by Emma Belanger
As someone who comes from a low-income background and grew up in a semi-urban environment, birds were one of the first aspects of the more-than-human world that I felt truly connected to without having to obtain expensive gear, resources, or and a way to travel to a novel environment. When I looked out my window, I saw birds in the trees outside; when I walked around my neighborhood with my family, I practiced my birding by ear; at home, I would sit for hours combing through my Birds of Michigan field guide and making notes about the birds I had noticed that day. For me, birds were an access point to what would become a lifelong dedication to learning more and being inspired by the natural world.
Photo by Emma Belanger
Now, as an outdoor educator working primarily with 4th-6th grade students, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach about birds. If we want to study ecology, knowing more about the birds in a particular ecosystem can tell us so much about how different actors are playing a role and acting in relation to other beings. If we’re curious about how the world changes over time, we might look to birds to help tell us some of the story. When we want to know more about the beings we share space and time with, we might turn to feathered friends, hear their calls, see their colors, and learn about ways the world brings life together. With birds having relatively easy visibility and accessibility in most locations, even in urban settings, shared stories of conservation successes, and many aspects worthy of awe, birds are a perfect candidate for rich studies in environmental and science education spaces that can connect us to the more-than-human world. Thus, in educational settings, learning about birds allows learners to think about the world around them in finer detail and gives them tools to begin asking questions about stewardship, conservation, and being in right relationship with their local ecosystem.
There is also evidence to suggest that being around and noticing birds can lead to positive mental and emotional wellbeing (Hammoud et al., 2022). Further, practicing birding can invite us to engage with other ways of knowing and being that allow us to reimagine what ecology means, making room to dismantle some colonialism present in academic ecoliteracy. When teaching about birds, we can engage in critical place pedagogy and put intentions towards expanding learners’ socio-ecoliteracy, where Indigenous, Black, and peoples of color history and culture can be valued as legitimate funds of knowledge (Wicks, 2020). There is not one right way of having a relationship with birds, and connections to birds can be profoundly related to culture, family, and personal experiences. Honoring an individual’s unique relationship to place and non-human animals provides learners with relational resources to dene their experiences in their own terms, leading to learning that becomes more personal and grounded in that individual’s reality.
Any outdoor place has birds for us to meet, listen to, and learn from, making bird lessons inherently a place-based topic. When lessons give learners access to ways of knowing that enable them to make more connections to their communities, act for important causes, and find ways to care for themselves and the world around them, knowledge can become a foundation where future worlds of justice take root. Climate change continues to impact human and non-human lives and ways of being, and having access to practices that feel grounding, important, and rooted in place-based knowledge may empower learners to act radically in reciprocity and appreciation for their communities and one another. In this way, engaging in practices of birding and paying close attention to the world can equip students with mindfulness skills, deepened nature-culture relations, and inspiration for future dreaming and activism.
If you feel inspired to try out a bird lesson with your community of learners, you can find a lesson I like to do with “new” birders below. I, for one, hope to make the practice of listening and watching for birds something I do with learners no matter where I am. This practice feels intertwined with relational gratitudes and can help us to reiterate a commitment to paying attention to the natural world. As Mary Oliver says, “attention is the beginning of devotion” (Oliver, 2016). In the time that I’ve spent with others thinking about birds, I’ve seen others experience, and I have myself experienced, feelings of joy, wonder, peacefulness, and excitement. All of these emotions, to me, are essential to humanity’s survival and ability to thrive in our changing world. To change with our world, we must be willing to listen, to take the time to see and feel what our bodies feel, to be present in what the present is calling for.
Birdsong Lesson Plan
Learning Goals: Feel familiar and comfortable being quiet outside, practicing grounding techniques through deep listening, making creative connections to the world around us.
DCI Focus: Biological Evolution; Ecosystems
NGSS Practices: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information; Developing and Using Models
Materials: Paper, writing utensils, any accessibility equipment necessary for your group of learners, bird eld guides (optional), binoculars (optional), Merlin Bird ID App or BirdNET app and device (optional)
Target Audience: 3rd grade and up
Ask a group about birds they may have seen in their lives, recently in a shared context or by connecting students to other ways some may commonly learn about or experience birds.
