Utilizing the Tools of Poetry for Science Inquiry
by Jim Martin
pril is National Poetry Month. Can we celebrate it by using poetry to facilitate teaching science as inquiry? What does the flow of thoughts, images of relationships, grammar and syntax, in poetry have that would make it an effective element to use while engaging in the process of science inquiry? Is it possible? Let’s see.
So, what would it look like, engaging a science inquiry in a natural place with the tools of poetry? Might be interesting; might be a flop, depending on my own interest, familiarity, and confidence in science and in poetry. A natural concern, yes, but I do know that my students would become invested in their work when I decided to spring something unexpected on them. How would I go about this now?
One thing I’ve learned from looking for curricula outside my classroom, even in school parking lots, is that curricula of all kinds are actually there, embedded in the world. If you think about it, school is learning about the world outside the classroom. We just insulate our classrooms from the world, then teach about the world from within them. It takes dedicated work to make our curricula connect with the world it teaches about. The arts and humanities do open the mind to clear thinking and good work. We might consider using them more often to make those connections.
Which gets us back to poetry. We are human, all of us; we use the arts and humanities to communicate. Not just writers, artists, musicians, and actors, but suits running a powerpoint for other suits at a table, or a man with a cardboard sign saying, “stranded, anything helps.” Without that grounding, we might stumble through life; and, on a larger scale, lose sight of our on-going move toward a global civilization. We need the arts and humanities as much as we need science and technology.
Does poetry really relate to scientific inquiry in riparian areas?
How do I tell this need for the arts and humanities to a streambank? We can combine the streambank and the arts and humanities as we teach; the place and the tools. My own experience tells me that doing science with the assistance of the arts and humanities does work, does engage students in their studies, and does empower them as persons. When students draw what they observe on-site or at a lab bench, and condense each drawing to a word or phrase, use these to build an illustrated poem, write a story, or draw an accurate “photo” point then return in another season to re-draw and analyze it, they easily attain new concepts, and develop conceptual memories that remain with them. These memories tie the work to a personalized picture in their mind; the laying down of a conceptual memory. It is those kinetic, verbal, and visual records of what they experience which help build the strong conceptual memories that they will carry into their lives as something understood; just ‘common sense’.
Poetry, coupled with a drawing, can do this. Here’s a simple example of using the arts and humanities to help clarify conceptions in a stream study. Students are studying a section of a side-channel of the stream, comparing it with the main channel. You have them start the project by observing a reach they choose along the stream. As they decide on their particular reach, they get to know it by observing things there that they think might play a role in maintaining the main and side channels as habitat. This helps them begin to develop an incipient concept of a riparian area as an integrated organization of collaborating entities.
As they work, you ask them to express what they have observed with an incipient poem about the things, themselves, and their place in the stream; how they think that these things help maintain the work of the stream, and the life it supports. This poem is a work in progress, so they’ll add elements to it as they encounter them; updating it as they discover and understand more. Once they are engaged, you ask them to draw a birds-eye-view map of their reach, from stream bank to stream bank. When this is done, you ask them to use their observations, work, and poem to date, to build a section at the end of their poem that ties the parts of the map together within a conceptual framework to express the life of this stream.
They, not you, pull the work they’ve done on-site, and express it as a conceptual schematum
When their work is done, you bundle up and return to the classroom to begin to pull meaning from the evidence and thoughts they have engaged. And, to present each group’s findings and products to the class. The final presentation begins with a seminar report from each group on their work, results, interpretations, and recommendations. This presentation will utilize students’ data, insights, map, and poem, in a way that works best for them. They may wish to keep the map projected on a screen for their entire presentation, with verses of their poem interspersed to the place where they will fit best, or make the most sense. Some groups may wish to include an artful representation of their map. Others may wish to complete their presentation with a performance of their poem. Others may do the same, but with their map, data, etc., included in the performance in spots where they work well. Your job will be to comment on what each presentation brings to the goals and outcomes you had planned to achieve. The first time through, this is an interesting experience, sometimes with a challenge or two. A perfect learning experience for any teacher! Take notes, and incipient preparations for the next time you do this.
By this time, your students should have reached a place where they own their work, and know it intimately enough to begin to intuitively make decisions about it on their own. After the presentations are completed, each group hangs or posts their map and poem in the classroom. The class can then discuss the information in their posted maps and poems, and in their data and analysis sheets, to come to some consensus about connections among the elements of the stream, its environment, and its channels.
Then, they discuss and comment upon a question posed at the beginning of this article: “Can we celebrate our work in the field and lab by using poetry to facilitate teaching science as inquiry? What does the flow of thoughts, images of relationships, grammar and syntax, in poetry have that would make it an effective element to use while engaging in the process of science inquiry?” They’ll be ready to provide specific examples to support their thinking about this. As they share their thoughts, observe carefully for evidence that they have assumed ownership of the work, involvement and investment in their shared learnings, and personal empowerment. When you see evidence of this, ask some questions about it. How did they feel? When did they know they were on a profitable trail? What most helped them get to where they are? And, what part did the poem play in their inquiry? Was it effective in helping you think about the work, relationships around the components of the system?
