Book Review: Place-based Education

Book Review: Place-based Education

Enlivening Students


by Gregory A. Smith


Review of Sarah Anderson’s, Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (Lanham, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

or the past two decades, books and articles written by place- and community-based advocates have been largely focused on defining and justifying an alternative approach to teaching and learning grounded in local knowledge and issues with the aim of inducting children into a sense of community participation and responsibility. This literature was largely exhortatory rather than prescriptive. It did not often provide interested teachers with detailed guidelines about how to move from a broad vision to the challenge of creating and enacting curriculum and instruction not limited by either textbooks or even classrooms. These advocates asked teachers to be courageous and take risks, trusting in their capacity to experiment and learn from their failures and successes. And many teachers across the United States and elsewhere became early adopters of this approach, willing to embrace those challenges and risks. As place- and community-based education enters its third decade, however, something more is needed to make its implementation appealing and understandable to a broader group of educators. Sarah Anderson’s Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (2017) provides exactly the kind of guidance required to accomplish this end.

Anderson is a former student of David Sobel, one of the early advocates of this approach. For the past dozen years she has embraced what she learned while studying with him first as a middle-school teacher and now as the fieldwork coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon. Anderson’s work is especially powerful because of her concern about citizenship education and democratic practice. Place-based educators often focus primarily on providing students with immersive experiences in nature without necessarily engaging them in the cultural understandings, conflicts, problem-solving, and negotiation that accompany life in civil society. This is not to diminish the importance of those immersive experiences—which can be central to the development of a strong environmental ethic—but in themselves not enough to give young people the confidence or savvy required to become engaged community actors. Anderson’s work exemplifies how this can happen and how schools and communities can truly “get better together.”1

Her volume provides multiple examples of lessons and units she or the teachers she works with have developed and taught. Chapters describe ways that students can use maps to learn about their place, contribute to its human and environmental health through community science, learn directly about local history, partner with nearby agencies and organizations, explore the way different subject areas can be integrated to deepen knowledge and understanding, and develop a sense of connection with and empathy for one another and people beyond the school. The three chapters about mapping, citizen science, and local history provide detailed descriptions of units interested but uncertain teachers could profit from as they begin to incorporate local possibilities into their own work with students; they will be the focus of the remainder of this review.

Maps offer not only a good way to introduce children to their own place but to think about “What is where, why there, why care?”2 They naturally lead students to observe, collect data, and make inferences. At the Cottonwood School maps are integrated into the learning experiences of children at all grade levels. Early in the school year as a welcoming activity, everyone is invited to create and share personal maps of things special to them in their bedroom, home, neighborhood, or someplace away from home. Kindergarteners through second graders then create maps of their classroom and playground, sometimes using blocks and unix cubes to illustrate a space. Third graders map the school focusing on specific features such as sound. Fourth through sixth graders create maps to scale of neighborhood features such as parks and then compare and contrast in writing the data presented in their maps. Sixth graders map nearby features of their own choosing. They walk through the South Waterfront neighborhood and record the location of things like K9 restrooms (fire hydrants), bike racks, and food carts. They then create a formal illustrated map with compass roses and borders (and sometimes sea serpents in the Willamette River) to represent what they have found. Seventh and eighth graders go further afield and focus on the city and state. Given a map of the city’s boundaries and different districts, they identify major bodies of water, traffic routes, and one personally significant place in each district. This leads into a more extensive exercise in which they choose one data set to map. Possibilities include population, temperature levels during a heat wave, city parks, or the location of Starbucks coffee shops. They are encouraged to think about who has access to which resources by comparing demographic maps that focus on race and ethnicity. Maps offer a way to synthesize disparate but related information as well as integrate a variety of subject matter.

The school’s incorporation of community science offers similar opportunities to link lessons to students’ lives and create learning experiences that allow for observation, analysis, and curricular integration. Community science involves identifying local phenomena or issues worthy of study and action and linking these topics to the Next Generation Science Standards. One year, seventh- and eighth-graders identified the problem of animal waste in the neighborhood as an issue they wanted to explore and investigate. As they ventured beyond the school for a variety of learning activities, they found nearby sidewalks both hazardous and smelly. They decided to do something about it. Their teacher divided the class into teams who performed different tasks: one counted all of the pet waste in a six-block radius, another researched the environmental toxins found in dog poop, a third team investigated Portland laws regarding the regulation of pet waste, and a fourth researched similar laws in other cities. Once students had all of this information in hand, they analyzed what they had found and brainstormed possible solutions. They then wrote letters to public officials recommending that the city provide more public education about this problem and enact bigger fines for people who violated laws already on the books. Their letters resulted in a meeting with officials in city hall, and their ideas were incorporated into a “petiquette” campaign that the city had already begun planning. Extended units like these offers students a chance to systematically explore a topic, do so in ways that allow them to see its relevance to their own lives, and then make a contribution to the broader community. Such experiences match the call by framers of the NGSS to apply scientific concepts and practices to real life circumstances.

