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.
The Value of Creative Teaching
Place-based environmental education through the lens of art and creative writing
by Tess Malijenovsky
lace-based environmental education is taking front seat inside and outside classrooms across the country in part to prepare future generations for the environmental challenges they’ll face ahead. That is, climate change, natural resource competition, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and rampant species extinction. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them.
This is why we mustn’t undermine the value of creative thinking in outdoor environmental education. While our education system tends to emphasize critical thinking skills for good reason, sometimes the critic within must be silenced for the improvisation of ideas and solutions: In a study published by PLOS ONE journal, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring and conscious control were suppressed in jazz musicians playing improv. Despite differences in the analytical- and creative-thinking processes in the brain, however, both entail a sophisticated application of knowledge.
Nature-themed art and writing exercises are ways for educators to elicit creative thinking in students when teaching environmental education. What’s more, nature illustration outdoors, for example, can break through learning barriers and focus the attention of students from diverse backgrounds and learning levels while delivering life science lessons, as witnessed by Straub Environmental Center’s executive director, Catherine Alexander.
Alexander recently spent a day at the Little North Fork of the Santiam River with 20 elementary-aged summer campers studying and drawing the plants, fungi, and animals surrounding their beautiful setting in an old-growth ecosystem. The students, representing a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, took their seats on mossy patches of sunlight, encapsulating science concepts in a portrayal of their immediate watershed environment.
Imagine a children drawing an osprey. As she focuses on her drawing, the child listens to her teacher talk about the length of the bird’s wingspan, the purpose of its long, sharp talons, what it eats, and where it lives. According to the brain lateralization theory that more divergent thinking occurs in the right side of the brain, listening while drawing helps distract and relax the student’s inner critic, expanding the reach and flow of new connections in her mind. Less intimidated or hypercritical in the art-making process, the child’s attention focuses on the charismatic creature she is drawing and learning about. The art lesson unravels into an engaged science lesson about the osprey’s ecological niche and life cycle.
“Art is more than a pastime,” says Alexander. “It can be an enabling portal for a number of academic subjects. The summer campers reminded me that art can have rhetorician value for students with learning disability or for whom English is not their first language. It can be a powerful equalizer and high-interest segue into all kinds of educational pursuits.”
One free, online resource to help educators tie art and creating writing activities in life science lessons to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards is the “Toolkit for Educators,” developed in partnership by Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and Straub Environmental Center. The toolkit provides teacher-tested life science lessons plans that use Honoring Our Rivers (HOR) with the corresponding learning standards.
The HOR anthology, a program of Willamette Partnership, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, encourages students to fall in love with rivers and express their connections to them creatively – through art, photography, poetry, stories, and foreign language – in hopes of naturally cultivating the next generation of watershed stewards for the Pacific Northwest species and communities who depend on these vital systems.
Educators who integrate river-watershed-themed art and writing activities into their lessons can not only stimulate the creative minds of their students in an engaging educational way but give them an opportunity to be published statewide by submitting their work to HOR. The program also hosts student art exhibitions and student reading events across Oregon.
Educators can also learn more about nature-themed art instruction at HOR’s upcoming workshops at the Coastal Learning Symposium this Oct. 14 at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Teachers have the power to encourage the creative capacities of our youth while addressing the increasing disconnect between children and the outdoors. HOR exists to help them accomplish this feat. For more information, visit www.honoringourrivers.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tess Malijenovsky is the coordinator of Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, a program of the Portland-based conservation nonprofit Willamette Partnership. Prior to moving out West, Tess was an environmental journalist and the assistant editor of Coastal Review Online in North Carolina. She studied Creative Writing and Spanish at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?
(An Essay in Four Parts)
by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School
This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden
When we present the following nine reasons for our study of Mesopotamia in the garden, we do so in the problem-solution format so that our eleven and twelve year-olds do not feel overwhelmed by the quandaries of history, society, and science, and so that they might exercise their innovation and collaboration during their civilization-creation group work, thereby feeling efficacious while creating solutions for what ails us today. I will therefore present the nine reasons here in that same problem-solution fashion.
The Water reason
Problem: In his landmark book When the Rivers Run Dry, Fred Pearce (2006) tells the story of the Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent 7500 years ago, how they build the first giant irrigation systems using river water from the Tigris and Euphrates. They dug large canals and erected gigantic levees to protect themselves from the spring floods. However, the world’s first writing, cuneiform, done on clay tablets, notes that 3800 years ago their once great farm system was failing, the southern Mesopotamian “black fields becoming white” and “plants choked with salt” (Pearce, 2006, p. 186). The empire had to switch from wheat to barley, which is more tolerant of salt than its predecessor. The barley eventually failed as well, as “the salt chased civilization through Mesopotamia as mercilessly as any barbarian horde” (Pearce, 2006, p. 187). Pearce goes on to compare Mesopotamia to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, noting that great ancient civilizations emerged in environments where controlling the water was the highest priority. These ancient worlds, sometimes referred to as hydraulic civilizations in class, are unlike the more modest and oldest continually settled city of Jericho in Palestine, which has sustained farming on a smaller scale for 9000 years due to a spring producing 20 gallons a second (Pearce, 2006, p. 185). The grander cities of Mesopotamia were vulnerable to desertification, climate change, and silt built up in their waterways. Jericho, on the other hand, supplies a sustainable, if less impressive because less massive example for future generations.
What do the water problems of Mesopotamia, the students want to know, have to do with us today in Portland, Oregon, where it seems to rain for eight straight months every year? According to Maude Barlow, co-founder of Blue Planet Project, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has published the alarming statistic that forty U.S. states are currently threatened by water scarcity. Not only are we vulnerable nationally to water shortage, but worldwide, lack of clean water is the leading cause of childhood death (Barlow). When pondering these threats, one begins to see that the misuse of water has continued unabated from the ancient world to present day. Take, for example, the wastefulness of the typical meat-based diet. “To produce just one pound of beef takes thousands of gallons of water. . . and this is [in] a world in which two-thirds of all people are expected to face water shortage in less than a generation” (Lappé & Lappé, 2002, p. 15).
Solution: The Sierra Club (2012) has a website on water conservation that we share with our students, asking them to think about using some of the strategies presented there in their own homes. Strategies include installing a low-flow showerhead, replacing the lawn with drought resistant plants, using drip irrigation in gardens rather than sprinklers, and watering with saved gray water. (Top Tips section, para. 13, 20, 22, and 26; and Other Considerations section, para. 2).
Here on campus, we have installed drip irrigation in our raised beds in order to reduce water evaporation. We have also installed an instructional rain barrel off of our cob oven roof in the garden that waters a tulip and lily bed so that students can see a water reclamation project in action.
The Dirt reason
Problem: In his article “Our Good Earth,” Mann notes that “today more than six billion people rely on food grown on just 11 percent of the global land surface,” while just “a scant 3 percent of the Earth’s surface [is] inherently fertile soil” (2008, p. 92). Clearly, in order for the world to feed itself, it has to conserve the living, fecund, very thin skin of this planet.
In the first and still most thorough study of global soil misuse, scientists in the Netherlands at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) estimated in 1991 that humans have degraded, in ways described in Part I of this essay, 7.5 million square miles of land, an area that equals the U.S. and Canada combined (Mann, 2008, p. 90). Food riots have broken out every year over the globe for the past decade, due mainly to this degradation of the world’s soil.