Something for you to do:
If you did try this in some form or another, and it worked somewhat, but needed tweaking or major surgery, write a blog about your experience and post it to clearingmagazine.org. Or, post it as a comment here, just below the end of this blog, and I’ll get back to you.
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.”
Making Science Engaging at Camp
Connecting art and science helps students find STEM classes more engaging and enjoyable
By Elli Korthuis
is a youth development organization that focuses on helping members, ages 5-19 years, grow as individuals through their mastery of their passions, referred to as their spark. The more traditional 4-H program offers clubs in projects such as sewing, presentations, and livestock. However, 4-H reaches a broader audience through its non-traditional programs including camp and in-school instruction.
We attempt to offer a broad range of classes at our 4-H camps including those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). One of the reoccurring themes we see in 4-H camp evaluations is that the science classes are “boring” while the craft classes have remained highly popular. With the growing need for STEM education, we needed to find a way to make these classes more engaging and enjoyable for the youth.
Over 2017, my colleague, Robin Galloway, and I developed a camp class to teach aquatic science, microscope skills, and basic nature terminology. To engage the youth in the STEM themed class, we incorporated art lessons since this was where their interest resided according to past evaluations. It was initially to be taught at the Oregon 4-H Center in Salem for campers in grades 4 – 8 along with their camp counselors. The facility is in a forested region with camp cabins, several buildings for lessons, and a pond.
Drinking the Water
During the class, we started indoors with a discussion of what organisms and materials could be found in the pond. I opened by asking which youth would want to drink the water from the pond. To my surprise, nearly half the class agreed that it would be safe to drink the unfiltered pond water. Several more said they wouldn’t because it was “gross” but didn’t have an explanation for their answer. We talked about the flora and fauna that may leave their traces in the water all the way down to potential microscopic organisms. Terms were explained along the way but there was nearly always at least one youth that could define a scientific term for the class. It was also an opportunity to gauge how in depth their knowledge was of water particles from different sources.
After our discussion, we went as a group to the pond and they could compare their discussion to what they were seeing. We got a bucket of pond water for a water sample and the youth had the chance to identify some of the particulates. Clipboards with water color paper and a pencil were given to each youth and they were asked to draw the macroscopic world they were seeing on the top half of their paper. The drawing time gave us the opportunity to delve into how some of the organisms present could affect us if we drank the water and what other organisms and materials may be present at different sources such as the ocean, a river, or a swimming pool.
The class finished their drawings and we took our supplies and the water sample inside. I put a drop of the water sample on a microscope slide, making sure to include the particulates that had filtered to the bottom of the bucket. We had brought a digital microscope that included a small LCD screen to view the slide. In a larger group setting, this microscope could have been attached to a projector to show a greater audience. With our water sample under the microscope lens, we identified the materials and organisms. One of the highlights was when we found a mosquito larva and were able to use the highest magnification to view the blood platelets flowing through its open circulatory system. It wasn’t an original part of the lesson but an added bonus. Although some youth were disgusted by what they saw, the majority were fascinated and wanted to continue in the discoveries. The class was then asked to draw the microscopic organisms and particulates they had seen on the bottom half of their paper. We wanted to encourage the scientific fascination so after a quick explanation of how to use a microscope, the youth were free to continue searching for other organisms if they wished to during the allotted drawing time. We also discussed how some of the organisms they had seen impact our health and environment.
Although many of the youth were comfortable drawing what they saw, there were a few in each class that didn’t feel confident in their drawing skills. We encouraged them in different ways including saying perfection was not the goal and joking that it could be called abstract instead. The time constraint also helped encourage the youth that weren’t as confident drawing because they understood high quality drawings could not be expected in the given time.
Water color pencils were distributed after the initial drawings were done so the campers could fill in the color. While they were coloring, I poured our water sample into several cups and passed them around with paint brushes. The youth then created the water color painting by brushing the water sample over the water color pencil areas. While painting, they remarked on how the particulates from the pond water changed both the texture and color of their painting. We talked about how the results would be different if they had used another water source and they were overflowing with ideas.
Their views on whether they were willing to drink the pond water were drastically different from when we started the class. Not one camper wanted to drink the water and many were quick to offer their explanations why.
We ended with a quick evaluation to gauge how their opinions about both art and science had changed after taking the class. Some of the highlights from the evaluation include:
- 71.11% agreed or strongly agreed science is not boring after taking this class.
- 76.09% agreed or strongly agreed they want to learn more about science as a result of this class.
- 63.64% agreed or strongly agreed they would do more art in their free time because of this class.
