Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons

Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons

Kindergarten students admire a sunflower held by an Oxbow Farmer Educator while snacking on carrots during their fall field trip. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen

Science Through the Seasons

by Shea Scribner
Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center
Carnation WA

igns of the shifting seasonal cycle are all around us. Children are especially keen to notice and appreciate the changing colors of leaves, frantic activities of squirrels, and blossoms slowly turning to fruits on apple trees, but how often do they really get to explore these wonders of nature at the place most specifically designed for learning—their school? With so many subjects to teach and standards to meet, how can teachers follow their students’ passions and incorporate environmental education into their curricula? With an entire class of kids but only one or two teachers to supervise, is venturing outside the classroom a safe and productive use of precious class time?

Beginning in 2016, with funding from an Environmental Protection Agency grant (EPA grant #01J26201), Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s team of Farmer Educators and Frank Wagner Elementary School’s Kindergarten teachers dug into these questions to co-develop and teach monthly environmental education lessons in the classroom, around the schoolyard, and on the farm. Through intentional relationship-building meetings and workshops with the teachers, we worked to better understand the specific needs and opportunities we could address through the new partnership between our nonprofit organization and their public school. We found that by following the natural curiosities kids have about the world outside their classroom window, we could address curricular and behavioral challenges and build programs that both captivated the student’s attention and nurtured their enthusiasm for learning. The early learner-focused lesson plans and activities, best practices, and key lessons learned from the project now populate an online compendium on the Oxbow website. We seek to share our story with other formal and informal educators who are working to address similar challenges, and spark ideas for how to incorporate seasonal, developmentally appropriate, place-based environmental education into their practice.

The “Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons compendium takes the form of a beautiful tree, a fitting metaphor for a natural system where all parts contribute to the tree’s wholeness and growth to reach its full potential. The roots and trunk serve as the main base of support for plants, representing the foundation and core of our growing partnership with the school—take a peek into the planning process involved in this project, other organizations we partnered with, academic literature which informed our lessons and methods, and best practices for working with students and fellow educators. The branches growing from the sturdy trunk are specific place-based and Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS)-supportive lesson plans, suggested activities, and short videos recorded by the Oxbow educators, linking learning themes throughout the three seasons of the public-school year: fall, winter, and spring. With the overall goals of connecting lessons to the students’ specific environment and building skills of science investigation and inquiry, each experience was additive and built upon to together tackle the NGSS of K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.”

Much like our tree changed through the seasons, the students involved in the journey with us sprouted, grew, and transitioned throughout the school year. We invite you to channel the mind of a child as we guide you through the journey of a Frank Wagner Kindergartener experiencing outdoor EE with Oxbow and their teachers.


A volunteer farm naturalist asks kindergarten students about the crops they’re finding on the Kids Farm during a fall fieldtrip. Photo Credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen


Throughout this season, the remaining produce is plucked from Oxbow’s farm fields and pumpkins begin to turn from shiny orange to fuzzy black goo. As vibrant native trees and shrubs drop their leaves, humans and critters alike stash away the remaining treats of the season and work to prepare their homes for the cold, dark winter ahead. So too, young people across the region pack their backpacks full of snacks and supplies, bundle up in rain gear, and transition from summer beaches and sunlit backyards into the warm halls of their school every fall.

For some kindergarteners at Frank Wagner—a Title 1 school where many did not have the opportunity to attend preschool—the first time they transition into the fall season in the classroom can be understandably scary. The students are navigating a whole new environment, different schedule, and unfamiliar social expectations, all without the support of the primary caregivers whom they’ve relied on for so many seasons prior. Teachers are faced with the exceptional task of setting routines, helping every student feel safe, and helping students understand their role in their new classroom community. We found that many of the challenges of the early school year can be addressed through activities and practices that focus on building trust, sharing personal stories, and setting expectations for the new relationships students will build with teachers and one another.

Two students sit together behind large rhubarb leaves, playing a game of hide-and-seek (and finding hidden frogs and insects living in the field) during their spring fieldtrip. Photo Credit: Jess Eskelsen

Oxbow Educators visited the classrooms in the fall and collaborated with the students to construct a “CommuniTree” contract. Together, we used the structures of an apple tree to guide discussion of what sweet “fruits” both students and teachers hope to reap from their experience at school and on the farm, which “beehaviors” will help those fruits mature, and what obstacles to learning might be acting as big “rocks” in the soil, keeping the class’ roots from growing strong. We then began exploring the concept that learning can happen both in the classroom and outdoors through the Inside-Outside sorting activity. Students were given opportunities to express their own understandings of food and nature through prompted drawings, which we used as a baseline for assessing student growth throughout the school year. The Kindergarteners also came out to Oxbow for a Fall Farm Adventure, an introduction to how food grows and the many plants and animals that call a farm home, stoking their curiosity and excitement about the ongoing Farmer visits throughout the year. The fall season also included an introduction to the concept of “habitat,” a recurring and kindergarten-friendly theme that connected student learning about plant and animal needs throughout the rest of the year.


For most of us on the west side of the Cascades, winter is cold, dark, and most of all, WET. Farm fields throughout the Snoqualmie River Valley rest quietly under risk of flood while puddles grow into lakes in school parking lots. Rain has shaped the landscape for thousands of years and water continues to connect rural farmland with urban neighborhoods. Dormant plants focus on underground root growth, and many animals must also conserve energy by hibernating or digging deep into warm piles of decomposing fall leaves to survive frosty temperatures.

An Oxbow Farmer Educator helps students find and sample tomatoes growing in a high tunnel during their fall fieldtrip, catching the tail end of the growing season on the Oxbow Kids’ Farm. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen

Building on the relationships forged through the fall, winter was a time to begin channeling student’s excitement toward specific learning targets, helping them dig deeper into their wonderments and explore the systems connecting us to one another, and the greater planet we’re all a part of. With now-established routines and a classroom culture helping kids adhere to behavior expectations, students were ready to build on the basics and learn how to ask specific questions, make and share their observations, and consider new concepts. The weather during the winter months kept most of our lessons in the classroom, but certainly didn’t keep the kids from hands-on learning opportunities and ongoing nature connections!

Since things are a bit too muddy at Oxbow in the winter, we brought the farm into the classroom in the form of real live wiggling worms, giving students a chance to gently interact with the creatures as they sorted through the contents of their habitat during the Soil Sorting Activity. Students also identified what components serve as food and shelter for the decomposers to come up with a definition of what “soil is” and then used their observations to design and build a small composting chamber for the classroom. The teachers took this introductory lesson and built on it throughout the winter to address other parts of their curricula and learning targets: helping their students develop fine motor skills by cutting pictures out of seed catalogues and newspaper ads, then sorting the foods into those which worms can eat and those they cannot, and finally gluing their colorful collages onto posters and practicing writing the names of the foods in both English and Spanish. Further exploring habitats and plant and animal needs, we followed student curiosity into the schoolyard to investigate if the schoolyard is a healthy habitat for squirrels and learned how Squirrels and Trees help meet each other’s needs.

The Snoqualmie River flowing past Oxbow joins with the Skykomish River right near Frank Wagner to form the Snohomish River, a perfect natural connection to frame an investigation! As winter transitioned into (a still wet) spring, a Watersheds lesson helped to reinforce the link between farm and school, giving students a chance to work with maps of the actual landscape to trace the route of a raindrop as it would flow down from mountaintops and through interconnected rivers, and illustrate many human and natural features that use and depend on this water.


A kindergarten student carefully draws in her science notebook, documenting a specific apple tree she observed in the orchard. Photo credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen


Early-season native pollinators like blue orchard mason bees are a Farmer Educator’s best friend. Not only do these cute little insects help flowers turn to fruits and seeds, but they do so in a kid-friendly manner, hatching from hardy cocoons into adults friendly enough to hold without fear of a sting! With the warmer weather, students were able to spend more time outdoors exploring nature around the schoolyard and came back out to Oxbow to see how the big pumpkins they harvested back in the fall get their start as tiny seeds in the cozy greenhouse. With spring’s official arrival, the time had come for all that fall fertilizing and deep-winter pondering to transition into a growing, independent entity—be it a seedling or an excited student!