One of Anderson’s talents lies in her capacity to find ways to make the study of history local, as well. The third grade curriculum, for example, includes a focus on Native Americans. As part of that study, students visited the Oregon Historical Society, Portland State University’s Department of Archeology, and a traditional Chinook longhouse at Ridgefield, a National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State less than an hour from the city. Returning to the school, they transformed their classroom into a longhouse with a “fire pit” in the middle of the room. They also participated in PSU’s Archeology Roadshow where after having learned about the characteristics of meaningful exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science Industry, they created a longhouse model and became the only K-12 students to share their work at an event otherwise populated with much older presenters. The opportunity to be involved with people beyond the school at PSU or City Hall demonstrates to children that they are as much citizens as anyone else in their community, lending them both a level of confidence and a sense of responsibility too absent in the education of this country’s future adults.

Learning experiences like these are deeply engaging for students. Furthermore, they demonstrate to community members the capacity of children to make genuine contributions to their common life.   Anderson’s book offers a useful and inspiring roadmap for other educators interested in realizing this vision of place-based education themselves.

1 Tagline for the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that grew out of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the first national effort in the 1990s aimed at disseminating the possibilities of place-based education.
2 In Brian Baskerville’s 2013 article, “Becoming Geographers: An Interview about Geography with Geographer Dr. Charles Gritzner (


Gregory Smith is a professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He has written numerous articles and books about environmental and place- and community-based education. He is a fellow of the National Education Policy Center at UC-Boulder, a member of the education advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools, and a board member of the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science.


Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream

Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream


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”. [1] 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”,[2] 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”.[3] 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”.[4] 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”.[5]

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”.[6] 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”.[7] 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’”.[8] 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”.[9] 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.

[1] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,159

[2] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2

[3] Louv “Last Child in the Woods”

[4] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13

[5] Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40

[6] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,” 90

[7] Weintraub “To Life!”

[8] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64

[9] 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.

Connecting to the Natural World – Biome Bonanza!

Connecting to the Natural World – Biome Bonanza!

A Biome Bonanza!

After taking a class for teachers about sustainability several years ago, my teaching partner and I were inspired to get kids out and about and connected to the natural world more. We looked at our science curriculum and with the help of Bob Carlson and his staff at our district’s CREST Center, we developed a couple of great overnight experiences for our students.

By Lisa Terrall, Bolton Elementary School
West Linn, Oregon

iving in Oregon, we have easy access to many different biomes in which living things have adapted differently to their environments and lots of locations where evidence of volcanic activity is visible. In 4th grade, we did a lot of work around plant and animal adaptations, as well as geological changes to the Earth. We developed a 4 day “Biome Bonanza,” during which we spent a day at the coast, a day in an Oak Savannah and two days in the Columbia River Gorge.

Our day at the beach is a day trip. We stop at a spot in the coast range mountains where we can find sea floor fossils at a fairly high elevation. This allows kid to begin to see evidence of plate tectonics and how the crust that used to be the sea floor was lifted and is now part of a mountain. They love discovering and trying to identify the fossils they find and are amazed at how dynamic the Earth is.

Our next stop is at the coast. We spend quite a bit of time exploring local tide pools and finding creatures that live there. Students get to see species they have researched up close and are able to begin to identify the structures and functions of their bodies and how they help with survival in that particular environment. Tide pools are great because they have multiple zones within them and the adaptations are different from zone to zone, as well as from tide pools to other surrounding environments like the ocean or the coastal forests. After our time in the tide pools we take a short forest hike, looking for how the environment is different, as well as how species have adapted for survival. We also get a good look at some of Oregon’s rocky cliffs and are able to see evidence of past basalt flows.

Our next day is spent in our town of West Linn, at a local Nature Conservancy preserve called Camassia. It is walking distance from our school and we are able to see more evidence of basalt flows, as the entire preserve is on top of columnar basalt with much of it exposed. The soil here is very thin and students are able to see how plants have adapted to this condition. They love being able to compare this to the coastal forest they were in just the day before. They are always amazed that the same basalt flow they are standing on stretches all the way to the coast and is contained in the cliffs they were able to see the prior day. It begins to give them a sense of connectivity and the magnitude of the volcanic events of the past. While we are there, we take the temperature of a pond and get a water sample to test for pH and turbidity when we return to school. Testing the water sample gives our students time to practice using the testing equipment and to recall 3rd grade learning around salmon and what they need (as far as water conditions) to survive.

