Maria’s Eye: How do we empower it to engage and understand her world?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING writer and contributor
f I could imagine the best possible classroom in the world, it would be one in which each student is empowered to look out into the world, see something which catches her attention, then know what to do to find out about it. Students engaged, involved, invested, and empowered in their world. My mind’s eye expresses this dream as one of a salmon fry darting quickly into a thick growth of periphyton on a fist-sized cobble, as Maria’s eye turns up and the corner of her mouth sets its sails toward a smile. That, not checking off a cell in a table, is the moment of learning that we teach for. That tells us that all is going to work out; we’ll accomplish this unit, and be ready for the next; empowered to accomplish whatever comes down the road.
How do we recognize that moment, and what do we follow it up with? So far, all of the work on science standards hasn’t clarified an answer to that question. Go to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) website (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) and look for teachers’ resources. And for teachers’ in-service opportunities. What do you find that is cognizant of how teaching and learning actually happen? That offers in-service training on using active learning to engage students in self-directed inquiry. Perhaps we need to work on this ourselves.
How did Maria’s eye get to the place where it turned into anticipation, and an incipient smile expressed a clear message that she was on the way to understanding? Something in her environment invited Maria to explore a concept, and her brain did the rest. Something her teacher anticipated and organized within her students’ work environment so they would engage it. Not a simple thing to do. It takes knowledge, time, confidence, and experience to do this well. And competent mentors. (For about twenty years, I did science inquiry workshops for teachers which began with a casual observation that I hoped would lead participants to notice something. Each time, to the very last I did, this is the moment I felt that this time, it wouldn’t work. Each time it did, and my experience was the thing I relied on the most to trust it would. Takes courage! And experience.)
When students engage the real world, the one outside the classroom, and discover questions embedded in what they find, that process turns on their brain, engages the prefrontal cortex (pfc), and real learning begins. When they do this in partnerships or groups, the medial pfc adds to that learning power by engaging the negotiation of meaning with its power derived from the social interactions involved in exploring, then recognizing a question. Quickly, the whole brain becomes actively involved, and new conceptual understandings are reinforced in long term memory. Can teachers learn to use this wonderful, built-in resource?
How can environmental educators help get them out here? How do we get departments of education (unwieldy bureaucracies) and legislators to recognize the need and support it. Perhaps we can pilot a project which first describes what teachers need in order to appreciate and understand how active learning works, and why. Then provides the in-service support teachers need to feel confident with the content they are teaching, and comfortable with all aspects of delivering content via active learning.
There are educators who routinely use active learning to deliver content – environmental educators. They teach in places which are interesting, and where students can initiate learnings with real-world, concrete objects. A good way to start a learning activity by engaging the brain, especially the pfc. A nice five-to-ten day summer workshop, followed by mentored field trips to nail down specific learnings. What might this pilot look like?
Some teachers are already delivering content via competent active learning. A large number of environmental educators are doing the same. What if we could gather a few of each for a few hours to discuss the idea of helping teachers become comfortable with active learning, and comfortable integrating and aligning their deliveries to their state’s content standards? There are large regional environmental education learning centers which have the infrastructure to support workshops. A collaboration between teachers, environmental educators, and environmental learning centers might have the capacity to deliver a pilot project. I like to think in terms of the long run, so add a comment that this would be a three-to-five year pilot in which initial participants would, where feasible, mentor new teachers each year, periodically review progress and tweak the project, and present their work and findings at annual teacher and environmental education conferences.
It doesn’t take many people to make positive change. I’ve learned over the decades that they simply have to start.
This 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.”
A Pedagogy for Ecology
by Ann Pelo
s a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity. I believe this identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the Earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the Earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honorable relationship with our planet.
We live in a culture that dismisses the significance of an ecological identity, a culture that encourages us to move around from place to place and that posits that we make home by the simple fact of habitation, rather than by intimate connection to the land, the sky, the air. Any place can become home, we’re told. Which means, really, that no place is home.
This is a dangerous view. It leads to a way of living on the Earth that is exploitative and destructive. When no place is home, we don’t mind so much when roads are bulldozed into wilderness forests to make logging easy. When no place is home, a dammed river is regrettable, but not a devastating blow to the heart. When no place is home, eating food grown thousands of miles away is normal, and it is easier to ignore the cost to the planet of processing and shipping it.
Finding a Place
Our work as teachers is to help children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the Earth bursts out of its cement cage. For me, teaching in a childcare program in Seattle located next to a canal that links Lake Union and Puget Sound, “place” means the smell of just-fallen cedar boughs and salty, piquant air, the sweet tartness of blackberries (and the scratch of blackberry thorns), the light gray of near-constant clouds, the rough-voiced calls of seagulls, and the rumble of boat engines. It is exhilarating to offer children this place as home ground.
Other places are less compelling as home ground. What does it mean to do this work of connecting children to place when the immediate environment numbs rather than delights the senses? What can we embrace in a school neighborhood dominated by concrete, cars, and convenience stores?
Children’s worlds are small, detailed places—the crack in the sidewalk receives their full attention, as does the earthworm flipping over and over on the pavement after rainfall. Children have access to elements of the natural world that many adults don’t acknowledge. When we, like the children, tune ourselves more finely, we find the natural world waiting for us: cycles of light and dark, the feel and scent of the air, the particularities of the sky—these are elements of the natural world that can begin to anchor us in a place.
Rather than contribute to a sense of disconnection from place by writing off the environments around our most urban schools as unsalvageable or not worth knowing, teachers can instill in children an attitude of attention to the natural world in their neighborhoods. The sense of care for and connection to place becomes the foundation for a critical examination of how that place has been degraded. Rick Bass, in The Book of Yaak, describes his experience of the interplay between love of place and willingness to see the human damage done to that place: “As it became my home, the wounds that were being inflicted upon it—the insults—became my own.”
Every child lives someplace. And that someplace begins to matter when we invite children to know where they are and to participate in the unfolding life of that place—they come to know the changes in the light and the feel of the air, and participate in a community of people who speak of such things.
Cultivating an Ecological Identity
Children know how to live intimately in place; they allow themselves to be imprinted by place. They give themselves over to the natural world, throwing endless rocks into a river, digging holes that go on forever, poking sticks into slivers of dirt in pavement, finding their way up the orneriest tree. They learn about place with their bodies and hearts. We can underscore that intuited, sensual, experiential knowledge by fostering a conscious knowledge of place.
How do we cultivate a love of place in young children’s hearts and minds, moving beyond the tenets of recycling to intimate connection with their home ground? From my experiences as a childcare teacher, I’ve distilled a handful of principles.
• Walk the land.
• Learn the names.
• Embrace sensuality.
• Explore new perspectives.
• Learn the stories.
• Tell the stories.
My primary work is as a teacher in a full-day, year-round childcare program in an urban Seattle neighborhood that serves families privileged by race, class, and education. I’ve also worked closely with teachers and children in urban Head Start programs. The principles I suggest resonate in these widely varying contexts; all children deserve home ground.
Walk the Land
Contemporary U.S. culture is about novelty and fast-moving entertainment: a million television channels to surf, and news stories that flash bright and burn out fast. This disposition to move quickly and look superficially translates to a lack of authentic engagement with the Earth: Get to as many national parks as we can in a two-week vacation, drive to a scenic view, take some photos, and drive to the next place.
As teachers, we must be mindful of this cultural disposition to superficial knowledge. It’s easy to fall into the habit of aiming for novelty, offering children many brief encounters with places, experiences that leave them familiar with the surface, but not the depths. Instead, we ought to invite children to look below the surface, to move slowly, to know a place deeply.
For many years, my emphasis in planning summer field trips was to get to as many city parks and beaches as I could. Each week, we’d head out to two or three different places, so that by the end of the summer we’d taken a grand tour of the city. I thought that by visiting a range of places in Seattle, the children would come to know their city. We had a hoot on those trips, but each place was a first encounter, and offered novelty rather than intimacy. The children came away from those summers not so much with a sense of place as with confusion about how these various places fit together to make up their home ground. We’d skimmed the surface of Seattle, but didn’t know its depths.
