Trees as Storytellers

Trees as Storytellers

he thought of talking trees conjures up images of the fantastical. Tolkien’s ents patrol the forest, Baum’s forest of fighting trees throws apples at Dorothy, and Marvel’s Groot guards the galaxy. Or, perhaps, we think of those who speak for the trees that cannot speak for themselves: Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, or the dryads of ancient mythology. But I would argue that all trees have a lot to say, if we are willing to listen.

Like all great storytellers, trees have an impressive hook. Each species, a different author, has different tales to tell. Throughout time, some people have listened to those stories, and translated them to a language we can understand. And trees also give us the stories the trees may not even know they are telling, the way a worn and coffee-stained paperback can tell of a voracious and messy reader. Students, lovers of stories oral, written, and visual, can learn from these giants of the forest.

IslandWood, a residential environmental education school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, markets itself to students as “a school in the woods.” On its surface, this imparts expectations of students while on campus. It is not camp, but a school, with all the implications of learning. But what about the second part? The woods as a term indicate the outdoor status of some classrooms, but also plants the idea very early on of the ubiquity of trees. Wood comes from trees, and woods come from trees. This school is where we learn among the trees. Students should be aware of that upfront.

These trees have a long story to tell our students, and the students are ready to listen. When the glaciers retreated from the Puget Sound area 10,000-12,000 years ago, in moved trees from present-day California. The seeds following the glacier’s retreat met an incredibly moist environment that was perfect for the establishment of gargantuan specimens. Even students with individuals of these giants near their school are unlikely to see them in such abundance, or in such a relatively untamed state, covered in moss and lichen.

Students’ chatter while clambering from buses onto IslandWood property is a good clue in to what familiarity they may have with the woods. Students will disembark the bus and are unable to tear their eyes away from the treetops. Audible oohs and ahhs promise for a week of wonder and exploration. Recently, a student walked through the arrival shelter and turned to a friend to say, “so I guess this is what the woods are.” The trees are our ambassadors to these students, and the story they tell is one of upwards growth.

At IslandWood, we teach of the “Big Five:” western red cedar, red alder, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and Douglas-fir.

The western red cedar is a favorite of many students. On species reference cards, some of the cultural uses are listed: canoe building and basket weaving feature prominently. This already provides a unique connection to place; on their website, the Suquamish tribe introduce themselves as “expert fisherman, canoe builders and basket weavers” (Suquamish Tribe, 2015). This is the identity they first relay to visitors, and one that many students have already been introduced to. To say “this is what the Suquamish used to make canoes and baskets” taps immediately into their understanding of native traditions.

The idea that people tended this land for livelihood before European settlers arrived is abstract for many students. While they may be taught the names of local tribes and heard some of the stories, touching a tree that contributed so heavily to their way of life provides a new experience. I taught a student that the Suquamish use the cedar bark for making clothing, and then heard them explain to a classmate that you can tell the bark is good for weaving because of the way it is stringy and long. The instructor provides one piece of information, and the student is able to gain a deeper understanding from interactions with the tree. The tree is telling the story of its cultural history by making itself so accessible to our young explorers.

A trend that students visiting IslandWood are quick to notice is that many of the red cedars are turning brown and losing leaves. This does not match well with what they have been taught about the definition of evergreen, and they struggle to reconcile reality and the trees. An investigation into why some red cedars are dying and others aren’t will lead students to the reality of climate change. The trees, so long-lived, cannot adapt the same way that other species can. When confronted with this reality, student groups come up with creative solutions, many offering to water the trees with their own drinking water. The trees, for those who listen, are sending out a plea and tell the story of human excess.

The red cedar also introduces students to the concept of sustainability and giving. Just as a dining hall might teach students to not waste food, the trees can show that wasting other resources is avoidable too. The roots, outer bark, inner bark, needles, and branches of trees all serve varied purposes, ensuring that none is discarded. The characteristic swooping lower branches of the tree, which resemble arms outstretched, relate to tradition. One Coast Salish tradition tells of the appearance of cedar tree at the spot when an incredibly selfless man died. IslandWood’s Great Hall has a cedar statue of Upper Skagit woman Vi Hilbert. The arms of the statue are similarly outstretched in welcome to those who enter the space for learning. The tree that gives its whole self to the people who need it sits with its branches outstretched as a welcome for more users.

When students learn the red cedar and later point it out on the trail, the swooping branches are most often cited as their point of identification. When asked what those branches remind them of, the first answer might be “the letter J,” but given some time, students arms will go out in an open gesture to mimic the tree. “It’s the tree of life,” they say, feeling connected to the history of that species.

The Douglas-fir tree, a mainstay of this ecosystem, is another favorite of students. While learning about the tree, students inevitably discover a cone on the ground, and pick it up, many questions having sprung forth in their minds. As trees that can grow over 300 feet tall with few lower branches, the opportunity to have a proxy for what goes on above our heads is incredible. The cones are unique to this tree, and tell a great story.

