patches of sunlight, encapsulating science concepts in a portrayal of their immediate watershed environment.

Imagine a children drawing an osprey. As she focuses on her drawing, the child listens to her teacher talk about the length of the bird’s wingspan, the purpose of its long, sharp talons, what it eats, and where it lives. According to the brain lateralization theory that more divergent thinking occurs in the right side of the brain, listening while drawing helps distract and relax the student’s inner critic, expanding the reach and flow of new connections in her mind. Less intimidated or hypercritical in the art-making process, the child’s attention focuses on the charismatic creature she is drawing and learning about. The art lesson unravels into an engaged science lesson about the osprey’s ecological niche and life cycle.

“Art is more than a pastime,” says Alexander. “It can be an enabling portal for a number of academic subjects. The summer campers reminded me that art can have rhetorician value for students with learning disability or for whom English is not their first language. It can be a powerful equalizer and high-interest segue into all kinds of educational pursuits.”

One free, online resource to help educators tie art and creating writing activities in life science lessons to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards is the “Toolkit for Educators,” developed in partnership by Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and Straub Environmental Center. The toolkit provides teacher-tested life science lessons plans that use Honoring Our Rivers (HOR) with the corresponding learning standards.

The HOR anthology, a program of Willamette Partnership, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, encourages students to fall in love with rivers and express their connections to them creatively – through art, photography, poetry, stories, and foreign language – in hopes of naturally cultivating the next generation of watershed stewards for the Pacific Northwest species and communities who depend on these vital systems.

Educators who integrate river-watershed-themed art and writing activities into their lessons can not only stimulate the creative minds of their students in an engaging educational way but give them an opportunity to be published statewide by submitting their work to HOR. The program also hosts student art exhibitions and student reading events across Oregon.

Educators can also learn more about nature-themed art instruction at HOR’s upcoming workshops at the Coastal Learning Symposium this Oct. 14 at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Teachers have the power to encourage the creative capacities of our youth while addressing the increasing disconnect between children and the outdoors. HOR exists to help them accomplish this feat. For more information, visit, or email


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

Wild Words: A guide to integrating creative writing into field-based education


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.

marthasbacksmallCreative 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…
  • I wonder…
  • In my free time…
  • I love…
  • 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 crave…
  • I don’t remember…
  • I remember…
  • My name…


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.

IMG_1457Go 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).

IMG_1459Sharing 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
  • Creative descriptions
  • Striking language
  • 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!

Launch Pad

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 (  She is excited to work with teachers in all disciplines to integrate creative writing into their curricula and can be reached at

EE and Language Arts: The Hunger Games and the Nature of Rebellion

EE and Language Arts: The Hunger Games and the Nature of Rebellion


The Hunger Games and the Nature of Rebellion

By Natalie Gillis

In my nature explorations, I’ve always been fascinated not just with identifying the species I encounter, but with digging deeper and learning their backstories. There are many stories behind the plants and animals that fill our landscapes. Sometimes they’re hidden in history, myths and cultural narratives. Sometimes they’re hidden in our very words.

With Catching Fire, the second film installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, fans of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic dystopian world will be celebrating. Many educators will too, since the film’s release will revive the series for students, and thus its relevance in language arts programming.

From a literary perspective, The Hunger Games is an action-packed hero’s quest told through the eyes of a strong-but-flawed heroine fighting to survive in a dystopian future. It’s a great entry point into explorations of the monomyth, and it can be easily compared to other classic quests like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lion King and many comic-book superheroes.

But The Hunger Games is also about a society that is completely broken—as unhealthy as societies can get. Even though it only glosses over most of the issues it touches on, it is a great springboard to deeper examination of all sorts of environmental and social justice problems. Panem is post-climate change North America. There are parallels with the Occupy movement (Panem’s 99% live with ongoing environmental strife, food insecurity and resource depletion while the remaining 1% live in the Capitol, where the nation’s wealth and power are concentrated). And just why is Panem still coal-powered, anyway? Enter conversations about technological innovation and sustainability.