Springtime is a season full of vigorous growth and the kindergarteners were practically bursting to share with us all they’d been learning about through the winter. The students were ready to dynamically explore and understand the many connections between their lives, the farmers, and the plants and animals they saw popping up from the warming soils. Lessons in the springtime harnessed this energy by playing active games during multiple field trips to the farm and further investigating the nature around the schoolyard, all with a focus on connecting students more intimately with their sense of place.

Through an early spring field trip focused on Animals in the Water, students participated in a macroinvertebrate study, closely examining the “little bugs” that rely on cool, toxin-free water in the oxbow lake, and played games embodying the flow of nutrients through the freshwater food web these bugs are an integral part of. Their Spring Farm Adventure field trip and Orchard Stations had a focus on lifecycles and natural processes they could observe firsthand: how the buds on the orchard trees would soon (with a little help from the farmers, sunny and wet weather, and pollinators) become summer’s sweet fruits, and how the growing season for most food crops in this region is really just beginning as their school year comes to an end. As an end-line assessment of the student’s change in environmental understanding, we asked the students to again “draw a picture of nature” and were impressed to see the concepts of life cycles, interdependence of organisms, habitat needs, and where food comes from recalled and illustrated so eagerly by the students.

Our Tree

Behind every future environmental steward there is a spark of wonder which must be fanned to a flame, often with the support of dedicated educators and an array of tried and tested strategies. The Foundation of the tree includes a selection of Best Practices, which are continually growing. These ideas and strategies are intended to prepare students for outdoor science learning and provide teachers with the tools and skills to feel confident teaching in the outdoors.

Of course, none of the curricular branches would be strong without the solid structure of the trunk and roots. Building strong relationships with the teachers, school district, and other nonprofit partners throughout the project was integral to understanding the specific needs of the kindergarten classes and how informal educators can best support their in-class learning. We look forward to continuing to work with the students through this spring and beyond as we help build a school garden on their campus, giving students of every grade more opportunities to discover the magic of growing plants, harvesting food, and caring for worms and native wildlife. Our Earth Connections compendium will continue to be populated with additional resources and we hope to hear from educators like you about how you’ve used the materials, your recommendations for improvement, or ideas for expansion!

We are thrilled to share the fruits of this partnership with fellow educators and hope you find inspiration to continue exploring and learning from nature, both inside the classroom and around the schoolyard, maybe even taking a field trip to a local farm or community garden! You can learn more about Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center at


About the author:

Shea Scribner is an Environmental Education Specialist and Summer Camp Director at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation, WA.

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

By Caroline Bargo

Adventure Awaits

As I began exploring the IslandWood campus in August it became abundantly clear that the garden would be one of my favorite places here on the 255-acres available to us to teach. As a graduate student at IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community program I act as field instructor to groups of students that visit during the School Overnight Program. Although I knew I loved the garden, I fall more deeply in love each week when I am teaching in it and surrounded by delighted children. Sometimes these students are familiar with garden classrooms, and sometimes this is their first exposure to one. Some students come in having tried all sorts of obscure veggies, and some are still skeptical. Regardless of student’s comfort levels walking into the space, it is my goal that each student who visits feels a connection to the soil, decomposers, fruits, veggies and herbs that are growing in the garden.

This year, I have been focused on stewarding my students through exciting and sometimes scary activities. We have climbed a ten-story canopy tower, crossed a suspension bridge and hiked through the forest in the dark of night. I realized after a while, though, that these adventures weren’t replicable in everyday life. One thing that students can do to push their boundaries is to try foods that aren’t familiar to them. Here at IslandWood we have the capacity to grow a unique variety of fruits and veggies, and students are often motivated to try them in the jovial team atmosphere that we foster.

Many Histories & a Delicious Meal

During my first week teaching at the IslandWood School Overnight Program I decided to give my students a feeling of place on Bainbridge Island in both in location and in time. We went through a lesson called “Histories Mysteries,” which places students at IslandWood and poses the question, “What happened here on Bainbridge Island before our field group got here?” We traveled up and down the IslandWood campus, visiting a relief map of the area, the harbor where an old mill boomed during the early 1900’s logging era, and a cemetery where generations of Islanders are interred.

We specifically took interest in the idea of the multiple histories that call the island home; we examined those of the Suquamish tribe who inhabit the land, the multitude of immigrant groups who made their home near the mill, the Japanese-American farmers who lovingly tended the land until their Internment, those who stewarded the land until their return and still today. After our initial day of trekking through history, we came back and watched a video of what the Island’s population looked like and how it has changed over the last hundred years.

The next day we visited the IslandWood garden and participated in a Soil to Snack lesson in which Chef Garreth from the IslandWood kitchen led the group in creating a meal to share. In the spirit of celebrating the history of Bainbridge Island we decided to make veggie sushi, sourced almost entirely from garden vegetables and herbs. Students cooked rice, chopped vegetables, handcrafted wasabi with horseradish grown in the garden, rolled their sushi out on their own and washed the meal down with IslandWood grown herbal tea. As we sat down to our meal, I asked the students to share the significance of the meal. They were eager to share with our chef what it meant to eat sushi on this land. Several students connected the fact that Japanese Americans tended this land until their forcible removal in 1942 and upon their return in 1945.

I aimed to incorporate culturally responsive teaching methods into this activity by having students investigate the people that call Bainbridge Island home, the history of their relationships with the land, and partake in appreciating a recipe from just one of those many cultures. The sharing of stories of our own favorite meals from our communities added yet another layer of responsiveness. I was pleased to learn that many of my students had never eaten sushi, much less made it with their own hands.

From Seed to Cookie

            Even a familiar delicacy can be made with adventurous ingredients, making it an entirely new experience. My second week of teaching at IslandWood’s SOP I decided to introduce producers and consumers in a unique way. First, we started sorting quinoa grown in the garden, separating seed from hull. This provided a tactile activity for students to absorb themselves in. During the activity, we discussed the origins of the quinoa plant; it grows high in the Andes mountains, has huge cultural significance for many indigenous people in the area, and is often called the “mother of all grains.” Afterward, we ate a chocolate chip cookie made with the beloved grain.

As students enjoyed their cookies, we brainstormed what ingredients went into making them. Students shared experiences of making cookies with family members, and they certainly came in with plenty to share. I was so impressed as my students rattled off all of the different ways they had made cookies in the past. I aimed to engage in culturally responsive teaching methods by sharing the story of quinoa’s importance to Andean culture and asking students to share stories of their own cookie making. This quarter one of my goals has been to consider students lived experiences when using a tool some would think of as a “common” recipe, like a cookie. Students were able to share variations of recipes that were particular to their families and cultures. We listed ingredients on a whiteboard, and when we felt satisfied that we had all of our them down, we divided ingredients into categories that the students designed. One category was plants and the other animal. We talked about where the ingredients come from, how they grow and how they are eaten by creatures to make a new product. We decided that many of our ingredients like the quinoa, sugar and vanilla came from plants. Eggs, milk and butter came from animals that had to eat plants to get their energy; they couldn’t make any of their own. This nicely scaffolded the idea of producers and consumers, and how energy comes initially from the sun and is translated into usable form for life by plants. Students left with an understanding of the beginnings of the cookies they were eating, and of the food they will encounter in the future.


Students Deserve Healthy Food

Students who visit IslandWood may not have the opportunity to try new foods often. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, “23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their home.”(Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). A similar study done in multiple states found that low-income census tracts had half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts, and another found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. (Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). By design, IslandWood attracts quite a diverse set of students, and while some certainly have access to supermarkets within walking distance of home, many do not. These areas in which no accessible grocery store is available are called “food deserts.” According to Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, because access is limited, residents of food deserts may rely more heavily on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. In general, these convenient places to get a quick meal don’t offer the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains and lean meats that make up a balanced diet. (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.). Students may not be presented with options in their everyday lives, but we can use our resources here at IslandWood to expose them to the idea of choice when it comes to food. When we show them that apples are delicious right off the tree, that flowers can be edible, and that sushi isn’t just something that people eat in movies we give students agency to make those choices when the circumstance arises.