Not all hope is lost, however. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University, says that amending the world’s damaged soils with vast amounts of carbon can address several issues simultaneously. “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil” (Mann, 2008, p. 90). Save the soil, put the people back to work, and allow them to feed their families—these are the recommendations of the ISRIC.
Solution: To preserve soil, water, and to reduce global warming, Bill Benenson’s (2009) movie Dirt, in a more prescriptive way than the ISRIC,recommends the following: Farm a variety of crops organically rather than monocropping with herbicides and pesticides, which is typically done in conventional agriculture. Further, we should fertilize with cow dung and compost rather than with nitrogen-heavy chemical fertilizers. The film also recommends collecting and trading seeds, planting trees, employing people to green urban spaces, joining a CSA for vegetables, and shopping for local seasonal produce at farmer’s markets when possible.
Here on campus, we show our students the film, and we harvest organic vegetables from our garden for our lunch salad bar, later composting back into our garden. The circularity of this system allows us to preserve the health of our soil and to teach invaluable lessons on soil conservation.
The Bee reason
Problem: During an interview on You Tube with the director Jon Betz and producer Taggart Siegel (2010) of the movie Queen of the Sun, Jonathan Kim (2011), the interviewer, points out that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) sweeping the bee world over the last five years has profound consequences for humans, as 70% of human food comes from pollination by honey bees, including broccoli, apples, soybeans, citrus, and grapes (Kim, 2011). Queen of the Sun suggests several factors for the cause of CCD, from viruses to funguses to pesticides to mites to monocropping to giving the bees antibiotics. Scientists do not have a consensus; however, early data suggests that trucking bees to pollinate monocultures, such as almond orchards in California and apple orchards in Oregon, weakens bee hives because orchards lacking biodiversity draw an inordinate level of pests, which prompts the orchardists to spray immense amounts of pesticides, which the bees ingest, and which weakens to bees’ immune systems. Michael Pollan states in the film that this industrialized farm system eventually degrades into monocrop deserts, contributing to CCD.
Solution: We need to keep bees on biodiverse gardens, farms, orchards, and campuses across the country, to normalize the presence of honeybees and to help children to distinguish between the honey bee and the much more aggressive wasp or yellow jacket, which are drawn to our picnics and our lunch meats.
The sixth grade team has been working with a Portland-based beekeeper to keep two hives in the Catlin Gabel School apple orchard to pollinate the trees on campus and to raise honey for our cafeteria. Learning about bees by interacting with them on a biodiverse campus is an important way for students to mitigate CCD and to ensure the continuance of pollination by honeybees.
The Population reason
Problem: There were 36 million people in Europe in 1000; 45 million in 1100; 60 million in 1200; and 80 million in 1300. In three hundred years, the population of Europe more than doubled, which required more land to be cleared for food production. This was made possible by a relatively warm climate across Europe from 800 to 1200. Forests originally covered 95% of western and central Europe, but the need to feed the burgeoning population reduced the forests to about 20% (Ponting, 1991, p. 121).
World population first reached one billion in about 1825, and it had taken 2,000,000 years to do so. That population reached two billion by about 1925. The third billion only took 35 years, in 1960. The fourth was added by 1975. The jump from 4 to 5 billion only took another 12 years (Ponting, 1991, p. 240). If one looks at a graph of world population from 1700-2000, one is immediately struck by the fact that it resembles, in an eerie but understandable way, the dramatic spike in Earth’s surface temperature during that same historical period. The fact of modern global warming was first brought to the world’s attention by Houghton et al. (2001) with the publication of their Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Third Report entitled Climate Change 2001—Scientific Basis. Most people remember Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph of 20th century climate change from Al Gore’s (2006) documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (Bender, Burns, and David), showing how the 1990s were the warmest decade on Earth in one thousand years. Mann’s graph was peer reviewed by the IPCC and used as a basis for Figure 1, “Variations of the Earth’s Surface Temperature over the Last 140 Years and the last millennium” in the 2001 report (Houghton et al., 2001, Summary for Policy Makers section).
What, one might wonder, does population have to do with global warming? The common denominator here is oil, which was first drilled in the U.S. in 1859 in Pennsylvania. Oil helped the human species to triple in one century from two to six billion. Over a billion acres of land across the globe was brought into food production between 1920 and 1980 (Ponting, 1991, p. 244). Once the land was planted and harvested, the international food trade blossomed with two oil-backed innovations: the first being ocean and railway transport, the second being refrigeration. “The nineteenth century marked the end of several thousand years of largely self-sufficient agriculture . . . and the transition to an era where much of the food consumed in the industrialised (sic) countries was imported” (Ponting, 1991, p. 245). At the same time, greater mechanization of tilling, harvesting, storage, and transport led to a sharp decline in the number of farms. In the U.S. alone, farm numbers fell from 7 million in 1930 to 3 million in 1980, while over half of the produce was produce grown and distributed by just 5% of the total number of farms (Ponting, 1991, p. 246). The lesson here is that with the sharp increase in world population came a correspondingly steep rise in the fossil fuels used to feed that population as well as an absurdly precipitous decrease in the number of people farming sustainably in a biodiverse way for subsistence. Every year we add approximately 70 million more people to Earth, which requires, given our industrial food economy, greater inputs from machines, fertilizers, and pesticides—all oil-based, all contributing to land, air, and water degradation and global warming (Elbel & Stallings, 2009).
Solution: The challenge remains to feed a ballooning world population without polluting the world that needs to feed that population. There isn’t one answer here. Intersecting solutions, as proposed by the National Geographic Society’s (2012) Eye in the Sky project, include the following: One, preserve the soil by rotating crops and farming organically with a variety of crops on each farm, which can reduce the need to clear more woodland for agriculture. Two, contour plow, which reduces water-polluting runoff. Three, governments should limit or ban the use of DDT as an insecticide because of its spread through food chains. Four, affluent nations should eat less meat so that the grain and water that are given to cows can be redirected to humans who are hungry and thirsty.
Here at school, in addition to sustainability, another one of our mission objectives is global education. To that end, the fifth grade teachers teach the book What the World Eats, by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel (2008). Their photo-documentary allows students to compare and contrast the food that twenty-five families in twenty-one countries purchase and eat in one week. The text and teachers highlight the connections between family income, family size, geography, food availability, and diversity in diet. As a result of this study, students begin to internalize the connections between their families and the families of a billion others across the globe.
The Climate change reason
Problem: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been telling us for twenty years that climate change is real, that the planet is getting hotter, that this warming causes extreme weather events, and that global warming, especially in the last hundred years, is human-induced (Henson, 2006, p. 273). Though there had been some spurious anti-scientific debate over global warming ten years ago, in their 2007 IPCC report, editors Pachauri and Reisinger confirmed, through further research, that this century’s precipitous spike in global warming is due to human greenhouse gas emissions (Summary for Policymakers Section; Subsection 2: Causes of Change).