The next two days of our outdoor experience is spent on the road in the Columbia River Gorge. We take our 4th graders on an overnight trip to see more evidence of the basalt flows, learn about the Missoula Floods that shaped the gorge and our local valley, and to do more comparison of the plant and animal adaptations in yet a different environment. We spend time at a wildflower preserve, taking in the panoramic views of the gorge and identifying/sketching wildflowers. Students love identifying the flowers with a plant identification book and trying to figure out their adaptations. This area is quite windy and exposed to the weather being high up at the top of the gorge, so students get to see waxy leaf coatings, things growing low to the ground and even some hairy leaves. They compare that to the large, flat, shiny leaves they had seen in days prior in the coastal forest.

We also go to a local museum to hear and see a program about the Missoula Floods. This allows students to get more information from an expert about how the gorge they have just viewed came to be. We spend time at the museum exploring the Ice Age exhibit and taking a guided walk around the grounds to hear more about and see native flora and fauna.

That night we go to pizza and swim at a local pool before crashing on the floor of a grade school.

The next day we spend time at Hood River Middle School hearing from Michael Becker and his science students about how they are continuing to strive to create a more sustainable space for learning. They have an amazing greenhouse that is ever evolving to include new and innovative things. The middle school students give our 4th graders a tour of the area, including a discussion about the geothermal energy system under the soccer field. This is a very inspiring part of the trip and spurs our students on to thinking about ways we can improve what we do at our own school.

When we leave the middle school, we head to a local falls area and go on a great hike. Students see and point out evidence of basalt flows, erosion, plant and animal adaptations and enjoy the outdoors. We also find a spot to pull out water testing equipment and run stations for students to test pH, temperature, and turbidity, as well as to collect and identify macroinvertebrate samples. This is always a highlight of the trip! At the end of our water stations, students make a determination about whether or not this stream is a healthy one for fish using their data as evidence.

Our trip is capped off by a visit to Bonneville Dam to see the fish ladders and learn how electricity of created from water flow.

Overall, we have a great trip and students gain so much! They are able to see and touch things that they have studied in science class. They make connections, ask lots of great questions and enjoy the beauty of our natural spaces. We hear back from many students and parents that they re-visit many of the locations as a family at a later time and that the students are great tour guides with lots of information to share.


As curriculum and teaching assignments have changed, we have tweaked this trip for 5th grade. We are able to review past learning about salmon, plant and animal adaptations, and geology, as well as focus on new learning about energy. This year it is a two-night, three-day trip that will include many of the above activities, but will also include a day that has a visit to the Biglow Wind Farm in Wasco to see windmills in action, and a visit to White River Falls State Park to see a now defunct powerhouse at the base of a falls. We will also spend time at a local business in Hood River learning about their commitment to renewable energy and seeing their solar roof. Our students have been researching renewable energy in class and this will give them opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors while seeing things they have previously read about.

We feel these experiences are important for students now more than ever. In an increasingly digital world, it could be easy for students to be indoors more and pay less attention to the natural world around them. In addition to making the classroom learning feel more real, these trips get kids out, get them active, and help them connect to the wonder and beauty of our natural world.

Place-based Learning: Community Mapping

Place-based Learning: Community Mapping

PathwaysMapmakingEngaging Students With/in Place through Community Mapping

By Susan Jagger
University of Toronto

This article was reprinted from Pathways – The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, Volume 26, Issue 3

C (Dakota)ommunity mapping brings together local people as they celebrate local geography, ecosystems, and stories of place through created representations of their communities (Lydon, 2003; Perkins, 2007). Mapmaking itself is a way of making sense of the world and of our place within it, and community mapping can help us to come to know our local environments. The process of mapmaking is key in community mapping; indeed, much of the value in community mapping is not so much in the product but rather in the collaborative sharing and discovering of place that leads to the map’s creation (Parker, 2006). I wondered about the pedagogical possibilities for community mapping in the K–12 curriculum and began a study that examined how participation in such a project could influence grade four students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and actions (see Jagger, 2009 and Jagger, 2014 for a discussion of the research).