Use a mix of small group, individual, and large group reflections. Then, prompt the group to think for a moment about birdsong and what they already know about how birds communicate. Introduce the activity by asking learners what it might look like to try to draw a visual representation of a sound. If guidance is needed, provide ideas about pitch, tone, sound length, loudness, etc, and different ways those could be represented.
Pass out/ask learners to get out a blank piece of paper and a writing utensil while you explain that the group will sit silently for some length of time (5-10 mins depending on group interest and motivation), and while we listen for birds, we’ll draw out visual representations of the bird noises we here.
Emphasize that there’s no way to do this wrong and lots of ways to do it right. Students can use whatever symbols, patterns, or even words and colors, as long as it makes sense to them.
Do the activity with the students during the allotted time; draw what you hear! There is an opportunity to use the Sound ID feature of the Merlin Bird ID app, or the BirdNET spectrograms, if that would feel relevant to your learners or if you have learners that are in the Deaf community. Bird eld guides could also be used during this part of the lesson.
At the end of the time, ask students reflective questions. Perhaps, how many different birds did you hear? How did you know? Then, ask students to switch with a partner to try to decode their representations. Ask students to make the sounds they think their partner drew.
At the end, I like to ask students how it felt to be sitting quietly together in nature and if it was easier to hear sounds that they don’t usually notice. At this point, I share that birdsong is one way I feel like I can always tune in to my relationship with the natural world when I need it personally–if I’m sad, overwhelmed, anxious, etc. I encourage learners to think about what it might look like to try this activity in other spaces and contexts.
Conradie, N. & Van Zyl, C. (2021). Investigating the Environmental and Avi-Values and Birding Behaviour of Gauteng’s Young. African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure 10(5):1695- 1710. DOI: https://doi.org/10.46222/ajhtl.19770720-187
Hammoud, R., Tognin, S., Burgess, L., Bergou, N., Smythe, M., Gibbons, J., Davidson, N., A, A.,
Bakolis, I., & Mechelli, A. (2022). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 17589. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20207-6
Neruda, P., & Schmitt, J. (1989). Art of birds (1st ed). University of Texas Press.
Oliver, M. (2016). Upstream: selected essays. New York, Penguin Press.
White, R. L., Eberstein, K., & Scott, D. M. (2018). Birds in the playground: Evaluating the effectiveness of an urban environmental education project in enhancing school children’s awareness, knowledge and attitudes towards local wildlife. PLOS ONE, 13(3), e0193993. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193993
Wicks, T. (2020). Becoming Birds: Decolonizing Ecoliteracy. Portland Audubon. https://audubonportland.org/blog/becoming-birds-decolonizing-ecoliteracy/
Zych, A. (2016). Birding as a Gateway to Environmental Education. New York Audubon.
Emma Belanger (she/they) is a graduate student in education, interested in co-creating new worlds with learners. You can visit her website by clicking here.
Key Considerations for Asking Questions as a
Field-Based Science Instruction
By Amos Pomp
We do not ask [questions] in a vacuum; what we ask, how, and when are all related.
– Bang et al., 2018
How can field-based science instructors be intentional with the questions we ask students?
As a graduate student and field-based environmental science instructor for 4th-6th graders in Washington State, I ask students questions all the time. Asking questions is an integral part of learning and doing science and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices. I believe that the questions I pose as an instructor have the power to either disengage or engage student groups in their learning processes. Thus, considering which questions I ask, and when, is a significant and nuanced part of my teaching practice.
Instructor-posed questions are an important, multifaceted part of effective pedagogy. Instructors should ask their students various types of questions and celebrate various types of answers. Instructors may ask questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge, check their understanding, help them figure out where there are gaps in their ideas, and help uncover ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed (Reiser et al., 2017). Instructors may also ask questions to “help students figure out and refine their own questions” (ibid.).