The cones have a two-tone property, as the seeds protrude beyond the scales of the cone. Tradition would tell that those lighter colored pieces are from a great fire that ravaged the land millennia ago. As the fire raged, animals fled, and the mouse ran to seek shelter. Unfortunately for the mouse, every tree it asked for help was worried for its own survival, unable to help the forest friend. When the mouse came upon the Douglas-fir, it opened up its cones and instructed entry; its lower branches would be above the heat of the fire, and its thick bark would protect it from the heat. The mouse and tree survived the fire, and the cones show a vestige of that encounter, as there appear to be little legs and a tail sticking out from every cone.

After hearing this story, students become experts on Douglas-fir identification. If their eyes are cast downwards, looking for signs of life on the trail, they see the cones and are reminded of the story they learned. If they are up, facing ahead and all around, they will see the thick bark that protected the tree. The stories reflect the nature again, and tree identification by means other than leaf recognition starts to be a possibility for students.

IslandWood property, once seized from the Suquamish, was the site of a major logging operation. Students see many trees and marvel at their size and age, but a hike to the harbor tells a different story of these trees. The trees that they have become familiar with are members of species that may live over one thousand years, but this space in particular is a reflection of its past. Blakely Harbor is the former site of what was “the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world” (Bainbridge Historical Museum, n.d.).

The site at the harbor is unmistakably the vestiges of a former factory of some sort. Some students come in aware of the logging history of the area, and they are reminded of that history by the remnant logs that stick upright out of the harbor, former supports for the mill infrastructure. Some students surmise that the wood, decaying, waterlogged, and now home to aquatic plants, are a forest that has been cut down. When presented with the uniformity of the timber, especially as compared to the forests at main campus, they are eventually reminded of some man-made structures, and then the history of the logging operation can be explored.

To many of these students, IslandWood is the pinnacle of wild. Yet this adventure shows the proclivity of some humans to extract natural resources past their sustainable harvest. The trees that remind the students to be sustainable and giving are the same species that were extracted, sent into the mill and out to be shipped to other parts of the country and the world for human consumption. The Douglas-firs that protected the mice from the fire were cut down and extracted, providing little habitat for any animals.

The average age of street trees in Seattle is 3 years (Brinkley, 2018). Students may understand trees can live to be hundreds of years old, but learning that Douglas-firs can live to be over one thousand years old makes their eyes light up with wonder. Even the relatively young trees on campus have been present for decades, watching the landscape change with the inhabitants. Coming to an outdoor learning facility where the trees reach hundreds of feet in the sky can instill a feeling no book or photo could. Let the trees greet our students with arms and branches wide open.

Marlie Belle Somers is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood, partnered with the University of Washington.















Remnants of the lumber mill docks at Blakely Harbor. Students use this as a clue while investigating what came before our campus stood on these grounds. Photo by Marlie Belle Somers.












Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (n.d.). Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town. Retrieved from
Brinkley, W. (2018, November 2). Urban Ecology. Lecture presented in Antioch University, Seattle.
Suquamish Tribe. (2015). History & Culture. Retrieved from

Immersive Storytelling

Immersive Storytelling: A Reminder to Read to Your Students Outside

By Hannah Levy

Sitting amongst towering cedars as the sun treated us to the last bits of golden hour, our final field study day was coming to a close. We had a hard week, for many of my students, this was their first encounter with nature and first time away from home. The group had been struggling to work cohesively and accessing their focused attention had proved incredibly difficult. I wanted so dearly for my students to experience a moment of wonder. To capture a sense of magic and connection to our surroundings, if only fleeting. I had planned to read them a book in a nearby treehouse, but looking around realized I had no better classroom at that moment than the forest floor on which we sat.

“This is the ancient forest. This is the three-hundred-year-old tree, that grows in the ancient forest…” I read softly. Immediately, one of the students looking back and forth from the picture in the book to the tree before them blurts out, “Is that the 300-year-old-tree?” As we make our way through the story, we continue making connections. One student sees the gnarled roots jutting out before them, and asks “Are these roots?” Another recognizes the red cap of the Pileated Woodpecker that graces the page, “That’s the woodpecker I saw!” A Barred Owl winds its way into the story, just like the one we saw together on our first day in the field. A resounding “whoaaa” and “there’s our owl” makes its rounds. And finally, the most captivated question of all as we end the story,“…is this the ancient forest?”

As an emerging educator, moments like these still feel like unprecedented breakthroughs. I said goodbye to my students that day and reflected on the simple and poignant impact of our storytelling session. All this time, I had been pouring over how to craft lesson plans that inspired authentic connection and here, right under my nose, was one of the simplest and most powerful tools of all: immersive storytelling. In just a few short minutes of read aloud time we had accessed our collective curiosity, practiced information recall, and made connections about an ecological system. In outdoor education, where students are often thrust into an entirely new context, the familiar structure of classroom storytelling time had proved incredibly effective.