I worked collaboratively with Ms C.1, a grade four teacher, to plan and teach a three-month long, cross-curricular community mapping project of Sandy Beach Provincial Park. We focused on four themes in our project: local history, natural history, First Nations history, and personal connections to the park. Our mapwork drew from multiple field trips to the park, a visit to the local cemetery, and class visits from the museum manager and school First Nations liaison person. The following is an overview of some of our project’s mapping activities.

Introducing Mapmaking and Sandy Beach
We began our project with a small group brainstorming web of the question, “What can maps tell us?” To extend thinking, we shared a range of maps—from traditional topographic maps to handmade written and photographic representations of place—and asked students to then revisit their webs to make additions. The students were drawn to familiar political and road maps; some students did not identify the alternative maps as maps at all. One student, Charles, confided in me that maps were not made by people and that “you can’t make maps.”

Following this initial look at maps, we had our first visit to Sandy Beach. This visit was intended as an opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the park and, given that it was the beginning of September, a chance for the class to build a sense of community. Students used digital cameras to take photographs and several parent volunteers accompanied us, allowing for small group, free-choice park explorations.

Back at school, students made their first maps of places very familiar to them—their bedrooms and the school playground. Bedroom maps were done by students at home and in a form of their choice. Most students created bird’s eye view maps of their rooms; some made their drawings to scale and in perspective. In small groups, students created a section map of the school playground (the playground was divided into nine sections to be mapped in a three-by-three grid; when completed the maps were put together to create a complete playground map). To guide their mapwork, students were asked to explore the sounds, textures, colours, shapes and sizes in the playground, and they spent time outside listening, touching and seeing the complexity of the playground space. The completed maps took on a variety of forms (e.g., side view, bird’s eye view) and included a range of techniques (e.g., grass pieces glued onto map, crayon rubbings to show texture).

Connecting with Local and First Nations Histories
Ms C. and I wanted to actively bring the community—its people and places—into our mapping project. To do this, we complemented our experiences at Sandy Beach with visits from both the local museum manager (Mr. B.) and the school district First Nations liaison person (Ms E.), and with a class field trip to the local cemetery.

Mr. B. arrived from the museum with (quite literally) a treasure chest full of artifacts from Sandy Beach to share with the students. Some pieces were the very tools used by the Barry family—the family who used to live and farm on the land that would become the park. The students quickly made connections between what they discovered at the park and the stories told by Mr. B. Guided by careful observations, the students made pastel sketches of chosen artefacts.

As it was important to us to recognize the traditional uses of the land in our mapping work, we invited the school district’s First Nations liaison person, Ms E., to be part of our project. Ms E. visited the class twice, and during her visits she taught the students about the traditional uses of Western Red Cedar in both practice and ceremony. In her workshops, Ms E. showed examples of woven cedar baskets and jewellery, and taught students to weave cedar mats of their own. Her underlying message to the students about cedar, and all natural elements used by First Nations people, was of respect and the importance of giving back to the land when we take from it.

The local cemetery was a short walk from the school and afforded us with a further trip back into local history. Here, the stories of the Barry family came to life as many of the family members were buried there. The students searched the cemetery for all of the members of the Barry family and used crayons and paper to make tombstone rubbings.

Exploring the Natural History of Sandy Beach
We took our second trip to the park about one month into the project. This visit was an exploration of the natural history of the park including the diversity of life and the park’s ecosystems. To guide their experiences, we asked students to keep three words in mind: unusual, interesting and change. Again, students used digital cameras to capture their explorations and parent volunteers accompanied small groups in three activities: a low tide beach walk, a scavenger hunt, and a sound and colour walk.

Ms C. led the students on the low tide beach walk. We planned our visit to coincide with low tide so the students could compare and contrast the high and low tidal zones and the transition between zones. Ms C.’s experience as a park naturalist at Sandy Beach guided the students’ explorations as she helped students to identify species, ecosystems and interactions. Students also used small magnifying glasses to examine details and intricacies of the features of the beach. Below, Quinn uses a magnifying glass to examine tiny molluscs attached to a rock (see Figure 1).

I created a map for a parent-led scavenger hunt that guided groups along a planned route through several different ecosystems—meadow, marsh, forest and beach. Students were asked to be mindful of their changing surroundings and reminded of the trip’s guiding words. Student observations were documented in their photographs and field notes. These photographs were put together in a class album of the visit, and back at school the groups came together again to write descriptive captions of the pictures from their walks.