Now, my emphasis has shifted. I plan regular visits to the same two or three places over the course of a year. Spending time at the same park and the same beach, we see it change throughout the year. I point out landmarks on the beach to help the children track the tide’s movement up and down the beach. At the park, we choose a couple of trees that we visit regularly; we take photos and sketch them to help us notice the nuances of their seasonal cycles. From the top of a big rock at the park, the children play with their shadows on the ground below, noticing how shadow and light change over the year. The children greet the rhododendron bushes like dear old friends, and know the best places to find beetles and slugs.
My commitment to walking the land consciously with children has changed how I walk with them to the park in our neighborhood. I used to focus our walk on getting there efficiently and safely, and chose our route accordingly. Now, I’ve charted a longer route, one that takes us past a neighbor’s yard full of rosemary and lavender and tall wild grasses. We take our time walking past this plot of earth, and I coach the children to point out what they notice about this familiar place. I worried that the children would become bored, walking the same path every day, or would stop seeing the land, so I developed several rituals for our walk. We pause at the rosemary to monitor changes in its fragrance, buds, and foliage, and to watch for the arrival of spit bugs, whose foamy nests delight the children. We pause at the wild grass to compare its growth to the children’s growth, an inexact but joyfully chaotic measurement.
Learn the Names
When we talk about the natural world, we often speak in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we see: “a bird,” “a butterfly,” “a tree.” We are unpracticed observers, clumsy in our seeing, quick to lump a wide range of individuals into broad, indistinct groups. These generalities are a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this red-winged blackbird, here on the dogwood branch, singing its unique song.
Most of us don’t have much of a repertoire of plant, insect, animal, tree, or bird names; I sure don’t. For many years, I wasn’t particularly interested in learning the names of the flora and fauna, and imagined that learning the names would be a chore, a tedious exercise in memorization. When I turned 40 and visited Utah’s red rock desert, it awakened me to a passionate love, born in my eastern Washington childhood, which I’d forgotten, or never consciously acknowledged: love for a spacious, uncluttered horizon, love for dirt, rock, and sage, for heat and dust and stars, for open sky. Being there taught me that learning the names is an exercise in love. I was in an entirely unfamiliar place, and had only the clumsiest of generic names for what I encountered: a bush, a rock, a lizard. As I began to fall in love with the red rock desert, I wanted to know everything about it, including the names it holds. I bought a field guide and began to learn the names—the identities—of the plants, the creatures, the types of rock. Each name was a step closer into relationship. The names helped me locate myself in the desert.
I carry a field guide to the Pacific Northwest with me now, when I’m out with the children in my group. We take it with us when we walk to the school playground around the corner, and when we go farther afield. We turn to it when we encounter a bug we don’t recognize or find an unfamiliar creature revealed by a low tide. And I’ve created lotto and matching games from the field guide, photocopying images of familiar trees, birds, marine creatures. We use the images for matching games and bingo games: Together, we’re learning the names of this place that is our shared home ground.
In a culture that values intellect more than intuition or emotion, typical environmental education too often emphasizes facts and information in lieu of experience. Plenty of plastic animals, nature games, videos, and books for children invite them to intellectualize—and commodify—the natural world. Teacher resource catalogues offer activity books and games that teach about endangered species, rain forest destruction, pollution, and recycling. These books and games keep the natural world at a distance.
To foster a love for place, we must engage our bodies and our hearts—as well as our minds—in a specific place. Intellectual and critical knowledge needs a foundation of sensual awareness, and, for very young children, sensual awareness is the starting place for other learning. How does the air feel on your skin? What birds do you hear on the playground?
A friend of mine taught in a Head Start program in a housing development that had been the scene of several shootings, and that had more graffiti than green. She wrestled with how to stir children’s numbed senses awake in that harsh landscape where playing outdoors was dangerous. She decided to bring the sensual natural world into her classroom. She added cedar twigs to the sand table, and chestnuts, and stems of lavender. She included pinecones and seashells in the collection of play dough toys. She supplemented her drama area with baskets of rocks and shells, and included tree limbs, driftwood, stumps, and big rocks in her block area. She played CDs of birds native to the Northwest. And in early fall each year, she welcomed the children to her program with feasts of ripe blackberries, making jam and cobbler with the children, telling them about her adventures picking the blackberries in a wild bramble in the alley behind her apartment building.
Explore New Perspectives
Living in a place over time can breed a sense of familiarity, and familiarity can easily slip into a belief that we’ve got the land figured out. We stop expecting to be surprised, to be jolted into new ways of seeing; we become detached from the vitality of a place.
Our challenge is to see with new eyes, to look at the familiar as though we’re seeing it for the first time. When we look closely and allow ourselves to be surprised by unexpected details and new insights, we develop an authenticity and humility in our experience of place, and wake up to its mysteries and delights.
Several years ago, one of the 4-year-old children in my group posed a simple question: Why do the leaves change color? Her question startled me awake: I saw the transformation of color through her eyes, a phenomenon consciously witnessed only once or twice in her young life, and one full of mystery and magic. Her question deserved my full attention, not a recital of the muddled information that I remembered from my science classes in school, and not a quick glance at an encyclopedia. Madeline’s question launched our group on an in-depth study of the lives of leaves that carried us through the seasons.
My co-teacher, Sandra, and I took the children on a walk through the neighborhood to study the trees. Moving from one tree to the next, we began to see a pattern, and shared our observation with the children: the leaves on the outermost branches began to change color before the leaves in the center of the tree. The children built on our observation, adding what they’d noticed: The leaves first changed color on their outermost edges, while the center of the leaves remained green. I suggested that we gather leaves to bring back to our room, where we could study them up close and record what we observed, sketching the details that we saw and adding nuances of color with watercolor paint. As we sketched the lines of the leaves, children pointed out the resemblance between the skeletal lines of leaves—the “bones” of a leaf, the children called them—and the tendons and lines on our hands: “The lines of the leaf feel like human bones.” “The lines are like the lines on our hands.” Excited by the children’s observations, I suggested that we sketch our hands, just as we’d sketched the leaves, knowing that our sketching would help us see ourselves in new ways, as cousins to leaves.
As we sketched, I asked the children to reflect on why the leaves change color in the autumn. “What is it about autumn that makes leaves change from green to red, orange, brown?” The children generated several theories: “In the fall, it’s cold. Leaves huddle together on the ground to get warm. The trees are cold because they don’t have any leaves to keep them warm.” “The color is a coat to keep the leaves warm, because it’s cold in the fall.”
From this analysis, one child made a leap that deepened our conversation: “Leaves get sad when they start to die.” From this decidedly unscientific conjecture, the children forged a potent connection to the leaves: “Like we give comfort to others when they’re sad, the plant needs comfort.” “I think a hug would help a leaf, and being with the leaf.” “Maybe you could stay with it. You just give it comfort before it dies.” “When it drops on the ground, that’s when it needs you.”
At Hilltop, we use an emergent pedagogy, developing curriculum from the children’s questions and pursuits. In our study of the lives of leaves, I experienced the value of this pedagogy, as we lingered with questions, theories, and counter-theories, and with our not knowing. Our emergent curriculum framework allowed us to explore Madeline’s question in the spirit in which it was posed: a question about the meaning of change and the identity of leaves. Through our exploration, we became intimates of leaves, anchored in our place.
Learn the Stories
To foster an intimate relationship with place, we need to know the stories and histories that are linked to that place, just as we do in our intimate relationships with people. In our work with young children, our focus in gathering these stories is as much about the children’s imaginings as it is about scientific facts. We can invite their conjectures to complement the facts, opening the door to heartfelt connections.
Visiting a Head Start program one afternoon, I watched Natalie catch ants on the asphalt slab that served as the program’s playground. She hovered over a crack in the pavement, carefully picking up each ant that crawled from the crack and dropping it into a bucket. Curious about her intention, I asked what she was planning for the ants: “They’re bugs and we hafta kill them.” I imagined contexts in her life in which this could be true: Had her family dealt with invasive insects at home? Had she experienced the pain of bee stings and itch of mosquito bites? I wanted respectfully to acknowledge these sorts of experiences, yet I didn’t want them to become her only references for understanding and relating to the natural world. I said, “Sometimes, when bugs come into our houses, we have to kill them to keep ourselves healthy. And some bugs can bite us in painful ways. But sometimes we don’t have to worry so much about the bugs we find. I’m curious about these ants. Where do you suppose they come from?”