The evaluation method was also an experiment for our program. We were trying to encourage higher levels of participation since regular paper survey evaluations are turned down by a large percentage of attendees normally. Instead, we had larger flip chart papers with each evaluation question stuck to the wall with columns for strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Each youth was given a set of numbered stickers to share their opinion. This made the evaluation more engaging while remaining anonymous and encouraged more honest opinions. It was an extremely successful evaluation method that I will continue to use in the future.
After successfully conducting the class with 4th to 8th grade youth, we decided to offer it at a day camp for youth ages 5-8. The concepts were simplified but the class was still a high level science lesson for youth in this age group. They still discussed what the water sample contained, defined terms such as microscopic and macroscopic, learned how to use a microscope, and exceeded our expectations for their ages. These youth were not formally evaluated but from my individual conversations and the group discussions, I observed that the youth were engaged and excited about the entire class.
Since conducting the classes, this concept has been taught at the American Camp Association (ACA) 2017 Oregon Trail Fall Education Event where camp staff and directors from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho all enthusiastically agreed that they would like to incorporate it in their own classes. It will also be taught at the Western Regional Leaders Forum held in San Diego, CA in March 2018.
I am excited to expand this lesson into several 4-H camp STEM classes in the future. I believe that bridging the gap between art and STEM has proven itself to be a sound method for teaching “boring” science concepts to campers
Getting to the HeART of Teaching Marine Conservation
by Kerry Hynes
“I don’t understand. This is too hard. Why are we learning this?” These are just a few of the phrases that I hear in my classroom that force me to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself that, yes, I am going to get through this lesson. As a teacher in 2018, I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Every single day, educators take on the task of fostering students’ learning and increasing achievement in a variety of venues. And guaranteed, as a teacher, every single day you will come across challenges that make that task even more difficult than it already is. Limited resources, varied abilities, language barriers, and disinterest are a few elements that can deter every effort that you have to teach a strong lesson. It can be tiresome, frustrating, and downright exasperating when it seems as if there is no success in sight.
Engagement and Conservation
When I was assigned to teach a conservation and sustainability themed course this year to elementary school students, I was plagued with the thought of how I would be able to make the content accessible for all of my students, especially when they had never been exposed in depth to these topics. From experience, I have noted that many students associate negative attitudes with science, which makes sense due to the abstract nature and complex content of the subject [i]. Effective learners also need projects that advance their feelings of aptitude, permits them to form connections with others, gives them a sense of self-sufficiency, and advances prospects for creativity and self-expression [ii]. In turn, this can allow for greater engagement, thus creating a student who will display enthusiasm, effort, commitment to the task, and concentration. It is vital to guarantee lesson resources that relate to students’ lives and emphasize ways education can be practical.
Specifically, with regards to science, conservation-based programs have shown that participating adolescents are able to develop more moralistic attitudes toward the environment and increase positive lifestyle changes [iii]. I had the virtuous voice inside my head reminding me just how meaningful this sort of course could be in helping my students develop those environmentally sensitive attitudes, a growth that could be beneficial in leading them to understand their important role as stakeholders in conservation efforts. So not only did the content need to be accessible, but students had to become engaged with what they were learning in order for it to be applicable and produce tangible benefits to society. No pressure.
Now the question arose. How was I supposed to take this increasingly important material and transfer it to not only the minds, but hearts, of kids, many of whom were English language learners and students with disabilities? They have as much of a right and obligation to become global and environmental citizens. But how do you do that despite these challenges?
The Case for Art and Science
For me, success came with the incorporation of art. I developed lessons that In order to further develop a sense of success and allow students opportunities to work in ways in which they find their strengths, nontraditional forms of teaching have begun to emerge in the classroom as ways to engage. Multi-modal studies, which include art, allow students to engage with the curriculum in a different way so that they can examine and make meaning through all types of mediums, including graffiti, pictures, music, and gestures [iv]. Art can be a supplementary tool to teaching conservation, in that it allows individuals to become engaged with visual representations that are not as overwhelming in the sense of requiring an extensive amount of background knowledge.
Since emotions also play an integral role in our actions and everyday deeds, the arts present a way for people to form an emotional attachment and help reach new audiences and can play a positive role in changing behaviors that affect the environment [v]. Mediums such as the visual arts, poetry and music offer a vehicle to address the public not only on important issues, but in a way in which it can connect to emotions, beliefs, and attitudes [vi]. Presenting facts alone is less likely to produce a long term outcome that changes behaviors and outlook on issues [vii], whereas the incorporation of arts can lead to the long-term retention of retaining of the content long-term as well as a method to motivate innovation [viii]. Especially with students who don’t speak English as their first language, or need alternative pathways to comprehend information, visuals communicate in a way that words cannot.