To increase students’ awareness of the living things around them, I led groups on a sound and colour walk during which participants were asked to slow down and stop to listen and look. We listened quietly to the sounds surrounding us: the chirping of crickets, the laughing of ravens, the crashing of waves, the crunching of gravel. Before the start of the project, I collected paint chip cards from the local home improvement store and on our walk, we matched the cards to colours noticed along our walk. We renamed those colour samples to reflect the shades and hues of Sandy Beach (e.g., Douglas Fir Cone Brown, Rosebud Red, Arbutus Peeling Bark). The renamed paint chips were included in the class album of trips to Sandy Beach and in a mosaic frame for our emergent bulletin board map. The photographs, stories and observations from our visits to Sandy Beach were used to create an emergent bulletin board map (Sobel, 1998). I started the map with a very basic outline of the park—the shoreline, access road, parking areas and campground—and over several days, small groups of students added to the map. Some students drew in trails we walked along.

Others contributed written descriptions of features of the park they remembered. Still others added photographs that shared what we had experienced at the park. As we created the map, students looked through the album of photographs taken on our visits, shared their experiences with me, and added captions to the pictures.

Celebrating Personal Connections to Place
It was very clear to Ms C. and me that the students had developed deep personal connections to Sandy Beach. Students eagerly shared with us stories of special times at the park—recollections of weddings, first visits to the beach, earlier field trips and explorations with family and friends. It was important to us to really honour these affective understandings of place and so we focused our last visit to Sandy Beach on students’ cherished places there. As with other visits, students were in small groups, but on this visit students led the exploration of the park. The groups visited students’ cherished places and were told by the students what made that place so special to them. Many of these places were related to play—the driftwood pile that made a great fort, the tree that was like a swing, the tidal pools that were fun to explore. Students’ special places also
included spaces for quiet reflection and enjoying the beauty of the park—“the Dinosaur tree in the very quiet woods,” the beach with its beautiful shells, the amphitheatre “because I feel free there.” Students mapped their cherished places by creating clay sculptures and writing short descriptions of those places.

Mapping It All Together
Students shared their cherished places, along with their knowledge of the park’s natural, First Nations, and local histories in their If you came to Sandy Beach, I would show you… class book. We used Sheryl McFarlane’s Jessie’s Islandas a model for this mapwork, a book in which McFarlane shares the story of Jessie who writes a letter to her cousin describing all of the wonders he would see if he visited her home. With Jessie’s Islandas a guide, the students wrote letters to family members and friends who had never been to Sandy Beach. Letters included descriptions of plants, animals and ecosystems that could be seen at the park. Students recalled the stories of the Barry family’s first years on the farm and wrote about how First Nations peoples traditionally lived on the land. The letters also shared students’ own memories of cherished places and experiences at Sandy Beach. Over the course of the project, teachers and parents shared with me special memories that they had of Sandy Beach so we invited the school community to write letters as well.

Our class book beautifully brought together all of the experiences of the mapping project and allowed students (and some teachers and parents) to reflect on the experience of being and learning in place. Other books that celebrate place and could be used in mapping projects include Harrington and Stevenson’s (2005) Islands in the Salish Sea, Kronick’s (2013) How Victoria Has Changed, and Moak’s (1984) A Big City Alphabet.

Community Mapping as a Pedagogical Tool
Community mapping can be a wonderful way to infuse place-based environmental education across the curriculum. Our project was truly cross-curricular as we drew science, social studies, language arts, fine arts and citizenship together in our studies. This type of project can be easily adapted to the exploration of any local environment; the possibilities are endless. Mapping a local natural space helped the students to realize and respect the biological wealth and diversity that lived quite literally in their own backyards. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (as cited in Orr 2004, p. 43). Community mapping projects can help foster this critical bonding in students.

This project was partially funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s Pacific CRYSTAL (Centres for Research into Youth, Science Teaching and Learning) for Scientific and Technological Literacy.

1 To protect the identity of participants, the names of all people and places have been changed.


Harrington, S., & Stevenson, J. (Eds.). (2005). Islands in the Salish sea. Surrey, BC: Touchwood Editions.

Jagger, S. (2009).The influence of participation in a community mapping project on students’ environmental worldviews. Retrieved from

Jagger, S. (2014). “This is more like home:” Knowing nature through community mapping. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18.

Kronick, I. (2013). How Victoria has changedRaleigh, NC: Lulu Publications.

Lydon, M. (2003). Community mapping: The recovery (and discovery) of our common ground. Geomatica, 57(2), 131–143.

McFarlane, S. (1992). Jessie’s island. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers.

Moak, A. (1984). A big city alphabet. Toronto, ON: Tundra Books.