“A 2017 evaluation of FoodCorps conducted by the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University found that in schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning, students eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden.” (Shafer, 2018). Dinner at IslandWood is always vegetarian; meals are packed full of greens, whole grains and plant-based proteins. Not all of the ingredients come from the garden here at IslandWood, but many are sourced from local farms. Again the idea of recency prevails. As researched by the Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy – when students have an opportunity to see where food is grown and understand the energy transfer through the sun to their bodies they are more likely to try new foods when presented with them. (Shafer, 2018).

Brain Food

The effect of adding a new food to a student’s repertoire may foster neural plasticity, or the ability to create new connections between neurons in the brain. These new connections are useful to all types of learning, not just about food and not just environmental education. In a study conducted by London’s Global University, participants were asked to study and recall both new and old information. Subjects were far more capable of recalling new information than the old, which was a surprise to researchers. The study concludes with a quote from Dr. Düzel, “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards… For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.” (“Novelty aids learning,” 2006). This research begs implementation with new foods. If students are exposed to new foods, their brains are quite literally open to new possibilities; we can not only use these new neural connections to show them that foods can be exciting, but to incorporate other concepts of science.

Taking Adventure Home

Students may not be presented with many opportunities to choose their own foods. In a world where many students eat two to three meals at school each day, the idea of food choice may not be a reality. I would argue that situations such as this are the best time in which to incorporate adventurous eating like we do at IslandWood. Students who have tasted the variety of produce available here at IslandWood leave our campus feeling empowered to try new things, and to advocate for their incorporation into their everyday school meals. Trying these new foods can trigger our learner’s brains to be more receptive to new ideas and use those same adventure muscles as climbing the canopy tower or crossing the suspension bridge.


Caroline is a graduate student at the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood in partnership with the University of Washington. All photographs were taken by the author.





Bargo, Caroline. (photograph). (2018). IslandWood. Bainbridge Island, WA.

Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. (2017). FoodCorps: Creating Healthy School Environments: Evaluation January 2015 to December 2016. New York, New York. Retrieved from

London’s Global University. (2006, August 2). Novelty Aids Learning. Retrieved from

Shafer, L. (2018, July 31). Let It Grow. Usable Knowledge. Retrieved from

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Food Desert Statistics. Retrieved from

Treuhaft, S. & Karpyn, A. PolicyLink & The Food Trust. (2010). The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters. Retrieved from


Teach a School to Garden…

Teach a School to Garden…

Mulch-mountain-300x169Teach a School to Garden…

by Brandi Mendenall
Central High School
Springfield, Missouri

As I watched the dump truck unload what would be the first of three loads of the highest quality compost our small school club could afford, I could not help but wonder if we really understood the scale of the project we were about to launch. Three years ago, my colleague Paul and I had a common goal, to bring an educational and productive garden to our urban school community. We had both maintained small gardens at our homes, but neither had attempted anything of this magnitude. Our school environmental club was comprised of a small group of regular attendees, and we invited everyone, staff, students, and parents, to assist us with the setup of the garden. The volunteer turnout was promising and we got a great start that first day. By the time the day wrapped, the dirt was poured, scattered, and held in place by a natural stone border.   I recall standing over the garden and visualizing its future, my prior reservations were quickly subsiding. We began in the fall and worked tirelessly for months planning for the upcoming spring planting season. The state of Missouri is home to countless beautiful native shrubs and flowers; keeping with the natural landscape while also harvesting produce was the ultimate goal.   We were devoted to using heirloom seeds, which we were able to purchase nearby at a popular seed company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They offered us a great variety, both native and global, and were always available to answer our questions.

We utilized our small school greenhouse to get the seedlings for our new garden started. It did not take long to discover some significant issues with the greenhouse; the most substantial concern involved one of the most crucial aspects to growing plants, watering. The drain on the greenhouse floor is at a higher elevation than the rest of the floor; the watering system that many people spent hours putting together was unable to be utilized without flooding the room.   In response to what we viewed as a disaster, our students created a watering schedule and took turns taking care of the seedlings while they developed and grew.

We had more success growing than we anticipated, being our first time growing this many plants, we were unsure what to expect. Our plants flourished, we had enough to fill our garden as well as make money for the club by selling the extra plants. Before the school year wrapped we were able to get the plants into the garden with the help of our many volunteers, which once again included students, staff, and parents.   We found that growing and planting was a great way for our students to form relationships with their peers, and we were anxious to pursue getting more community involvement.

Our first garden was a success, so much so that we began expanding. We now have four garden spaces that we are working on developing, and have plans for more in the near future.   We are starting a new club at our school this year with a sole focus on gardening and environmental sustainability education. One of our garden spaces includes six large squares embedded along a well traveled sidewalk that we assume at one time had life, when we took over they were filled with dead grass, weeds, rocks, and dirt. We asked various clubs and groups at our school to “adopt” a square and make it beautiful again. This project is still a work in progress, but all the squares have been adopted and renovations have begun. By next summer we foresee a new look to the area. We are excited to have such a variety of people helping with our gardens; our secretaries have even adopted a space.

We have had kinks along the way, finances are always an issue, but we have received generous donations of plants from a local business to help fill our gardens. Keeping the gardens watered throughout the summer when schedules are busy has been another challenge, but we have managed and this year we were able to make significant improvements to our outdoor watering system with more hoses and supplies. It has been a learning experience for everyone involved; we have many dreams and goals for our garden venture and plan to get many more people involved in the process.


“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to garden and the whole neighborhood gets tomatoes, and squash, and cucumbers….”-unknown


It is our intention to eventually teach the entire neighborhood to garden, the possibilities are endless. I encourage anyone with the dream of starting a garden project in their school to get it started today; it has been an amazing addition to our school, not only for the beatification of the campus but for the social climate of the school community as well.


-Brandi Mendenall is a science teacher at Central High School in Springfield, Missouri.

Why Garden in School? (Part 4)

Why Garden in School? (Part 4)

GardenCan 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.

See previous posts:
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden
Part III: Mesopotamia and the Garden


Part IV: The Future in the Garden

This last essay section, focusing on cosmology, or how we view ourselves in the cosmos, is necessarily more speculative than the preceding three sections, which focused on science and history. I am leaning here now toward pedagogy, poetry, art, gardening, and religion, as this time in history, with its interwoven issues of hunger, global warming, desertification, and biodiversity loss, all cry out for new, less destructive operating instructions for our time on planet Earth. In order to save our species on this planet this century, our cosmology needs to shift in four crucial ways.

The first paradigm shift has to do with how we view human history. We need to begin to view human history as a history of land and water use. The story of any empire and civilization is the story of how it treats its dirt, water, and air. When empires collapse, as Jared Diamond shows in his book by the same name, and as Ponting illustrates in Green History of the World, it is because the people cut down their trees, overgraze their livestock, overplant monocrops, intensify irrigation, overfish their waters, allow erosion to strip the topsoil, and invite salinization. “There have been from ten to thirty civilizations,” E.F. Schumacher (1973) writes, “that have followed this road to ruin” (p. 109). Diamond might put this number higher, but the fact remains that modern environmental historians—historians that read history as the story of human interaction with the land, water, and air—all find that Mesopotamia is the first and most obvious case study for road to ruin, which is another reason why we teach it. Switching our study of history to a greener lens will foreground the environment that supports or slays us.

The second cosmological shift that needs to occur is to move from a human vs. nature cosmology to human as nature cosmology. The way we explain it to our students is that we need to move from the ancient mythologies of Mesopotamia to something akin to the futuristic story of the blue people presented in James Cameron’s movie Avatar (2009). The stories we tell our young are the lenses with which they see, which therefore determine their focus and what they can see. Think of Finding Nemo (2003), Happy Feet (2006), Wall-E (2008), Ferngully (1992), Free Willy (1993), Princess Mononoke (1997), and The Lorax (2012). These movies and more like them are attempting to reset for children the notion that we are not just in nature, but that without nature we will perish, since nature is in us.

