50+ Simple EE Activities Across the K-12 Curriculum
Back to the Earth
Display food items such as a boiled egg, apple, peanut butter, bread, jelly, strip of bacon, etc. Pictures can be used. Ask students to identify the food items you have on display. As the students respond, ask them to tell what their favorite food is. From answers they give, let them trace two or three through their many forms back to the soil. Example:
As a follow-up, provide each student with drawing paper and crayons. Ask them to draw a series of pictures showing each step of the cycle of a product from its soil origin to the consumer. Post representative products on bulletin board.
Read Snail Spell by Joanne Ryder. Have the students fantasize “shrinking” to the size of an insect and write a descriptive paragraph, of their experience.
Flannel Beach Life
Cut out pictures of intertidal animals from calendars or a cheap field guide. Laminate pictures and use stick-on velcro to turn them into flannel board creatures. (You can also purchase a set of flannel patterns from the Seattle Aquarium). Use the flannel board to introduce the intertidal animals. If possible, have students act out the movements of each, for example, pretend to be anemones and wave arms as tentacles during high tide, cover up tight at low tide.
Have students bring in an egg carton and empty halved egg shells from six eggs. Pierce the bottom of the egg shells and fill them with composted soil. Place the egg shells in the egg carton to keep upright. Plant various types of seeds in the egg shells. Make sure to label each student’s egg carton with their names and the types of seeds they planted. Extend the learning by creating experiments dealing with the effects of natural environmental variations such as light and water as well as “artificial” variations including the application of household hazardous wastes found in the classroom (check out areas around your sink for these products). — TGP
If there is a marina area, take the class on a tour of it. Arrange a tour of a fishing boat, and have the skipper explain all the different equipment and the variety of jobs aboard the craft.
Many cultures depend heavily on food from the sea for their sustenance. Have students survey family members and friends about the types of seafood they like to eat. This can be graphed on the chalkboard as well. Follow up survey with a visit to a local fish market or grocery to look at varieties of fish and shell fish up close.
Getting Down to Basics
List all the items below on the chalkboard. Then ask students, one at a time, to erase something that could harm the environment.
Beds, foam cups, what, war, polio shots, oil, atom bomb, pine trees, friends, sneakers, car, hairspray, vegetables, television, plastics, hamburgers, gold, food coloring, love, lawnmower, oxygen, zippers, flowers, aspirin, rockets, ice cream, water, candy bar, computers, grass, chemical fertilizers, jets, school, mosquitoes, boom boxes.
Add to this list. Have students explain their reasoning. — KT
Whale Milk Math
A newborn blue whale gains 200 lbs per day (9 lbs. per hour) by drinking up to 50 gallons of milk each day. In one day, a blue whale calf would drink the amount of milk in 800 school-sized milk cartons! Have students rinse and save milk cartons each day. Count the new ones daily and add the total to the previous day’s total until you reach 800.
How Many Legs?
Post pictures of an octopus, a seastar, a crab, and a gull. Review as a class the number of legs each animal has, and discuss the ways each animal’s legs help it to survive. Next challenge students with addition problems, such as: How many legs would there be if we had added the legs of the octopus and the gull? The seastar and the crab?
Geometric Shapes in Nature
Geometric shapes can be found in twigs, rocks, leaves, insects, and feathers. Look for cubes, cylinders, pyramids, cones, ovals, spheres, spirals, etc. have students put specimens in like piles. Variation: Human-made shapes. Triangles, squares, dcircles, rectangles, etc., can be found at school in sidewalks, buildings, clothing.
What Do You See?
Students view several pictures of beach/ocean wildlife, then choose one to study. After examining closely, each student writes a description of his/her animal. Later, teacher reads written description and class guesses which animal picture it was based on.