The way in which instructors ask questions and elicit answers is also important. If I only encourage spoken answers to my questions, I may send an implicit message that I only value verbal and vocal participation in my learning environments. If I only praise the ways in which one student’s artwork connects to my prompt, I’m implying that I prioritize some sensemaking over others’. If I only accept scientific names of plants as correct, I’m indicating what kinds of knowledge I deem acceptable.
Reflecting on this non-exhaustive list of reasons for asking questions, as well as the potential implications of how I solicit answers, has led me to be more intentional with the questions I do ask and how I ask them. I don’t just think about what I am asking my students; I also think about why I am asking it—for what purpose. I think about whom I am asking it to or for and what kind of responses I am expecting from my group. How can I engage them in their own sensemaking and synthesis, creative thinking, and science and engineering processes? To help plan for each new group of students I teach, I’ve developed a framework for how I consider the pedagogical purpose of my questions.
Reflecting on My Own Experience
At the beginning of the school year, my grad cohort and I had many discussions about what teaching and learning look like. From our conversations, we agreed on two key points. The first is that to us, successful field-based science instruction looks like guiding students in their own thinking, observing, and investigating. Rather than responding to students’ questions with an easy answer of my own, one of the routines I adapted early on was asking them, “What do you think?” Even when posed informally, asking students what they think and encouraging a genuine answer is a pedagogical move to redistribute power and agency by encouraging them to gather evidence and explain their own reasoning and learning.
The second point we agreed on is that masterful instructors learn from and alongside their students in processes of collaborative sensemaking. At first, I found this process came naturally. Being new to field-based science education in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy for me to respond to a student’s pointing at something and asking what it was or what was happening without giving them an easy answer. “I’m not sure, have you seen something like it before?” I would say, or “tell me what you notice about it and what it’s doing. Can we come up with three possible answers to your question?” Asking these questions positioned my students as experts on their own experiences and encouraged us to work together to learn about our environment.
As the school year has progressed and I’ve became more knowledgeable about the ecosystem I’m teaching in, I’ve noticed two things happening. In moments where I am doing new activities or teaching lessons in new ways, my questions have remained open-ended and genuine, like the above examples.
In other cases, however, I have found myself struggling to maintain nuanced intentionality in my question asking. Sometimes I notice myself asking students answer-seeking, or “known-answer,” questions—questions to which I already know the answer I’m looking for—because I want the group to reach a specific understanding about a topic based on my own knowledge or some third-party definition (Bransford et al., 2000). Other times, I’ll ask the group a question about an activity we just did and receive mostly blank stares in response. In these instances, I am probably asking the wrong questions and discouraging the divergent thinking, diverse forms of engagement, and collaborative sensemaking and synthesis I’m looking for.
Upon reflection, I decided to create a tool to help me make sure I ask students pedagogical questions with the intention they deserve.
Instructor-Posed Questions: A Framework
When thinking about how to intentionally ask a question to a group of students, here are some key considerations I take into account.
Assessing the state of the group
Before asking my students a pedagogical question, I assess the state of the group. This assessment can happen during planning or in the moment. I think about where the students are or will be physically, as well as what is or will be going on, when I plan to ask the question. Perhaps they would still be riled up after an activity, or they might need a snack. Perhaps a group discussion would not add any value to what’s already happened or could possibly even detract from the experience. Perhaps the group needs to hear the question then move to another location before answering to have time to think and discuss casually on the way. If I want the group to engage in some sort of collaborative sense-making, I do my best to ensure that the group is in a place where most of the students will be able to engage in the process in some way.
Allowing for different forms of student engagement
When I plan to ask a group of students a question, I then think about how I want them to answer. I can ask them to answer in written/drawn form, whole-group share-out, in small groups or a partner, just in their own heads, or some other way. I make this decision based on patterns of what I’ve seen work best for similar groups in similar situations in the past.
Once I’ve decided how I want students to answer my question, I find it’s best to give instructions before asking the question. For example, I might say, “You’re going to answer this question in your journal, and you can write, draw, write a poem or song, or even create a dance or found-material sculpture.” Then I ask the question and repeat the ways that students can answer.