On the other hand, J. Donald Hughes and others have commented that the Old Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish (Dalley, 1998), the oral creation story told contemporaneously with Gilgamesh, provides backstory for Gilgamesh and the later narratives of Genesis and Deucalion. These early Mesopotamian tales establish the people vs. nature conflict. J. Donald Hughes writes that “the motif of human struggle against hostile nature is prominent in the mythologies of Mesopotamia, where the first cities arose. . . . In Enuma Elish the world is shown to be the result of a battle between Tiamat, the female monster of chaotic nature, and Marduk, the male champion of the new order of the gods” (2001, p. 34). Marduk slays Tiamat, and, with violent imagery, is said to split her body in two, to create the sky above and the sea on earth below. He then banishes the wild creatures, identifying them as food and enemies of humans. Next he builds Esharra, a city of straight roads and glittering palaces, in the sky, home of the gods. The stories that the Mesopotamians told themselves are instructive for us today, as we have inherited the narrative legacy, perhaps most notably from Genesis and the later Greek myths, all of which borrowed from the earlier stories of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish; more importantly, however, we have inherited a false and harmful cosmology that boasts of one patriarchal male hero after another triumphing over nature, which is an enemy, and, not coincidentally, symbolically figured as female.

We need to move away from a relationship with Earth that advocates patriarchal control of nature—which is seen, dichotomously, on the one hand, as either chaotic and savage, or, on the other, as mechanistic and impersonal—for extraction of resources benefitting humans alone. Regardless of emphasis, both present a false human vs. nature model.

The false paradigm of savage nature to be dominated, Elaine Pagels argues in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), is enshrined for many by the millennia of aforementioned stories in the Middle East, culminating, perhaps, with Genesis 1: 28-29, where God tells Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. . . . I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth; and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Holy Bible, p. 1). This hierarchical paradigm of humans reigning over and above mysterious, tumultuous nature held sway until the Copernican revolution dislodged it in the 1500s and early 1600s, when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo proved that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa. The heliocentric solar system decentered earth from primacy in the cosmos and therefore also called into question the notion from Genesis that humanity was ever given this planet by a god 3000 years earlier, when Genesis was written. If the earth wasn’t fixed in the center of the cosmos and the heavens set for eternity, as centuries of priests and other teachers had taught, then a new narrative was needed, which modern science provided.

I here point out to my students that although the European conception of nature may have shifted historically after the Copernican revolution from nature-as-enigmatic-beast-that-needs-shepherding-by-humans to nature-as-clock, the conception of humans as standing apart from and above nature persisted across that divide nonetheless. Still, it is also important to note, I also tell my students, that the Copernican revolution by in large ushered out the kinship that humans had also experienced for centuries between themselves and the rest of creation. Whereas prior to the 1600s people could align themselves imaginatively with other flora and fauna under the banner of creatures created by a divine Creator, after the 1600s, that trope was seriously called into question by irrefutable scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric heavens that flatly contradicted over a thousand years of inherited cosmology. The church’s authority as intellectually authoritative was challenged, especially after Pope Paul V ordered Galileo in 1616 not to support the most compelling scientific discovery of his day, the heliocentric truth. If the pope as leader of the church could not accept math and science, many felt for the first time, then perhaps it was best to leave his teachings behind.

The truth won out, of course, despite the papal muzzle. That victory was also seen by many as Pyrrhic, though, for the cosmos became, in effect, desecrated, mathematical, and mechanistic, held together mysteriously by forces such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s laws of motion, none of which were mentioned in scripture. The common cosmology, Merchant (1989) notes, “thus reordered the world in terms of a new metaphor, the machine. The cosmos was operated from the outside by God” (209). Science and industry joined ranks during the 1700s in an effort to not only understand the predictable regularity of this earthly machine but to create its own machines to mine from the earth the metals, minerals, textiles, timber, and food that humans needed. The divine receded back behind the clouds, and the scientists, merchants, and inventors became the new interpreters of material reality.

Still, it wasn’t as though science had all the answers, either. Poverty and disease predominated during the build up to the Renaissance. People couldn’t eat mathematical theorems or astronomical theories, and they labored through their relatively short lives with their families, finding, as people do, what happiness, hope, and sense of belonging they could. A vacuum, in any case, had been created during the critical centuries of the 1500s and 1600s, and into it rushed our modern worldview, which unfortunately perpetuated the human vs. nature false contrast.

Theodore Roszak (1969, p. 205-238), Richard Tarnas (1991, p. 395-310; 2006, p. 26-36), and Morris Berman (1984, p. 13-35) all chronicle the development of the second false human vs. nature narrative provided by science—viewing nature and the cosmos as mechanistic and impersonal—by tracing what Roszak calls the myth of objective consciousness, what Tarnas names the modern mind, and what Berman terms modern scientific consciousness. All three are writing about our current cosmology, which has been empirical and scientific for four hundred years, since Bacon and Descartes wrote in the 1600s.

Tarnas borrows Max Weber’s phrase to say that the modern mind sees the cosmos as “disenchanted” (2006, p. 20), or empty of cosmic meaning, because humans assume that there exists a foundational divide between an internal subjective self and an external objective world. Nature, whether one conceives of it as threatening or mechanical, is simply “out there,” the place we go camping, and it is propelled by either chance or savage necessity. Things happen in nature for outrageous reasons, for no reasons at all, or because they had to happen that way. Nature lacks intelligence and interiority in this paradigm; it is also blind and deaf to human perception, desire, and hope because it is unfeeling, unresponsive. It cannot be said to harbor meaning at all, actually; meaning is something human beings attach to nature—indeed, to all of life. This disenchantment leads to an inevitable conclusion for humans that we are alone in an impersonal, purposeless cosmos scrubbed free of the sacred. “The soul of the world has been extinguished,” Tarnas writes. “Ancient trees and forests can then be seen as nothing but potential lumber; mountains nothing but mineral deposits; seashores and deserts are oil reserves; lakes and rivers, engineering tools. Animals are perceived as harvestable commodities, indigenous tribes as obstructing relics” (2006, p. 32).

Roszak (1969) contends that even though we should, “we don’t trust to the way of the world. We have learned. . . from the objective mode of consciousness . . . to think of the earth as a pit of snares and sorrows. Nature is that which must be taken unsentimentally in hand and made livable by feverish effort, ideally by replacing more and more of it with man-made substitutes” (249-250). People in modern times have become progressively more detached from the sources of their food, clothes, water, and shelter. We have also, as a byproduct of urban modernity and settling in cities, lost the sense of magic and wonder that came effortlessly to indigenous peoples living in close proximity to the land. Modern urbanites no longer bless the source of our survival; we teach our children, in fact, to avoid pastures, rivers, and forests and to think of them as dirty and uncultured, and, in an odd sort of illogic, as both unsafe and boring.

Berman also argues that the ecological problems that human have induced in the last 400 years have their roots in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the view of nature that had been commonplace for 99% of human history slowly shifted, over the course of one hundred years, to one that removed humans from nature and turned nature, conceptually, into either a wrist watch or a set of resources to extract. “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging.” The story of modern humanity for the last several hundred years is “one of progressive disenchantment. From the sixteenth century on, mind has been progressively expunged from the phenomenal world. . . . That mode can best be described as disenchanted, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with nature, but rather total separation from it” (1984, p. 2-3). Once people were removed from their ancestral homes, they felt no compunction to protect those homes, and the drilling, mining, and deforestation began on an industrial, international scale.

Writing not about philosophers or scientists, but about children today, Richard Louv (2008) likewise argues that children are alienated from the centers of their own being, in a syndrome he names “nature deficit disorder” (p. 10). Children fifty years ago used to spend much more time outside playing, hiking, riding bikes, climbing tress, playing ball games, skating, swimming, chasing each other. They felt more at home in nature—not as comfortable as children prior to the Scientific Revolution, perhaps, but more comfortable than children today. Because children spend more of their time today sedentary, inside, staring at electronically humming screens, Louv shows that attention disorders, anxiety, obesity, and depression have all risen to all-time highs.