The Dystopian Nature Disconnect
The Hunger Games can do more than just raise sexy contemporary issues, though. The symbolic role of nature in the story is a portal to a deeper examination of the characterization of nature across the genre. After reading The Hunger Games and thinking more broadly about dystopian fiction, I concluded that many, if not most, fictional dystopias are set in highly urban environments or ravaged wastelands. Even those that are set in relatively healthy landscapes isolate their characters from contact with the natural world, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the countryside is the domain of the exiles. The Hunger Games is no different: the land has been wasted, resources have been depleted, citizens are prohibited from wandering freely in the forest and gates surround the districts to separate humans from their natural environment. Wild landscapes and the animals that inhabit them are perceived as dangerous—a continuation of the civilization versus wilderness binary that is a fundamental aspect of colonial and postcolonial culture.

The Nature of Rebellion

Why is this such a common element in dystopian fiction? I think it’s because the primal connection humans have with the land is fundamentally incompatible with dystopian power structures. Beyond providing sustenance, nature has a healing and revitalizing power and is intrinsically linked to human freedom and happiness (Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, 2012). Seen through the lens of the dualistic nature/culture paradigm, a dystopian superpower cannot effectively control its subjects if the people have healthy relationships with the land, which is by definition wild and uncontrollable. Excluding nature’s light and beauty excludes hope, which enables control. Separating people from the place in which they live is necessary in dystopian worlds, because a return to nature would lead to rebellion and independence. Seen in this light, the staging of the final battle in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (in which the Rebel Alliance finally succeeds in overthrowing the Galactic Empire) on the lush forest moon of Endor was highly symbolic. In The Hunger Games, the return to nature and freedom is played out through the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss’ deep connection to the land is fundamental to her survival throughout her life. As a young girl, the sight of a single dandelion inspired her to hunt and forage to keep her family from starving and to provide healing medicines. Because these acts are illegal in Panem—all resources belong to the state, and wandering in the woods is forbidden—Katniss’ relationship with the land defines her as a rebel before the story even begins. Aside from the resources the woods provide, Katniss also finds existential freedom and relief there. This bond with the natural world and the vitality it gives her is in stark contrast to the dreary hopelessness of the other residents of her community, who remain caged within the district fences, and to the shallow, overconsumptive urbanity of the Capitol residents, who do not realize they are imprisoned by their luxury.

Once she enters the Hunger Games arena, it is Katniss’ skill as a forager, hunter and herbalist that keep her alive. She knows how to read the land as efficiently as readers of books can decode symbols on a page. But beyond these skills, I think it’s Katniss’ lifelong immersion in nature that gives her the self-assurance and freedom of mind needed to defy the Capitol and ultimately spark a rebellion against its repressive regime.

Dystopias: Utopias for Educators
Katniss’ ecological literacy gives educators an opportunity to forge curricular connections with environmental stewardship and traditional ways of knowing. Questions on the links between nature, rebellion and freedom in the dystopian genre could lead to a comparative study of other dystopian novels. And it’s easy to draw parallels between the expulsion of nature in dystopian societies and our own society’s impoverished nature experiences. What is the existential and symbolic importance of natural spaces to healthy societies? With so many students already in love with The Hunger Games series, the release of the second film offers a cornucopia of discussion topics on nature and society.

Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (2012). Children & nature worldwide: An exploration of children’s experiences of the outdoors and nature with associated risks and benefits.

Natalie Gillis is a Grade 6–7 French Immersion teacher in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She likes books and backpacking, and thinks more people should ride bikes.

Greening the Language Arts

Greening the Language Arts


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.
—E.O. Wilson

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.