Today, a Google search for “immersive storytelling” will return results about the latest VR headset or educational video game. While these resources provide essential access for many students, it is critical we not forget the power of a nearby park, backyard, front porch, or garden bed. In my own lesson planning, I consider immersive stories to be books that reflect the setting, observations, and lived experiences of my students. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being absorbed by a book, as if the world around you has melted away and only you and its characters exist in that moment. This is the intention of incorporating immersive stories into outdoor education, to rouse a sensitive connection to our place, our learning, and our peers.


Here are eight easy strategies to craft an immersive storytelling experience with your own students in an outdoor setting (many of these tips can easily be adapted for classroom learning):

  1. Story selection

Select your stories based on real-life encounters, using primacy of experience to your advantage. Earlier in the week, I had planned to read students a story written from the perspective of a tree. However, after seeing the owl, I decided to select a book that I knew would offer connections to our week. Consider keeping a list of “immersive friendly” stories that reflect the settings in which you teach and the experiences your students may have at your outdoor education program.


  1. Preview the book

Preview the book on your own ahead of time by reading aloud to yourself. This will help you deliver the story more confidently later on and better enable you to use your voice to cue student attention if you know which plot elements are coming. Previewing also ensures the plotline does not contain any content that might be triggering to students with known trauma.


  1. Scaffold student observations

Build up the magic by weaving time for students to notice their surroundings throughout the day, share their wonders, and make claims. Prompt students with questions that you know are later answered in the story. When I plan to read students The Ancient Forest I subtly introduce observations of tree snags with holes from the Pileated Woodpecker, visit with a taxidermy Barred Owl (if we don’t encounter one in real life), and invite students to search for macroinvertebrates in the soil. All of these elements later appear in the story and by scaffolding our week with interactions with real elements from the story I intentionally build a more immersive experience for all students.


  1. Location, location, location

Scope out your location. Meet the needs of your group by scouting a few locations ahead of time. Is the space accessible to all students? Do you need to make any accommodations to ensure everyone is able to engage? If feasible, always allow for free explore time at your location as a strategy to both incite curiosity and ease any fears or unfamiliarities your students may have with the space.


  1. Meeting student needs

Think about context, how have you built up the moment? Are students aware that they will be having quiet listening time? Have they had time to advocate or and meet any needs they might have? If snack, water, or bathroom breaks are even remotely on the horizon consider taking them before you begin in order to mitigate distractions and discomfort. Immersive storying telling is highly dependent on everyone being included and feeling engaged. Design your session to meet any needed accommodations for english language learners or students with accessibility needs.


  1. Use grounding techniques as you begin

Grounding activities prompt reorientation to a present moment, often using sensory awareness strategies to cope with overwhelming feelings, anxiety, or, in the case with many outdoor education students, nervousness in a new place with different educators. Awareness of our sensory experiences are also an avenue for deeper connections with our surrounding environment. There are a few easy grounding prompts as you can use as you prepare to read: practicing mindful breath, feeling the temperature and breeze on our face, running dirt through our fingers, or listening and counting the number of sounds. Allow ample time for students to downcycle and re-regulate their focus. Adapt your grounding prompts to fit the sensory abilities of your students.


  1. Pacing is your friend

While the number of seconds that pass may be just the same, novel experiences seemingly expand our perception of time. Use this to your advantage with students. If possible, pick a book they have not yet encountered. Go slow, do not rush as you read. Set a pace that allows for students to engage in their observational skills as they listen. Model a sensory moment for them, for example, with my students we looked up into the trees, put our ears to the ground to listen for bugs, and felt the roots that surrounded our feet.


  1. Welcome questions and collaboration

Welcome questions from your students. Part of the immersive storytelling experience is to allow students to make. Field questions as you read without delving too deep into tangents. Use the characters and plotline of the story as opportunity for students to make science and real-life connections. If your group is comfortable reading aloud, consider using a pass and read style of read aloud to engage students further.




Booth Church, Ellen. “Teaching Techniques: Reading Aloud Artfully!” Scholastic Teachers, Scholastic, 2018,

“Grounding Techniques.” Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Center, PEIRSAC, 2018,

Lindamood, Wesley. “Take Our Playbook: NPR’s Guide to Building Immersive Storytelling Projects.” NPR Training, National Public Radio, 25 June 2018,

Paul, Pamela, and Maria Russo. “How to Raise a Reader.” The New York Times Books, The NY Times,

Reed-Jones, Carol. The Tree in the Ancient Forest. DAWN Publications, 1995.

What Is Sensory Awareness. Sensory Awareness Foundation, 2018,


Hannah Levy is a graduate student at the University of Washington, completing her Certificate in Education for Environment and Community at Islandwood.

E.E.’s Philosopher King (Pt 2)

E.E.’s Philosopher King (Pt 2)

Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.

Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:

Neal Maine’s Educational Vision


by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus


(see Part One here)

Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned

Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:

  1. Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
  2. Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
  3. Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
  4. Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
  5. Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
  6. Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.

Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.

Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.

Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.

Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.

            Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.

            Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”


Paying It Forward

My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.

He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.

Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 ( Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest ( Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education ( Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University ( and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming ( are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.

Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.

Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College.  He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan.  He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.

Forget Your Botany!

Forget Your Botany!

by Jan van Boeckel

MANY PEOPLE DEPLORE the loss of direct contact with nature. Moreover, this absence might be one of the root causes for the ecological crisis we are experiencing today, and for the mood of indifference that many people feel for it. It is hard to care for something that we no longer perceive as being constitutive to what makes us human. To counter this development, an increasing group of educators thinks that education should facilitate a form of learning that enhances children’s sensibility to nature and place, to what Gregory Bateson so aptly described as ‘the pattern which connects’.

One effort in this direction has been the advance of what is called ‘environmental education’. It is one of the challenges for environmental education to get children enthusiastic beyond the limited perspective that the natural sciences offer. On top of that it runs the risk of unintentionally conveying an ethics of ‘guilt’. A one-sided focus on the scope and magnitude of today’s environmental crises can cause feelings of personal inadequacy and even despair. The result can paradoxically be an even further detachment from nature, and a mindset that considers the act of reflection on the relation between humans and nature as a limiting endeavour, rather than something that can enrich one’s life. If an ecological lifestyle is seen only as restriction and austerity, it will only be accepted as a last resort.

Beautiful actions

This is one of the underlying reasons that the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess called attention to an interesting element in the writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant makes a distinction between what he calls a ‘beautiful act’ and a ‘moral act’. An act is moral if it is in accordance with your ethical duty: you have an obligation to do something. More often than not, this may go against your inclinations, against that what you want to do. For Kant, a beautiful act is an act where we act with our inclinations, so that it is what we want to do. Naess believes that through spiritual or psychological development we can learn to identify with other humans, with animals and plants and even ecosystems. We can learn to see ourselves in these other creatures, and in that way they become part of our being. By identifying with the more-than-human world, we want to protect it; we are not acting against our inclinations.

The desire to act beautifully is something that can be learned at an early age. According to Naess, we might have to relearn the way children appreciate the things around them: “Children are more spontaneous in the sense that reflection and conventional views of things do not yet play such enormous role. If we were able to see a little bit more like children, we would gain very much. That’s a very difficult re-development, to get into this state of children’s inner life.”

Nearly a quarter century ago, Edith Cobb argued in The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood that children have a certain age period at which they are more predisposed to be open for the natural world: “There is a special period, the little-understood, prepuberal, halcyon, middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve…when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature as process … [This original childhood experience may be] extended through memory into a lifelong renewal of the early power to learn and to evolve.”

Since Cobb wrote these words, however, the environment for children has become more and more an environment permeated by technology. For many children in Western society, the prevailing childhood experience is that of being engaged in watching TV and playing computer and video games. TV and electronic games present to a child a world of constantly changing pictures. A child is brought into a reality where there is a direct and observable cause-effect relationship between all of his or her actions and the images on the screen. Culture critic Jerry Mander describes the consequences as follows: “When that whirling-spinning-exploding world is turned off, he or she is left in real life, the room, the house, a much slower world. Boring by comparison. If he or she then goes outside into nature – well, nature is really slow. It barely moves at all. It takes an extreme degree of calm to perceive things in nature, and I suspect we may be producing a generation of people too sped-up to attune themselves to slower natural rhythms. Children of the computer generation grow up with their nervous systems attuned to televisions, video games, and computers. Like the techno-centred adult, they are out of touch with the speed of natural life, and are easily annoyed and bored by what they perceive as human slowness and inefficiency.”

So when we try to establish a bond between children and nature, we are stuck with two major problems. One, that conventional environmental education runs the risk of leading to despair and indifference, and two, the fact that many children have lost interest in nature because it is less exciting than the world of electronic illusions. We are badly in need of innovative ways to awaken and nourish the supposed innate sensibility of children to the natural world.

Arts-based environmental education

It is here that exciting developments in the Nordic European countries can be of inspiration. Art is the key here. In the beginning of the 1990’s, a group of art educators in Finland, aware of the worsening ecological crisis in the society around them, began to ask if art could help in the development of a more profound form of environmental education. According to Meri-Helga Mantere, who first coined the term ‘arts-based environmental education’ in 1992, it is a method that “supports fresh perception, the nearby, personal enjoyment and pleasure (and sometimes agony) of perceiving the world from the heart.” It aims at “an openness to sensitivity, new and personal ways to articulate and share one’s environmental experiences, which might be beautiful but also disgusting, peaceful but also threatening.” In short, aesthetic environmental education is grounded on the belief that sensitivity to the environment can be developed by artistic activities. Motivation to act for the good of the environment is based above all on positive and valued experiences which are often of an aesthetic nature. In the view of Mantere, these experiences can be generated by open and immediate contact with nature and the often new and fresh view of such phenomena that art provides. Arts subjects can develop a positive image for a way of life that conserves nature. This requires a great deal of inventiveness, joy and dignity. To Meri-Helga the connections are obvious: “The early experiences of nature in childhood, the ability as an adult to enjoy these experiences, comprehending the value of the richness and diversity of nature, and the need and energy to act on behalf of nature and a better environment are all interdependent.”