Natalie was quick to imagine the ants’ story: “The ants are in the hole talking. If they hear loud noises, they won’t come out. We have to be very quiet! If they see us, they stay in because they’re scared. When one ant wasn’t looking, I got him! I’m faster than them—that’s how I catch them.”
“What’s in the hole that the ants come from?” I asked.
“Maybe their family,” Natalie mused. I offered her a clipboard and a pen, and invited her to draw what she imagined was in the hole. She began to sketch, talking aloud as she worked: “They’re a family. They talk to each other and bring food to their baby. In the house, there’s food and a table and a bed and a seat.”
Natalie stopped drawing to look into her bucket: “There’s 15 ants in the bucket! That’s more than one family. That’s a lot of families. They share one house in the hole. The ants come not fast because they’re talking, saying their plan to come out to see what’s outside. They want to find their family that’s in the bucket. The ants in the bucket want to get out of the bucket and go to their family.”
Natalie abruptly dumped the bucket upside down next to the crack in the pavement, and tapped it on its bottom. “Go home, ants! Go to your home. Go to your family.”
When I invited Natalie to imagine the ants’ story it helped her see her bucket from the inside as well as from above, and shifted her relationships with the ants. She moved from a defensive posture to that of being a protector. Particularly for children living in places where the natural world is degraded or dangerous, imagining the stories of a place can inspire new possibilities; it casts children into an active role as people who care about and take action on behalf of a place.
Tell the Stories
We’re often encouraged to see the Earth as landscape, which is scenery—something to look at, but not to participate in. But when we collapse the distance between the land and ourselves and allow ourselves to become part of the story of a place, we give ourselves over to intimacy. This can be our work with young children—weaving them into the story of the place where they live.
One way I’ve begun trying to link the children to the land is by using observable markers anchored in place to measure our lives. “You’ll start kindergarten in the fall, when the blackberries are ripe.” “Christmas comes in the darkest part of winter, when the sun sets while we’re still at school, and the sun doesn’t rise until we’re back at school the next morning.”
And I’ve been playing a game with the children that I learned from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, “The Sound of a Creature Not Stirring.” We listen for the sounds we don’t hear (a leaf changing color, an earthworm moving through the soil, blackberries ripening)—a way to focus our attention on the Earth around us and to participate in what’s happening in it.
A Foundation for Action
In The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World, Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world. Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work. . . . Obligation grows from love. It is the natural shape of caring.” She writes: “To love a person or a place is to take responsibility for its well-being.”
From love grows action. In my work with young children, I share stories of local environmental activists who have used their love of place to fuel their action. For example, I tell the story of a group of children and their families who launched a campaign to save the cedar tree at the school playground where we often play.
Children have loved the cedar tree at Coe School for a long time; children played at this tree even before you were born. One year, a mom was at a community meeting and learned that the city park department was planning to cut down the tree because it was damaging the asphalt on the playground with its big roots. She told the children in her daughter’s kindergarten class, and those children and their families decided that they had to work to protect the cedar tree and to help the park department find another way to fix the problem of broken asphalt. The children and their families wrote letters to the city workers, telling them about how much they loved the cedar tree, and sharing their ideas for taking good care of the tree and the pavement on the playground. They had a meeting with the city workers, who hadn’t known that the tree was important to the children. After the meeting, the city workers decided not to cut down the tree; they made a plan with the children and their families and the other kids at Coe School about how they could work together to fix the asphalt and take care of the tree.
I watch for opportunities for the children to add their own chapters to the story of activism on behalf of beloved places. I want them to see themselves as part of a community of people anchored by fierce and determined love of place and who take responsibility for its well-being.
The poet Mary Oliver instructs us on how to open the natural world to children: “Teach the children. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
And devotion is the beginning of action.
Ann Pelo is a teacher educator, program consultant, and author whose primary work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning, and the art of mentoring. She is the author of five books, including The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identify in Young Children; Rethinking Early Childhood Education/ and The Language of Art: Inquiry-based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings.
This article is reprinted with permission from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Available from www.rethinkingschools.org.
Understanding Ecosystems is a Real Need:
Will we help today’s kids learn what they ought to know about ecosystems?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Writer and Contributor
ids in school today, and their children, need to understand ecosystems, and their own place within them. And teachers need to possess the capacity to ensure this can be accomplished. A recent study published in Science, (Vol. 351, Issue 6274, 12 February 2016, pp. 664-665) indicates that US teachers are not adequately prepared to teach about global warming in any detail; nor, for many, with confidence that it is even happening, or is caused by human activities. And, how many know with confidence how local ecosystems will respond to global warming? This is, I submit, knowledge and understanding that our students need. As important as technical and engineering knowledge and understanding, which receives far more attention in our society than ecosystems.
This is a poor state of affairs. Ecosystems aren’t simple; nor is global warming. How many teachers, or citizens for that matter, know that the Earth’s current orbital position and ‘wobble’ about its axis indicate that we should be in a long cooling, not a warming, period? How many know the length of these periods during Earth’s journey around the Sun? Or their effect on ecosystems; ecosystems which support all life on Earth. Not to mention the human population explosion, which is the driver of much of this warming process. How many teachers spend quality time each year on these topics? How many feel free to do so? They need help. And help is what we can offer them.
How can our teachers bring themselves up to date on the complexities and importance of global warming? What resources do they have available? If you were to check the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site, you might be surprised. I just checked the Oregon Department of Education’s web site, and found nothing in the teacher resources section that could be used to support student learnings about ecosystems, global warming, or the human population explosion. The NGSS web site has the same paucity of resources for teachers, although they do note that some resources will be forthcoming. NGSS and the National Science Teachers Association web sites offer resources like worksheets and ties to the standards for the content the worksheets cover, but there is nothing I can find that offers teachers without strong backgrounds in science an opportunity for in-service training which will prepare them to teach ecosystems so that they are understandable. The same is true for the in-service support teachers need to attain the conceptual understandings which underlie competent teaching. We, the people who teach, or have taught, in our classrooms are the ones who will have to do this work. We need to start.
I submit that this state of affairs means the NGSS (and CCSS) need to become more expressive; to become useful, descriptive, aids that teachers can rely on to support their efforts in teaching a complex environmental curriculum. We can’t ask the federal or state education organizations to do this, but we can do it ourselves. Taking it one step at a time. Environmental educators know their sites and the science and math involved in understanding them. They may not currently discover and use the curricula which is embedded within their sites. This is where those teachers who, together, have this experience can help. Environmental educators and teachers, working together to exploit curricula which is embedded in natural environments. To learn about ecosystems. What if a few teachers and environmental educators got together to talk about how they could work together to use a study of ecosystems as a vehicle to drive curriculum in other content areas? A conversation in which they cover broad topics students would need to work with in order to learn about ecosystems, coupled with conversation about particulars of other content areas that could be integrated into the study of ecosystems.
For instance, while studying a forest ecosystem, students at any grade level could count the number of each species of tree they find. Then, depending on their math capacity, they could draw a representative of each of the tree species, with the size of each kind based on its population count. They can add the numbers counted to get the total trees counted. They could subtract the number of the first species from the total; then the second, and on to the last. What is left? They can develop fractions and do the division built into a fraction’s structure, to calculate the decimal fraction which says the same thing. They could multiply each divided fraction by one hundred to calculate the percent that kind of tree is of the whole. They could use the counted numbers of trees, their total and the number of each species, in an equation to calculate species diversity. That’s just a smattering of the math curricula embedded in one activity in a natural area. And the concomitant standards embedded there along with them. How do teachers take these pieces of math to a larger mosaic which enables students to attain the conceptual understandings which prepare them to deal with global warming and ecosystems? What can you imagine for all of the other content areas taught in your schools? What we teach is in and of the real world, that place outside the classroom. Can we use it to learn?
Would you be interested in engaging a substantive conversation about how environmental educators and teachers can work together to do a better job of teaching mandated curricula while building students’ knowledge and understandings of ecosystems? If you’d like to contribute to a conversation on this theme, you might write an article for Clearing, write a comment in the space below, start a conversation where you are, or decide to try this yourself. If teachers know environmental educators, or environmental educators know teachers, you can present the concept at environmental education and teacher annual conferences. For myself, I’ll continue to write on this theme. And contact my regional environmental and teacher organizations to suggest it. We all need to do something. The kids need that.