Teaching Marine Conservation
When it came to teaching a unit on the threats surrounding marine life, I decided to try to use art as one of the main mediums for conveying information. Despite living in an urban setting, there are many marine species that live or migrate through the our waters surrounding the city. Threats such as beach litter, loose fishing constraints, oil leaks, and improper disposal have been cited as some of the main causes of marine pollution and litter [ix]. With marine pollution being increasingly associated with decreasing aquatic populations, it is imperative that action and knowledge is increased to save these species.
Being that my school is in an urban setting, many students didn’t realize the variety of animals that were directly being impacted by marine litter and pollution only a few miles away. However,since many visit local beaches during the summer, as many are visitors at local beaches, I wanted them to understand the connection that they each have to the issues of marine litter and pollution. Many tend to bring many items with them such as coolers, food and beverage, and blankets, which are disposed or left at the end of their visit on the sand away from trash receptacles. Any amount of garbage and litter that is left on the public beaches is detrimental to the wildlife when left to be blown away or very, very slowly break down. There are many negative effects of this apathy for the natural world, some of which include disease, suffocation, infection, and ingestion of plastics and other types of litter, as well as entanglement in various packaging and disposed netting [x].
In order to teach about this topic, I formed educational centers that students were able to rotate to throughout the lesson, each with a different set of resources that focused on various subcategories of marine conservation. These centers used various art forms as the main methods of communication. For example, political and nonpolitical cartoons were displayed to illuminate the effects of oil leaks on habitat and seabirds. Paintings depicting the ocean with tons of man made debris floating around taught about the physical litter that winds up in the water, as well as the threats of entanglement, and ingestion. Songs and performance art pieces were also shown to educate my students about the dangers to biodiversity and vast effects that our actions can have on the environment.
After students learned about threats to marine life, their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts. Since many of my students are able to access information more readily (both in terms of engagement and understanding) through artwork, I decided to have them communicate the knowledge that they acquired to others through some of the same mediums. Their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution and litter or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts. Since that technique was effective in engaging students, I figured that others who weren’t inclined to go out on their own to research marine conservation could learn through similar, appealing methods. And you know what? It worked.
It seems as though art can bring out the heart in science.
Kerry Hynes is a STEAM educator in an elementary school and assists in running a Makers Lab which focuses on sustainability and conservation. She is a graduate of Manhattan College and is receiving a Masters degree in biology from Miami University in conjunction with Project Dragonfly and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
[i.] Osborne, J., Simon, S., & Collins, S. (2003). Attitudes towards science: A review of the literature and its implications, International Journal of Science Education, 25:9, 1049-1079, DOI: 10.1080/0950069032000032199
[ii] Kostons, D., Van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2010). Self-assessment and task selection in learner-controlled instruction: differences between effective and ineffective learners. Computers & Education, 54, 932e940. doi:10.1016/ j.compedu.2009.09.025.
[iii] Jacobson, S. K., Mcduff, M. D., & Monroe, M. C. (2007). Promoting Conservation through the Arts: Outreach for Hearts and Minds. Conservation Biology, 21(1), 7-10. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00596.x
[iv] Cable, T., and T. Ernst. (2003). Interpreting rightly in a left-brain world. Legacy 14:27–
[v] Brown, A. G. (2003). Visualization as a common design language: Connecting art and
science. Automation in Construction. 12(6), 703-713.
[vi] Jacobson, S. K. (2009). Communication skills for conservation professionals. Second edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C.,
[vii] Inoa, R., Weltsek, G., Tabone, C. (2014). A study on the relationship between theater
arts and Student Literacy and Mathematics Achievement. Journal for Learning
Through the Arts. (1).
[viii] Gurnon, D., J. Voss-Andreae, and J. Stanley. (2013). Integrating art and science in undergraduate education. PLoS Biology 11(2).
[ix] Zettler, E.R., Mincer, T.J., Amaral-Zettler, L.A. (2013). Life in the “Plastisphere”: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (13): 7137-7146.
[x] Kraus, G., & Diekmann, R. (2017). Impact of Fishing Activities on Marine Life. Handbook on Marine Environment Protection, 79-96. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-60156-4_4
By Shimshon Obadia
hirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.
Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.
I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.
This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.
In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.
Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”.  This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.
So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.
It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.
As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”, meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”. Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.
In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.
Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”. Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.
With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”.
The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.
In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”. The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”. This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.
The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.
Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real’”. In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from. If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.
Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”. These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.
My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.
We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.
One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.
She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school. However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here. That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right. This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 159
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2
 Louv “Last Child in the Woods”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13
 Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40
 Kester, “Conversation Pieces,” 90
 Weintraub “To Life!”
 Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64
 Weintraub “To Life!”
Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.
Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
The Suquamish Basket Marsh: Creating a Living Library
An Outdoor Environmental Learning Classroom for the students of Suquamish Elementary School
By Melinda West
There is a Salish legend passed down by the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest that explains the origin of the cedar tree and why it has been referred to as: “Long-Life Maker”. For over four-thousand years this slow-growing, shade-and- water-loving evergreen has resided amongst the fir, yew and hemlock trees, in forests along the edges of Puget Sound. The legend explains that the cedar trees were once generous people who looked to the welfare of others in their community and responded to their needs. I’d like to tell you a story that makes me believe the spirit of this legend is alive and flourishing today.