Last winter, PBS News Hour (2011) released a slideshow online entitled “Weather’s Dozen,” which presented photographs of twelve extreme weather events in the U.S. during 2011, including tornadoes, heat waves, droughts, and floods. Each of the disasters exceeded a cost of one billion dollars in damages. The slideshow also presented a bar graph comparing financial costs of these disasters from each year over the last three decades. One sees that on this last slide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2011 was the costliest year ever recorded for extreme weather damage (PBS Newshour, 2011, slide 13).
The planet’s climate has changed, and each year floods, tornadoes, and heat waves strike more and more people, which also, in a cruel irony, ravage the world’s nonrenewable fossil fuel energy sources. In the last two years, weather, plate tectonics, and geography have conspired to join forces in disasters involving our three main energy sources: the BP oil spill of 2010, the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia in 2010, and the Fukushima Daiishi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. Scholars note that as long as people seek nonrenewable energy sources in hard-to-get-to places, given the unpredictable and increasing nature of extreme weather events, that more disasters like these are inevitable. Today, oil companies have to tread into environments, like the Gulf of Mexico or the Arctic Circle, that are unstable since they are in regions that host either hurricanes or drifting ice sheets. Acknowledging the risks, some analysts have called this energy policy “Energy Extremism,” since more disasters like the BP oil spill will inexorably follow with energy strategies that require drilling in environmentally unstable regions (Klare, 2010, p. 30-31). The world’s fossil fuel markets and the governments that court those markets seem oblivious to science and history—lessons that teachers and middle school students find mind-boggling.
Solution: I present Tim Flannery’s (2005) book We Are the Weather Makers for my students because it lays out both the threats and a wide variety of solutions to global warming that our students and school community might follow. Our goal as sixth grade teachers is to move our students from ignorance to knowledge, from hopelessness to compassionate action. Some of Flannery’s extensive suggestions include the following: buy a hybrid car or take public transportation; buy Energy Star appliances; install solar panels on roofs; insulate homes well; change all light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs; plug all electrical devices into power strips, and then turn off the power strips at night; switch plans with power companies to draw from renewable energy sources; recycle; don’t use plastic bags; resist buying products made with petrochemicals; eat locally, seasonally, and organically; turn off the tap when brushing teeth; use recycled paper; and cancel junk mail.
Here at Catlin Gabel School, our Facilities Director sends out monthly “Energy, Waste, and Water Reports” that detail electricity use, gas use, and water use, along with landfill by weight, recycling by weight, and compost by weight for the buildings on campus. We teachers and students are therefore able to chart our contributions to global warming throughout the year, and we are all aiming for zero waste and reduced carbon footprints.
The Nutrition reason
Problem: The book Forks Over Knives alerts us to the fact that“two thirds of adults [in the U.S.] are either overweight or obese, and obesity rates for children have doubled over the last thirty years” (Stone, 2011, p. 4). Obesity, therefore, has been rightly identified as a national health crisis, but what is perhaps less well known is that certain populations are at greater risk than others. The obesity epidemic is complicated, but the inner-urban neighborhood eyeball test can be as instructive as the arcane spreadsheet of a distant PhD when analyzing this issue.
What we see when visiting inner city neighborhoods in Portland is corner alcohol stores and fast food chains, not grocery stores offering nutritious fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. What is more, the poor don’t have places to play—very few parks or community centers. Further, in the inner city schools, PE is being cut, while the stories of unhealthy food in the public schools are ubiquitous. How exactly does childhood obesity connect to poverty and to ethnic background?
Poverty is racial, as a 2011 study of poverty by race and ethnicity in Portland showed. A staggering 52% of African American children live in poverty in our city, followed by 34% of Hispanic American children, 15% of Asian American children, and 10% of White children (Castillo & Wiewel, 2011). Noting that many of these children living in poverty also live in neighborhoods without farmer’s markets and grocery stores, one can also easily surmise that nutritional food and healthy diets are not as accessible to non-white Portland children. For our purposes of looking at food and gardening, we can conclude that not only is poverty racial, so is childhood obesity (Boak, 2007). Recent studies that take into consideration ethnic background in the U.S. find that Hispanic, Native American, and African American populations have higher rates of childhood obesity than Asian Americans and those self describing as White (Caldwell, 2009, para. 1-2).
Clearly, when we start looking at nutrition in our classrooms, our lenses have to expand to include ethnicity, income, demographics, and neighborhoods. That said, the fact also remains that all American children, regardless of ethnic background, street address, or family income level, are at risk of obesity and type II diabetes. There is something in our culture that is funneling our children toward these unhealthy ends.
Solution: The authors of Forks Over Knives tie together nutrition, cooking, the ethical treatment of animals, and greenhouse gas reduction strategies, and they have a simple message for improving our nutrition: eat a vegan diet that is plant-based and consisting of whole-foods. The closer the plant is to its original state in nature, the better. Their vegan diet, they claim, will erase obesity without compromising daily caloric, nutrient, or protein requirements. What is more, a transition to a vegetarian diet free of all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs will help to heal the soil, water, and climate ills facing our world. The authors point out that, at the current rate of population increase, Earth will hold nine billion people by 2050. The majority of those people will be born in China, India, and Africa, and as their incomes rise, they will eat more meat, cheese, and milk products. “The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that meat consumption will more than double by 2050, and milk consumption will grow by 80 percent during that period” (Stone, 2011, p. 35). While advocates of animal-based proteins argue that these increases are logical and beneficial for people’s health, the fact also remains that eating a variety of vegetables, legumes, unrefined grains, seeds, and nuts can supply a person’s daily protein requirements (Mangels, 1999). Another more obvious argument against eating more meat and drinking more milk in an ever-enlarging factory farm model are the deleterious effects upon soil, water, and climate.
The United Nations has found that farm animals create 20% of all human-induced greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). However, “if every American simply reduced chicken consumption by one meal per week, the carbon dioxide savings would be equivalent to removing 500,000 cars from the road” (Stone, 2011, p. 40). People can also help to conserve water by eating less meat. The April, 2010, National Geographic magazine special issue on water has created a poster entitled “Hidden Water” that shows that “a human diet that regularly includes meat requires 60 percent more water than a diet that’s predominantly vegetarian” (McNaughton et al., 2010). In addition to water use, raising animals for food also “accounts for about 55 percent of soil erosion” (Stone, 2011, p. 39). To recap: we could reduce obesity and greenhouse gas emissions, while also preserving topsoil and water resources, if we ate less meat and animal products. What is stopping us?
On campus, our Director of Food Services regularly comes into our sixth grade classroom to teach lessons on growing, purchasing, and cooking with local produce. These classes are favorites among our students, as they get to do what all sixth graders want to do in school: eat! The sixth grade is also a leader class on campus for growing organic fruits and vegetables for our daily salad bar, enacting the principles of good nutrition, topsoil preservations, and water conservation.
The Globalization of food reason
Problem: The opening words of the movie Food, Inc. (2008) sum up the current industrial food system this way: “The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that’s used to sell the food is still the imagery of agrarian America” (Kenner & Pearlstein).There are 47,000 products in modern average American supermarkets, which offer food out of season from all over the globe, encouraging the delusion that the world does not have seasons, that food is not tied to the earth, the weather, or to the seasons (Kenner & Pearlstein).The reality is that our current industrial food system is a factory, not a farm, with a small handful of multinational corporations controlling food from seed to plate. When the global food system is scrutinized in terms of global warming, it is unmasked as a main polluter: “Our food production—our fossil-fuel driven industrial model—[is] one of the biggest culprits, responsible for about one-fifth of human-caused greenhouse-has emissions” (Lappé & Lappé, 2002, p. 19-20).