Jim and Dryas Martin 604 E. 28th St. Vancouver, WA 98663 firstname.lastname@example.org home.teleport.com/~berrywd/index.htm
This 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.”
by Jim Martin·
kymograph (‘wave writer’): a device that produces traces on a piece of smoked paper clamped onto a rotating drum, a mechanically amplified graphical representation of spatial position over time, such as the rise and fall of a worm’s blood vessel as pulses of blood travel through it. Invented by Carl Ludwig in the mid-1800’s, it consists of a revolving drum wrapped with a sheet of smoked paper on which a stylus connected to the tissue being measured moves up and down, recording changes of motion. (Adapted from Turtles, all the way down: A scrapbook about various hacks and obscure topics.
clear grey skin
a touch of blue
the blade reaches deep
reveals skin has edges
beneath the line
aortic arches pulse
beat out the rhythm
determined to live
bursts from the wound
an emotional visual
blow to my mind
because I teach
sacrifice this life
so a line may be scratched
on a piece of smoked paper
Early in my teaching career, I was demonstrating how to set up a chymograph to measure the pulse rate of blood as it was pumped through an angle worm’s dorsal aorta. The set up was simple, but had to be done with great care. Students in the lab class would then introduce their worms to water baths at various temperatures and measure the worms’ response to these environments via changes in pulse rate.
I made the incision along the worm’s long back, exposing the pulsing aortic arches, five blood vessels that pumped blood from the long ventral vein up to the dorsal aorta. These arches perform the same function as our heart, and may represent an ancient step in the ultimate development of the mammalian heart.
As the pulsing arches were exposed, I saw the worm very clearly, not as Lumbricus terrestris, the common angle worm, but as a living being, determined to continue to live at any cost; I saw life itself, and its right to its own existence, and remarked on this to the class. The beauty and persistence of life. An odd comment from a zoology teacher who was showing students how to kill an animal to learn about it.
My life took an unexpected turn at that moment; both my teaching and my personal life. At the time, I was in the early stages of starting to deal with my experiences in the Gulf of Tonkin, where I learned that some human lives were sacrosanct, others were not. I asked then, and still do now, ‘How does a life, valued and valuable, just and humane where it lives, become valueless and inhumane to those who live elsewhere?’ Is there some connection between this human phenomenon and how conceptions of deities and heavens change with changes in time, culture, and circumstances? Experiencing the worm, I began a long transition in my view of life.
The analog line the worm’s pulse traced on the chymograph’s slowly rotating smoked paper was thin and eloquent, instructive and inspiring; its own cognitive beauty. The ‘heart’ was marking its own course, its own activity, its own life and demise. Surely this is a worthy thing to contemplate, reflect upon, and to refocus one’s thoughts and beliefs about life on Earth.
The very first thing that wavering line did was to expand my view of life, to consider it to be more than the lives of humans, their worth and rights. I had a clear cognitive understanding of the evolution of life from the components of cells to cells to multicellular life, but had never personally considered the thought that these lives of all creatures were lived, that they persisted until they could persist no more. My view now began to include the right of all living things to their lives, including human living things.
Because we need to eat, the facts of ecology and nutrition were a stumbling block for awhile, until I realized that all things are in the process of becoming other things. They have to do this in order to live; a paradox built right into the fact of life on Earth.
One thing has seemed to me to separate how humans go about this business of living from the way of all other life. Each living and non-living thing in every ecosystem goes about its work with integrity. They don’t cheat, so, together, they produce a remarkably efficient and effective economy. We don’t exercise this ethical integrity, and create endless problems for the rest of life on Earth. Confucius spoke the only realistic solution to this human dilemma when he suggested we know ourselves, our inner selves, and remain true to that person; doing this he knew we would learn we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. And so, I began to concentrate on learning to do this, to know myself and to know others; not their externals, but the person deep within.
That person is difficult to miss once you’ve learned to locate it. Eventually, you recognize patterns, and come to the certain understanding that we’re all people, just people. That sets everything straight.
I began to appreciate the relevance of Dryas’ [the author’s late wife — ED.] inclusive spirituality, her sense of the personal and spiritual connection among all living things. The scientist in me needed mechanisms, and continued to look for them, but I could not deny the strength and universal relevance of the spirit that I began to perceive which pervaded all living beings. And I began a search for how humans have perceived this during all of their history in Earth; I continue to try to make sense of our search for spirituality and the traps that are built into being human which impede and disrupt that search. Since we can never know for certain, we are all searchers.
My teaching began to organize itself so that I and my students could observe intact organisms while doing them little or no harm. For instance, you can hold an angle worm still (try it on a moist paper towel) and count the pulses as each bolus (blob) of blood moves down the dorsal aorta. Time them or count how many there are per minute. This provided information about the worm’s response to temperature as useful as that gained from the chymograph. After all was done, the worm went out into the yard. The effect of this change in direction was to focus my students on the organism they were studying, and not on the instruments they might use to make their observations. They began to notice behaviors and other relevant phenomena associated with the environmental perturbations they introduced their subjects to. And I, in turn, turned my focus to the students’ behaviors and relevant phenomena while they went about their work and their thinking. In the end, I learned more from them than I ever did in my education and inservice coursework.
I discovered that organizing my delivery so that students come into my classroom to become scientists did more to involve and invest them in their educations, and empower them as persons, than coming in to learn about science, and being tested on it, ever did. They began to focus on following up on the needs-to-know that their inquiries generated, rather than getting the right answer, then forgetting immediately after the test. And so they carried the weight of their learning, while I busied myself getting reference works on the shelves, providing lab particulars they needed, and so forth. My lectures, which were good ones, were reduced to small mini-lectures, often delivered at a lab table, in response to questions students posed. I recall one sunny afternoon, walking through the lab as the class worked away, wondering what I had done to my stable world of lecture, lab, exam.
And so where does this take me in responding to my original concern about my right to take a life so that a line may be scratched. If I truly respect all life, can I sacrifice an animal’s life in order to know more about it? How about a plant’s life? A paramecium’s? Are there circumstances where this is ethically permissible? I’m not an ethecist, but I think that any time my only resort is to use a life to learn what may be applied to the benefit of others, I must look upon it as a sacrifice and ensure that whatever is done is humane, is as it would be done with a human.
Fortunately, we managed to eliminate these sacrifices in my curricula without short-changing my students’ understandings about the phenomena they studied. In the process, I’ve learned to find the person behind the outward appearances we learn to attend to, the inner light that shines in each of us, that holds our hopes and aspirations, that wants to be recognized and appreciated, and which recognizes and appreciates others.
I’m still working on the insight an angle worm gave me forty years ago. I know from my personal experience that it does no harm to communicate directly with the person who lives at the heart of each of us. And that it usually helps us all relax and appreciate one another’s company on the road we all travel. Together, whether we acknowledge it or not.
When next you see an angle worm, look carefully on its back for a long, dark line. Observe it carefully, and you’ll see either a recognizable pulse, or the line will fade and reappear on a regular schedule. When you see it, you’ll know that its aortic arches are doing exactly what your heart is doing for you. And for the rest of us.
Use the Real World to Integrate Your Curriculum
In today’s test-driven schools, there’s little room for including the world outside the classroom in the curriculum, even though school is supposed to be based on the real world. And prepare us for it.
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
his year I watched good classroom programs which involved and invested students in the learning they were doing come to a halt for several weeks so they could prepare for the standards tests. This, during what is the best teaching time of the school year: January through March, when there are very few breaks in the schedule, and teachers can concentrate on the delivery of curricula. Somehow, we have to wake up, get back to our senses, and use this time for learning.
That said, students do need to go out into the world to learn. Let’s look at two possibilities, the first in a stream, the other in a school yard. We’ll do the stream first, since it is the kind of place we ought to be going to. Then the school yard, since it is often the only alternative we have.
There are many places where students can find a streambank to explore. Or a wooded area; an open meadow; some place where they can see and count the organisms who live there. Then learn about them. These are wonderful places for students to engage new content via Active Learning. There is one, a small stream, near where I live. Here’s a list of some of those who live there: Salmon fry (very small, recently hatched, eat copepods); Copepods (eat algae and organic debris); Amphipods (eat organic debris, algae); Mayflies (eat algae, organic debris); Caddisflies (eat organic debris, algae, mayflies); Organic debris (this is dead and decomposing organisms on the streambed); and Algae (plants found on the streambed and submerged rocks). This list of organisms and information about them is abbreviated, mostly out of necessity; this is a blog, not a book!