The way out of this soulless, deadened boredom is to not only go outside into nature but to realize that we are nature, inextricably entwined with the whole. Roszak points out that “scientific consciousness depreciates our capacity for wonder by progressively estranging us from the magic of the environment” (1969, p. 252). To take back our inborn wonder, he suggests looking to poets and other visionaries such as Blake, Tolstoy, or Dante (p. 237) who utilize what he calls “magical vision” to see “the beauty of the deeply sensed, sacramental presence” in nature (252-253). The presence that is seen by the adoring eyes of the visionary awes the visionary, as she sees power and grace not only above, below, and around humanity, but permeating the insides of people as well.

This cosmological shift allows one to see that we are manifestations of the natural through which nature expresses itself. We are embodied creatures with the capacities to taste and delight in plucking the summer’s first ripe raspberries, listen in wonder to Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1985), or witness with growing anticipation and then awed gratitude the birth of a child. Nature has given us the senses to invite and embrace the sensual world. There can be no shame in being animal or embodied in this new worldview. Vandana Shiva (2008), in her inimitable way, reminds us that, in any case, there is no post-food society (p. 38); in other words, we cannot, nor can any other animal, transcend our animal-body’s requirements for food, water, and breath, much as we might want to do so. When we look at what we must have in order to survive, we realize we are nature. That we have taught children otherwise since Shakespeare’s time is a great injustice.

I present this new world view, of humans as nature, to my students in many texts, including the poetry of Mary Oliver (2004; 2005), Walt Whitman (2011), and William Wordsworth (1982), who, in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” presented a vision of this re-enchanted world:

“. . . For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man” (p. 92).

Humans are nature and nature is human for Wordsworth, and we too need to accept this second cosmological shift in order to cease the plundering of the planet.
This human-as-nature pronouncement is not some naïve noble savage daydream, but science, actually. Our sixth graders study for a time the eukaryotes, or cells with nuclei, and their myriad organelles—mitochondria, Golgi apparatus, and the like. They note that these eukaryotes have assembled themselves over billions of years into an unfathomable array of life expressions on this planet—foxglove, foxes, pollywogs, and humans—all seemingly distinct, yet all, science shows us, incredibly similar at a cellular level. We’ve heard Jane Goodall (2010 a; 2010 b) telling us about the similarity between primates and humans for decades, but most of us simply enjoy the new Disney movie Chimpanzee (Fothergill, 2012) without cosmological shift. Until we recognize the other flora and fauna of the world as siblings, the possibility of planetary ransacking will continue. The science of the 21st century will help us, though, for “to distinguish between human cells and those of newts, seals, or coyotes, one has to descend to the molecular level of the cell to find the odd dissimilarity” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171). This essential, foundational fact alters the hierarchical relationship established by the Enuma Elish and Genesis (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #1), or by Francis Bacon’s Essays (1986) and William Harvey’s On Motion and Blood in Animals (1993) (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #2). Humans are not separate from some external nature out there; rather, “we are nature, a realization that stopped Emerson dead in his tracks in Paris, and may it stop us in ours. We live in community, not alone, and any sense of separateness that we harbor is illusion. Humans are animals, albeit extraordinary ones, and have not special immunity conferred upon them” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171), ancient religious narratives notwithstanding.

The third cosmological shift is a move to rescue from the past our rootedness to Earth, the health of our own bodies, and our interconnection to one another. Berman says, in a memorable turn of phrase, that we have to “go backward in order to go forward . . . to recover our future” (p. 282). The shift, Tarnas says, is through an embrace of what he calls the “primal world view” (2006, p. 16-17), which has survived from Gobekli Tepe to present day in indigenous cultures, intelligent biodiverse farming communities, animism, paganism, art, pantheism, poetry, and mystical branches of the major faith traditions. The primal mind sees nature as being infused with the divine, as the sacred immanent in this creation rather than distantly hovering above it. The words of poets, saints, and visionaries are presented frequently toward the end of this unit in order to orient the students to this third cosmological shift; the work of the Romantic poets, the Transcendentalists, Rumi (Barks, 1997), and, perhaps the paradigmatic primal poet, Mary Oliver, all are featured. We focus, in particular, on three of Oliver’s poems, giving them all close readings: “Peonies” (2004, p. 21-22), “Mindful” (2005, p. 90-91), and “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” (2005, p. 104-105). All three poems urge the readers to search for eternity in this hour right now and to look for the infinite in the grains of sand before us.

In this way, we try to rediscover that spirits and messages are seen all throughout creation, in the flow of the holy Ganges river, to the sacred Mt. Saint Helens’ volcanic eruption, in the epic travels of humpback whales and great soaring speeds of the peregrine falcon, to the desperate attacks of polar bears whose homes and food are being lost to polar ice cap melt. “The primal world is ensouled,” Tarnas explains (2006, p. 16). Not only does the world, as viewed with the primal mindset, send us messages (think New Orleans flooding), it also permeates our unconscious world as expressed in our dreams, poetry, painting, music, and prayers.
We experience this Great Spirit flowing through all things on a daily basis, I tell my students; we just have to be quiet and listen to the whisper within. There is a river of words, I tell them as we sit down to write poetry, flowing always through our minds, originating at the start of the creation of the universe, fed by tributaries of ancestral memories from cultures around the world. I share with my students the William Carlos Williams (1963) lines from Paterson:
“The past above, the future below
and the present pouring down: the roar,
the roar of the present, a speech—
is, of necessity, my sole concern.
. . . I cannot stay here
to spend my life looking into the past:
the future’s no answer. I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself
comb out the language—or succumb” (p. 144-145).

Our job as poets and unique expressions of the cosmos, as Williams says, is to decipher and articulate how the universe wants to express Itself through us. This is obviously tricky terrain to navigate with eleven and twelve year-olds, as it plunges pretty quickly into the tangled thickets of mystical religious concepts, Jungian depth psychology, neo-Kantian philosophy, Romantic poetry, guided visualization exercises, and meditation activities—not your easily articulated average daily sixth grade curriculum. It simply feels a little too groovy for about half of them. We therefore try to ground the concepts of interconnection and primal mind in the garden and in images of nature.

To warm them up, my history teacher partner shows them the stunningly beautiful online TED talk on Gratitude by time-lapse photographer Louis Schwartzberg (2011). His beautiful images of flowers, butterflies, old growth forests and the rest are accompanied by voice-over sage insights that illuminate our connection to the world and to each other. It is clear to Schwarzberg that we all—young and old humans, butterflies, sunsets, flowers—live, move, and have our being in the same anima mundi. The soul of the world, he shows, is in us, around us, and binding us together.

One of my jobs as a teacher is to enliven that connection with nature within and without the child so that we ache to preserve it and therefore our chance at survival. I try to show that balanced relationships pervade, indeed define, naturally occurring ecosystems and gardens that are intelligently designed with permaculture principles. We try to dispel centuries of fear of dirt and insect. No topsoil, no life, we tell students, and No honeybees, very boring food. We teach that “not only are bugs, birds, mammals, and microbes essential partners in every kind of garden, but with clever design, they can work with us to minimize our labor and maximize the beauty, health, and productivity of our landscapes” (Hemenway, 2009, p. 9). We teach them about life cycles, collecting seeds, planting and transplanting from the greenhouse, companion planting, pollination, mulching, rain gardens, bioswales, native plant diversity, harvesting, cooking, eating, flower bouquet arrangement, good table manners, composting back into the garden, and the symbiotic relationships that pervade the cosmos. I am trying to reveal that “primal experience takes place, as it were, within a world soul, an anima mundi, a living matrix of embodied meaning” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17). Reconnecting to the first civilization in ancient Iraq, with their reading, writing, gardening, food preparation, and eating, our students embody the oldest desires of civilized humans striving for community. The world soul speaks to us out of the past, from the primal, as we harvest, thresh, winnow, and grind wheat in our garden, then enjoy the baked pita from our cob oven during our Mesopotamian Feast Day. On days like this outside, “human beings perceive themselves as directly—emotionally, mystically, consequentially—participating in and communicating with the life of the natural world and cosmos” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17).