You and your students can listen to, discuss, learn the lyrics and sing along with international artists of world music. Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Raffi, Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil, Sting (song composed in the video, Spaceship Earth), Julian Lennon (“Salt Water Tear”) and Paul Simon (“Boy in the Bubble”) are only a few. Kid’s Eye View of the Environment, presented by Michael Mish, is a delightful audio cassette with clever lyrics and catchy melodies that will make everyone want to sing and dance. — TPE
Give each child a small piece of paper with one or more adjectives that describe something in nature (e.g., smooth, slimy, triangular, expanded, cool, soft and green, round and gooey). Have students explore a natural area to find items that meet these descriptions. Let students take turns sharing what they found. —JOD
Be a Tree
Have students identify characteristics of trees. Visit trees in a back yard, in an orchard, in a park, or in the school year.
Have the students do tree dramatizations, using their arms as the branches and their legs as the trunk. How does the tree look during a storm? How does a fruit tree look in the spring? How does a young tree look in comparison with an old tree? What would happen to change the tree in different kinds of weather or during the different seasons?
After feeling what it might be like to be a tree, have the students paint pictures of them. — EGO
Make a Refracting Telescope
Use two small convext lenses, a toilet paper tube, cardboard, rubber cember, and paper.
1. Find the focal length of one of the lenses.
2. Cut a lens-size hole in the cardboard
3. Glue the lens over the hole.
4. Trace around the toilet paper tube with a pencil over the spot in the cardboard where the lens is located.
5. Cut on this line, and glue the cardboard-mounted lens in the end of the tube.
6. Wrap a sheet of paper around the tube.
7. Tape it in place.
8. Mount the other lens in the end of the paper tube.
9. Slide the tubes back and forth.
Collect natural materials, or have students collect them. Suspend them with string under a crossbar of two sticks. Driftwood, acorns, and pine cones are among materials that are effectively used. Hang these in the classroom to brighten the scenery.
Growing plants in crowded and uncrowded situations will show the effects of overpopulation. Fill milk cartons about three-fourths full of soil. Plant several cartons with seeds — some with two or three seeds, several cartons with a small handful and several cartons with a large handful. Varying the amounts of seed in the different cartons creates different conditions under which the plants will grow. After the seeds have become seedlings, measure and record their heights on a piece of paper and draw a line graph on graph paper to represent each group of seedlings. Evaluate the plants’ growth periods in terms of the number of plants under the different conditions. —CTE
Living in the Schoolyard
Teacher begins activity by drawing an outline of the classroom on the blackboard. Develop a key to one side of the outline to be used to represent the plants, animals and special features which exist in the classroom. “Let’s see if we can make a map of all the living things in our classroom. Does anyone see a plant? Skippy, will you come up and mark the plants on our map for us?
Then provide a map of the schoolyard for groups of students (or for individual students depending on skills at map making). Take children outside and let them map all the living things that they see. Remind them that they have to look hard to see some of the things that are there.
After students have completed their maps, gather them together for discussion about the roles of the living things they found.
Discuss as a group the items a city has and make a list. Suggestions include people, factories, subways, cemetery, apartments, treffic, plumbing, stores, garbage collectors, streets, etc.
Divide the group into smaller ones of 3 to 4 each. Send each group out in a forest or wooded area and have them try and identify the natural item that corresponds to the ones on the list. —ECO
Pick a Package, Any Package
Visit a supermarket and find the following products: cereal, laundry soap, milk, fruit juice, vegetables, soup, cake mixes, spices, candy, and toothpaste. In what different kinds of packages can they be bought? Are they available in the bulk food section? Why are products available in so many different packages? Which packages have the least amount of throw-away packaging? Which packages cost the least for each product? Which one does your family usually buy? Back in class, make a wall chart. Can some of the packages be reduced or avoided, reused or recycled? Circle in green all the reusable items, in yellow all the recyclable items, and in red all the disposables. -NTW
Non-Pointing the Finger
Take a walking tour of the neighborhood. List possible examples of non-point source pollution, both natural and human-caused. Back in the classroom, compile a class list to see how many sources were pin- “pointed.” Use magazine or newspaper pictures to make an informational display of possible sources of non-point water pollution. — FSS
Water, Water Everywhere…NOT!