Clarifying the goal or purpose of my question
For this section I’ll use an example wherein my goal is for students to think and learn about the role of photosynthesis in a plant’s life and the role plants play in ecosystems.
With my goal in mind, I could ask, “What does photosynthesis mean?” However, I would likely hear one student’s regurgitating a definition from a textbook, which does not necessarily indicate true learning or understanding. Also, if I ask such didactic questions multiple times to the same group, I often end up calling on the same students repeatedly—missing out on quieter voices—because they are the ones comfortable with sharing in such a way.
I would also refrain from asking, “Who can tell me what photosynthesis means?” This wording implies that it’s time for someone to win favor by being the one who can. It’s a challenge to see who can show off their knowledge, and it doesn’t help a group of students explain how photosynthesis works or why it matters.
Additionally, I don’t want to ask my question if I’m looking for a specific answer. I have to be open to students’ explaining photosynthesis in new ways or talking about other ways that plants get energy and contribute to ecosystems.
Asking a question
Instead of the examples above, I could ask my students, “How do plants get energy?” or “How can we describe a plant’s relationship to the sun?” These explanatory questions engage students in more diverse scientific practices than just naming and defining a chemical reaction (Reiser et al., 2017). If I’m having trouble getting students to move toward photosynthesis, I could ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word photosynthesis?” which I still find to elicit more open-ended responses than the original example.
Something else to consider is that if, for example, I’m teaching a group of students who have never been to a harbor like the one I bring them to for a lesson, any questions I ask the group about what role plants might have in the harbor ecosystem will not carry as much meaning for them if they do not first have a shared, relational experience with plants at the harbor (Reiser et al., 2017). If I can first facilitate a time for them to explore and observe plants at the harbor, then asking them about their own thoughts and questions about plants at the harbor will have much more success. I can also ask questions in ways that allow students to bring in past experiences with other beaches or plants in other ecosystems.
I am also aware while teaching that common lines of questioning in schools are rooted in the discursive patterns of white, middle-class, European Americans. One way that I can expand my question-asking practice is encouraging learners to investigate the “likeness between things” to draw in students who engage in more metaphorical learning by exploring analogies with the question, “What is photosynthesis like?” (Bransford et al., 2000). Robin Wall Kimmerer agrees: “asking questions about relations illuminates answers that true-false questions may not” (Bang et al., 2018).
Finally, I could also ask questions that help students evaluate their own learning or the learning process, like “how did you contribute to the group in the photosynthesis investigation?” or “how did that activity go for you?” rather than ones that assess what they learned (Rogoff et al., 2018). I would ask these latter questions to prioritize my goal of exciting students about science learning over ensuring that they learn any specific “facts” or “knowledge.”
Deciding not to ask a question
Sometimes, I move through my framework and decide I don’t need to ask the group a question. Instead, I’ll tell the group some of my own thoughts on the matter, or I might just transition to something else entirely. An example of the latter is that if I’m more interested in having my students explore something other than how photosynthesis works, rather than asking them what they know about photosynthesis, I could simply say, “Photosynthesis, which, for those who might not remember, is how plants create their own energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.”
Asking questions in field-based science education is a nuanced practice. The way instructors ask questions reveals to students both explicitly and implicitly what forms of participation they value, whose knowledge they prioritize, and what kinds of learning they deem acceptable. With a bit of intentionality, however, instructor-posed questions are the key to engaging students in collaborative sensemaking and synthesis, divergent thinking, and science and engineering processes of their own.
My mentors, Renée Comesotti and Dr. Priya Pugh
Bang, M., Marin, A., & Medin, D. (2018). If Indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Daedalus, 147(2), 148-159.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.
Reiser, B. J., Brody, L., Novak, M., Tipton, K., & Adams, L. (2017). Asking questions. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 87-108). NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association.
Rogoff, B., Callanan, M., Gutiérrez, K. D., & Erickson, F. (2016). The organization of informal learning. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 356-401.