Roszak, Tarnas, and Berman are all careful, though, to point out that we cannot, given our postmodern urbanity and the advanced ecological destruction of our planet, totally embrace the primal of the distant past. It is too late for that. “Here, then, is the crux of the modern dilemma,” Berman writes. “We cannot go back to alchemy or animism. . . ; but the alternative is the grim, scientistic (sic), totally controlled world of nuclear reactors, microprocessors, and genetic engineering. . . . Some type of holistic, or participating, consciousness and a corresponding sociopolitical formation have to emerge if we are to survive as a species” (p. 10). Roszak agrees that native, indigenous cultures may serve as models for us moderns, but we cannot copy them and hope to arrive at functional, sustainable worldviews dredged from museums or holy books. Instead, we need to cultivate—with one eye on social justice and one eye on environmental conservation—a new capacity to communion with the sacramental presence of the cosmos, which is just as present today as It was on any day of existence (264-268).

As a sixth grade teacher, I believe that the way forward that allows space for participating consciousness to co-evolve with new sociopolitical formations is already occurring, as Hawken points out in Blessed Unrest—and indeed, this dynamism has been a subtext to humanity’s evolution all along; we have never been without it, actually. Still, to expand that dynamism to a worldwide stage requires the fourth and final cosmological shift.

The last cosmological shift is a move to embrace all peoples, the world over, as part of the same human family in what Jeremy Rifkin calls a global “empathic civilization” or what Berman calls a “planetary culture” (p. 277). At first blush, after accepting our kinship with whales and fungi in the second and third cosmological shifts, this would seem an easier row to hoe. Still, I ask my students, do we really have that much in common with Neolithic people or people on the other side of the planet today?
Answering this question in the affirmative, I first show my students that our brains are connected to the brains of every other person on the planet. We are softwired for empathy, to feel instinctually what others feel. I show my students a NOVA (2005) video on mirror neurons, extrapolating that our inbred ability to involuntarily, unconsciously know and respond to the feelings of others is nature connecting to Itself through us. When I see joy or misery on the face of another, I instinctually feel the same way myself. Nature has programmed us this way so that our species might survive communally. Testing this notion, I then ask my students, Isn’t evolution about competition rather than cooperation?

I then share some of Martin Nowak’s (2012) research, which shows that “cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning” (p. 38). Nowak, as director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, utilizes mathematics and game theory to better understand the unconscious driving forces of evolutionary biology. He has found that the traditional pseudo-Darwinian understanding of human evolution—that nature is in constant bloody struggle with only the strongest surviving and propagating—is simply incorrect. Instead, he identifies and details five mechanisms that allow cooperative communities to flourish and survive over time. Perhaps the most surprising of his discoveries is that humans decide to help strangers based upon that stranger’s reputation as someone who has helped another person. We scratch the backs of those who have scratched those of others. Driving this unconscious human impulse, Nowak speculates, is the feeling that if we help a stranger in a time of need, others will see and will help us when we fall into need ourselves. Certainly we see this type of group bonding in other groups of mammals, but what makes humans the most helpful species to each other is our language, which allows us to extend our stories of empathy and compassion and thus our social networks around the world. We do, in fact, relate to Neolithic people and to our contemporaries in Bhutan, for example. This ability to see ourselves in others and reach out to help them is not only vital to the survival of individual cultures, civilizations, and empires; our storytelling and providing goodwill to strangers is also “central to our adaptability as a species. As the human population and the climate changes, we will need to harness that adaptability and figure out ways to work together to save the planet and its inhabitants” (38-39).

This fourth shift is not simply mental, therefore, but one enacted with a change in daily material living conditions. We speculate with our students that in order to survive the interwoven ecological challenges of this century, human beings may have to create a matrix of semi-autonomous nearly self-sufficient communities of around 500 people each that are socially, economically, and environmentally just—that, indeed, as Hawken reminds us, these three nodes of justice all fail if one fails. What will these communities look like?

Berman’s future “planetary culture” would have extended family living together, the young, middle aged, and elderly in the same houses, on the same land, emphasizing community rather than individuality and competition (p. 277). An irony here, of course, is that, recognizing the empty promises of globalization to achieve global justice, Berman advocates the local and autonomous as a global solution, echoing the bumper sticker Live Simply So That Other May Simply Live. Jan Martin Bang (2005) has written and taken photographs of twenty such “ecovillages” in his book by the same title. Such deliberately small-scale living arrangements, Bang reveals, have always existed, since Mesopotamia, and they are making a comeback, given how fossil fuel dependent globalization has imperiled life on Earth. A growing number of people are hungry to live self-sufficient lives in groups on organically farmed land, where the community shares chores, property, birth, death, childcare, birthdays, and bounty.

Thom Hartmann (2004) calls these communities “intentional communities,” and he argues that the most successful communities are the ones “with a shared vision that is put into action” (p. 316). He is not talking about the failed religious experiments of millennialism, the back-to-the-land communes of most people in the 1960s, or the armed, politically extreme militias movements. Hartmann clarifies that the “primary key to successful, long-term community is that the group of people are interdependent for their survival or livelihood” (319). The communities with the most successfully employed fourth cosmological shift are the ones that meet “vital social and spiritual needs as well as providing for the life-support needs (food, shelter, and sometimes employment) of their members” (320). Sometimes the community works together, sometimes lives together, and sometimes lives and works apart; however, in all cases, the community works to provide goods, services, emotional support, and friendship to each other.

On a larger, societal level, Berman would have an embrace of diversity, whether this applies to biodiversity and protection of endangered species, or to marginalized cultures and dying human languages. The larger societal cosmology would “be preoccupied with fitting into nature rather than attempting to master it” (Berman, 1984, p. 278). The goals would include clean air, water, and soil. Politically, we would decentralize and move to smaller institutions of regional, autonomous, and local control. Community hospitals, food cooperatives, neighborhood associations, community centers, strong neighborhood schools, and community gardens and farms would proliferate. The paradigm shift in cosmology would be marked by intense study of and adherence to the manifold principles advocated by feminism, ecology, cultural diversity, and spiritual renewal.

Rifkin’s model for a future global civilization starts somewhere in Berman’s neighborhood, then quickly expands to promote the adoption of what he calls “biosphere consciousness” (p. 475) via Internet connections. People used to empathize with their family members and nomadic tribes before the founding of Mesopotamia. With the founding of cities, however, in Sumeria, and the specialization of labor, followed by the influx of new ideas brought in by trade, people’s empathy expanded to include others in their own cities, as they began to think of themselves of citizens of Uruk, for example. The pains and pleasures of their fellow citizens became the province of each individual in the first cities, as she could easily imagine herself in the place of another in like social caste. Later, after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, which catapulted European literacy and allowed people to take in the news from other worlds that started being spread by the great seafaring colonizing countries of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England, people’s empathy were enlarged once again to include the stories of peoples in foreign lands. Later, during the Industrial Revolution and the advent of nation-states following the convulsions of revolutions against monarchies, Europeans began thinking of themselves as Spaniards, Poles, and the like.

Today, Rifkin says, we stand at the gate of global consciousness, made possible by social networking technologies such as Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Videos such as Kony 2012 (Vandivort, 2012), for example, can go viral, and, as in the case of that particular film made in March of 2012, over 100 million people can be drawn to a social justice cause in less than a month. Rifkin embraces the promise of these electronic technologies as a means to help us learn about our fellow humans on earth and thereby deepen our empathy and connection to people whom at first glance might appear unlike ourselves. Nowak’s research, remember, supports Rifkin’s contentions, as human communities evolve biologically most successfully when they have information about other communities, their group’s reputation is shared in a social network, and they are able to assist other communities in need in a public, open forum with other communities observing (38-39).

We are coming full circle here, back to our first enduring understanding which stated that people at bottom have always had, in all times and places, similar desires: the desire for food, water, and safe lodging for their children. Rifkin adds to this the fact that our technological connectivity today enables a new, global ecological conviction, biosphere consciousness. This new cosmological paradigm, which is “the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race” (p. 593) gathers together people of all nations, ironically, under the banner of fighting for survival due to the complex threats posed by global warming, hunger, water scarcity, and the other predicaments detailed in sections one and two of this essay.