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

earthzineBy Anne Forbes, Partners in Place, LLC
This article originally appeared in Earthzine –


M (Dakota)aking a habit of Earth observation where you live is a fun and fundamental way to practice Earth stewardship. It is often our own observations close to home that keep us inspired to learn more and allow us to remain steady advocates for solutions to today’s daunting problems. Earth observation done whole-heartedly becomes skilled Earth awareness that leads to profound relationships with the plants, animals, and seasonal cycles surrounding us in real time, whether we live in the city, suburbs, or countryside.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

One way to track Earth observations is an activity called Phenology Wheels, suitable for individuals, families, classrooms, youth programs, and workshops for people of all ages. Phenology is a term that refers to the observation of the life cycles and habits of plants and animals as they respond to the seasons, weather, and climate. A Phenology Wheel is a circular journal or calendar that encourages a routine of Earth observation where you live. Single observations of what is happening in the lives of plants and animals made over time begin to tell a compelling story – your story – about the place on our living planet that you call home.

Why a circle? We usually think of the passing of time as linear, with one event following another in sequence by day, by month, by year. Placing the same events in a circular journal, or wheel shape, helps us discover new patterns (or rediscover known ones). We can use the Phenology Wheel to communicate about what is really important or interesting to us.

Here’s the General Idea

A Phenology Wheel is made up of three rings in a circle, like a target. To become a Wheel-keeper, you select a home place, such as a garden, a “sit spot,” schoolyard, watershed, or landscape that will be represented by a map or image in the center ring, the bull’s eye. Next, you mark units of time – such as the months and seasons of a year, hours of a day, or phases of a lunar month – around the outside ring, like the numbers on the face of a clock. Then, as you make specific observations of what is going on in the lives of plants and animals and the flow of seasons, you record them within the middle ring using words, phrases, images, or a combination.

Here’s How To Get Started

Because the wheel is round, you can begin a Phenology Wheel for Earth observation at any time of year.

Although you can pick among different time scales for the outer ring, let’s begin here with a year of seasons and months.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.


1. Draw a set of nested circles on a large piece of paper. You can do this by tracing around large plates or pizza pans, by using an artist’s compass or by making your own compass out of a pencil, pin, and string. You may also purchase a kit of print Wheels or a set of digital PDF Wheels online.

2. If you are making your own Wheel, write the names of the seasons and months on the outer rings.

3. Select an image for the center to represent the place or theme you have selected and to anchor your practice of observation in time and space.

Maps for the Center: If you choose a map, will it be geographically accurate or symbolic? Will it be traced or cut and pasted from an existing map, or will it be a map of your own creation?

Tip: Use a web-based mapping system such as Google Maps to print a map and use it to trace selected features as a base map for your Wheel.

A Centering Image: If you choose an image other than a map, will you create your own image or use one that you find already in print material? Will you use a photo, make a collage, or choose a found object, like a leaf or feather?

Tip: Children often enjoy a picture of themselves at their “sit spot” or other place they have chosen to track their observations.

4. Establish a Routine: Observe → Investigate and Reflect → Record

OBSERVE: What do I notice in this moment? What is extraordinary about seemingly ordinary things? What surprises me as unexpected or dramatic?


INVESTIGATE: What more do I want to know about what I observe? What questions will I seek to answer through my own continued observation? What information will I search for in books or from mentors or websites?


REFLECT: What does my observation mean to me? How is it changing me? How does it help me explore my values and beliefs?


RECORD: A routine of frequent observation provides the raw material to transform your blank Wheel into a circular journal as you record images, symbols, or words as you observe the passing of the seasons in your home place.

Tip: An interactive diagram of this process can be found under the Observe & Record tab here.

5. Share and Celebrate: Use your Wheel to report or tell stories about what you learn from and value about Earth observation in your home place.

Like a wheel on a cart, time turns around the hub of your home place;

the metaphor is a journey taken through a day, a month, a year,

or a lifetime of curiosity and appreciation.

Of course, you don’t have to keep a journal to explore and appreciate your home place on earth and the home place in your heart. What are the dimensions of your home place in this moment? What marks of time’s passing do you observe? The more playful you are with these questions, the more you may feel a part of your home place and committed to co-creating its well-being with others in your community.