Environmental Education is a broad field encompassing nature centers, school forests, outdoor education facilities, state and national parks among others. This diversity of organization type allows for wide engagement by the public and holds great potential for addressing achievement gaps in the formal education system.
by Robert Justin Hougham, Ph.D,
Joey Zocher, Ph.D.,
and Sarah Olsen, Ph.D
Environmental Education organizations have more power than they realize to affect change. For example, in Wisconsin, Environmental Education organizations employ over 3,100 educators, serve 1.1 million user days of education in the field, and represent over $40 million in direct economic activity. The collective impact of this industry is significant. We advocate for other states and regions to take a similar approach to quantifying the field in order to leverage support and ultimately, affect change. Part of addressing the STEM achievement gap will lay in making the environment an integral part of the approach, while yet another part of addressing this gap will be advanced by focusing the collective impact organizations to build capacity. The work we will go on to describe here has proven valuable and eye opening- we also will lay out some of the steps to replicate this in other states. Doing so is a matter of environmental justice, a call to which many environmental organizations are responding.
Environmental Education to address STEM achievement gaps
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education does not have equal outcomes among different demographic groups. Racial disparity in science education is an issue nationwide. The 2015 NAEP science assessment noted statistically significant gaps in achievement for U.S. students that identified as black and Hispanic compared to those who identified as white (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As an example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin has the greatest STEM achievement gap in the country (Richards, 2016). Nationwide, schools that serve predominantly black and Hispanic students are less likely to offer higher-level science courses (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2016). All of these facts demonstrate an educational system that fails students of color in STEM.
The pedagogical practices of environmental education have proven to be an accessible approach to science learning for youth of different backgrounds and is thus uniquely poised to address the STEM achievement gap. The field of environmental education encourages students to observe and connect with a place in order to learn. Dominant strategies for teaching include place-based education and an inquiry approach. Place-based education allows students to forge meaningful connections between STEM content, students’ daily experiences and to observe the environment around them (Land & Zimmerman, 2015; Greenwood & Hougham, 2015). These field and inquiry-based approaches in STEM have better educational outcomes for low achieving youth (Blythe et al., 2015). Field experiences have also shown to increase confidence for underserved student populations (Hougham et al., 2018).
However, the field faces its own gaps of knowledge and historical bias. For the environmental education industry to effectively address the nation’s STEM achievement gap, environmental education organizations must understand their position and progress in addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This includes, but is not limited to, the increase of positive representation of minorities and other underrepresented groups, as well as teaching in a more culturally conscious and responsive manner. This paper will focus on Wisconsin, which faces some of the largest STEM education gaps, and how the lessons learned from a status and needs assessment and the work currently underway to address those findings could be applied to the nation.
In the winter of 2015-16, a digital survey was distributed to environmental education organization leaders around the state of Wisconsin. Our goal was to investigate the statewide status surrounding relevant topics within environmental education such as land management, professional development, visitation trends, budgets, diversity, equity and inclusion and identify organizational needs in these focus areas. In 2019, we updated and re-ran the survey, intending to update and improve our understanding of the status and needs of environmental education in Wisconsin. This article is focused on the enhanced component of the survey questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. Here, we present the set of questions from our 2019 DEI section of the survey to lay out our approach, and also to encourage the use of similar question sets in other states and regions.
The following questions were developed to address diversity, equity and inclusion in our field, defined in consultation with August Ball, Founder/CEO of Cream City Conservation & Consulting LLC. We understand the definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion and its meaning can take different forms. For the purpose of this survey we asked that respondents consider the following definition in their answers:
Diversity: Differences that make a difference.
Equity: A process of ensuring everyone has access to what they need to thrive.
Inclusion: Celebrating, welcoming and valuing differences.
- Please estimate the percentage of groups that visit your site or programs that include at least one person with a known disability.
- Please check all areas of training provided to your environmental education instructional/ program staff on working with persons with disabilities. How to adapt activities for participants with:
- Do you consider your facility to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
- Do you consider your programs to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
- Have you conducted a physical accessibility survey of your site?
- Does your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners of varying abilities?
- Do your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners from different cultures or backgrounds?
- What level of priority does your organization place on increasing program and facility accessibility at your site?
- What level of priority does your organization place on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at your site?