Rifkin wonders, though, along with the sixth grade teachers at Catlin Gabel—given the fact that climate change seems to be progressing just as quickly as technological innovations that allow the worldwide spread of this biosphere consciousness—if the technology will raise consciousness quickly enough to avoid the most heinous of global warming’s possible impacts.

Initial returns bring Rifkin qualified hope. He traces the explosion of biosphere consciousness to 1979, the year James Lovelock’s book Gaia was published. Earth, Lovelock proposed, was a self-regulating, evolving living organism that enables countless symbiotic relationships between species and geochemical processes to proceed within networks of interconnected ecosystems. When the organism’s biochemical balance and ecosystem stability is threatened by an activity, such as uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels by humans, the very lives of the species within the interconnected ecosystems within the larger organism are threatened. This new view of our planet provided one of the most significant cosmological shifts since the Scientific Revolution. Readers were brought to understand that nature did not reside in objects, but in relationships, that concerned scientists should not remain distantly objective, but should involve themselves to participate within nature toward its conservation. Lovelock’s vision of science, says Rifkin, “takes us from a colonial vision of nature as an enemy to pillage and enslave, to a new vision of nature as a community to nurture” (p. 600).

Rifkin identifies not only the Internet as an agent of positive change to spread the word about the community of nature; he also points to the American classroom as a place where the most synergistic alliances are being forged between biosphere awareness and empathic development. “Children are becoming aware that everything they do—the very way they live—affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we cohabit” (Rifkin, 2009, p. 601). In the 6th grade, to this end, we ask the students to do energy, food, and water audits of their lives for one week, then we discuss solutions for not only reducing waste and carbon footprints, but we also explore solutions, as a group, for making sure other people on the planet and our fellow creatures get the food and water and habitat security that they need as well. We also take weeks reading nonfiction excerpts related to gardening and walking through the nine reasons why we garden using the problem-solution pattern explained in section two of this essay. Students finish the unit feeling that their daily choices, especially around food and water, really do change the world, both within their own bodies and in their communities.

The final cosmological shift wends its way here, then, to this final convergence: my sixth grade colleagues and I teach garden in school so that our students can create a new narrative to pass along to their great grandchildren about a day long in the past when school became a place for the following: to identify empathically with all living people, in order to ensure that the basic needs of all, regardless of age, sex, ethnic background, or geographical location, are being met; to affirm the deep interdependence between the land, water, climate, and living creatures of this world in order to halt further ecological devastation; to create carbon-neutral communities that are environmentally, socially, and economically just around the world; and, finally, to work collaboratively in a biodynamic, organic, zero-waste garden without topsoil or water loss to produce healthy, abundant food so that we might save ourselves and this world that we so love.


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Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens

Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens


Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens:

A Place-Based Approach to the Next Generation Science Standards

by Sybil S. Kelley and Dilafruz R. Williams; Portland State University

O2ur ecological and social problems are deeply interconnected. Climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, air and water pollution, along with innumerable other environmental problems, are increasingly related to issues of equity and social justice. Addressing these problems requires a citizenry that is both scientifically and ecologically literate, ensuring that all people are empowered with the understandings, dispositions, and skills to address the challenges of this modern world.

CLEARING readers are likely familiar with another crisis of our times, the idea of “Nature Deficit Disorder” that Richard Louv (2005) so poignantly described in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv and numerous other leaders of the No Child Left Inside initiative have done a remarkable job pointing out the parallel phenomena of increasing numbers of children with ADHD and loss of time spent in nature, particularly unstructured time to explore, engage in imaginative play, and utilize all the senses. Nonetheless, time that children spend in school has become more rigid, siloed by discipline (e.g. 90+ minute literacy blocks), and disconnected from students’ daily lives and lived experiences.

As a society, we place unrealistic demands on educators. Classroom teachers are continually expected to do more with less—less money, less support, less time—with increasing mandates and pressures of accountability, whether from No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. Informal educators provide a remarkable array of learning experiences, yet many teachers do not have the time or capacity to make use of these opportunities, particularly since in most cases, field trips have to be rigorously defended and justified in context of the school-day curriculum. However, since the early 1990s, the school garden movement has been working to mitigate traditional schooling taking place within the four walls of the classroom by bringing students outdoors on school grounds right where the schools are housed.

The adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by 26 states has the potential to transform teaching and learning in and out of schools. The focus of the NGSS is on 12 “big ideas” in science (the Disciplinary Core and Component Ideas, NRC, 2012), bringing these together into process oriented learning goals (learning performances) that bridge scientific content with the practices of science and engineering, and crosscutting concepts that span all the disciplines of science (e.g. patterns, cause and effect, and systems and system models). The NGSS raises the bar for science in schools, and will require that much more attention be paid to science starting in elementary school. To help in this process, the NGSS are integrated by design. First, science education has been integrated into STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), elevating the practices and content of engineering design to the level of scientific inquiry. Further, the NGSS provide connections and links to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), making them much more useful for developing integrated, project-based units of instruction. We believe that school gardens provide a rich milieu to put the NGSS into practice, making science relevant to the lives of students as they engage with their own place in meaningful ways across disciplines.


STEM and Sustainability Education: Sense of Place

As an individually and socially constructed phenomenon, relationship to place is complex and so is the creation and development of meaning, attachment, and identity based on this relationship. To know one’s place is prerequisite to knowing one’s self. According to several scholars, sense of place is recognized as a key component of sustainability and sustainability education. Wendell Berry (1990) tells us that if we do not know where we are, we cannot know who we are. David Orr (1992) explains that people with a sense of place become “inhabitants” who dwell deeply, steeped in connections. Similarly, David Sobel (2004) asserts that people tend to protect what they love and know; therefore the actual places where we live, work, and play, become an explicit part of sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability education takes a holistic, systemic view of the world, is place-based, experiential, and transformative. Effective, high-quality STEM teaching, which should include learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful to students’ lives, are active and interactive, and make use of observation and evidence to develop meaning and understanding (knowledge claims). STEM and sustainability education are complementary and should be brought together in mainstream education.

Not only do we need to weave STEM and sustainability education together, we need to elevate both more prominently in schools. Recent studies have illuminated statistically significant reductions in science instructional time in elementary classrooms (Blank, 2013). These findings are quite troubling considering the need for scientifically and ecologically literate graduates. If we wait until middle and high school to emphasize science, we have already lost a tremendous number of students, most typically students who are already marginalized in mainstream educational (and other) systems. Making use of learning gardens can provide a solution. Teaching and learning in gardens is a way to increase student engagement in learning, and also to support different learning styles, integrate various disciplines, and revitalize schools and neighborhoods.

Using “living soil” as a metaphor for re-envisioning education, Williams and Brown (2012) state,

Gardens present an appropriate life-enriching ecological practice that guides curriculum, teaching, and learning. In an era characterized by educational malaise and apathy and amidst a repetitive discourse of racing to the top, gardens offer an alternative and regenerative model for bringing schools to life that differs significantly from mechanistic techno-scientific reform efforts oriented toward economic globalization. (p. 22)

In other words, school gardens and the living soil within them can provide a place-based context for teachers and students to learn together, alongside other community members, including the non-human members, developing a sense of interconnectedness and understanding of our place in ecological systems.

Williams and Brown (2012) outline seven pedagogical principles that are foundational to garden-based education, and that shift learning from a dry, disconnected model to one that is active and alive. Learning gardens cultivate a sense of place, awaken the senses, and foster wonder and curiosity; further, through practical experience, learners observe rhythm and scale, develop understandings of interconnectedness, and value biocultural diversity. Much of schooling focuses on visual and auditory learning modalities. Learning gardens on the other hand provide multisensory, kinesthetic learning experiences for children (and adults). They provide accessible places to build connections to nature—allowing learners to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the wonders of nature. In our own teaching and working with teachers in low-income schools in particular, we have found the desperate need for this connection among adults and children alike.