Why Employ Active Learning?
Active learning is the best way for humans to learn. It entails having a learner-generated reason to find out something, and access to the resources which will help them find out. Finding plants and animals in a riparian area always stimulates students, and easily leads to conceptual learnings. Providing their teacher is comfortable with this way to learn. This is because noticing something in the world outside your body that catches your interest can, if you’re allowed to follow up on noticing, engage your prefrontal cortex and the machinery it employs in critical thinking. That builds brains. We need to do it.
Let’s say you find a stream near your school which has been restored, and supports a small salmon population. Your class can make a round trip to it in 20 minutes, which leaves time to make observations each time they visit. When they make a visit, they’ll group to study macroinvertebrates on the bottom of the stream, algae on the stream bottom and rocks, and animals living in the water column who will fit into a small net. Next, they’ll organize themselves to learn to identify the organisms they’ve found, and find out what the animals eat. This is an opening to several NGSS standards: Let’s look at four, one each from K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. (I haven’t started this yet, but it should be doable. It’s all LS.) So, while they’re gathering data to build a food web, they can also be embarking on an integrated curriculum about diversity, thermal tolerance, diet, a John Steinbeck novel; whatever is coming up.
For K-3, look at K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, in which students use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. In this case, building the food web helps students answer the question of what do living things need to survive. That might also lead to learning how some organisms not having enough to eat might affect their food web.
For 4-5, try 5-LS2-1: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. In this case, when one species becomes scarce in its ecosystem, then is lost, this affects the movement of matter in its food web. In doing this, it also affects species diversity. This might lead to learning more about diversity, how we determine it, and what it provides for the species in a food web.
For 6-8, try MS-LS2-4: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. This might lead to learning more about how their food web reflects ecosystems, and some of the biotic interactions which affect them. Middle school students might also use their food webs to approach another NGSS standard, MS-LS2-5: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Again, they learn how to assess biodiversity, and apply those learnings to their food web.
For 9-12, try HS-LS2-6: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. For instance, they can use their food web to learn about thermal tolerance, and how it might cause the loss of one or more species in their food web. Then they might even search the literature for current evidence that, as species move from one ecosystem to another due to the stressors involved in global warming, they are replaced by other species, more tolerant of the changed thermal regime.
Can you engage active learning?
All of these can be enhanced with lab and field activities. This is in addition to the learning each group of students engages. Because they’re learning about particulars they have engaged in a stream, these learnings will become part of a readily accessible conceptual schematum, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected facts.
Pick one of these which doesn’t seem overpowering, look it up on the NGSS web site, and try it out. Read what the NGSS says about it, then think of what you understand of food webs, and see how you can put the two together. When you’ve done that, then see what area of science you will soon be teaching, and see how you can use the NGSS description plus what you know of your food web, to integrate all into a workable unit to teach.
While the NGSS documents don’t often refer to food webs, there are some references to them at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. You can just do a search for ‘food web’ to find them. I’ve used the labels and titles, and the descriptions from the NGSS site in this writing. But I’m uncomfortable with the bureaucratic way they describe a very vivacious, dynamic, interesting system. A food web is one place where much science can be effectively addressed. Then, instead of learning facts about systems, students develop conceptual schemata which tie many areas of science together in meaningful concepts, ideas of how the world works.
We’ll use the organisms I found at the stream near my home for the next step; and that is to build a food web for this riparian area. As in all studies like this, the data collected will apply to just my reach, not the whole stream. To be more confident that my sample represents the stream, I’d have to sample more reaches. This collected information can then be used to construct food webs for that extended reach of the stream. Here’s one for the stream near where I live. (I had to look in side channels and slow waters near the stream’s edge to find the fry. Then, lacking time to complete the sampling, I looked up their diets on the web. I used this information to construct the food web in Figure 1.)
Figure 1. A Riparian Food Web. Elements of the food web are organized by trophic level.
While I’ve named each organism just once, I’ve grouped larvae, both young and mature, in one place, even though they might show up within more than one trophic level if I have considered all of the stages in their lives. And for some, there are more than one species gathered under a name. Considering all species and their life stages would make a more complex, but more informative food web if done with more attention to these details. You can take this as far as your students can comprehend or stand. Complexity increases comprehension up to a point. Beyond that, learners are on overload, and their work isn’t effective. This information/concept overload point is different for each student. You can overcome these differences in capacity by parceling out the work according to each student’s capacity and instructional level. And interest!
You’ll find that active learning is evident in the negotiations within groups as they sort out the pieces of their food webs. As they learn more details about the organisms, their conceptual understandings grow exponentially. And their food webs become more complex, and more meaningful.
Now, we’ll go to a school yard to build a food web. It may not be a riparian area, but it is an area we can study nonetheless. (When I taught inmate students in the college program at the Oregon State Penitentiary, they were able to discover and report data on food webs found in the prison’s exercise yard, an ecosystem where there were no trees, shrubs, or streams. We, too, can do this, without going to prison.) Natural areas are the best to study, but as a workable alternative, you can do an effective study in your own school yard. For lots of us, this is a more workable alternative than field trips to a stream or forest. Take a look. What can you find? Jot down their names, or make names up. (As you learn their actual names, update your food web. This tactic works well with students.) Make an initial food web from your observations, then amplify this with information students research. (Food webs are easier to assess in fall and spring, when the organisms are there in greatest number. However, as compost piles remain warm in their interior, you can probably assess them any time. Be sure to cover them back up!)
Here is one I made up as an example. It’s based on what you might find in a compost pile in a corner of the school yard. If you’ve ever rummaged a compost pile, you’ll know that this is a much simpler food web than you’d find in most compost.
Figure 2. A Schoolyard Food Web.
Food webs, by themselves, provide a visible platform for thinking about organisms and their ecosystems in a dynamic, conceptual way. Both species diversity and thermal tolerance can be effectively introduced via a food web. Thermal tolerance can affect diversity as species move from an ecosystem where temperatures have gone from within their thermal tolerance range to one which offers a better thermal regime. Diversity can attenuate the effects of thermal tolerance limits by reducing the effects of losing a food web species. The more diverse the population, the better the chance that other species will utilize the food sources that the departing species exploited. And might be exploited by the same consumer which consumed the species which departed. Like the visible, dynamic structure of a drawn food web, these two biological phenomena effectors of ecosystem stability live in a dynamic relationship with one another.
So, what will they do with their food webs? In the next two blogs, let’s look at diversity first, then thermal tolerance. Both will provide valuable insights into the effects of global warming on living things; which is something our students need to become experts in.
This 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.”
by David A. Greenwood, Lakehead University, Canada
As part of the 2009 North American Association of Environmental Education Research Symposium, this article addresses the cultural and theoretical frameworks that we bring to environmental education, the web of ideas and experiences that define the scope and purpose of the work in its geopolitical context. Originally delivered as a keynote address at the symposium, the paper highlights two necessarily related conversations within environmental education: the first concerns the problem of empire, including its roots in imperialism and colonialism, as well contemporary problems of globalization; the second concerns the problem of nature, including the need to develop intimate connections with the non-human on a planet that everywhere bares the mark of human alteration. Nature and empire are two poles on a continuum that shape the cultural and ecological contexts of life and learning. The author argues for the need to hold empire and nature not in opposition, but in paradox. Holding the tension of paradox complicates simplistic binaries, and can contribute to a stance that appreciates the relationships between seeming polarities in the intersectional work of social and ecological change.
For starters, I want to welcome all travelers to the Columbia River watershed. Here we are. I live some 300 miles east on the Idaho border, and the Palouse River that flows full of agricultural silt and erosion through my rural town mixes here with Portland’s urban confluences on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The mouth of the Columbia is an impressive roar of waves, marine life and history, commerce, and even today, shipwreck. Historian Richard White (1995) called the great Columbia River “the organic machine”: upriver the once wild Columbia and its many tributaries are now a mechanized and politicized system of dammed, slack-water reservoirs. The organic machine, indeed.
The tension of paradox surrounds us, and it surrounds the field of environmental education: local-global; urban-rural; environment-culture; masculine- feminine; native-settler; public-private; land-property; commons-enclosure; human-more-than-human; inhabitant-refugee; social justice-ecojustice; schooling- learning; domination-resistance; me-you; us-them; nature-empire.