- What is the estimated demographic distribution of your staff?
- Select the answer that best fits your organization.
11a. This organization is committed to diversity.
- Please read the sentences and select the answer that best fits your organization. These questions were taken from the Diversity Survey (2014) by the Society for Human Resource Management.
12a. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people a job candidate will meet/see on their first visit to the organization.
12b. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people represented in our organization’s marketing materials
12c. Employees from different backgrounds are encouraged to apply for higher positions.
- Do you have resources and content available in other languages?
- Does your organization provide trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Past iterations of this survey have had positive impacts for Wisconsin environmental education organizations. Solid data is needed to inform decision – making and programming. The closer the data reflect the local context of the industry, the more effectively educators, administrators and our supporters can respond to current trends. However, collecting this data is only one step towards changing the status of the work on the ground.
193 EE leaders representing 173 EE organizations completed the survey. We asked these leaders to describe their organization in a number of ways. For example, whether the organization correlates school program to academic standards (75.3% – Yes), if they considered their location an outdoor tourist destination (44.0% – Yes) and if they regularly partner with other regional or statewide EE organizations (59.5% – Yes).
Of the 93.1% of respondents who considered their organization’s facilities to be accessible or somewhat accessible to visitors with disabilities, half (50.5%) have never conducted an accessibility survey of their site. The most common accessibility-related training that staff receive focus on physical disabilities (65.1%) and ways to encourage communication and interaction among all participants (50%).
Survey participants were asked which subject areas and organizational skills their staff would most benefit from additional training. Shown below are the most common responses:
Top EE Subjects Areas staff need
1. Using STEM as a context for EE (E-STEM)
2. Technology use in outdoor education
3. Understanding school initiatives, speaking school language
4. Community action/service learning
5. ‘Sustainable design/green technologies or buildings’ and ‘Community-based learning’
Top Organizational Skills staff need
1. Diversity, equity and inclusion
2. Grant writing
4. Digital presence/website/Facebook/etc.
5. Volunteer management
Analysis: Perception vs Reality: the bubble around inclusion and environmental education
The reported commitment by environmental organizations to DEI does not match the reported actions or steps they have taken towards DEI. For example, respondents from 56% of environmental organizations in the United States reported that trainings focused on diversity should be done (Taylor, 2014). In the Wisconsin status and needs assessment, only 50% of respondents reported actually conducting trainings related to diversity, equity and inclusion (Hougham et al., 2019). Even then, “The small body of empirical research that does exist about diversity trainings suggests that current practices are largely ineffective over the long-term. Therefore, it is imperative to conduct needs assessments to determine what content should be done” (Beasley, 2017, p. 5). Spending time planning, executing and evaluating DEI trainings will be essential in moving this body of research forward and improving the professional development opportunities available to educators in the field.
At Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in Wisconsin, seasonal staff training includes a session on DEI. The session lasts approximately 5 hours and is spread out over 2 days. All levels of leadership were present – from the executive director to seasonal teaching naturalists – for a total of thirteen participants. Different levels of participation were encouraged; staff were given the opportunity to reflect individually and to participate in both small and large group discussions. The training used multiple forms of media including pictures, text, and videos in order to cite experts and incite discussion. Environmental justice framed the training so that our team could understand the larger picture and the role that environmental education could have on its participants. Environmental educators should empower learners to exercise their agency in creating better communities, which includes the environment in which those communities exist. More environmental organizations are embracing the focus on environmental justice in efforts to engage more diverse communities. For example, Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) in Portland, Oregon focuses programs on “grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color. ” (Brown, 2019, p. 8). We looked at case studies that explore how environmental justice and environmental education intersect.
The training covered multiple topics such as the elements that make a space diverse, equity versus equality and how to respond to microaggressions as a bystander and as someone who experiences them directly. We talked about agency and how promoting others to exercise their agency creates more inclusive spaces. The training went beyond providing definitions and introductions to vocabulary words. Our staff discussed privilege and the role it has in addressing equity. We spent time talking about how access only approaches to broadening participation fails to hold dominant cultures accountable for the culturally exclusionary language that may exist within the programs they are providing access to (Bevan et ak., 2018). Participants then went through Upham’s lesson plans and identified areas for improvement including how the lesson was framed and a critique of the content. This information was collected and will be used to improve our lessons.