One way of defining art is that it can offer a person – both as a ‘producer’ and as a ‘consumer’ of art – unique, often non-cognitive ways of interpreting and signifying experiences in the world. Art can feed and guide our sensibility for reality and life. Art activities have a tendency (or at least potential) to reach, in different degrees of intensity, the sensory, perceptual, emotional, cognitive, symbolic and creative levels of human beings. They can sharpen and refine our perception and make us sensitive for the mystery of the things around us. Through that we may experience the world, nature and people in such a way as if we see them for the first time. In the context of learning about nature, art thus has a potential that conventional approaches lack.

Henri David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote in his Journals that he was continuously struggling to meet nature in its elementary directness, unmediated by conventions, categories, concepts, and scientific knowledge. To really understand something, he believed one continuously had to approach it as if it were completely strange. “If you want to learn of the ferns, you have to forget your botany. You have to get free from what commonly is regarded as knowledge of them.” In its essence, ecological perception is about perceiving the dynamic relationships between distinctions such as the self and the other, and spirit and matter. By orienting one’s personal artistic responses to the sensuous natural environment, one has an opening to embrace our living connection to the world. Through art we can see and approach the outside world afresh.
Art also has a capacity “to stop us in our tracks”. An important function of art is estrangement or de-familiarisation. It helps us to review and renew our understandings of everyday things and events which are so familiar to us that our perception of them has become routine. Furthermore, art can open us up to the presence of ambiguity. In all these meanings, art has the potential to offer new ways of coming to terms with the present human condition, which includes coming to terms with living and surviving in the technosphere.

Dealing with pessimism

Some educators argue that a clear distinction between different age groups of children should be made when engaging in environmental education. The assumption being that teachers can only take up the subject of the ecological crisis with children of a certain age. According to this view, education should begin with stressing the positive aspects of nature, rather than the disempowering news of ecological decline. As a teacher of horticulture and biology with many years of experience, Linda Jolly has had ample opportunity to learn from the pupils themselves what they associate with the word ‘ecology’. To them, she says, ecology means information about environmental problems, e.g. the pollution of air and water, etc.: “There is certainly no lack of awareness of this kind of ‘ecology’ among the pupils and one could easily be tempted to contribute even more to this type of information and awareness in the school context. Yet the multitude of catastrophic news items pouring out over our children today is apt to engender discouragement and pessimism – a fact acknowledged by many educators today. Young people long for real experiences of nature and what they want to feel is that they can do something towards saving nature. So the question must be: What can schools do to enable children to experience positive ecological actions of humanity in nature as a counterweight to all the disaster reports? How can we help the children to experience nature at a deeper level and attain a better understanding of the relationships between all living beings?”

There is a considerable difference between living in an environment without being conscious of it, and, in contrast, having one’s roots in a biological and cultural area and also having an idea of where one comes from, where one is at present, and where one may be going. In a similar vein, according to Meri-Helga Mantere, there is a great difference between seeing the future as only an ominous and vaguely defined threat or void, and seeing it as something one can outline, imagine and influence. She believes that educators have not paid enough attention to the pessimistic idea of the future that is common among many young people, and to the understanding of life that follows from it. Rather than ignoring or suppressing them, she suggests that these fears and feelings of pessimism and hopelessness should be discussed with adults in a spirit of sufficient confidentiality. In that way, previously unexpressed mental images and sources of anxiety would lose at least some of their debilitating power.
One of the main meanings of art through the ages has indeed been its ability to reach the deeper levels of the psyche and to act as a channel and possibility for giving shape to feelings that are often unconscious. This means, says Mantere, that also the ‘dark’ side of the mind can be integrated into the totality of the psyche, and thus be made relative. If an art teacher is willing to give the pupils and students art exercises in which they can break down their possible fears, life-negating visions and hopelessness in a sufficiently secure context, he or she can act therapeutically: “It is a therapeutic practice to receive these pictures with respect for the students’ views and their world of mental images, while at the same time trying to pass on a positive attitude towards life and hope for the future.”