Courtesy The Yahara Watershed Journal.

Welcome home.

Example #1: The Yahara Watershed Wheel

About twelve years ago, a group of like-minded friends gathered by my fireside to reflect upon what it means to live in this place we call home in Dane County, Wisconsin, USA. We chose to think of the Yahara Watershed as our common home place, and the series of seasonal events that occur in a typical year as the time scale to track. We put a map of the watershed in the center of a large Wheel of the Year, with units of time going around the outside rim, much like a clock, but using seasons and months instead of hours. We then went around our own circle, each speaking of the defining moments in the natural world and in the lives of people enjoying it throughout the months of a typical year. The artist among us sketched the images onto the Yahara Watershed Wheel that you see here. The detail in the enlarged image represents the unique happenings in March and April: pasque flowers in bloom, the return of redwing blackbirds and sandhill cranes, woodcock mating dances, first dandelions, and spring peepers in chorus.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

Example #2: Poems of Place

In reporting on this Wheel filled with seasonal poems by 4th and 5th graders about the large school woods, just outside an elementary school “backdoor” in Cambridge, Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez writes, “Because the woods is so accessible, the children spend quite a lot of time there developing a deep sense of place, including keen observational skills and a heightened imagination, all enhanced by the affection they have gained by years of exploring, learning and stewardship.” This selection of student poems illustrates how Phenology Wheels can be used to enhance language arts as well as science curriculum.

Example #3: Local Biodiversity

In another example from Cambridge Elementary School in Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez reports that a classroom studied the biodiversity of the area where they live. Each student picked a different animal or plant from their adjacent woods or prairie for the center of an 11-inch Wheel and then did research to tell the full story of the life cycle in words. The example here shows the work of one student who studied the Jack-in-the-Pulpit wildflower.

The next step would be for the students to combine their information for single species onto one large 32-inch Wheel and use it to explore the dynamics of the ecosystem that appear through food webs, habitat use, seed dispersal mechanisms, and so on.

Frequently Asked Questions


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

1. Where do I get more information?
If you are ready to start a Phenology Wheel for yourself, family, classroom or youth program, or any other interest group:

• Visit the Wheels of Time and Place website for instructions, resources, and a gallery of examples.
• Download a curriculum for youth developed in partnership with Georgia Gomez-Ibanez, an elementary school teacher, and Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Earth Partnership for Schools, UW-Madison Arboretum.

2. Where do I order pre-made Wheels?
Order the blank Wheel templates as a digital download of PDF files or as a complete toolkit, Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life. The latter includes a set of print Wheels in 11-inch and 24-inch sizes, a code to download the PDF files, and an instruction booklet – all in a recycled chipboard carrying case.

3. What size should my Wheels be?
Some people prefer 11-inch Wheels because they are compact, portable, and can be easily duplicated in a copy machine on 11 x 17-inch paper. You can trim them down to 11-inch square if you would like.

When people share the 24-inch Wheels, their faces often light up with excitement. This size, or larger, works well if you have a large clip board or a place to keep it posted for frequent use or when people are working on one Wheel in a group.

Of course, if you make your Wheels by hand, you can make them any size you like. If you purchase the PDF files, you can enlarge them up to 32-36 inches at a copy or blueprint shop.

4. What if I’m already a journal-keeper?

Some people who already keep a written journal use the Wheels to review their journals periodically and pull out observations to further explore and put on a Wheel. It’s amazing what patterns and stories can emerge.

5. Can the Wheels be created from databases?

Frank Nelson of the Missouri Department of Conservation has used wheels called Ring Maps, A Useful Way to Visualize Temporal Data to show trends and reveal patterns in a complex set of data.