My thesis is a simple claim around a single paradox: environmental education of any stripe can deepen its theory and practice by purposefully embracing the tensions between nature and empire. Nature and empire are two poles on a continuum that shape the cultural and ecological contexts of life and learning.
In the tradition of 19th century natural history, imagine an object lesson. I hold in my hands two related objects: the flight feather of a barn owl, and a wallet full of plastic and paper money. Inquiry: How do these objects and what they represent implicate me and shape our work? Nature and empire, the flight feather of an owl and the wallet of a white man, generate a paradox, a paradox that we need to hold, and balance.
We need to embrace paradox because we nature-lovers and no-child-left-insiders must also face up to the eco- and genocidal politics of empire, politics we’re all complicit with everyday in our cosmopolitan superprivilege. We need to embrace paradox because as heady academics and well-meaning activists, we can easily forget the gift of our own embodied and earthy existence. This feather is perfect. No matter how scientifically rigorous, politically informed, or culturally responsive, environmental education is barren if it does not include re-enchantment with the wide world of creation, encounters with the others, and gratitude for the gift of life.
Nature, empire, and paradox.
Nature. Remember, when you walked miles into the mountains until the rant of your mind receded. The sounds around you returned. Birds, insects, movement in the cover. The air, warm and cool of sun and shade. You started to blend, quiet self diminished and enlarged by a place full of others, and though walking through, you felt belonging. Until later you startled a cougar, you had thought this impossible, your shared shock while everything stopped, her ears twitching, brown eyes locked on your next move, your heart jumping on your chest, predator, prey, you watched each other’s bodies trembling. Remember, how against reason you wanted to run, how you caught your breath and she suddenly returned easily to the ninebark. The day shimmered, your relief, you had finally come back to your senses.
Encounter, enchantment, gratitude.
Empire. Like globalization, empire describes the political economy of the planet: the new imperialism, colonization, development, free trade. Empire—a system of domination and resistance, a bio-political power that is exercised, internalized, and shaped by networks of human cultures worldwide. A system of authority and control enacted by all of us, motivated by habit, addiction, desire, necessity, dreams of a better life, fantasies of endless economic growth—all increasing the throughput of natural and human capital. Empire creates and destroys under the flashing lights of a “postindustrial” age. Empire—your I-Phone, my laptop, the G-20—ecological and social impacts concealed, denied, ignored, and masked as ecological nostalgia or market opportunities. The subject of empire is the commodity; the object is the consumer. All of us are its soldiers.
Domination, critique, resistance
Context: It’s a beautiful world, life is short, and I want to live. I want to feel the wind rushing around me. I want to walk on the land I love, every day. I want to garden with my children and watch them taste the fruits. I want friends. I want to drink starlight in the mountains and howl at the moon. I want the experience of being alive, to feel my sensuous and spiritual relation to flesh, water, rock, fire, wind, species, shooting stars. I want to keep my privileges and increase them. I want to travel to Europe with my family. I want to see my daughters in London or Paris.
Context: Planet Earth 2009, population and industrial explosions, perpetual war, mass extinctions, billions of us striving for better and more, the unthinkable suffering of others. Such beauty and possibility for wonder, connection, pleasure—and—as Barry Lopez (2001) wrote in his great essay “The Naturalist”: “To read the newspapers today, to merely answer the phone, is to know the world is in flames” (¶ 24). Earth abides; meanwhile, no one knows the full extent of the mess we’re making of habitats, species, biosphere, ecosystems, neighborhoods, cultures, selves, others, relationships. No one knows the full extent of “this entire extractive culture [of empire] that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings” (Jensen, 2009, ¶ 10). No one knows the full scale of the problem of empire, its spiral of unintended con- sequences, and the degree of our own complicity: the way we are part of the problem we fail to understand, the way we fail to understand our part in it. Some say we are on the brink of industrial apocalypse. Others remember: we’ve been here about 500 years.
Anyone paying any attention can see that the mounting data describe an awesome mess of impacts, but fitting the fragments together is complicated. How many parts per million CO2? How many African American men in prison?
Rare is the space in which related impacts are acknowledged along with their more complex cultural causes. But increasingly, impacts are experiential, and therefore transformative. During my first week of classes this fall, a graduate student showed us a collage of photographs she made from her travels with Philippine Exchange: a dichotomous landscape of incredible beauty, destruction from mining, factories like prisons, and desperate poverty: people barely surviving, naked children playing on mountains and rivers of waste. Slumdog without millionaire; millionaire far removed. “It humbled me,” she said, and our privileged space of learning grew quiet. Breathe it in now.
I believe that appropriate responses to the facts surrounding nature and empire—what we know and don’t know, what we feel and don’t feel—are anger, fear, grief, and humility. Avoiding such emotions can lead to projections that may contribute to problems we deny or arrogantly claim to understand. We might learn to be with, rather than run from, the natural sense of despair that the field of environmental education sometimes schools us to avoid. If we are the least connected to others, we are part of a great suffering. Inquiry: Can we hold the paradox between suffering and hope, the dichotomous landscape of wretchedness and magnificence? “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald (1936/2008) wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them other- wise” (¶ 2).
Paradox. Along with grief, anger, and a rational fear of catastrophe, there is also a sense of urgency and responsibility, an embodied and shared knowing that we must do what we can, and now. From “Hieroglyphic Stairway,” by Drew Dellinger (2006, p.47):
it’s 3:23 in the morning and I’m awake because my great great grandchildren won’t let me sleep my great great grandchildren ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered? what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
what did you do once you knew?
(See the poet perform the entire poem at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=XW63UUthwSg)
Pause. W. S. Merwin said of poetry, “Any work of art makes one very simple demand on anyone who genuinely wants to get in touch with it. And that is to stop. You’ve got to stop what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re expecting and just be there . . . however long it takes” (Merwin in Moyers, 1995, p. 2). Like the other time I seek out on the land, poetry engenders another cultural way of knowing. It is a dissident minority tradition within my own colonized and colonizing culture. Stopping for poetry is an antidote to the morning news, to the incessant political posturing, to the super-sure academic argument, to the voice of reason that governs research methods and reports findings with caution and restraint. Poetry revives me, helps me to recover my wilder self, my possibilities, my empathy, in a domesticating competitive culture that makes me feel loss and lost. Poetry does not argue for the truth, it burns with it. “What did you do once you knew?” (Dellinger, 2006, p.47).
Pause. At 82, W. S. Merwin has won two Pulitzer prizes for poetry including this year’s prize; he is also an environmental and peace activist. What Merwin says of poetry is a fruitful beginning for any field of inquiry shaped in part by empire: we’ve got to stop what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, and what we’re expecting. Is it possible to let down our guard and just be here, together?
To deepen a felt experience of paradox between nature and empire, I want to read two poems by Mary Oliver, another great American poet of nature. The poems I’ll read are from her recent volume, Red Bird (2008); the titles are “The Teachers” and “Of the Empire.” These two poems reflect a tension in environ- mental education: between a focus on nature and human relationship with the more-than-human world, and a focus on empire and the political structures that shape people, place, and planet. My argument, again, is simple: environmental education research must hold together the tension between nature and empire or risk its own irrelevance while empire grows and nature recedes.
Mary Oliver is one of the best nature poets ever. She has taught millions to stop and wake up to their own terrestrial embodiment. In “The Summer Day” Oliver (1992) confesses:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields. (p.94)
Oliver ends this poem by asking of everyone alive, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” (p. 94). Her poem “The Teachers” (2008, p.27) is typical of her meditations on slowing and stopping to pay attention to the others and what our relationship to others might signify.
Owl in the black morning, mockingbird in the burning
slants of the sunny afternoon declare so simply
to the world everything I have tried but still
haven’t been able to put into words,
so I do not go far from that school
with its star-bright or blue ceiling,
and I listen to those teachers, and others too—
the wind in the trees and the water waves—
for they are what lead me from the dryness of self
where I labor with the mind-steps of language—
lonely, as we all are in the singular,
I listen hard to the exuberances
of the mockingbird and the owl, the waves and the wind.
And then, like peace after perfect speech, such stillness.
Pause. The teachers, the others, make me more human. The more-than-human world—as David Abram, Paul Shepard, Annie Dillard, Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Jay Griffiths, Derrick Jensen, and all my friends remind me— the more-than-human-world is sacred, biological diversity makes human life possible, it makes my life, your life, potentially, beautiful. The logic of empire is destroying this world, leaving behind what David Quammen (1998) called “a planet of weeds.”