Judith Belzer is an environmental artist who strongly believes in the importance of learning new ways to approach the world around us: “If you can learn to immerse yourself in the ordinary things that are very close by, you start to understand what it means to exist in nature. By establishing a relationship with nature based on particulars – the way leaves move in space, say, or attach to a branch – you begin to break our habit of generalising about nature from a distance. This is the first step towards changing our approach to the land and that starts with seeing.” In arts-based environmental education, much emphasis is given to clarifying the ‘seeing process’ and developing skills to express this enhanced vision. Artistic-aesthetic learning, according to Finnish environmental artist Timo Jokela, involves observation, experience and increasing awareness in a holistic way. “Observation is a core issue in interpreting and evaluating the environment. …Our observations are based on the sum of our previous experiences and our expectations of the future.” Jokela argues that many of the phenomena that are brought to our consciousness through art can be understood as the sharpening of schemes of observation and activity: “The romantic artist climbed a mountain and created an aerial perspective model of observation, teaching us to see the beauty of the dim shades of blue in the distance.
The impressionists led us to observe the colour of light determined by weather, and the beauty in the changes of natural phenomena. Art creates new ways of observing, and examining art can act as a model for seeing one’s own everyday surroundings in a new way, enriching one’s knowledge, experience and understanding. Observational schemes can also stiffen and become confining conventions. In this case there is great educational significance in enriching them. Re-examined aesthetic models lead to new models to observe, classify, understand and construct one’s own relationship with the environment.”
Environmental art is art that is defined by a place: the form, material and even the birth process of the work takes the location into account. Jokela remarks: “The surrounding space itself may act as an artistic element. This requires that the birth process begins with a close orientation to the location: sitting, watching, smelling, walking – in other words a holistic exploration of the place.” Usually the process also includes orienting to the history of a place, the stories it tells, and the meanings given to it by its users.

Many works of environmental art can be seen as environmental processes which aim to change environmental attitudes on an individual or community level. Jokela gives the example of European environmental art by artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, whose connection to nature is respectful, almost sacral: “It is as if the work refers to nature’s own beauty or significance. The work of art opens one’s eyes to see something ordinary and everyday in a new way. This way of work refines one’s perceptions and makes one more sensitive to the environment. Here the borderlines between art and philosophy are disappearing, environmental art and environmental philosophy merge together.”
Another example is the work of American eco-artist Erica Fielder, who wants to encourage deeply personal relationships with the wild. “Science and technology have given us all the tools and know-how we need to halt environmental destruction today”, she says. “But what’s missing is a feeling of kinship and empathy that motivates us to include the health of our watershed in our everyday decisions.” One way to bring us closer to nature is the Bird Feeder Hat that Fielder created: a wide-brimmed, brushy hat covered with seeds. He or she who wears the hat must sit silent and still in order to feel the movement of birds on the hat. The experience is vivid and sensory, and provides an opportunity to begin experiencing a deeper kinship with a wild creature up close.

Art exercises in nature

Timo Jokela has a clear view on how environmental art can be applied as a method of environmental education. According to Jokela, forms of environmental art are remarkably suitable to fieldwork and research practised in the environment by learners of all ages. Based on didactic planning models that have been developed in art education, exercises are developed in which the pupil’s phase of development and previous knowledge of the subject are taken into consideration. In the process, the art world and the learner’s world are combined into a project in which experiencing, searching for information, and structuring all merge together. All of them aim to increase one’s sensitivity towards the environment. Jokela distinguishes four categories of exercises that can be adapted as methods of arts-based environmental education:

• exercises focusing one’s observations;
• exercises which bring forward the processes happening in nature and help us to perceive them more sensitively: growth and decay, the flow of water, the turning of day and night, the changes of light, the wind, etc.;
• exercises which aim to alter set ways of viewing the environment, and finally:
• exercises which test the scale of the environment and human ‘limits’.

In the exercises, the ‘chaos’ of the environment can be organised according to certain chosen variables. The choice can be based on visual observations such as colour, form, size, or on tactile sensations such as soft or hard. Other choices could be based on cognitive concepts such as living, lifeless, belonging to nature, left behind by a human. An exercise could start by making observations and could continue with methods of comparison, classification and organisation. To Jokela, especially well-suited starting points are archetypal symbols such as a circle, square, triangle, point, line, cross or spiral. When the exercise is more process-focused, it could involve paths of movement and rituals in which the participant or viewer takes part.
Such exercises lead to works that create a moment of change; movement and time create new spaces and environments. One assignment to a group may be that they have to go outside and select a tree. Two members of the group then mention eight adjectives about the tree. After that, two other members write a poem together using those adjectives. Then the pupils come back and read the poem to the whole group. Another exercise might be that the group goes outside and each pupil picks up an object from nature without harming it. This could be a stone, a piece of dry wood, etc. They select the pieces according to how the object is felt to resemble themselves. After finding those objects, they come back and each tells in front of the group why they selected just that object.

When the goal of the exercises is to change the way in which one is common to see the environment, an exercise could be as follows: roughly sketch a line or circle on a map. Walk the distance of the line in nature. Stop every hundred metres and document and gather samples. Afterwards, analyse the differences between the experiences you gain this way and the preconceived impressions you had. Exercises that aim to test the human limits vis-à-vis the scale of the environment often have a communal, cooperative nature. The starting point is a large amount of material and the aim is to bring about a clear change in the environment. Suitable places are places where nature brings the material back into its cycle such as a beaches. An example could be an exercise where the task is to arrange the flotsam on a shore in a mathematical order.