Let’s look at the situation with chickens. Three or four companies control the beef, chicken, and pork in the U.S., and their goal is the same product every time. The chicken conglomerates today house chickens cheek to beak in giant feedlot barns without light, where they are unable to move around, and they are given antibiotics to stave off the eventual sicknesses that come from poor diet, nonexistent physical activity, and standing in their own feces. All that said, the chickens are bigger now in less time than they were 50 years ago (Kenner & Pearlstein). The same scenario outlined here could describe the life of most cows and pigs in the U.S. The meat we are eating from these factory farms is of inferior quality, and the lives of the animals are not being honored in even this most basic of humane ways.
Other companies, such as Monsanto, are busily engaged in seeking to gain control of the world’s food sources via genetically modified seeds. It is true that Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) seeds helped millions avoid starvation in the 1970s, especially in India, during the so called “Green Revolution,” when high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, along with tons of NPK chemical fertilizers, gave a few decades of bumper crops. Those same GM seeds and fertilization practices, however, have stripped micronutrients from Indian soil, as the high-yielding varieties were also ravenous, drawing up zinc, manganese, iron, and other micronutrients that healthy soil need to support crops. What is more, decades of dumping chemical fertilizers and overwatering have also poisoned the soil with toxic levels of fluorine, aluminum, boron, iron, molybdenum, and selenium (Shiva, 2008, p. 102). Monsanto and other GM companies are responding by increasing their lab technicians’ time to come up with new seeds and fertilizers that they believe will feed Earth’s swelling population in the 21st century.
The promise established during the early years of the Green Revolution has faded into a bizarre world of the global food economy, where companies that make herbicides are selling us food seeds, and where we are industrializing the food at the cellular, genetic level. Let’s go back and trace the history to figure out an alternate path.
In 1970, Monsanto created Roundup. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism” (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 158). From 1980, when there were zero genetically modified crops being grown in the U.S., to 2007, the amount of land planted with G.M seeds rose to 142 million acres planted in the U.S. and 282 million acres across Earth (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 160). In addition, during the 1980s, Monsanto began buying seed companies. Today, Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 160). In the 1990s, Monsanto seized upon the opportunities opened by the 1980 Supreme Court case and began patenting life. The Green Revolution turned into the Gene Revolution. Today Monsanto owns 11,000 patents (Butler & Garcia, 2004). Deborah Koons Garcia (2004), director of the movie The Future of Food, believes that the company knows that whoever controls the seeds, controls the food. She speculates that Monsanto does not want biodiversity or food diversity; rather, she says, it wants to buy then patent all the seeds, then take those seeds off the market. Then they will produce only their Monsanto Roundup Ready seeds. Other analysts have come to the similar conclusions about this company, though we as teachers present these conclusions as theory while withholding the company name to protect community members who might work there.
From our perspective in the sixth grade, we are less interested in eviscerating certain companies than discussing farming practices as they relate to Mesopotamia. Therefore, we point out that “farmers who buy Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds [again, we withhold the company name] are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for replanting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year” (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 158). Such a practice of agreeing to deliberately let seeds go to waste reverses food growing practices since the founding of the first towns in the Fertile Crescent 9,000 years ago.
The connections between Monsanto, biodiversity loss, dying local economies, and poor nutrition are also becoming more evident, especially upon acknowledging that 70% of processed food—with its high salt, fat, and high fructose corn syrup levels—has a GMO in it. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the army of lobbyists that agribusiness has on Capitol Hill, it’s also against the law to label GMO foods in the U.S. (Kenner & Pearlstein, 2008).
Solution: Knowing that the leading manufacturers of carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation and coal-burning power plants for electricity generation (Flannery, 2005, p. 23 and 62), Vandana Shiva’s indictment of the global food industry that ships temperature controlled vessels around the world is rigorously logical. The solution we tell our students is to eat whole foods, not processed foods; local foods, not food from thousands of miles away; organic foods, not GMO food products; seasonal foods from the Northwest, not bananas from Ecuador in the wintertime. We realize that the children do not purchase the food that their families eat, but if they were to enact these practices, not only would they be allowing farmers to return to more healthy food production methods, they would also be encouraging millions of farmers across the world to save seeds and feed their families and communities with locally grown, organic, healthy food.
In their book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver and her family (2008) recount a year of living in Kentucky eating in this way, which necessitated learning to can and pickle, eat more roots in winter time, and reach out to trade with neighbors who raised the apples, beef, and lamb that her own family could not. Farmers and writers like Wendell Berry have been modeling this practice for years, and we encourage our students to return to it, whenever possible.
On campus we teach a Sweetness of Apples lesson (Reed & Stein, 2009) from the PBS series The Botany of Desire, based upon the book by Michael Pollan (2002). We harvest apples from our own orchard, and then purchase some other organic northwest varieties from a local market, New Seasons, which lists, on their produce bins, the grower name and orchard location. Students not only connect their diet to their campus, they can easily calculate the food miles accrued for the morning lesson.
The Oil reason
Problem: As sixth grade teachers, we recognize the urgency and our responsibility toward our students. One of my objectives during the Mesopotamia unit is explore two closely aligned myths: 1. Our world can support consistent and unlimited economic growth, even when China and India begin using the same amount of energy, per capita, as the U.S.; and 2. Oil, coal, and natural gas use can continue in the same way.
In order to assist the deconstruction of the myth of unlimited economic growth, I show Paul Gilding’s (2012) TED talk entitled “The Earth Is Full.” Gilding points out that we would need one-and-one-half earths to provide us with the available fossil fuels to maintain our energy usage for our current global economy.
The second myth is trickier to tease apart, as our daily lives seem to argue for its validity. I woke up in my heated house, had a toasted bagel baked across town, took a hot shower, and then drove my heated car on well-lit streets to a heated, well-lit school. Where is the fossil fuel shortage?
I tell my students that many scientists and journalists, like Kenneth Deffeyes (2005) and Tim Appenzeller (2004), believe that “peak oil,” first predicted by M. King Hubbert (1969, p. 196), is upon us. I explain to my students that since oil is a non-renewable, finite resource, there is day called “peak oil day” when oil producers reach their maximum amount in history they can extract from the ground and refine. That day is peak oil day, and every day after begins the decline of oil on this planet until its eventual depletion. The International Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, notes that 2006 marked the all-time high of 70 million barrels a day of oil using conventional crude oil production methods (Inman, 2010, para. 2-4).
Other writers, such as James Kunstler (2005), draw far-reaching conclusions from this concept: “The oil peak phenomenon essentially cancels out further industrial growth of the kind we are used to” (p. 28). What Kunstler means is that because our global economy is predicated upon the reliable supply and use of oil and gas, and because that supply will begin decreasing until it is gone in the near future, our global economy as we know it is, at best, destined to have to change, and, at worst, doomed. Kunstler goes on to show how the billions of people in the recently developed nations who now seek the automobiles, electricity, and materials goods that the EU and USA have had for the last forty years will push global warming, biodiversity loss, and biosphere pollution to their breaking points.