Orr, D. (2004). Earth in mind
(10th anniversary ed.). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Parker, B. (2006). Constructing community through maps? Power and praxis in community mapping. The Professional Geographer, 58(4), 470–484.

Perkins, C. (2007). Community mapping. The Cartographic Journal, 44(2), 127–137.
Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with children: Sense of place education for the elementary years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Jagger, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, OISE/University of Toronto;

Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Lynch2015-3Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Two service-learning programs within the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon aim to deepen students’ knowledge of their bioregion through day-long, hands-on field trips.

By Kathryn A. Lynch, Environmental Leadership Program, University of Oregon

C (Dakota)hildren and young adults are often more tuned into the screens in front of them than the landscape surrounding them; when asked which direction is north their inclination is to check their smartphones. In response, the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon is developing environmental education projects seeking to reconnect children to nature.

The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) is an interdisciplinary service-learning program housed in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program. Our mission is to provide undergraduates with an integrative capstone experience, our graduate students with project management experience, while engaging with the community to address real needs.

Since 2001, ELP has developed and implemented 81 projects addressing a wide array of topics. Currently, our projects fall within four primary tracks: environmental education, conservation science, sustainable practices, and community engagement.

The two main goals of our environmental education teams are to: 1) provide UO students the knowledge, skills and confidence to develop and implement place-based, experiential programs; and 2) develop age-appropriate, engaging curricula for local youth, grades K-8, that promotes the stewardship of our natural world.

During winter and spring of 2015, our two environmental education teams focused on the theme of “connections.” The new Restoring Connections team worked in partnership with Mt. Pisgah Arboretum and Adams Elementary to develop and implement a place-based curriculum which included an interactive classroom lesson and a field trip to Mt. Pisgah. The team provided over 200 K-2 students an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of where they live and the importance of conservation and stewardship. The Canopy Connections team worked in partnership with the HJA Experimental Forest and the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute to develop and facilitate an interactive pre-trip lesson and field trip for over 200 middle-schoolers. Students studied forest succession, learned how to use a compass, wrote poetry in field notebooks, and climbed 90 feet into the canopy.

To prepare for their service projects,the undergraduates first enrolled in Environmental Education in Theory & Practice. In this class, they gained a working knowledge of best practices in EE through readings, guest lectures, field trips, and most importantly, their service-learning project in which they developed educational materials for their community partners. While the specifics of the curricula were left up to the teams to determine, all teams were required to: 1) incorporate an interdisciplinary approach, 2) include multicultural perspectives, 3) use experiential, inquiry-based methods, 4) promote civic engagement, and 5) articulate assessment strategies. Their materials were pilot-tested at the end of winter term, and the teams then worked with their community partners to implement their EE programs throughout spring term. Each UO student completed approximately 120 hours of service, which entailed facilitating classroom visits, field trips, and developing supplemental educational materials (e.g. websites, presentations). What follows are descriptions of these projects, written by the team members themselves.


Lynch2015-2Case Study 1 –

Restoring Connections: Unplugging and Reconnecting

By Ashley Adelman, Roslyn Braun, Lucas Holladay, Kiki Kruse, Kerry Sheehan, Zoie Wesenberg, and Alicia Kristen (Project Manager).

As a group of students made their way into the Douglas-fir forest from the oak savanna, a facilitator hushed the group with a “quiet coyote” hand signal. Immediately, everyone hunkered down, peering through the brush as the group tried to get a glimpse of the discovery. A student squealed in delight. The deer was still, its gaze locked onto ours. Having taught our students about the importance of deer ears for hearing predators, they noticed how the deer kept her ears pricked forward, waiting for our next move. The group slowly moved up the hill trying to get a better view. Experiences like this have the ability to enhance the senses like no video game or television show can. Learning about environmental issues at a young age can be overwhelming, but connecting to local nature, students can become more aware of and in tune with the natural world.

In spring 2015, the Environmental Leadership Program launched the Restoring Connections project at Adams Elementary School. Our team of six undergraduates, with the guidance of our graduate project manager, was responsible for the design, creation and implementation of this environmental education curriculum, focusing on Mt. Pisgah Arboretum’s natural ecosystems.