Point out that last year water was rationed in parts of California. It was shut off altogether in parts of Rhode Island when a leaking gas station tank polluted it. Our carelessness can hurt the water supply. Also, it is important not to waste water if we want to be sure of having enough for our needs. Have students name some ways each of us can help protect our water supply. (Ideas include using less water, not running water needlessly, not littering near bodies of water. Also some environmentalists suggest eating less meat to save water. A vegetarian diet requires much less water in its production than is used in the raising of cattle, for example.) —KT
Milk Carton Madness
In an attempt to determine how much potential space milk cartons take up in a landfill, students measure and calculate the volume of one milk carton. Students also determine the volume of their classroom. Using the milk carton volume figures, have the students determine how many cartons it would take to fill up their classroom. Then determine how many milk cartons are generated by the entire school in one day. Determine how long it would take to fill up their classroom. Extend these computations to a volume the size of the school. Follow this by discussing the importance of diversion of materials from the landfill and by exploring the feasibility of milk carton recycling at your school. — TGP
Shoot the Moon
Knowing that the moon returns to a given position every 29 1/2 days, have students figure out the dates that will have full moons for the coming calendar year. From this they can make their own calendars and check up on themselves. —JOD
Get Your Story Straight!
Invent or find a story that conveys an environmental message you wish to have your students think about. Divide the story into individual events that have ideas or words that allow the student to sequence them in a particular order.
As a group, or individually, have the students read the passages. Have the students number the passages so that the story can be read in the correct order.
Read the story aloud in the correct sequential order.
Use discussion and questioning to strengthen the story’s message. —IEEIC
How important is water to our society? Just think how many different words we have to express it. Have students brainstorm words that mean water or a form of water (e.g., splash, drip, etc.) while the teacher lists them on a large sheet of butcher paper. Can your class reach one hundred? Save the list and use it later for creative writing activities.
Wetlands Animal Masks
Students can create paper mache masks of their favorite wetlands creatures. Creative dramatics can be developed by students using their masks to play a role in a wetlands drama.
Students will need old newspapers, wallpaper paste or liquid starch, water, tempera or acrylic paint, round balloons, and scissors.
Choose a wetlands animal. Tear the newspaper into narrow strips. Blow up the balloon. Mix the wallpaper paste. Use one part wallpaper paste and 10 parts water or straight liquid starch.
Dip the strips of newspaper into the wallpaper and water mixture. Lay the paper over the balloon. Apply two layers to what will be the front of your mask. Let it dry completely.
Repeat procedure, building up the areas that will be noses, beaks, ears, etc. Let it dry completely.
Repeat the procedure, applying one last coat of paper over the entire mask. Let it dry completely.
Put the mask over your face. Feel where your eyes are. Have a friend mark the eye gently with a crayon or marker. Remove the mask and cut eyeholes. Put the mask over your face and check the eyeholes; remove it and make any corrections.
Cut a mouth hole.
Paint the mask and let it dry.
Water Drop Necklaces
Give each student a sheet of paper onto which a large water drop has already been drawn on both sides. On one side of the paper, printed inside the water drop are the words, “I’M TOXIC, DON’T FLUSH ME.” On the reverse side of the paper, inside the water drop are written the words, “WATER IS PRECIOUS, AS PRECIOUS AS…” Instruct students to draw one or several toxic items that should not be flushed down the toilet (e.g., paint, oil, chemicals) inside the water drop on the “toxic” side of the paper. On the other side instruct them to draw pictures of one or more persons or items that are precious to them (e.g., grandma, grandpa, a pet, a bicycle).
Once the drawings are completed, have the students cut out the water drop, then punch a hold near the top of the drop using a paper punch and finally thread a string of yarn through the hole to create a necklace. The necklace has a positive “precious” side and a negative “toxic” side depicted by the students’ drawings. — CON
Torn Paper Art
To help the students understand the fibrous make up of paper, tear a scrap of paper and hold one of the torn edges up to the light. Along that edge will appear a slight fuzz. Here and there tiny strands will project separately, like fine hairs. These strands are cellulose fibers.