We’re smart, though, many argue. Scientists will figure out how to solve these problems. Again, Kunstler doesn’t think so. There will be no one technological fix, he says, to the intersecting problems of overpopulation, global warming, and the end of peak oil. Even with the combination of compatible technologies such as carbon sequestration, solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and hydroelectric power, the net energy output cannot match our current needs in the U.S., to say nothing of the energy needs of the rest of the world. He takes nuclear power off the table as foolhardy and unsustainable, and given the events of last spring in Japan as chronicled by BBC News online (2012), his omission seems wise (Kunstler, 2005, chap. 4). Noting the irony that non-fossil fuel energy systems, such as wind turbines, require burning more fossil fuels to produce and maintain the so-called green energy systems, Kunstler nonetheless urges us to move toward clean energy sources, regional economies, and lifestyles that are congruous with the planet’s diminishing energy resources.
While more politically moderate studies suggest that the global economy might slow down but rebound with new technological advances, the fact remains that we have already crested Hubbert’s Peak in the past five years (Deffeyes, 2005, p. 3). Furthermore, it is essential to remember that the remaining oil and natural gas under Canadian tar sands or oil shale in the western U.S. “could provide as much oil as the world’s current reserves, but the current methods of extraction are hugely greenhouse-intensive and environmentally problematic—not to mention expensive” (Henson, 2006, p. 289). Simply put, the world’s cheap, easily harvested oil is gone—and with it, the days of the global industrial food system are numbered as well.
Solution: At Catlin Gabel school, we not only teach Peak Oil and alternative energy in our studies of economics, science, history, and literature, we enact it with our symbolic “Empty the Lot Day,” which is a day that faculty, staff, students, and parents seek to reduce our school’s carbon footprint and do our part to keep the air clean for everyone. We encourage people to bike, walk, carpool, and take public transportation to work, charting the progress year to year, and incentivizing the process throughout the year by providing lunch tokens to teachers who carpool, bike, walk, or take public transportation to campus.
The Hunger reason
Problem: One in six Americans will struggle with hunger today (Levy, Mueller, Cochran, Hand, & Two Bulls, 2012, para. 1). This is a disquieting statistic, made even starker by the reminder that adults who struggle to feed themselves cannot often feed their children. In fact, “according to the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], over 16 million children lived in food insecure (low food security and very low food security) households in 2010” (Feeding America, 2012). One’s heart fills with grief wondering, Is there simply not enough food to go around?
Frances Moore and Anna Lappé (2002) counter this question, though: “For every human being on the planet, the world produces two pounds of grain per day—roughly 3,000 calories, and that’s without even counting all the beans, potatoes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables we eat, too. This is clearly enough for all of us to thrive; yet nearly one in six of us still goes hungry” (p. 15). What then, is the cause of all this hunger?
Joel Bourne, Jr. (2009) notes that global population is booming, but so is global warming and deforestation of land for more production zones. We know how this pattern goes, if we follow Diamond (2005) and Ponting (1991). Acting as mitigates on grain production across the globe, are three other factors: one, global warming is sharply curbing harvests of rice, corn, wheat, sorghum, cassava, and sugar cane across the world; two, staple crops such as corn and soybeans are being fed to livestock as the desire for meat and milk products skyrockets among the millions of new middle class citizens; and three, more and more trees are being cleared to make way for fields that are being converted to biofuels in a well-intentioned response to global warming, which is, in a grimly ironic catch-22, causing erosion, topsoil loss, and desertification, thereby creating more hunger (Bourne, 2009). This is exemplar of the vicious circle involving the triad of hunger-overpopulation-global warming, I tell my students, and it will be the greatest challenge of their lives when they get older.
Solution: Our 5th grade teachers are tackling these issues head-on, teaching the children about local food systems as an antidote to the global food supply chain that is bad for the climate, the land, and the people. In 5th grade, they have the students research CSAs, farmers markets, farm to school programs, the 100 Mile Diet, and the Low Carbon Diet. They use Chew on This (Schlosser & Wilson, 2007), The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Reader’s Edition (Pollan, 2009), and What the World Eats (D’Aluisio & Menzel, 2008)to teach local food systems, biodiverse farming practices, sustainable agriculture, and nutritious eating with a low carbon footprint.
In the middle school, including the sixth grade, we continue the work of our lower school colleagues by doing monthly service projects with Portland based community groups, such as The Blanchet House, Urban Gleaners, and the Oregon Food Bank, who are all working to end hunger in Oregon.
I also advocate, in my classroom and in the garden, a turn away from grain for livestock, and land for monocrops or biofuels, and instead a return to the practice of smaller, biodiverse farms that feed families and communities. Biodiverse, organic fields have healthier soils than those used for conventionally farmed monocrops, and organic, biodynamic farmers cause far less erosion and topsoil loss, use far less water, and do not causes long-term soil toxicity as farmers using conventional chemical farming practices do. Looked at in the short-term, organic, biodiverse farms may appear less productive than the larger, conventional chemical monocrop farms, as the former are smaller and seemingly less bountiful. However, looked at in the long-term, the organic biodiverse farms actually do more to address hunger and environmental stability in the world, as their practices preserve soil, do not contaminate drinking water, and do less to add to global warming. Connecting hunger and global warming, I also share with my students Vandana Shiva’s (2009) research, which “has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change” (p. 56). When we talk with our students about hunger, we do not simply talk about access to food, although access certainly is a factor; we also talk about climate change, population, geography, vegetarian vs. omnivore diets, local vs. global food supply, short-term bumper crop vs. long-term sustainability, and chemical vs. organic farming. All of these issues are relevant, obviously.
 Berry is a national treasure. Some of his many books include Bringing It to the Table (with Michael Pollan), The Unsettling of America, and What Are People For?
 Other writers also point out that the U.S. has evoked some antagonism around the world from its political support of the despotic Saudi regime in exchange for continued, cheap access to the bulk of the world’s crude oil reserves. See Chapter 11 of Rachel Bronson’s Thicker Than Oil. Still others suggest that both U.S. military strategy during foreign wars and the decisions to maintain hundreds of overseas bases are both predicated upon securing that access to oil. See Chapter 3 of Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy and Chapter 4 of Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis. Whatever one’s conclusions, it’s clear that both fossil fuel use and fossil fuel access come at great environmental and political costs.
The Power of Storytelling:
Earth Tales and Activities
Show the Way for Living in Balance
by Michael J. Caduto
©2014 All Rights Reserved
From Siberia to the tip of South America, and from Africa to Polynesia, stories have grown from the very Earth upon which they were first told. Through these tales, the natural world speaks to the people who walk upon it and who use it to stay alive. But stories have wings, too, which loft them upon the winds of our imaginations.
Traditional tales contain the wisdom that countless generations have harvested by living close to the land, growing their own food and making the things they needed with their own hands. In order to live, they had to take care of the soil, the water, the plants and the animals. As the stories show, people eventually learned that the harm they caused the world around them would one day come knocking on their own door. The care they showed would be returned in kind with food, clean air and water, and materials with which to fashion tools and other necessities. In this way, stories are a kind of medicine, a way of healing the wounds of life.