In this pilot year, we focused on kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students. Our goal was to address what Richard Louv calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’ through the creation and implementation of a place-based and experiential educational program. According to Louv, the cultural shift in which many youth now prefer to stay inside interfacing with screens, rather than going outside to play and explore, has resulted in devastating effects on their personal well-being – physically, mentally, and emotionally – in addition to having disastrous repercussions for the environment. How we set about addressing nature-deficit disorder was informed by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and David Sobel’s work, which outlines a framework for age-appropriate content. Working from this theoretical foundation, we knew we wanted to allow students to explore nature first-hand to help them develop a connection to where they lived, and nurture empathy for the plants and animals that share our bioregion. In addition, the structure of our program was influenced by the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), which states that environmental education should foster awareness, provide knowledge, develop skills, and shape attitudes in students so they can effectively participate in environmental decision making and stewardship. This idea of restoring children’s connection to nature, while they participated in restoring the land, was a central idea of the program.

The structure of our Restoring Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom visit on Tuesday, followed by an all-day field trip on Thursday. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts, preparing the children for a successful field trip, and most importantly, instilling a sense of excitement and awe for the ‘magical forest’ they would be visiting. The field trip focused on awakening their senses, building connections and empathy, and finally, on giving students an opportunity to be involved in restoration activities.

During the field trip the kinders built elf and fairy homes out of natural materials in the wildflower garden, engaged their visual senses by finding a rainbow of colors, and engaged their auditory senses by using their ‘deer ears’ as they journeyed along the riverbank.

First-grade students explored the oak savanna, discovering how pollinators and native plants interact in this habitat. Students examined an Oregon white oak up close and played games that honed their observation and plant identification skills. The restoration work focused on creating habitat for native wildflowers by pulling invasive shining geranium, and planting native plants. Through this restoration work, students learned about native and non-native species and the importance of stewardship.

Second-grade students explored the Douglas-fir forest, studying concepts of camouflage and adaptation through role play and the study of animal behavior. Their restoration work was centered around building “habitat hotels” for decomposers found in the Douglas-fir forest.

The restoration work connects classroom learning to real-life experiences. By learning the differences between native and non-native plants, our first-grade students discovered the need to care for native species in Oregon. Gaining knowledge about the role of decomposers in the Douglas-fir forest allowed the second-grade students to understand ecosystem functions. These activities provided an example of the impact that they can have on the environment.

Throughout our ten weeks of teaching, over 200 students had the opportunity to visit and explore Mt. Pisgah. As part of our professional development, we were asked to evaluate what worked and what needed to be changed after each interaction, and then make those changes for the following week. Jenny Laxton, the education program coordinator at Mt. Pisgah, provided us with invaluable feedback to help us improve our program to best serve the needs of the Arboretum and Adams students and staff.

The opportunity to complete service work allowed the elementary students and our ELP team the opportunity to take the knowledge and skills we have gained in the classroom and use them in community action. We gained problem-solving and team management skills along with greater knowledge of best practices within environmental education. We were also encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection to improve our final outcomes.

The long term vision for this project is that starting next year, the Restoring Connectionsteam will work with a single cohort of children, from kinder through fifth-grade.This cohort of children will visit Mt. Pisgah Arboretum each season (fall, winter, spring) giving them multiple opportunities to visit, connect, and participate in restoration work. Each grade level will focus on exploring a different habitat located within the Arboretum, with activities geared toward hands on learning. By giving children an opportunity to be outside, learning in nature, we hope this project will deepen their sense of appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and reach those who may not thrive in a classroom setting. By returning each year, the children will gain an understanding of local natural history that cannot be gained through a single visit alone. By involving them in restoration efforts over time, the children will be able to witness the difference their actions have made on the landscape. Overall, Restoring Connections seeks to cultivate a lasting connection to the land, one that is based on reciprocity and respect.

To learn more about our project, please visit:



Lynch2015-1Case Study 2 –

Canopy Connections: Nurturing Naturalists

By Samantha Bates, Laura Buckmaster, Nicole Hendrix, Forrest Hirsh, Micaela Hyams, Elie Lewis, Amelia Remington, Nick Sloss, Tim Chen (Project Manager).

Six middle-school students sit silently on a trail in an old-growth forest: one observes a newt run over her feet; another notices how moss and lichen create miniature forests; another writes poetry about the nearby sounds of Lookout Creek. Down the trail, students identify giant Douglas-firs, noting the distinct grooved bark in contrast to the smoother bark of the equally impressive western hemlocks. Using newly-honed plant identification skills, students compare two plots to form hypotheses about what stage of ecological succession they are observing. Further along, students put their compass skills to the test, going on a compass scavenger hunt of sorts, receiving a bearing and seeing if they can find the correct specific tree off the trail. Later, they will sit in a circle surrounded by enormous Douglas-fir, ancient Pacific yew, stringy western redcedar, and drooping western hemlock and draw a map of the forest with the creek as their backdrop. Meanwhile, their friends climb 90 feet into the canopy, finding treasures few ever ascend high enough to discover: dangling Lobaria lichen clinging to branches heavy with the plentiful “roses” of small, papery hemlock cones; licorice ferns growing out of decades-old moss carpets that blanket trees that students now observe from above.