Who are the teachers, what are their names, and what, if we learn to listen, might we hear the land and the water telling us? Robert Michael Pyle (2008) wrote, “[Environmental] education, no matter how topographically or culturally informed, cannot fully or even substantially succeed without reinstating the pursuit of natural history as an everyday act” (p. 156). It’s only good manners, Pyle says, to get to know our neighbors. “What we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t” (Pyle, 2001, p. 18). Nature study, from this perspective, must also include the study of what we fail to recognize, the study of what dominates our attention and stunts our ability to perceive nature. It must, in other words, include the study of empire.
Environmental education requires an expansive conceptual and experiential framework connecting local and global realities; it requires ecological attention and political edge, to make it relevant to our place and time. It also requires what Phillip Payne and Brian Wattchow (2009) call “slow pedagogy,” deep experience that helps us open and become responsive to the voices of the teachers:
Owl in the black morning, mockingbird in the burning
slants of the sunny afternoon…
…I do not go far from that school…
(Oliver, 2008, p.27)
How far gone are we now, here, today, from the teachers? Returning to the teachers, slowing to open to the more-than-human others, to the experience of habitat and biological diversity, to the interactions between land and people— this is the heart and soul of environmental education. What impedes our ability to perceive these teachings?
Aldo Leopold (1949-1968) said it over a half century ago: “our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land” (p. 223). Today, it is even possible to observe that some environmental education research is headed away from, rather than towards, intense consciousness of land, consciousness that can only develop through direct experience of sufficient frequency, duration, curiosity, and reverence, so that we may learn to listen and to love. The environmental education field has become culturally responsive, politically astute, and psychologically smart—mainly in response to empire. But we still need the teachers. What they teach us is irreplaceable, and endangered, unless we stop, look, and listen for a long time.
Pause. Before sharing Oliver’s (2008) poem, “Of the Empire,” I want to make a few paradoxical claims about the field of environmental education.
First, environmental education researchers and practitioners ought to guard against the lure of professionalization and the pressures of specialization that surround all fields of inquiry. There is a danger inherent in specialization that narrows our potential community and that distances us from the teachers. In many ways I believe, as Peter Martin wrote in 1996, that “having become institutionalized, environmental education is a lost cause and should be phased out as soon as possible” (p. 51). This obviously does not mean that I don’t support environmental education; rather, I observe that the development of environmental education as a profession can dull its political edge, and can school it far away from the teachers. What is more, as Foucault (1977) showed us, professions tend to normalize behaviour, marginalize outsiders, and disqualify dissent; they can make us docile and unresponsive to nature or empire.
In a provocative lecture titled “Professionals and Amateurs,” Edward Said (1994) noted:
Specialization means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge; as a result you cannot view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories or methodologies. . . . In the end as a fully specialized . . . intellectual you become tame and accepting of whatever the so-called leaders in the field will allow. Specialization also kills your sense of excitement and discovery, both of which are irreducibly present in the intellectual’s make-up. In the final analysis, giving up to specialization is, I have always felt, laziness, so you end up doing what others tell you, because that is your specialty after all. (p. 77)
Environmental education, because of its inherent interdisciplinarity and the enormous scope of the work, ought to resist specialization by definition. The real challenge is not to advance the field, but to participate in and help shape the larger movement for cultural and ecological renewal and transformation. As Paul Hawken (2007) tells it in his book Blessed Unrest, the larger movement is huge. It is made up of diverse networks of organizations and individuals working for peace, social justice, ecological sustainability, and Indigenous and civil rights. Each of these related ideals is threatened by the same empire. Political and conceptual power capable of resisting and shaping empire can be found in the intersectionality of the larger movement. This power is also found in the arts, the soul of all social movements.
Mary Oliver’s (2008) “Of the Empire”:
We will be known as the culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (p.46)
Let’s face it: environmental education is a pedagogical David to the Goliath of empire with its schools, bombs, patriarchy, and shopping opportunities everywhere. The way the U.S. national budget is prioritized is symptomatic: trillions for horrific wars; nothing for the environment within the Department of Education. Even if the United State’s No Child Left Inside Act of 2009 eventually passes, and the environment is finally noted by the Department of Education 40 years after Earth Day, it and its budget will be subsumed under No Child Left Behind, which is the climax of neoliberal education reform aligned with the politics of empire. This is not conspiracy theory or even critical theory, but the explicit expression of educational purpose from policymakers and leaders from local, state, and federal levels. No Child Left Inside is a remarkable example of grass-roots political activism in support of environmental education. May we please open a window and listen to the teachers? But obviously, the thrust of formal education in the industrial/capitalist state is aligned with the politics of empire.
Today in wartime, these politics constantly promote the expectation of “economic recovery,” and the recovery of “consumer confidence.” We might wonder what it means. Consumer confidence? Recovery back to what? The prevailing fiction of limitless growth, that logical impossibility that Edward Abby called “the ideology of the cancer cell”? Recovery back to what? An unjust colonial order? An economically exploitative and ecologically destructive culture of hyper-consumption, speculation, and debt? Today in wartime, few educators, environmental or otherwise, are questioning the profoundly pedagogical impact of empire: economic growth for the class economy, military adventurism for false security, and the erosion and commodification of the cultural and ecological commons. The most insidious effect of empire, however, may be that it functions to conceal from thought the very idea that any of this is problematic. These are the politics from which no child is left behind, and to which environmental education research must attend.
Memory and Reinhabitation
A writer and lover of beauty, my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s the last decade of her long life. She was the matriarch of a large family, a first generation immigrant who loved America, and the American flag, for the real opportunities it represented for freedom from poverty and oppression that my ancestors fled in Eastern Europe. I remember the last time I saw her before she was placed into full-time care. I took her for a short canoe ride on a lake in northern Wisconsin. She crawled into the bow seat; I paddled from the stern. I had never paddled so intentionally, every stroke deliberate and smooth. Once out on the water, she leaned over the gunwale and let her hand dip below the glassy surface. “Soft,” she said, “it’s so soft.”
The last time I saw her before the funeral was at the nursing home in Milwaukee. The attendant who wheeled her into the common room told her, “Your grandson is here to visit with you, Liz,” and then she parked the wheelchair next to me and left us alone. I was scared. Would she know me? Was it a good day or a bad day? So, I started talking about the weather, the season, what was going on. I said: “Nonny, guess what. I moved to the country.” Instantly, as if from far away, she came back: “Smart,” she said, “smart.”
Then she must have remembered I was a teacher. She loved education, read all the time, left school after eighth grade. “You’re teaching,” she said, half statement, half question. I answered, “Yes, I’m a professor now.” Unimpressed, she asked me what I was teaching, and glibly I told her, “Well, I’m trying to help tear down the system.” Her eyes got real squinty then, and they widened and cleared as she looked up at me with the firm authority of elderhood, “You mean build it up!” She was insistent, and that was the end of that.
Most days my grandmother didn’t know her own name, her children or grandchildren’s faces, the season, the current president (she often spoke of Lincoln), or how long ago her husband had passed (it had been 30 years). But at the mere mention of tearing something down, the response from my grandmother was immediate. “Sonny,” she said, “you need to build it up.”
Today I honor my grandmother’s wisdom. She came of age during the Depression. She stretched a meager budget for food for seven children. “Sonny,” she said, “you need to build it up.”
Building things up and tearing things down—this apparent dichotomy presents another opportunity to hold and balance paradox. I’ve described nature and empire as two poles of a paradox that reflect the expansive landscape of environmental education, the linked cultural and ecological contexts of our work. I want to offer another paradox that holds together the big aims of environmental education, and that also points to pathways for pedagogy and curriculum. The paradox is between decolonization and reinhabitation, between tearing things down, and building things up.