In many stories it is clear that traditional cultures believe that all of nature is alive: those things that move, and those that do not. There is a breath of life in a tree, a hawk and the long wind that blows across open places and gently bends blades of grass. A spirit lives in the shadow that grows between the hills as the sun sets, in the rocks of the hills themselves, in the moon that rises into a starry sky, in the sweet smell of a flower and in the joy of a newborn fawn. Over and over in the old tales we read of the common faith in a benevolent, unseen Creator of the wonders that surround us. Like the natural world, stories are sacred and are treated with respect and reverence.
We All Have Native Roots
No matter what culture, or cultures, our ancestors come from, traditional stories can help us trace our roots back to their source. We all have ancestral ties to Native peoples who lived close to Earth. Their wisdom lies deep in our memories. One common thread that runs through the stories is the belief that we are a part of nature, and that the community of people and the natural world depends upon a mutual, respectful relationship. Although we cannot help but change our environment as we live in it and use its resources to keep us alive, we can do everything possible to have a positive impact and nurture the natural world.
Besides entertaining and helping to teach moral lessons, stories help to explain the natural world; they carry on our spiritual beliefs, our artistic traditions and the particular ways we use language. The wisdom of Earth stories is both a link to our past, and a lifeline to the beautiful, healthy Earth we want to leave as a legacy for future generations.
Earth Tales and Activities
In this section I present “The Wisdom of Nature,” an original retelling of a traditional Swahili story from Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar in eastern Africa. The story is adapted from my book Earth Tales from Around the World and it appears on my storytelling CD, The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales. The accompanying activities are designed for children of ages 5 to 12. As with all stories in Earth Tales, the activities suggested in the back of the book can be created and adapted to suit the home environment of the intended audience. These particular activities are oriented to the plants and animals of North America and are adapted from the book Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children.
This introduction and story, “The Wisdom of Nature,” are used with permission from Earth Tales from Around the World, ©1997 by Michael J. Caduto (Golden Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing). The story also appears with permission from the storytelling CD: The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales, ©2014 by Michael J. Caduto (Luna Blu®). The activities, ©1991 by Michael J. Caduto, are adapted with permission from Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac (Fulcrum Publishing). The illustration by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol is used with permission. Activities may be used only as needed for normal classroom use. Written permission is required from the author to copy this story and introduction in any form from: Michael Caduto, P.O. Box 1052, Norwich, VT 05055, USA. Phone: (802) 649-1815. Copies of these books and information on related books, music and programs can be obtained at the P.E.A.C.E.® website: www.p-e-a-c-e.net
The Wisdom of Nature
©2014 by Michael J. Caduto
All Rights Reserved
In the thick brush at the edge of the hill country lived a magnificent snake. Its eyes blazed and the scales that covered its skin were as hard and strong as any shield. Venom flowed from its long, curved fangs. In the moment of its hunger, this huge, powerful snake devoured any wild animal it desired.
One day, the snake sat sunning itself in a small clearing. Being close to the ground, the snake sensed a roar in the distance. Its tongue picked up a strong scent. Upwind, some young hunters were burning the brush to drive the game animals into the open. Crackling flames rushed toward the snake
As it searched for refuge, the snake slithered out of the low brush and into the open along the border of a farmer’s fields.
“Please help me hide,” asked the snake. “The hunters are coming. They will kill me.”
When he saw the snake, the farmer was afraid.
“Do not fear me,” the snake called out to the farmer. “I will not harm you.”
The kindhearted farmer took pity on the snake, as he did on all animals that were in need of help.
“Quickly,” said the farmer as he opened the mouth of a large, empty grain bag, “crawl into this sack. The hunters will never think to look for you here.”
As soon as the tip of the snake’s tail disappeared into the mouth of the bag, some hunters approached. They were following the faint trail left by the snake’s belly as it slid along the ground.
“Have you seen a large snake come this way?” they asked the farmer.
“No,” he replied. “I have been working here all morning and have seen no sign of a snake. You must be reading an old trail.”
“Thank you,” said the hunters, and they walked on. When they were a safe distance away, the farmer opened the grain bag and whispered, “Come out, the danger has passed.”
The snake crept out of the sack, threw its coils around the farmer and held him fast.
“Let me go!” screamed the farmer. “I have just saved your life!”
“That is true,” replied the snake. “But I have not eaten for many days. You will make a good meal.”
“Then you will not let me go?” asked the farmer.
“No, I am starving.”
“Before you eat me,” said the farmer, “you could at least repay me for saving your life.”
“That is only fair,” said the snake. “I agree. Now what do you desire?”
“Let us have others decide whether you should eat me.”
“If that is your wish, so be it,” agreed the snake.
The snake followed the farmer to the edge of the field where a coconut palm tree had been planted. The tree listened carefully as each of them told his side of the story.
“Well,” replied the coconut palm, “I know the nature of human beings. They eat my nuts and drink the sweet milk inside. Some even use my leaves to thatch their roofs. Why should I save a human being? I say the snake should have its meal.”
“Let us ask the bee,” said the farmer.
“As you wish,” replied the snake.
“You must be joking!” replied the bee. “Human beings smoke us out of our homes and steal our honey. They never give us thanks. I have no compassion for the farmer.”
“Perhaps the mango tree down by the road will understand my plight,” thought the farmer. “Snake, let us go ask the mango to give us its judgment.”
“Lead on,” replied the snake.
Once it had listened to their stories, the mango tree spoke. “Year after year I stand here as generations of human beings pass by. They cool themselves in the shade of my branches and eat my fruit when they are hungry. Some break off my branches for firewood or to use as the shafts of spears for hunting the wild animals. Not once has a human being thanked me. Farmer, I see no reason why the snake should not eat you.”
“How could this be?” exclaimed the farmer. “Why should my life be such a trifle in the eyes of nature?”
At that moment, the farmer spotted a gazelle grazing along the riverbank. To the gazelle the farmer now pleaded his case.
In response to his story, the gazelle told a tale of its own. “I am often the difference between life and death for the human beings. Without my meat, they would starve and perish. Because I am so generous, people take me for granted. Your life, farmer, belongs to the snake.”
A baboon was listening from where it sat on the branch of a nearby tree.
“Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon. That is the way of nature.”
“But what of the snake?” asked the farmer.
“One cannot blame the snake for its hunger,” replied the baboon. “Like you, the snake is part of the balance that exists in the world.”
A snake is meant to eat its prey,
it catches as it can.
Its food will try to get away,
escape’s the way of man.
“What, then, do you have to say about whether or not I should eat the farmer?” asked the snake.
“First, you must show me exactly how it happened,” said the baboon. “That sack does not look big enough to hold a snake as magnificent as yourself.”
The farmer then opened the bag and the snake crawled in.
“Are you able to close bag with the snake inside?” asked the baboon.
“Yes,” replied the farmer as he drew the cord tight and tied it securely.
“Now, farmer, we will see what you have learned,” said the baboon. “Once again, the fate of the snake is in your hands. Now what are you going to do about it, hmmm?”
Prey, Tell Me
“Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon in this story. “That is the way of nature.” Indeed, each plant and animal has specific adaptations, physical (genetic) traits and behaviors that better enable it to survive and reproduce in its particular environment. Among animals, many survival adaptations relate to eating or being eaten.