Canopy Connections is in its seventh year. This year our team of eight undergraduates (and one graduate project manager), sought to distinguish ourselves by designing our curriculum around the theme “nurturing naturalists.” Drawing from Gardner’s multiple intelligences, our curriculum caters to multiple ways of knowing and different learning styles. All of our lessons focus on building sensory awareness.

The structure of our Canopy Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom pre-field trip visit, followed by an all-day field trip at H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts and preparing the middle-schoolers for a successful field trip. For the all-day field trip, each class was divided into four groups and rotated through four different stations.

Station 1: Climbing to the Canopy. At this station, students ascend 90 feet into the canopy of an old-growth Douglas-fir tree. Experienced tree climbers from the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (PTCI) facilitate this activity. Students support one another in their learning about microclimates as they are connected to the ropes one by one and make their way up. While this activity is challenging for some children, the rush of adrenaline often provides them with a hyper sensitivity to their surroundings they might not have appreciated before. Many students leave this activity with a deeper respect for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of a 400-year old Douglas-fir tree.

Station 2: Nature’s Navigators. On the ground, students learned basic map reading and compass skills. Students worked in pairs, and with the help of facilitators, embarked on a compass expedition. Using their compass and species identification cards, they were tasked with locating and identifying four species of trees found in old-growth forests. They later observed the four tree species up close and collaborated to correctly identify them. Students used their new skills and knowledge to create a map of their immediate surroundings.

Station 3: The Life and Layers. At this station, students explored forest succession and disturbance. We introduced the four characteristics of an old-growth forest using the acronym OWLS–old, woody debris, layers, and snags. They then learned to identify several species seen on the forest floor. To paint a picture of how a forest becomes old-growth, we had students read a passage from Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest to each other and then look for these signs as they hiked. Through descriptions of nurse logs and pathogenic fungi, they gained an appreciation for the intricate relationships of the forest and began to consider the significance of observation for scientists and writers alike.

We encouraged students to touch the plants, compare, and describe them to each other in order to create detailed records in their field notebooks. Splitting into two groups, they examined plots located in stands of different aged forests, with the goal of using their new knowledge, observation, and recording skills to determine whether they were looking at the 40-year stand or an old-growth stand.

Station 4: Stop, Sit, Scribble. At this station, students practiced their writing skills, imitating the work done by the writers of the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) project, which is designed to collect stories, poems, and essays for 200 years from 2003 to 2203. After listening to The Web, a poem written at HJA by Alison Hawthorne Deming, students followed the guiding principles of the LTER project and spread out on the forest floor to begin writing a stanza for a collaborative poem. They focused on incorporating sensory observation skills and using descriptive adjectives as do the writings collected for the LTER project.

Lynch2015-4Although concepts of creative writing and poetry are taught in the lesson, students gain much more than an appreciation for adjectives. They learn collaboration and listening skills, while simultaneously absorbing clues from the natural world: the rush of the river, the smell of coolness in the air, the hundreds of plant species surrounding them. Sensory observation and creative writing connects with the theme of “nurturing naturalists” by bridging the gap between humanities and science.

Throughout Canopy Connection’s eight-week program, over 200 hundred students from four different middle schools participated in field trips. During nine days in the field, we totaled 54 hours of teaching with an 8:1 student-teacher ratio and led nine in-class pre-trip lessons. In addition, we worked in partnership with 23 high-school students from a local AP Environmental Literature class. These students helped us in the field, and we shared insights into going to college as well as being effective environmental stewards. Our team compiled our final curriculum and a final report, and developed a website to display our project. We presented our findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, a SMILE workshop at HJA, and an ELP final presentation. Our ultimate mission is positive environmental change stemming from an environmentally-literate younger generation. Many teachers and students have already reached out to express how much our field trip meant to them. To learn more about our project, please visit:



Literature Cited

Deming, Alison Hawthorne. 2007. The Web. Orion Magazine, March/April.

Gardner, Howard. 2011. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods. Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Norse, Elliott A. 1990. Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Wilderness Society. Island Press: Washington D.C.

Sobel, David. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Nature Literacy Series. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Tbilisi Declaration. 1977. Summary of goals and guiding principles.