Discuss with the children all the different materials from which fibers can be harvested to make paper. Show them fibers from a small piece of cloth to illustrate the point.
Using scraps of construction paper, tear and glue different colors to represent the forest and creatures who depend on the forest for survival. Display these pictures throughout the school to heighten awareness of the need to conserve and protect natural resources. – CON
Use artistic talents to create blocks symbolizing rainforest creatures. Build a pyramid, putting the prey species such as insects at the bottom – building up until the top predators like the jaguar and harpy eagle are at the top. Show what happens when prey species are taken away – such as if insects are killed by pesticides, or small rodents are killed as pests. The same activity can be done for temperate forests of the Northwest as well, or any other particular ecosystem. —RC
Adopt a Part of Nature
Adopt part of a stream, creek, river, lake or ocean. Clean up the beaches or shores and spend time there as a class enjoying these special places.
After introducing the class to common shorebirds and the field marks used to identify them, take your class to a beach. Shorebirds are visible year round, especially as the tide goes out. Students should try to identify special adaptations the birds have and predict the type of food they are seeking.
How Did They Do It?
Have students investigate the lifestyles of Native Americans on the prairie or along the coasts or in your local area. How were their needs met by these different environments?
Nature’s Tool Box
Pass out to individuals or small groups of students an assortment of simple tools: paper clips, sewing needle, letter opener, hair brush, straight pin, comb, and so on. Have students examine the tools carefully and decide what kinds of natural objects could be used or modified to make them. After students hike through an outdoor setting and collect materials, have them use the materials to make specific tools. —EGO
Design a travel log to show the travelling you do for two weeks. Include the date, where you went, how you travelled, who went with you, how long it took and how many kilometres you travelled round trip. After two weeks, add up how many trips you took by car, transit, bicycle, foot, taxi or other modes. How many kilometres did you travel all together? Which transportation mode is the fastest? The cheapest? Which is you preferred transportation mode for each type of trip? Why?
Now analyze your information and make suggestions as to how you could have reduced the number of trips you made. How many times could you have used transportation other than a car? Compare your results with those of your friends. —LCA
Calculating Growth Rates
In 1990 the U.S. population was 248.71 million, in 1980 it was 226.54 million. If you need to determine the annual growth rate and doubline time from this information, use the following equation:
growth rate = (100÷number of years) x In (pop. 1990 ÷ pop. 1980)
To calculate natural log (In), you will need a calculator with an “In” key, which are available for under $20. The following is the series of keystrokes required to work out this example:
KEY DISPLAY READS
divided by 248.71
divided by 9.336603
Because of the uncertainty in the data, we will round this number up to 0.934. You now know that population in the U.S. increased between 1980 and 1990 at an average annual growth rate of 0.934 percent per year. Using the equation to determine doubling times (70 divided by the rate of growth), you can also figure out that the U.S. population at that continued growth rate will double in approximately 74 years. We cannot however, assume that the rate of growth will remain constant. The Immigration Law of 1990 for example, which increased immigration rates by 40%, will proportionately raise the U.S. population growth rate and thereby decrease the time it takes for our country to double its population. -CCN
Graph the Tide
Purchase a tide table wherever fishing supplies are sold. Enlarge and photocopy each month’s chart on a separate page. Make enough copies so that each student will have one month to chart on graph paper. Post the papers in a line along the wall to see the rise and fall of the tide for the year. Teacher may want to designate a place on the paper for the base point (0.0).