Activity: Solve some riddles that describe the survival adaptations of some prey animals by guessing the animal’s identity.
Goals: Understand what a survival adaptation is and learn some defenses of certain prey animals.
Level: Ages 5 to 12
Materials: Riddles and kids.
Procedure: Discuss the meaning of interrelationships and give examples of different kinds of animal relationships. Be sure to include examples of animals that have both positive and negative effects on each other. Ask the children to think of their own examples.
Define and discuss the concept of survival adaptation with the children. Have them call out some examples of offensive adaptation of predators and defensive adaptations of prey animals.
Now tell them they are going to hear some riddles which describe some adaptations of animals that are often hunted as prey. With older children, have them come up and take turns reading the riddles. You will need to do the reading for young children. The riddles vary from easy to challenging.
PREY, TELLME (RIDDLES)
- My home is a burrow in the ground. I only come out at night when it is cool and damp and when I am not likely to be seen. Lots of animals, especially early birds, love to eat me, but I can scoot down my burrow quickly if someone tries to grab me, and I am very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Don’t fish around too long for the answers?
I am a (worm).
- I am a great swimmer from the minute I am born, I float almost as well as a cork. If something comes after me I use my webbed feet and tiny wings to skate quickly away over the water. The predators who spot me and try to attack from below see down when they look up. You may see me eating plants or fish.
I am a (duckling).
- My long ears, keen hearing and sensitive nose help me to detect danger from far off. I can make a fast getaway if spotted. Still, I come out from sunset to sunrise with darkness as my cover. I have a habit of twitching my nose. My tail is short and my feet are lucky.
I am a (rabbit).
- I sing my song when summertime is aging and autumn is on the way. I don’t sing with my voice though. Some people know I wing it. My long antennae help me to sense when danger is around. Still, my kind often become lunch for birds, shrews and even tiny snakes. I might live under a rock or spend my time in a clump of grass.
I am a (cricket).
- You know me well around your garden. My skin is bumpy and bad to taste. I eat ants and flies with a long, sticky tongue. When you pick me up I release the contents of my bladder to startle you into putting me down.
I am a (toad)?
- My skin of scales is a good hint. I am small and quick with a colorful tail. When a predator comes and grabs at the tip, I snap it off like the flick of a whip.
I am a (skink).
Adapt and Survive
Adapting is not simply a matter of following a pre-determined program of adaptations like a robot. Many times, like the human being in this story, the animal that survives is one that can learn from its environment and make choices based on individual situations. For animals, threats can come from both the natural world and from the actions of human beings.
Activity: Play a game of choices to see if you are as adaptable as the coyote—to see if you can adapt to survive in a changing world.
Goals: Understand that change—both natural and human-made—is a normal part of an animal’s existence, and that adapting to change is necessary to survive.
Level: Ages 9 to 12
Materials: Copy or copies of “Coyote’s Choice: Adapt and Survive,” other materials as needed depending upon the format you use for this activity, such as a game for each child to play individually (one copy for each child), or a course that children will walk through while making the decisions (index cards, each with one of the numbered situations set up as separate stations and any props you may want to add to create a more life-like course for the children to experience).
Procedure: Discuss the adaptability of coyotes, how they have expanded their range in recent years and the many changes which are constantly occurring around them to threaten their existence. These changes can be natural, such as floods, fire created by lightning, drought or a food shortage. Change can also be caused by people, for example, clear cutting a forest, damming a river or setting out traps or poisoned bait to kill animals. Coyotes are experts at adapting to change, moving to a new habitat when they need to or sensing danger when it is near and avoiding it, even if it means turning away from food that looks suspicious when they are hungry. They do not always make the right choice, however, and cannot always adapt successfully. Sometimes they survive, sometimes they do not.
Have each child read the following story, making choices along the way as they think a coyote might make. Even if a child makes the wrong survival choice at a certain point in the story, he or she is to continue on to the next station, and so on, until reaching the end of the story. When all of the children are through, have them share their choices, adaptations and experiences. How many of them honestly made all of the right choices and were able to make the necessary changes to survive each time? Which choices made it most difficult to make the right survival decisions? Which choices were the easiest?
Note: This activity can also be set up as a fun series of stations in which the initial situation is described and illustrated and children must choose one course or another by turning over a card or lifting up a flap to reveal the consequences of their decision. Then they can move on to the next station to test their wits there.
COYOTE’S CHOICE: ADAPT AND SURVIVE
- You are a tiny coyote pup and your mother has gone off to hunt for food. While you wait in the burrow a strange piece of thin wire on the end of a stick is pushed toward you from the door of your den. You see it coming and are afraid of it so you:
a. cower back against the wall of the burrow to escape.
b. attack the wire by biting it.
• If you chose (a) you survived.
• If you chose (b) you were snared and taken away by a hunter.
- You are now old enough to do some hunting on your own. There, up ahead, you see a dead animal that looks like it is more than big enough for a whole meal. When you get closer you see some strange tracks in the soil and smell an animal you have never smelled before. You are very hungry, but afraid to go closer to the dead animal. After watching a while and looking for signs of danger you decide to:
a. eat the meat of the animal.
b. turn away and search for another meal.
• If you chose (a) the meat was a poisoned trap set by a farmer and you are a goner.
• If you chose (b) you survived.
- It has not rained for a long time, the plants are dying and animals are becoming scarce. You are very weak, yet you feel an urge to travel to look for food. You begin to walk away from your burrow but you find it hard to walk. You decide to
a. push ahead and look for water and food elsewhere even though it means risking using up your last energy.
b. return to the burrow and wait for the rain and food to return.
• If you chose (a) you survived.
• If you chose (b) starvation set in and you became too weak to leave your burrow. You did not survive.
- You come to a place where people are living because you know there is usually some food nearby. There is a place up ahead where the smell of food is strong, yet danger is very near and threatening. As night slowly advances with the setting sun, you decide to
a. sneak in and eat as much of the food as you can under the cover of darkness.
b. turn around and seek food elsewhere.
• If you chose (a) you were able to eat safely while protected by the darkness. You survived.
• If you chose (b) your last strength was used when searching for food in another spot. You did not survive.
- With your strength restored you travel a short distance seeking shelter—a place to sleep and digest your meal. There is a strange burrow above ground up ahead. It is large and the morning sun shines off the strange smooth skin into your eyes. You climb up into it and try walking through the place that looks like the entrance, but you bump into something you cannot see. Finally you find an opening in the skin on the side and walk in, only to find many strange smells meet your nostrils. You sniff a few times and suddenly feel very tired. You decide to:
a. lie down and sleep here.
b. move on to look for a safer place.
• If you chose (a) you slept in an old abandoned car and made it your temporary shelter. You survived.
• If you chose (b) you found a large hollow tree to rest in and slept safely all day. You survived.
- When you wake up the sun is setting and you are hungry again, but not starving like before. You leave your burrow and walk until you come to the edge of the woods. You see a field with some furry animals in it eating the plants, but you are not sure it is safe to enter the field or whether those animals are food or not. As you move closer you notice a freshly-killed rabbit in front of you. There are those strange tracks around it, like the ones you saw near that dead animal with the strange smell some time ago. But this meat smells good as you approach it and your hunger deepens. Then, as you move even closer, you notice something sticking out of the ground near the rabbit. It looks like it has large teeth and is made of the strange skin of that burrow with the smooth shiny skin. You look all around one more time to make sure that none of the dangerous animals who walk on two feet are around, then you
a. pounce on the rabbit.
b. run off into the underbrush, sensing danger.