We asked for feedback at the end of the training to help us develop additional modules and activities for staff related to DEI during their contract. While staff training is an integral step towards inclusion, it cannot be the only time an organization supports discussions and activities focused on DEI. The goal of inclusivity needs to be reflected in an organization’s policies, processes, paperwork and infrastructure. Continuous and intentional reflection of staff practices needs to become part of office culture. To create sustainable change we must confront a system that supports the oppression of certain communities and discontinue privileging privilege and focus on supporting those communities that have been historically neglected or oppressed.
For environmental educators, from a pedagogical standpoint, we must not only change what we teach, but be willing to change the ontological underpinnings in the transmission of knowledge. We must shift our role from experts sharing wisdom to members of a learning community with the Earth. This is particularly true for white educators working with marginalized populations, as the dominant culture needs to listen and empower rather than tell and control. Without doing this groundwork in DEI training, we fall into the trap of treating empowerment as giving a voice to the voiceless, rather than listening to those who haven’t been heard. We must shift the notion of DEI as a need to that of an asset, and be willing to use this knowledge to help others create the change we cannot imagine.
Freire (1970) supported the notion that we are moving regardless, and we are either moving to keep the dominant paradigm or to transform it. What better catalyst for change than our urban youth, who are already fueled by being marginalized? Emdin’s (2009) research found, “These students eagerly await opportunities to exercise this power in the creation of a foreseeable new future that is different from an oppressive present” (p. 242). The first question we must ask ourselves is whether our organizations simply want to share what we are doing with diverse audiences or are we eager to embrace this new future as well?
Beyond Diversity: A Roadmap to Building an Inclusive Organization. Green 2.0.
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Richards, E. (2016). Wisconsin No. 1 for black-white science achievement gap. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/education/2016/10/27/wisconsin-no-1-black-white- science-achievement-gap/92722730/
Taylor, D. (2014). The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Green 2.o. Retrieved from: https://www.diversegreen.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FullReport_Green2.0_FINAL.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). National Assessment of Educational Progress: Results of the 2015 science assessment. Retrieved from: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/science_2015
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/listocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf
Project funding was supported by the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education.
About the Authors
Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Madison where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education or sustainability.
Isabelle Herde is the Program Director at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center
Tempestt Morgan is the Expanding Access Program Coordinator at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center.
Dr. Joey Zochar is an Advisor at Escuela Verde in Milwaukee, WI.
Dr. Sarah Olsen is a curriculum and evaluation specialist for Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (no photo)
Inside the Spring 2019 issue
Advice for White Environmentalists and Nature Educators
Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons
Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens
by Daniel Kreisberg
During college I was a waterfront director at a sleepaway camp and absolutely loved it. When my post college job search led me to residential outdoor education centers I was thrilled. It was summer camp all year round and it allowed me to follow my lifelong passion for the natural world. The perfect job. Twenty-five years later, after being a naturalist, 4th grade teacher, science teacher and environmental education consultant and having seen outdoor environmental education programs from the perspective of a parent and a teacher, I have decided this all makes me an outdoor environmental education elder.
First of all, what you are doing matters; this work matters. Don’t forget, be proud. The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness and desire to live with the earth not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. Their lives are overscheduled with activities, they have less freedom to explore their neighborhoods and combined with fewer places to be in the “more than human world” they have become a generation indoors. You are the antidote because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the earth. We know from our own experience the rewards of being outdoors. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefit the research and our own experiences has shown comes from getting out there.
There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. Back in the eighties I used an Indiana Jones adventure to connect lessons on ecology to save an endangered species. Wilderness survival classes began with a plane crash that required learning outdoor living skills to get back to safety. A lesson on forest ecology began with the story of a red eft. Geology is a journey back in time. It might a short story told in a 90 minute lesson or a longer story over 3-4 days. As the stories are shared, there are some things to keep in mind.