My relationship with Suquamish Elementary school was rekindled in the spring of 2000. This was the public school my own two, now adult sons had attended. For over a decade, I had spent many hours volunteering in each of their classrooms. On this occasion I was invited as a consultant because of my work as a natural fiber weaving specialist. This visit was to hear about an innovative idea for a project that would combine science, social studies and art education. The proposed project would involve converting a barren, fenced-off drainage catchment area on school grounds into a pond and native plant garden.
Pulling into the auxiliary parking lot, I glanced straight ahead at this desolate space, off limits to students, yet taking away up to one third of the play area. These depressions in the landscape surrounded by locked chain-link fences are commonly seen throughout the Kitsap Peninsula, in Washington State, where I’ve resided for over a quarter century. They are required for surface water purification. I tend to look away from these sites and search for alternative focuses which hold some beauty — the chirping sounds of children at play, verdant leaves unfurling, even the bright yellow of dandelion weeds.
Six years later, as I drive into that same parking lot at Suquamish Elementary, my eyes are drawn to cattail leaves dancing over a shimmering pond. I see delicate, green stalks of the Northwest sweetgrass sedge growing in the bog. Both plants have been used for centuries as weaving materials by the First People of this place. There is a boardwalk and gravel trail that follows the perimeter of the pond. A rain shelter built of yellow cedar is reminiscent of the long houses that once stood nearby. A small cedar tool shed, and wooden benches are nestled in between adolescent hazelnut, vine maple, and western red cedar trees. Shrubs, ferns and ground covers mingle below the wild roses, red currants, and willows.
There is a class of third graders using this space when I arrive. Little faces peak out from behind a bird blind woven with grapevines from a local vineyard. Other students are sitting on boulders perched near the pond, glacial remnants generously donated by a local landscape company. At this moment the students are quietly engaged, making observations and entries in their pond journals. They are smelling and touching plants, writing, measuring, and sketching. In a little while, I will be accompanying a class of fourth graders the fifty odd yards away from the building, through the woven arbor gate and under the twig sign that says: “Welcome”.
“In traditional Native American cultures, art was not a separate pursuit. Beauty and utility came together in objects of everyday use to reflect a way of life and an aesthetic that respected the relationship people had with their environment.”…Shaun Peterson, Salish Artist, 2004 SAM exhibit” Song, Story, Speech”.
As a plant fiber artist, teachers invite me to present ethnobotanical knowledge about Pacific Northwest plants to their students. This provides content for social studies and science requirements, while the techniques for using the plant fibers provide physical activity, math and art skills. The Basket Marsh and outdoor classrooms of its kind are living libraries and laboratories. They contain unlimited resources for teaching every subject students need to learn.
What I have to offer as a teaching artist is most effective in an environment where students can see, touch, smell, hear, and sometimes even taste, the subject-matter. Again and again, I have witnessed that this first-hand experiential learning of natural science and culture gives lasting memory and meaning to students. The virtues of the western red cedar can easily be appreciated by children, when they are given pieces of the leather-like inner bark to experiment with as they sit next to young growing cedar trees. Non-conventional learning environments like the Suquamish Basket Marsh give opportunities for students and classroom teachers to meet and interact directly with artists and other specialists from the community.
Today I will model my craft, and students will get to experience weaving with cattails that they have helped to grow and harvest from their Basket Marsh. We will share stories, sing a weaving song, and then weave a mat or make some rope in order to experience first hand the ingenious ways that cattails and other native plants have been used by the First People of this place.
Connecting the Project to the Place
“Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or sad experience of my tribe.”…..Chief Seattle, speech at the Pt. Elliot Treaty signing, paraphrased by Dr Henry Smith, 1854.
Twelve thousand years ago, a thick layer of ice covered the Pacific Northwest. As the ice melted, glaciers formed and slowly carved out deep channels that the water filled. Forests grew, and the land that was left became covered with plants. In some origin stories, native North American storytellers have told that the First People were once plants and animals who later took human form. Those people began to live in villages along the shorelines, and since then their descendants have been living here too. Long before contact with explorers, trappers, and settlers, the place near the present day town of Suquamish was highly populated. Everything needed to sustain a rich community and cultural life was present in the forests, meadows, rivers, at the water’s edge, and in the sea.
“Children learned from an early age not to pluck too much or ruthlessly destroy the valuables of the earth. They learned responsible, caring behavior both through stories, metaphors and focused instruction at opportune moments and through observation, emulation and experience.”…Nancy Turner, from THE EARTH’S BLANKET, 2005.