- If you chose (a) you felt a sharp, cold pain climb up your leg from one of your feet. Your foot is in a steel trap and there is no way out.
You did not survive.
- If you chose (b) you survived.
- If you have successfully survived by making all of the right choices so far, you will now raise a new coyote family. On the way back to your burrow you meet a coyote and decide to take her or him as a mate. Soon, the next generation of coyotes is born and you have pups of your own to feed.
Living In Balance: The Circle of Giving and Receiving
In “The Wisdom of Nature” the bee and the mango tree complain that the human beings take what they need but never give thanks. The gazelle says that its meat keeps the human beings alive, but that the human beings take it for granted. Many Native peoples see reciprocity—the Circle of Giving and Receiving—as essential to living in balance with nature.
Activity:(A) Make a list of all the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Practice
using only what is needed and giving thanks when receiving each of these gifts. (B) Create a special gift to return the generosity of the plants and animals.
Goals: Understand how numerous and varied are the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Realize that living in balance involves using only what is needed, not being wasteful and giving thanks to complete the circle of giving and receiving.
Level: Ages 5 to 12
Materials: (A) chalkboard and chalk or felt-tipped markers and newsprint, masking tape. (B) same materials as in (A) plus: pencils, paper, crayons, construction paper, scissors, glue, tape, very large sheet of paper such as brown postal wrapping paper, pictures or photographs of plants and animals as models for the children’s drawings, other materials as needed to complete children’s own, original projects.
Procedure A: Opening the Circle—Receiving. Use the children’s ideas and your own thoughts to make a list of the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Brainstorm a list of plants and animals that help to bring the gifts to us. Have the children go through an entire day by saying “thank you” to a plant or animal, or plants and animals in general, each time one of these gifts is used, eaten, worn, etc. An example is “Thank you honeybee” for honey and beeswax (a common ingredient in lip balm).
Encourage the children to be especially careful to use these gifts wisely—to take only what they need and not be wasteful.
Procedure B: Completing the Circle—Giving Back. Now tell the children how this story of “The Wisdom of Nature” reminds us that the plants and animals give us many wonderful gifts, and that living in balance means, in part, to return the gifts we receive by giving something of ourselves back. Ask the children to call out ways they may do this and write them down for all to see. Save them for use later.
Have each of the children write, in his or her own words, a poem or other form of saying “thank you” to the plants and animals. Children may draw a picture to depict a feeling of gratitude. Very young children may need pictures or photographs of the plants and animals to help them visualize the images for their drawings.
Create, on a large sheet of paper, an outline of a coconut palm, mango or other chosen tree, such as an apple tree. Have each child write or place her or his form of
“thank you” inside this outline. Pictures may be cut out and glued or taped on. The tree could even be entirely filled with pictures or illustrations to form a collage.
Follow through by having the children add other ways of giving thanks to the plants and animals as they think of them.
Michael J. Caduto is the creator and co-author (with Joseph Bruchac) of the best-selling Keepers of the Earth® series of books and resources. He recently released two new storytelling CD’s of stories from around the world: The Rainbow Garden—Tales of Wisdom (ages 5-10) and The Wisdom of Nature and other Earth Tales (ages 11 and up). Michael travels widely as an award-winning author, master storyteller, ecologist, educator, poet and musician. His work draws from the global well of Earth wisdom and he has worked closely with many Native peoples. His most recent books, Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun: 22 Super-Charged Science Projects for Kids and Riparia’s River received the Teacher’s Choice Award and Green Earth Honor Book Award.
Writing Stories Builds Scientific Literacy
From Environmental Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin and Jason Morris, Project Leaders
THE RESEARCH: Ritchie, S. M., Tomas, L., & Tones, M. (2011). Writing stories to enhance scientific literacy. International Journal of Science Education, 33(5), 685–707.
International studies have uncovered an unfortunate trend: students are becoming less interested in science. Especially at the middle school level, students are finding it difficult to become excited about science. And, according to this study’s authors, that’s not just a problem for students’ performance on tests: “This is an important issue for science educators because disengaged students are less likely to become informed future citizens who use natural, scientific, and technological resources responsibly for a sustainable future.”
Increasingly, researchers are thinking about scientific literacy in terms of not only what students know, but also how they apply what they know. This study examined whether one technique—writing stories with embedded scientific concepts—could help students learn new concepts and also apply them in novel settings, thereby building their interest in science.
The authors point to previous research that suggests that writing tasks, including imaginative writing, can improve student learning and motivation. They considered a recent qualitative study in which fourth-grade students wrote an ecological mystery. That study found that students were engaged and interested, built scientific knowledge, and improved their literacy skills. The authors of this paper took that idea further by developing a short-story format (which they suggest is easier to implement) and devising a more rigorous research design to test the effects of the approach.
In this study, students completed writing tasks that involved the soci0scientific issue of biosecurity (namely, the threat of introduced species). The authors argue that socio-scientific issues are ideal for building applied scientific literacy because these issues blend scientific concepts and current social issues. Within the context of learning about issues such as biosecurity, students interpret data, evaluate claims, analyze and generate arguments, ad assess (and sometimes develop their own) moral viewpoints.
Conducted in Australia, the study involved two sixth-grade science classes of 28 and 27 students. One group served as a control group and received the standard curriculum on microorganisms.The other class served as a treatment group, and in addition to the standard curriculum, completed the writing task. Both groups completed an online questionnaire, the BioQuiz, that helped researchers gauge students’ knowledge, interest, confidence, and scientific literacy. The researchers also followed up with interviews
The writing task was to write short stories, which the researchers called BioStories. These stories were based on writing prompts that depicted a scenario (for example, the late Steve Irwin and a young girl discuss the need for quarantines at a customs checkpoint). A project website provided links to relevant scientific information, and instructors asked students to incorporate that information into their stories.
The researchers generated three key findings about the students who completed the writing project:
•The students became more familiar with and knowledgeable about biosecurity and related biological concepts than the students in the control group.
•The students’ interest in science improved significantly more than the students in the control group.
• The students’ scientific content scores for their writing samples improved significantly, which demonstrates an improvement in their derived sense of scientific literacy.
Interviews with the students supported these findings, with the students expressing enjoyment about learning new things, researching information, and writing their stories. In the words of one student: “It was kind of interesting writing about something I really enjoyed.”
The researchers found the results to be promising and encourage middle school teachers to use these writing techniques. But further research, particularly with larger sample sizes, could confirm the results. And more research could help clarify which is more important: the topic or the writing approach itself.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Research and practice have suggested that middle school students can be difficult to engage through traditional science curriculum. This study tested a novel approach in which students used writing prompts to create original short stories that incorporated scientific information on a relevant socio-scientific topic. The researchers concluded that this approach can help students learn scientific concepts, become more interested in science, and improve their derived sense of scientific literacy. The researchers encourage middle school science teachers to adopt the approach where appropriate.