I propose considering “decolonization” and “reinhabitation” as twin goals for education in a culture of empire. It should be said that these goals parallel other aims of educational research and practice; naming them is an effort to make inclusive space for those interested in environment and culture, nature, and empire. Like other synonymous terms, decolonization signals a strong critique of cultural practices and their underlying assumptions. The significance of decolonization as a theoretical category is that its usage specifically problematizes the colonization of people and land, both as historical practice and as the political progenitor of today’s empire. Of course critique alone is insufficient theory for environmental education research, and thus the pairing of decolonization with the vision of reinhabitation. It is the tension of paradox between decolonization and reinhabitation that gives both terms their conceptual range. Though for the sake of theory-building the two terms are called out as distinct, reinhabitation and decolonization are two dimensions of the same task. Renewal often requires that something is undone. In California, Van Jones expressed this clearly with his program, “Green Jobs, Not Jails.” Nature, empire, paradox.
Decolonization involves learning to recognize disruption and injury in person-place relationships, and learning to address their causes. Because colonization refers also to the colonization of the mind and body, it involves the practice of unlearning and undoing. Reinhabitation involves maintaining, restoring, and creating ways of living that are more in tune with the ecological limits of a place, practices that are less dependent on a globalized consumer culture that values profits and conveniences more than people and places. Reinhabitation means learning to live well socially and ecologically in a place, and learning to live in a way that does not harm other people and places (Gruenewald, 2003).1 These are big aims, but there is more. Reinhabitation also implies taking a new stance toward one’s own becoming. We reinhabit the self whenever we seek our own renewal, when we stop to listen to the teachers, or when we acknowledge the heartbeat of empire in our own bodies:
they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (Oliver, 2008, p.46)
Because decolonization emphasizes human relationship to land, Indigenous perspectives on inhabitation are vital, as are the perspectives of other displaced and minoritized groups. Acknowledging Indigenous inhabitation is not only to recognize place-based relations to nature, but also to remember the long story of colonization, resistance, and the rights of sovereignty. Indigenous cultures are not the only cultures that have histories that need to be remembered; many minority traditions tell sacred stories of land, displacement, and struggle. Even mainstream white America incubates movements for resistance and change. The voices of poets, artists, activists, and others working for peace, social justice, Indigenous and civil rights, and for environmental justice and ecological sustainability—these voices are a worldwide movement standing up to empire. Whatever success this unnamed movement will have building things up and will depend not merely on critique and vision, not merely on developing communities of congruence and resistance. Perhaps building things up will depend mainly on changes in consciousness that open the heart, reinhabitations that slow us down so that we can recognize the intersectionality of our interests, how each of us is implicated in the other.
Listen to the teachers, confront empire. I want to build now toward naming a course of action for the field. While we might celebrate No Child Left Inside and the growth of green, decolonization means that we dig deeper: that we acknowledge genocide, racism, and patriarchy, past and present; that we acknowledge the class and caste systems that our contented consumption supports; and that we face up to our militarized culture of violence, repression, and war. Decolonization and reinhabitation mean untangling the roots of empire and building something up, a process that begins with ourselves, reaches outward, and never ends. Every act is important and not without consequence; collectively all of our actions create all of our contexts. Our numbers are many.
Our numbers, in fact, and our impacts, are extreme. Chris Jordan is a photographer who creates images that communicate the otherwise ineffable scale of our culture of mass consumption (see all the following images at http://www.chrisjordon.com). What is indistinguishable from a distance is revealed on closer scrutiny. “Gyre” (2009) depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour. All of the plastic in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean. “Shark Teeth” (2009) depicts 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, equal to the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins. Jordan’s art also magnifies the social and psychological impacts of empire: “Ben Franklin” (2007) depicts 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount our government spent every hour on the war in Iraq during 2007; “Constitution” (2008) depicts 83,000 Abu Ghraib prisoner photographs, equal to the number of people who have been arrested and held at US-run detention facilities with no trial or other due process of law, during the Bush Administration’s war on terror; “Barbie Dolls” (2008) depicts 32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006. The commodification of life under empire reeks of plastic, petroleum, patriarchy.
Paradoxically, the demand for Jordan’s work is high: people are drawn to the terrible truth of his poetry. Of all of Jordan’s (2009) work, his “E. Pluribus Unum,” or “the many become one,” best represents to me future directions for environmental educational research. From a distance, this image reminds me of the stories of the land told in tree rings. Complexity and beauty are revealed in proximity. This large scale mandala (the indoor wall hanging measures 45 by 45 feet) depicts the names of one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the continuation of diverse and indigenous cultures. The actual number of such organizations is unknown, but Paul Hawken’s (2007) “Blessed Unrest” project estimates the number at somewhere between one and two million, and growing. If the lines in this piece were straightened out, they would make an unbroken line of names, in a ten point font, twenty seven miles long.
What I’m suggesting is that if part of the work of environmental education is to decolonize and reinhabit empire, then we must better recognize the intersectionality of our interests with the interests of others, even or especially those whose ecological consciousness may be diminished by the ravages of empire. Green jobs, not jails. Environmental educators who can hold the paradox between nature and empire can expand the landscape of the field while enhancing the reach and impact of environmental education. In all intersectional social movements there are opportunities to acknowledge and resist the power of empire, to remember and reinhabit colonized land and colonized places, to remember their stories, and to listen for the wisdom of the teachers. We need an intersectional approach because our work is already braided in its resistance to and reconfiguration of empire, and moreover, to discount the struggles of others is to cut ourselves off from the principle of interrelationship; and to discount the struggle of others is to enact the logic of empire.
The intersectional movement that environmental education needs has been gathering: social ecology, environmental justice, ecofeminsim, ecojustice, eco-pedagogy, ecopsychology, critical geography, Indigenous ways of knowing, place-based education, peace education, humane education, sustainability education, disability studies, transformative education, Transition Towns, Wendell Berry, Jane Goodall, the Earth Charter. The shared theme of intersectional movements is their responsiveness to both nature and empire. Their movement energy is the vanguard of educational theory and practice.
The politics of empire do not change unless they are resisted by growing social movements: locally, nationally, globally. Democrats in Washington are obviously not enough. President Obama is not enough. Even if he wanted a strong climate agreement, for example, or to remove the salmon killing dams on the Snake River, or to provide affordable universal health care, or to end war–he can’t get it done, because his work is governed by the logic of empire.
History shows us that through partnership, solidarity, and persistence, social groups grow wiser and stronger in their ability to transform this logic, and to reinhabit our colonized places and lives. In the age of empire, the field of environmental education can itself become a kind of E. Pluribus Unum that invites and creates intersectional theory and action.
But—as important as it is to politicize our work and to ally the field with kindred social movements, we must remember the teachers. We need to learn how to stop, slow, and invoke their sacred presences. We need to learn how to privilege the teachers—other species, their languages, “owl in the black morning”—as full partners in E. Pluribus Unum. Nature, habitat, ecosystem, species, climate—this is not a political group; it is the context that makes all politics possible. There is a power greater than political power, and a strength greater than intellectual muscle. We know it as the experience of being alive, and being connected to others. The challenge is to hold this power and develop this strength as we participate in the larger struggle for peace, social justice, Indigenous and civil rights, and ecological well being.
Because a culture of perpetual war undermines the growth of any environmental ethic, I want to close with a poem by Judyth Hill (2002, p.4) called “Wage Peace.”
Wage peace with your breath. Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees. Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud. Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothespins, clean rivers.
Make soup. Play music, learn the words for “thank you” in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat. Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side. Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious. Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived. Celebrate today.
Participation in the money economy makes it difficult to know how one’s consumption is impacting other people and places. The point is that to practice reinhabiting place, one must become more aware of how one’s actions have impacts “all over the place” now and in the future—and—one must begin to act ethically on that knowledge.
This paper was the concluding plenary address at the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) Annual Conference Research Symposium in Portland, Oregon, USA, October, 2009.
Excerpt from “hieroglyphic stairway” by Drew Dellinger. Copyright © 2006 by Drew Dellinger. Used by permission of the poet. www.drewdellinger.org
Excerpt from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1992 by Mary Oliver. Used by permission of the poet.
“The Teachers” and “Of the Empire” by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 2008 by Mary Oliver. Used by permission of the poet.
“Wage Peace” by Judyth Hill. Copyright © 2002 by Judyth Hill. Used by permission of the poet.
David A. Greenwood is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education in the Faculty of Education of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada. His teaching, research, and community work revolve around place-based, environmental and sustainability education. Widely published in these areas, David recently guest edited with Marcia McKenzie Volume 14 of the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (2009), and is editor with Greg Smith of the book Place-Based Education in the Global Age (Routledge, 2008). Contact: email@example.com
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