Prehistoric survival was dependant upon the knowledge of place accumulated over time: geography, seasons, cycles, weather patterns, plants, and animals. In recent times, this knowledge, reflected in the First Peoples’ relationship with the flora and fauna, is being referred to as Sacred Ecology or Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This body of information has been passed down through the oral tradition from one generation to the next, through stories, songs, ceremonies, and through the practice of traditional technologies, skills, and arts derived from the environment.
In Lushootseed, a language spoken by many of the First People of the Puget Sound area, the word for Suquamish is d’suq’wub which means “place of clear salt water”. The city of Seattle was named in honor of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish and Suquamish leader, who in the mid 1800’s protected his community from the raiding parties of other tribes. Later, in hopes of further protecting his people from the influx of settlers and a new government hungry for land and resources, he signed a treaty with the United States government which resulted in the city of Seattle being built upon traditional Duwamish Tribal land. Chief Seattle’s burial site is only a few blocks away from Suquamish Elementary school. Every August, the Suquamish Tribe sponsors a huge gathering of Intertribal-Nation festivities and canoe races known as Chief Seattle Days, honoring this important leader.
Nearly one quarter of the students at Suquamish Elementary school, are descendants of First Peoples indigenous to North America. After many years of misunderstanding by impinging dominant cultures, the perspectives and approaches to education espoused by some of the traditional First Peoples’ teachings are starting to be better understood and valued. The holistic ways of thinking about the Earth, organizing information, and connecting knowledge to daily life are as important today as ever.
“In our culture all things are living….everything has life.”…Dr. Martina Whelshula, Colville Tribes, Benchmarks Panel, WAEYC Conference, 10-27-06.
Traditional teachings are imbued with lessons for sustainable living and are intrinsically linked to place. Relationships — with people, plants, animals, and all the elements, are emphatically important. Now the Suquamish Basket Marsh is providing opportunities everyday for these types of lessons to touch children of all cultural backgrounds within the school and community. The Lushooteed name for this outdoor classroom is: gelk’ali. It means “place of weaving”.
“Weaving has always been part of the community in the First People’s traditional culture here in this place. Now it is part of the healing for our people. We are stitching and mending the culture back together.”….Darlene Peters,PHD, counselor, teacher, Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam, gelk’ali dedication speech, May 2002.
Planting the Seed
The idea for the gelk’ali came from Ron Hirschi, a fisheries biologist who worked for many years with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. He is author of over fifty books for children, many that combine real life pictures of animals with accurate scientific information. While appearing as a guest for the school’s May 2000 Young Authors Day, Mr. Hirschi shared with students, projects from other schools including the restoration of a wetland at Pickerington Elementary in Ohio. He suggested creating a pond out of the storm water retention area at Suquamish Elementary. His idea was that by planting it with native plants traditionally used by the local First People, especially plants used for traditional basket weaving, there would be an opportunity for tribal families to become more involved at the school. Tribal members living in the community could be invited into classrooms to share cultural experiences and knowledge with all the students. Mr. Hirschi also shared how students, at nearby Seabeck Elementary, formed an after school group called the “Salmon Team”. He helped this team partner with parents, the S’Klallam Tribe, and Trust for Public Lands, to acquire an entire estuary after research by the Salmon Team showed the presence of endangered salmon in its waters.
Recognizing a Problem
“As teachers we should be striving to give kids moments of greatness. How can we help students have these moments?”…Jan Jackson, personal interview, 9-13-06
After 18 years of teaching, Jan Jackson, a librarian at Suquamish Elementary school, was considering retirement. She felt she was losing an important connection with her students. Like many classroom teachers today, Ms. Jackson recognized the challenge of engaging students with a broad spectrum of learning styles from various cultural and economic backgrounds. She noticed that many students were spending more and more time in front of video and television screens. She also saw the pressures put upon teachers to spend more time teaching to a system of standardized tests, leaving less time to develop relationships with students for building life and learning skills. At the same time, children were having fewer opportunities to be outside, fewer chances to be observing nature, less time to be exploring and responding to the natural environment through the arts and sciences.
“Direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development – physical, emotional, and spiritual….it is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD…it improves standardized test scores…it develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, decision making…and creativity”… Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods, 2005.
When a need is recognized and a community cares, a good idea can be set into motion as long as there is someone like Ms. Jackson to see it through. She first approached Principal Joe Davalos with the concept of the outdoor classroom. “It helps to have a principal that lets people follow their heart,” she says of Davalos. Other teachers became interested, and a committee was formed which met through the summer to plan a Basket Marsh curriculum. Relating the curriculum to career education helped the school apply for funds from their school district’s vocational department to get them started.
Gathering a Team
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist 1901-1978
With the principal, teachers, students, parents, and the Suquamish Tribe on board, it was time to see if there was community support for the Basket Marsh. For the next two years Ms. Jackson spent many hours in outreach, bringing students with her to attend school board and other community meetings. Individuals, families, corporate and business sponsors, all stepped forward to provide funds, services, equipment, materials, and the invaluable hours of labor and expertise required. Approval from the school board, consulting with the water district, permits from the county, all needed to be researched and secured.