Teach local – There is amazing everywhere. The animals and plants living wherever it is you live, teach the same lessons as those in the jungle, desert or artic. Where you live has mind-blowing flora and fauna that inspire wonder. The best part of all, is that once children learn wonder at your nature center they will be more attentive to what is around their homes. They will be having direct experiences. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie or video of even the most amazing wildlife.
Connect to their home places. It helps to know something about the children with whom you are working. Learn about where they live, what animals and plants might they encounter back home. Talk to teachers about the community. Are there parks, forests, lakes or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home. Don’t prejudge the kids based on where they live as rich and spoiled or rowdy or whatever. Let them introduce themselves. Expectations lead to reality.
Teach love – Let there be no “ecophobia,” first described by David Sobel, this concept is important to those of us who work with children. Ecophobia is a “fear of environmental problems and the natural world.” Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of our connection and love for the outdoors that comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun and wondering.
Teach wonder – Look for teachable moments – the times when a child’s questions takes you off track but into a good place, or when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Be open and aware of teachable moments by learning about the place you are working. Explore by spending time walking and sitting. Learn by listening to people who know the land. Read. Gain your own sense of being by learning the natural and human history of the place. Then you can be aware of your part in the story. Be open. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world, the wow, the amazing, the how is that possible? It is also the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let their curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is okay to wonder. Celebrate the good questions. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.
Teach science – Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Then, based on the accumulation of facts, theories are developed to explain what is going on. Decision making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how our knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. The scientific method is not just for scientists. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” even if you can’t find out at the moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.
Teach hope – There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and can solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal protocols, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not working. That just leads to doom, despair and hopelessness.
Teach action – Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. They will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.
Teach effectively – It is okay to expect good behavior, and if that means disciplining your students then do so, it doesn’t mean being mean. I have seen too many times educators talking when children are talking. I admit to having given too many chances and have to remind myself that I am not being fair to the k‑ids that are behaving. Have expectations for their behavior and hold them to it. It’s as simple as waiting until you have their attention before speaking. If needed involve teachers to get support. Do not let one or two students prevent the whole group from having a positive experience. Kids do understand limits, just be fair and consistent, they don’t like hypocrites.
Another way to prevent discipline problems is to build relationships. This can happen by listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself, don’t try to be too cool.
Time is limited so avoiding distractions is key. While it is called outdoor education for a reason and it is true, there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear and lots of children have bad gear. Be aware: wet, cold and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson to the point of whining. Location, location, location, it matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?
Don’t be a slave to your agenda, sometimes it will be time to move on before you are ready and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be okay. Don’t worry about not finishing, you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of what they have already learned and activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor will be working with the children be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always chose action over talking.
Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing and do it with passion. ❏
Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out.
by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?
It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.
So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.
Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,
“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”
Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.
In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.
There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.
To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:
- When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
- When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
- Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
- The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.
Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.
It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.
In essence, the design will:
- meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
- allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
- expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
- foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
- build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!
Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:
- Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
- Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
- Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
- Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
- Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
- Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
- Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
- certifying for wildlife habitat
- becoming a state certified Green School
- supporting the national pollinator project.
(Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
- Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.
In the end, here is the winning equation:
program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan
What goes into the plan?
Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.
The physical space.
- Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
- Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
- Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
- Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
- Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
- Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
- Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
- Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
- Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.
Photo from the Intertwine
Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:
- When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
- critical thinking
Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.
- Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
- Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
- Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
- Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
- Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
- Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.
If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12). A few examples include:
- The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
- Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
- Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
- Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
- Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).
As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.
Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.
Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.
Children and Nature Network Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. http://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CNN_GSY_Report2016_Final.pdf
Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks. http://www.greenschoolyards.org/home.html
Boston Schoolyard Initiative. http://www.schoolyards.org/projects.overview.html Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.
Evergreen Green School Grounds. https://www.evergreen.ca/our-impact/children/greening-school-grounds/
National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program. http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Create/Schoolyards.aspx Attract and support local wildlife.
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Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.
 Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.childrenandnature.org/2016/07/07/grounds-for-change-green-schoolyards-for-all-children/
 Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.