Anne Forbes of Partners in Place, LLC is an ecologist who seeks to integrate her scientific and spiritual ways of knowing. For over 35 years, she worked on biodiversity policy as a natural resource manager and supported environmental and community collaborations as a facilitator and consultant. Her years of spiritual practice in varied traditions, most recently the Bon Buddhist tradition of Tibet, inspire her commitment to engaged action on behalf of present and future generations. She failed her first attempt at retirement and instead created the Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life.

Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend

Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend

Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend


Abstract: This article provides the reader with a general background of Alaska Native education and resource conservation, focusing on southeast Alaska cultures. European contact severed these education models by creating government schools. Since then Alaska Natives have worked to balance Native culture with western education. A synopsis of several legends which speak to natural resource conservation is presented with the conservation ethic discussed. The use of these types of legends in the classroom is encouraged as a means of bringing Native values and lessons into the classroom as one means of making education relevant to Native students. The lesson from this discussion can be applied to other indigenous groups.

by Dolly Garza


To address environmental stewardship and education among Alaska Natives it is necessary to start with a brief review of Native cultures and educational systems.

Alaska Natives have lived along this northern coast for thousands of years. Groups developed cultures that revolved around local resources. The Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Eyak, Supiak, Alutiiq, Yupik, Siberian Yupik, Inupiat, and the Athabascan learned how to use surrounding resources for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, regalia, and the arts.

Careful observation of animals, plants and weather over the seasons provided the knowledge base to know when to gather, or when to move. This accumulation of knowledge was necessary to the survival of the community; therefore, it was necessary to pass the knowledge from generation to generation. Knowledge was transferred through oration, observation, and action. Written instructions were generally unknown.

In southeast Alaska, among the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian, children did not learn from their parents. It was generally understood that parents loved the children too much and would spoil them. It was the job of the aunties and uncles of the clan to teach the children important knowledge and skills.

Southeast Culture and Stewardship
Much of Southeast Alaska where I come from was owned or occupied by the Tlingit and Haida. Tlingit historians will tell you that many areas and the associated resources were part of a clan’s property. Their territory included permanent village sites. However a clan’s use,
territorial rights, and stewardship extended beyond these typical areas to seaweed picking areas, berry picking areas, and into the rivers and ocean with herring egg gathering sites, salmon streams, seal hunting rookeries, and halibut fishing grounds.

Anthropologist and early explorers documented many types of conservation techniques and practices. Legends such as Moldy Salmon or Herring Rock were lessons which Elders told to teach youngsters to respect and properly use salmon, herring, and other resources. Clan leaders would decide when fishing would begin and end, and determine other resource harvesting methods. Clan members understood their obligation to follow these rules and rituals. European Contact
In 1876 Alaska were purchased by the United States from Russian, an action which was protested by the Tlingit Nation in Sheetka or Sitka, Alaska. The Russian had a stronghold to very limited sites in the Sitka, Kodiak, and Aleutians areas.

The early traders brought beads, bullets, alcohol, and diseased blankets. In addition, early traders were sick from months on ships with poor water and nutrition. They passed along their sicknesses which were new, and tragic, to Native populations.

The ravages of diseases in the 1800’s have had one of the largest impacts on Alaska Native cultures. Indigenous populations were reduced to less then 1⁄2 the estimated pre-contact populations. In some areas entire villages died from small pox or influenza. Much knowledge was lost with the death of each Elder, hunter, or mother.

Gold miners, fishing companies, and pioneers followed. The military, preachers, and teachers accompanied these early arrivers. The military came to protect the white people, the Christians to convert, and the teachers to civilize the Native.

The Native peoples generally were moved from their traditional sites to designated communities where religion and education could be taught. In many areas the traditional clan structure of government was abandoned. The new education and religion systems were embraced in fear of the ravages of disease. Natives believed they would better survive under this new system, since their old plant medicines and ceremonies did not save them from new diseases.