The Suquamish Tribe partnered with the school, providing ongoing funding for programs and projects at the gelk’ali. They helped develop the plan for the marsh, provided soil testing, water flow analysis, ground surveys, plant recommendations, and consultations by hydrology and fisheries professionals. The county departments of Waste Water Management and Solid Waste, as well as the local public utility district’s Education Department, have given continual support.
Institutions of higher learning have been important resources for the gelk’ali. Each year, many students from Suquamish Elementary spend four days at IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, receiving an intensive environmental education experience. An ongoing partnership has formed with this nationally acclaimed environmental learning center, and inspiration for many of the class service projects have come from this relationship. Members of IslandWood’s staff and some of their graduate students have helped with improvements at the gelk’ali, and have been involved in follow-up teaching. The National Wildlife Foundation and Cornell University’s department of Ornithology’s “Classroom Feeder Watch Program” have also enhanced environmental education and science curriculum.
As director of the pond project, Ms. Jackson credits the whole community with building the gelk’ali. Students, teachers and staff, PTA, school district personnel, county employees, the Suquamish Tribe, biologists, carpenters, scientists, authors, specialists, garden clubs, the local Rotary, civil engineers, architects, landscapers, artists, area businesses, parents and volunteers — all saw the need and understood the benefits.
Involving the Students
“I want kids to get their hands dirty, and not be afraid to make a mess.” …Jan Jackson 9-15-06
Known as the “Pond kids”, these 4th-6th graders fill out applications at the beginning of each year in hopes of gaining a position on the Student Advisory Board. This extracurricular group of 25-30 students meets weekly with Ms. Jackson and the volunteer docents. The Pond Kids have been involved in all aspects of the development of the gelk’ali, from research, to fund-raising, to planning and coordinating Earth Day assemblies. Early on, the students helped design and plan the pond. After meeting with a parent who showed them how to take topographical measurements of the site, they built a 3-dimensional scale model to help with their presentations to the School Board, sponsors, and to other community groups. They cleared out the blackberries and Scotch broom, and helped rake, dig and plant. Now the Pond Kids continue the ongoing physical labor at the gelk’ali, restoring habitat and maintaining the plants.
“Before the pond was built the grass was brown and now it’s green. I enjoy knowing I’m making a difference in the school.” …Winona, 5th grader, 2002
All the students at Suquamish Elementary utilize the gelk’ali for learning. Each student has a pond journal they use for documenting their observations at the gelk’ali throughout the year. Along with each class, every year a new group of Pond Kids implement one or more service projects that connect the gelk’ali with the whole school. One project inspired after a visit to IslandWood has been recycling lunchroom waste. The Pond Kids researched vermaculture, and agreed upon the size needed for the worm boxes based upon their measurements of daily school lunch food waste. The boxes were built by a parent volunteer. The students made instructional posters, gave presentations to classes, and volunteered to stay in from recess to help collect the food waste. Now the school saves district money since there is less trash. At the same time, the worms decompose all that food waste into useful compost for the plants at the gelk’ali.
As well as learning important aspects of being responsible stewards of the land, the Pond Kids are encouraged to be active citizens and communicators. They have written letters to sponsors, articles for school newsletters, and corresponded with foundations and public officials. In the course of these activities they have won local, regional and national recognition for their environmental leadership. Each week the Pond Kids report back to their classrooms what they are leaning at the gelk’ali. To help build relationships between grade levels they also report weekly to their “buddy classrooms” in the primary grades. Each year all the students at Suquamish Elementary are learning about environmental stewardship first hand.
“The marsh is like a puzzle that fits into the big picture. The plants protect the pond from harm. The trees grow, give shade, and hold together the pond with their strong immense roots. The dirt absorbs nutrients and, sometimes, the pollution. The animals in the pond make it a happier place for us.” …Tyler, 4th grader, 2002
Imagining the Future
Teachings of the Tree People: The Work of Bruce Miller from NWIN on Vimeo.
“An intimate participation leaves a memory as long as you are on the earth.”…Bruce Miller, the late Skokomish Spiritual Leader and Cultural Teacher, from Teachings of the Tree People, 2005 video produced by Katie Jennings and IslandWood
How can teachers find the support they need to step outside of the metaphoric boundaries of classrooms today? In conjunction with standardized learning and testing, is it within the realm of possibility that community-born projects for learning could be used by more teachers and children, on a daily basis?