Here is a thought-provoking idea: Collect photographs, illustrations and/or paintings from magazines — some that graphically portray a healthy, balanced environment and others that depict a damaged, unhealthy Earth. Hang these on opposite walls in the classroom to stimulate discussion and inspire writing. How does each set of images make students feel? Encourage them to think about how the healthy can be changed into the damaged and how they can help to change the damaged back into the healthy. As students learn about environmental problems and the solutions, they may go to the appropriate sides of the room to record their thoughts and ideas in two separate notebooks. For example, if a student is studying about an extinct animal, that student may record his/her concerns in a notebook located next to the unhealthy Earth artwork. If he/she knows of possible solutions and actions that can be done to help, they may be recorded on the other side of the room next to the healthy Earth artwork. Eventually, your class will have two useful notebooks filled with concerns and solutions to many environmental problems. Prioritize these and use your computer to record the top ten items that can be posted in the room for reference and distributed to family members. – TPE
What’s the Idea?
Encourage students to be on the lookout for environmental articles in their magazine. Once they begin coming in, select one and duplicate as many as needed.
Distribute copies to students.
Instruct the students to read the selection very carefully. On a clean sheet of paper, or index card, they are to write the following:
• the main idea
• the problem
• a solution
• their personal opinion
• a summary (approximately eight sentences)
On the back they are to compose and write three quality questions with answers regarding the selection; one true-false, one multiple choice, and one fill-in-the-blank.
Collect papers and compose a comprehension quiz to distribute the next day, or perhaps create a game with which to exercise learned facts. — IEEIC
Students can write a paper that expresses their feelings about going to outdoor schooll. By knowing their anxieties, fears, and excitement, you may be able to better understand their individual needs. It is always fun for students to reread their own papers upon returning home. —JOD
Touch of Color
While visiting a wooded area, pass out paper to the class and have each student, using natural materials (soil, berries, flowers, leaves, moss), draw a picture of the forest setting. Give the class an opportunity to display their work and describe their feelings about the surroundings. Encourage the students to discuss what materials were used to add color. —EGO
For one game, divide the group into teams, with no more than 10 persons on a team. How write a column of numbers one to 10 in three widely separated places in the room. Each team has a pice of chalk or marking device.
At a signal, the first person on each team dashes to the column of numbers and writes the name of a plant or an animal opposite the number “1”. Then he dashes back and gives the marker to the second person on his team. This person goes to the column and writes the name of something that eats what is written in number “1”. The marker is then passed to the third person, and so on down the line.
If a player writest down an incorrect name, it can be erased only by the next player, who loses his turn to write a name. Winners are determined by the most correct food-chain connections identified by a group.
Once a group has developed some skill at playing, try limiting the habitat to that of the forest, a brook, a marsh, a pond, the ocean, or some biome or community.
Working with a partner, students research symbiotic relationships amongst intertidal and ocean organisms and choose one to report on. One example would be the anemone and the clownfish.
Assign one water-dwelling animal to each student or team. Students then must design (on paper) an artificial habitat which would suite the living requirements of the animal. To do so, they must investigate and establish the characteristics of the animal’s natural habitat, including food, water, shelter, space, climate, etc. This assignment could be followed by creating models of artificial habitats.
Create a large mural on butcher paper of a natural area complete with wildlife, trees, mountains, rivers, etc. but no human development. After completing the mural, brainstorm a list of things that would happen if a much needed energy source (e.g., coal, oil, uranium, water) was discovered in that area. Draw pictures of these activities and facilities and place them in appropriate places on the mural. Discuss the positive and negative impacts the “new development” will have on the environment and wildlife, and create a list of these effects. Now, re-develop the energy source and see if you can come up with ways that the development can have less impact on the environment and still get the energy needed, at an affordable cost.
To begin this activity, tell your class they are going to try an experiment dealing with classroom arrangements. Don’t mention the idea of overpopulation or limited resources. These concepts will surface as the outcome of the activity.
Select an area of the classroom to be used in this overpopulation experiment. an area approximately 10’x10’ should be marked with masking tape on the floor and two desks should be placed inside the area. Also provide a “Resources Box” with 4 pencils, 2 pens, 6 sheets of paper and 1 pair of scissors.