Jan van Boeckel is a Dutch anthropologist, filmmaker and art teacher. Currently he is engaged in a research project on arts-based environmental education at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, Finland. He can be reached at:

Blog: Teacher Preparation

Blog: Teacher Preparation

Know and Do What We Teach: How many times are we assigned to teach a subject we know little about?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor

t a riparian ecology training for teachers a few years ago, I met two who epitomize a perennial problem in education in America. One of the teachers was in her third year of teaching, said she had no background in science, was never trained for teaching it, but was assigned to teach all of the 6th grade science in her middle school. The other was a teacher who had been a fisheries biologist for several years, and was now teaching high school science. Two teachers, each of whom is assumed will deliver equally effective, student-empowering curricula in their schools. Who are assumed to be teaching at the same level of experience and expertise. How do we rationalize this? How do we deal with it?

Many teachers who lack confidence in teaching the content they are assigned forces them to simply use and parrot the instructions in teachers’ editions of their assigned curricular materials. If we are simply in the schools to prepare our students for the standards tests they will take, adhering to the status quo may be able to make the attempt; although, to date, this effort has produced no nation-wide positive result. But, if we are in schools to involve and invest our students in authentic and challenging concept-based curriculum, and to deliver our curricula in a way which empowers them as persons, then we all need to comprehend the concepts we teach at a level which makes us comfortable in determining our own ways to deliver our curricula. The only way to do that is to know and do what we teach.

As long as we are able to build a learning environment which involves and invests our students in their learnings and empowers them as persons, their brains will do the work. While there are many reasons posited for the poor performance of US students compared with their global peers, assumptions about student capacity based on demographics ought not to matter, not be a reason for poor performance; the brain is an autonomous learning machine. If we allow it.

Why should I want more than a good set of published curricular materials?

All teachers of empowered students that I’ve observed have a content background strong enough to allow them to design their own curricular deliveries. And their students, regardless of demographics, respond to this in a positive, participating way. I’ve also observed teachers with little or no background in the curricular content and/or grade level they are assigned to teach become exceptional teachers when they receive competent mentoring in their classrooms while they are teaching. Just as with their students, these teachers’ brains became autonomous learning machines when they were allowed to. Our expectations re teachers’ preparation for the content they are assigned to teach is a strong indicator that many of us do not allow that. They are assigned to teach what they are assigned to teach. Beyond that, most receive precious little support in the way of developing professional competence in their assigned content area.

Would we accept a world in which only about half of automobile mechanics have training to repair the motors they work on? Where half of dentists have the training to perform a root canal on their root canal patients? How about only half of surgeons with training for the surgeries they perform? Only half of lawyers with training for the cases they proceed with in the court? Half the baristas with no training for the coffees they produce in the coffee shops where they work? We have, and assume, the right to people who have had effective training for the work they perform. Except for teachers. It’s almost as if there is an assumption that teachers can “just do it.” In fact, I’ve heard this claim. More than once.

So, why are we so complacent about having teachers in classrooms who may be only marginally trained in the content they deliver? Jaime Escalante taught calculus to students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, where 85 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-fee meals, and faculty morale was low (Scientific American, Aug 2011, p. 14: Stand and Deliver). His unpopular, to some, attitude toward his students’ brains’ capacity for learning was displayed in a banner in his classroom which declared, “Calculus does not have to be made easy – It is easy already”. In spite of opposition from the school administration and some faculty to his teaching, more of his students took the AP calculus exam than at all but three other public schools in the nation. Two thirds of his students passed the exam. He possessed a background in calculus which allowed him to develop and execute a very clear demonstration that the brain is an autonomous learning machine when we allow it. And proved it.

In a recent article, Climate confusion among U.S. teachers: Teachers’ knowledge and values can hinder climate education, published in the 12 February 2016 issue of Science magazine, the authors report that fewer than 25% of teachers have the training they need to teach the basics of global warming. This, in spite of the fact that climate change may be the most important challenge that today’s students and their children will face. Why aren’t schools allowed to provide the training their teachers need to become more effective teachers of climate change in their classrooms? A large fraction of the business world does just that. Especially when there is a demonstrated authentic need for it.

What do I need in addition to good curricular materials to better prepare my students for their future?

A suggestion: I submit that we need to work together to develop an effective method to ensure that teachers have access to the training and support they need to teach inquiry-based science in their classrooms. Every day. We don’t think of students as the people who will set our nation’s place among the other nations in the world, but they are. We need more than a small fraction of K-12 students who excel in school. My experience tells me that nearly all students have the capacity to either excel, or do very well in school. Dysfunctional families can certainly hold their children back, and schools have very little influence over what happens at home. But, they ought to have influence over what happens at school. That’s where their power lies.