Imagine every elementary school in the United States being able to tell a story like this. Not identical, of course, but a story of how their schools, students, parents, and communities could find authentic ways to meet the educational needs of their children. The native plant garden and outdoor classroom is just one possibility for providing an atmosphere for student-driven, inquiry-based learning. At the gelk’ali, as teachers become more comfortable embracing this resource, the natural history of Suquamish can come to life for their students. Differing cultural perspectives can be explored giving all students the opportunity to examine their own cultural roots and traditions. The scientific and artist processes can be taught –honing observation skills, exploring and asking questions, experimenting, designing solutions, researching, making measurements, learning techniques and skills, documenting results, reflecting upon them, and finding new questions!
Throughout the development of the gelk’ali, the school, tribe, and community have proven to be devoted advocates for promoting diverse cultural perspectives and approaches to education. They have diligently created a place of learning that enhances the educational opportunities for students with various learning strengths, and engages them through methods that mainstream classrooms cannot offer.
“Working with the Suquamish Tribe…planting the grasses the indigenous peoples worked with for their basket making, takes teaching to the highest level: Every time we educate our children on the rich diversity that exists in this country, we educate ourselves.” …Jay Inslee, US House of Representatives, Washington State Congressional District # 1, Letter for the Dedication of the Galk’ali 4-02
Outdoor classrooms, such as the Suquamish Basket Marsh, broaden educational opportunities for a diverse group of students. They give non-conventional teaching specialists the opportunity to use their respective art forms as vehicles for teaching science, math, social studies, language, history, and the arts. Concepts difficult to learn from books alone or while sitting inside at desks, become illuminated, when students are given opportunities to relate them to natural living systems on a daily basis.
Many caring individuals have built this special place of learning. Around the pond, the cedar trees are growing taller. As in the ancient legend of the cedar tree, each sword fern, camas bulb, huckleberry and Oregon grape plant – reflect a piece of a story of someone’s generosity. When people care about their children’s education, even a small puddle on the school grounds can become a lesson about the transformative power of a community working together.
History/Stages of Pond Development
Stage I – 2000 – Planning
Stage II – 2001 – Construction
Stage III – 2002 – Maintenance, Improvements, Service Projects
Stage IV – 2003 to Present – Maintenance, Ongoing Service Projects
Suquamish Garden Club
Kitsap County Solid Waste Department
Kitsap County Storm Water Management Department
Public Utilities Education Department
National Wildlife Federation
President’s Environmental Youth Award, 2003
Kitsap County Commissioners’ Earth Day Award, 2002, 2006
Grand Prize, Ivy Sculpture Contest, Bainbridge Gardens, 2004
Suquamish Tribe Appendix X, 2000-present
Lowe’s Toolbox For Education Grant, 2006
Gifts from many assorted local business and individuals
Traditional Native American Tribal Weavers
Natural Fiber Weaver
List of Service Projects by Classes and Pond Kids
Science Fair Projects
Building a copper water gauge for measuring water level at pond related to rainfall
Weaving a branch and vine bird blind
Earth Day Celebration assemblies
Native plant tiles with imprint and scientific, common and Lushootseed names
Native plant studies, drawings over the seasons
Cattail weaving projects
Ivy animal sculptures
Classroom Bird Feeder Watch, Cornell University
Participate in making film, Teachings of the Tree People, sponsored by IslandWood
Recycled material baskets
Contribute drawings for IslandWood field Guide: ALL MY RELATIONS.
Cedar gathering bark with Suquamish Tribal Elder
Cedar basket weaving
Mason Bee house
Bird feeders and houses
Programs with Tribal Elders
Field testing a weaving project for a book by Bruce Miller and Nan McNutt
Participation in a Nature Conservancy Education Video
Bird Observation Garden
For More Information Contact:
Ron Hirschi www.ronhirschi.com
Watch for the new book: We all Live Downstream. These are the words of Holly Cocoili, Environmental Biologist for the S’Klallam Tribe. Her words and the concept inspired a new book by that title written by Ron Hirschi, and including the Suquamish Basket Marsh, Pickerington Pond in Ohio, and Seabeck Salmon Team projects on Hood Canal, WA.
Suquamish Environmental Education Boosters, (501(c)(3) www.seeboosters.org
Jan Jackson, librarian, Gelk’ali Director : email@example.com
Melinda West, fiber artist, article author : firstname.lastname@example.org
IslandWood Environmental Learning Center www.islandwood.org
Much of the credit for this article comes from the inspiration I’ve received from reading the works of Distinguished Professor Nancy J. Turner, author of the recent books: THE EARTH’S BLANKET – TRADITIONAL TEACHINGS FOR SUSTAINABLE LIVING, and KEEP IT LIVING – TRADITIONS OF PLANT USE AND CULTIVATION ON THE NORTHWEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA; along with Richard Louv’s book: THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS – SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER.
Melinda West, of Indianola Washington has been practicing the art of natural fiber weaving since 1985. She has studied with many native and non-native weavers and artists, the foremost being Ed Carriere of the Suquamish Tribe. Melinda enjoys sharing her love of natural history, environmental stewardship, and indigenous cultures through the teachings and the practices of traditional fiber arts.