Early Education Systems
After being taken away and educated at government schools, many Natives made it back home and were expected to live a new life. They tried to be religious and teach their children English and new cultural ways. This assimilation process was only partially successful. Many such as my grandmother Elizabeth were forced to stop speaking Haida to her children. She was devoted to her church. Her children were sent to boarding school and came home years later.

When children were sent off to school parents had no control over what they did, what they wore, what they were taught, or what they were led to believe. This generation, my mothers, came home and began their own lives. They sent their children to school and believed that this is what should be done. “Send your children to school and expect the system to do everything”. Many in my mother’s age believed they had no right to interfere with their children’s education; and for the most part this was true at the time.

Many of the “educated” from my mother’s generation came home and believed that their parents lived backward lives; or if they tried to live this new life they found their were no jobs, and no money to buy all these new commodities. Many put this education aside and went back to living the old way: hunting, fishing, putting up food, living in old ramshackle houses, some with no running water, or sewer.

Current Educational Efforts
In some senses Native people have come full circle. Part out of necessity, and a great part out of love for our culture and land, we continue to live simple lifestyles. Alaska Natives are working to balance Native culture and mainstream education.

However there is still the early education mantra that prevails among the conscious or subconscious of our Elders and thus our community: “Native people must be civilized and cleansed of their former ways”, “Western education is better”.

Today many Alaska Natives still believe that the western education is better. They see education as severed from their daily life and do not feel that they can add to this educational process. Children come to school still thinking their home life, and cultural dance or stories, are archaic and not important. This leads to poor self-esteem and often, an aversion to Native ways. It is important to help Native students understand the value of cultures.

Recent efforts such as those of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, funded by the NSF, promotes incorporating Native science, knowledge, and education skills into the classroom as a means of making the science relevant to local areas and helping students understand the value of parental knowledge and their culture. One part of this broad educational effort focused on Native stories or legends that were taught to children. While these stories are entertaining their main purpose has been to teach respect.

Native Legends as Teaching Tools
As an example of ritual, in some areas salmon would be harvested only after the first salmon went upstream and were properly honored through dance and ceremony. It was told that this was done so that the spirit of the salmon would return to its brothers and sisters and report that these were good people and that the salmon should give themselves to these people.

Someone would notice the first salmon coming up stream and alert the community. Eagle down was gathered, regalia donned, and people commenced to the river. Songs were sung, and words were spoken to the salmon. Respect was shown. After this, fishing could take place at the chief’s orders. In the time it took to set up these ceremonies, hoards of salmon went up the river. Today we refer to this as escapement; the necessary brood-stock to ensure continued survival of the salmon. Without the eagle down, this is a standard fishery management practice.

In the Moldy Salmon story a young boy is taken to live with the salmon people after he disrespects salmon. Upon his return to his people he educates them on how important it is to eat all of the salmon and to respect salmon.

In the herring rock story a man is turned into a stone after he disobeys the clan leaders rule to not fish for herring after nightfall. The rest of the community understands the consequences of fishing after nightfall as they pass by this rock everyday. The rock was known to recent time in the Sitka area until it was covered during a construction project. Herring biologists know that herring school up and rise to the surface at night. During this time they are very susceptible to over harvest. A “legend” as it is now called served as a regulation.

As we teach environmental ethics to our young it is well worth using Native or other indigenous folklore to highlight traditional means of conservation. It is important to keep Native children in the folds of education and help non-Natives to understand that Natives were not savages, but lived in balance with their environment.

But as we use legends we must remember to respect tribal and clan property rights. I have not written any legend in full nor do we have permission to commercialize these legends for
profit. However the use of these legends as an educational tool is welcomed by most Elders and tribes.


Dolores “Dolly” Garza is a full-time Professor for the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program. She has worked in Kotzebue and Sitka and now works in Ketchikan as a Marine Advisory agent, interfacing European science with Alaska’s marine resource users in the areas of subsistence management, marine mammal management and marine safety. This article reprinted from proceedings of the 2006 North American Association for Environmental Education annual conference in Anchorage, Alaska.