As districts, schools, and individual classroom teachers work to implement the NGSS, innumerable, place-based opportunities exist to address national, state, and local goals within the context of learning gardens. Nonetheless, it will require leadership at many levels to reach the vision of the NGSS and the school garden movement. Principals need to see the value of garden-based education and embrace this type of teaching and learning by supporting and protecting their teachers. As professionals and leaders working directly with students, teachers will need support in developing relevant, place-based lessons that address the NGSS. Teachers must be integral players, bringing their expertise and experiences to the process.

In our summer professional development course entitled, Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens, classroom teachers, garden-based educators, and graduate students in the Leadership for Sustainability program work together to implement a place-based curriculum with elementary students in a summer garden program through SUN Schools (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods). In the afternoons, this diverse group of educators has the opportunity to grapple with the content and design of the NGSS, and to work collaboratively to develop integrated, standards-based instructional units that are contextualized in school learning gardens. For the NGSS to become a reality, teachers will need more professional learning experiences that empower them to put their expertise and knowledge of their students (their place) into the design and implementation of well-planned instructional units. NGSS and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) from which they were developed provide the structure and scaffolding for building curriculum, but efforts led by teachers and partners from higher education and the local community will provide the flesh and details for implementation.

In the following paragraphs, we will highlight some examples of what the NGSS in learning gardens can look like in practice. The first scenario provides an example of an engaging encounter that could open the door to numerous explorations, while the second is an actual lesson we have used in the summer garden program. Both highlight the rich learning opportunities that emerge and are literally just outside the classroom door.


Figure 1: An unexpected discovery of a Goldenrod Crab Spider feasting on an unsuspecting honey bee yielded immediate fascination and interest among students and teachers alike.

In science, teachers are often encouraged to use the “5E” instructional model (Bybee et al, 2006) that includes “Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate.” In the garden, all five E’s can be woven together, but “engage” and “explore” are particularly ripe. Last summer, a group of teacher candidates and youth ranging in age from four to twelve years old were thoroughly engaged and excited by this predator-prey discovery. For teachers, such wonders provide an anchor for numerous learning experiences.

For example, a Kindergarten teacher could help her students investigate the needs of different plants and animals in the garden. By gathering age-appropriate data (perhaps a simple table with a name and/or drawing of the organism and what the students observe each organism eating), students can develop an explanation of how different animals eat different (and in some cases the same) things. This would directly address the Kindergarten NGSS related to structures and processes in organisms, specifically the component concept about matter and energy flow in organisms (from NGSS (2013), K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive). First grade teachers and students could build on foundations laid in kindergarten by focusing on the structure and function of plants and animals, and how an organism’s structures help it survive and grow (1-LS1-1. Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs).

As another possible direction, this initial discovery could serve as the platform for introducing the 3rd grade standards related to heredity and biological evolution. By combining hands-on data collection in the garden with internet research, or perhaps inviting a local scientist/arachnologist to visit the class, students could compare the variations among this particular species of spider (e.g. some have red strips, others do not), as well as traits of other spider species. Using their data, they could construct an argument about why some species are more likely to survive in particular habitats over others (3-LS3-2. Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment; 3-LS4-2. Use evidence to construct an explanation for how the variations in characteristics among individuals of the same species may provide advantages in surviving, finding mates, and reproducing (NGSS, 2013)).

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

In each of these possible scenarios, there are also numerous interdisciplinary connections to reading and math expectations in the Common Core State Standards (CCCS) and to real world issues. For example, as third graders learned about the relationships between species and their specific habitats, they could also read a variety of texts describing the flora and fauna, as well as abiotic components, of different ecosystems. They could read and discuss the role of pollinators in ecosystems, and how pollinators are so crucial to our own food sources, particularly those in a specific location—i.e. for this place. As a culminating product, students could create a short video or poster that argues why sustainable agriculture practices are vital to food security and the planet as a whole.

The second example is one that we have experienced first-hand in the summer garden program connected with the Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens course—Is Soil Alive?—the driving question behind two days of soil explorations. The first day was spent collecting samples to test for soil composition. As students waited for the layers of sand, silt, and clay from various locations around the school yard to settle in their jars, they explored decomposers in the compost and worm bins, and those found in the garden. As a culminating activity (that could also serve as an assessment), students were given a worksheet that asked them to draw what they had observed above and below ground in the garden. The overarching question, “Is soil alive? Explain your thinking” guided students.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

This cluster of lessons provides several clear connections to the NGSS, particularly related to “Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems,” “Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems,” and “Biogeology” of Earth’s systems. But equally important, an open-ended question such as “Is the Soil Alive?” helps students and teachers grapple with the nature of science. In this particular example of viewing soil as an ecosystem, students were provided with a concrete example of some relatively abstract, complex ideas. It let them think and learn about systems, interconnections, cycles, and flows, laying a strong foundation for further exploration and learning in upper grades. Students had the opportunity to engage in logical reasoning and discourse, using empirical observations to support their claims. Some of the more complicated explanations of why the mineral portions of soil are non-living while the system as a whole can be considered alive, at the most basic level, were understandable to the elementary-age students. If teachers had given “the right answer” as is traditionally related to properties of living and non-living elements of soil, they would have discouraged students from thinking, imagining, inferring, and looking for evidence. Furthermore, a response that declared soil as not being alive because it is made up of sand, silt, and clay could have denied students a deeper exploration into the microbial ecology of soil and compost.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide

Recommendations/call to action:

School and community learning gardens provide rich, easily-accessible contexts for integrating STEM and sustainability education. Learning experiences that are multisensory, place-based, and interconnected come to life in the garden, making teaching and learning relevant and meaningful to students and teachers alike. The recent adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize application of knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and demonstration of proficiency through performance, present the educational community with a unique opportunity to make better use of such spaces for teaching and learning. To help move our community closer to this vision, we offer a few suggestions to help in this process:

  1. Think big, start small—meaningful change takes time. It is important to spend time envisioning and planning in the early stages so that your garden-based aspirations can be turned into reality.
  2. Whether you are new to outdoor, garden-based education or an experienced practitioner, it is important to set shared expectations and norms with your students. Too many children have not spent a lot of time outside in nature. Furthermore, when they have been outside during school hours, it is often recess, not learning time. It is important to be clear that even though students are outside the classroom, it is still time for learning.
  3. Related to number two, get outside regularly. As students become more familiar with the garden routines, they will be more comfortable and “on-task.” Consider learning outdoors to be equally essential as learning with technology. Nature time is as important as screen time.
  4. Share your successes (and challenges)—with colleagues, your principal, parents, and your students.
  5. Connect with other educators and resources. For instance, the following websites can provide even more links to others interested in learning gardens: Oregon School Garden Summit (, OSU Extension’s gardening program (, Learning Gardens Laboratory ( and many other local, regional, and statewide organizations.
  6. Most of all, have fun! Learning should be a fulfilling lifelong endeavor. That will only happen if it is fun, engaging, and meaningful. Learning gardens are the perfect mileau!

Photo Inspiration:

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day's activities with a small group of students.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day’s activities with a small group of students.


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About the authors:

Sybil S. Kelley, PhD,is Assistant Professor of Science Education and Sustainable Systems at Portland State University in the Leadership for Sustainability Education program. In addition, she teaches the Elementary Science Methods courses in the Graduate Teacher Education Program. Sybil has spent nearly 15 years working in formal and informal educational contexts. Her programming and research focuses on connecting K-12 students and educators in underserved schools and neighborhoods to authentic, project-based learning experiences that contribute to community problem solving. Taking a collaborative approach, Sybil supports teachers and community-based educators in aligning out-of-school learning experiences with state and local academic requirements. Her research focuses on investigating the impacts of these experiences on student engagement, thinking, and learning; and teacher self-efficacy, pedagogical content knowledge, and instructional practices. Prior to her work in education, Sybil worked as an environmental scientist and aquatic toxicologist. Correspondence can be sent to

Dilafruz R. Williams is Professor, Leadership for Sustainability Education program, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She is co-author of Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life (Routledge, 2012), and has published extensively on garden-based learning, service-learning, urban education, and ecological issues. She was elected to the Portland Public Schools Board, 2003-2011. She is co-founder of Learning Gardens Laboratory and Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland. Additional information about her can be obtained at