Schools, can, and do, produce environments in which all of their students can excel, or at the least, do very well. For instance, one school I’ve known for a long time does just that. The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS), a public charter school in Salem, OR, does that consistently every year. Entering students are selected via a lottery which covers Salem’s demographic spectrum. While the faculty don’t focus on the standards, each year 100% of their students pass the standards exams, 90% or more at the two highest levels. Oddly enough, all of their teachers have strong backgrounds in the content they teach.

In many of these cases, teachers have engaged in summer workshops and institutes which deliver hands-on experience in doing science inquiries they have conceived, designed, and executed in natural environments, and using those experiences to develop in-depth content knowledge of the subject of their inquiries. This is a context in which regional environmental educators and experienced teachers can collaborate to plan and execute workshops and institutes which can provide the training and support to produce classrooms which are facilitated by teachers who are experienced in science inquiry and have deep knowledge of the content they teach. And which deliver students who are involved and invested in their educations; and empowered as persons. A strong content and process background gives teachers the confidence it takes to deliver a student-centered, active-learning based curriculum. Something we all need to learn to do. Well.

How can you help?

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Blog: Science, Art, and English Education

Blog: Science, Art, and English Education

What is the Place of Science in Art and English Education?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor

School districts have, over the past four decades, reduced their arts offerings in order to meet increased demands for time devoted to science, mathematics, social studies, and English language arts. As a consequence, time devoted to the Arts has diminished to the point that people and organizations in the community have volunteered to deliver arts-centered projects and programs in the schools. I’m one of those; I have been volunteering in the Poets in the Schools program where I live in Clark County, WA. with a second grade teacher for two years.

After my first year in the poetry program, I experienced first-hand how the support teachers receive from the state hasn’t improved over the years since I left the classroom, while the demands the state places on them has increased. While I won’t be able to resolve the issue by myself, I can use what I know and understand about science, the arts, and teaching to suggest some things that might integrate the Arts in today’s schools.

What does writing poetry have to do with art in schools, and teaching science?

One project I volunteered in last year was a poetry project designed and delivered by Ms. Jenny Mowery, the Hough Elementary School librarian. Ms. Mowery’s poetry project is delivered to all K-5 classes, one period at a time, and involves teaching a poetry genre like haiku or limerick to a class, then having them use that genre to write a poem about a person or historical era they had studied in her library. When the poems are ready to deliver, students find an image of a person they read about when they researched their topic, and transfer that image to an app, Chatterpix, which can be manipulated to have the image speak the poem. When they are satisfied with their app, they all sit on a carpet in front of the screen, and individual students present their Chatterpix poems for all to see and hear. No matter how students felt about writing poetry at the beginning of the project, they would become enthusiastic as they made progress writing their poem.

What does this have to do with science and art? Well, I was very impressed with the way Ms. Mowery presented this project to kindergartners. Most weren’t ready, at the time of year they did the project, to write a poem. So, she had them decide what they would write about, then write a four-line, one word per line, poem on that. This worked very well, and I decided to think about how it could be amplified to reach more than one grade level, and even to develop into an interdisciplinary vehicle for other learnings.

I really liked this, and saw immediately that the kindergartners could draw a picture representing the concept or feeling each one-word line elicited, then put the pictures and words together in a way that made sense. What about older students? Could they do the same thing, but with more and more words, the older they were? This, I thought, had possibilities.

So, how would this look? Here’s how a simple school garden project might take shape. Let’s say we’re working with 7th graders in a middle school science class. And, we’ll have to pretend that there is a 7th grade English teacher who is interested in doing a collaboration with us. (It’s not easy for teachers in the US to do collaborative projects because they have many time demands, and very little free time. In many OECD countries, teachers are in the classroom for about half the day, and do classroom preparation, parental communication, and collaborative planning during the other part of the day.)

What is a possible place for science in Art and English?

My plan for this 7th grade science class is to develop a school garden plan from details we discover about soil presence and quality on the school grounds. After we know more about the school’s soils, we will choose an area and build a plan for our garden. Hopefully, our principal will approve our plan, and we can go to work. (Yes, the principal does already know about this!) The idea here is to provide students with an opportunity to meet a standard which expects them to engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. Eventually, the class locates a spot, receives approval for their garden plan (The principal gave her okay after students presented their plan), and planting begins. And so, where is the English teacher?

She might be expected to be involved in writing the proposal to the principal, but she wasn’t. From the start, she had them write notes about what they did each day. Then, every Wednesday, they spent part of the English period using their notes to develop a story about some aspect of the garden. They were encouraged to write about the part of the project that was most interesting to them. Some wrote about who lives in the garden’s soil; what they found there, dangers they had to avoid, how they helped the plants we see above the soil. Others wrote about insects they found; their adventures, their hard work pollinating so many flowers, etc. As the work, and the notes progressed, the English teacher asked the students to begin morphing their stories into tales. This writing project continued after the garden project had evolved into routine maintenance, harvest, and observations. At this time, we had done lots of good science based on the garden, and would continue that.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”