Select two volunteers to work in the square. They should take with them only the books they will need. One half hour later, select two more students to work in the square and add their desks to the other two. (Make sure to remove all “resource” from the desks first).
Continue to add students to the area in shorter intervals of time similar to the way population grows rapidly. When the area can no longer hold additional desks, add students and have them share desks. Make sure the tasks the children are involved in will require the use of resources in the “Resources Box.”
When the limited resources and overcrowded conditions lead to bedlam, bring the class together for discussion. How is this like the real world? What “resources” are in short supply? —LLC
Plan an Environmental Careers Day. Research various careers associated with the environment and invite people in to speak about their jobs. Try to get a variety of speakers to reflect the diversity of careers and educational requirements. Prepare an outline for the speakers to they will address the questions you are most interested in.
Both Sides Now
A forest management specialist, touring a watershed area, notes that in one part of the forest many diseased trees have fallen and are covering the ground. This is a serious fire hazard for the forest. The specialist recommends logging this area and replanting with young, healthy seedlings. A concerned citizen’s group protests the logging, saying that clearcutting the area will erode the soil, which will make our drinking water unclean.
Your group has been asked to list the pros and cons of logging that area of the watershed. Consider the environmental, economic and social arguments. Can you find a compromise to the problem? How do personal opinions affect your decision? —FSS
Students collect litter in an outdoor setting — school parking lot, playground, camp, or business district. Then each student selects a piece of trash – soda can, chewing gum wrapper, potato chip bag —and makes a life line of the litter, from the origin of its natural materials to its present state. — TGP
Types of soils differ in the amount of water they can hold. Collect a standard amount of each of five or six soil types. Place each soil sample in a sieve held above a container. Pour a measured amount of water onto the soil and measure how much is collected after 30 seconds, one minute, 10 minutes. The amount of water the soil can hold is total added, minus that which drained out at the bottom.
From the data obtained, determine which of the soils can hold the most or the least water. On what properties of the soil does this depend? Which soils would erode most easily? Which would be best for plant growth? —ECO
Food Chain Figuring
Use the following information to create math problems. A medium-sized whale needs four hundred billion diatoms to sustain it for a few hours! The whale eats a ton of herring, about 5,000 of them. Each herring may have about 6,500 small crustaceans in its stomach, and each crustacean may contain 130,000 diatoms…
Invite the participants to imagine that they have landed on Earth from another planet. The planet they come from only has minerals and air. They had received word that a substance had been found on Earth that could move or hold its shape. They are here to see if the report is true and discover for themselves what this “water” is like. They are equipped with finely tuned instruments for sound, feel, sight, smell, and taste. They are to split into two search parties, one going to the pond area, one to the stream. They have 15 minute to gather sounds, smells, signs of animal and plant life, observe water clarity, etc. The groups then discuss and compare the two water sightings and make speculations about the role of water on this green planet. Have students write an essay on their exploration of this strange planet and the miracle substance “water.” —JOD
Have students write an imaginary story using one of the following titles: a) The Life of a Pencil; b)An Autobiography of a Tree from Seed to Lumber.
Legends of the Sea
Many cultures have legends about the way the ocean and its life forms were created. Read some of these to the class, then encourage them to create their own legends about how somethings came to be. It would be helpful to have some pictures of marine life forms for the students to view. Some ideas: How the Eel Became Electric; Why Octopi Have Only Eight Arms; Before Whales could Swim; How the Hermit Crab Lost His Shell.
Students begin by brainstorming a list of all the ways they are dependent on the Earth. From that list should come some ideas for presenting that information to others. They may decide to have teams of students work on representing different items on the list. They may want to expres their relationship to the land written in story format, in poetry, verbally on tape, through photographs, drawings, paintings, or soft sculpture. They should come up with a theme uch as Native American philosophy, or a celebration of life-giving qualities of the Earth, or getting involved with conservation, and work from there. Ask for volunteers to write letters to local organizations requesting space to set up their display for others to view.
Encourage your students to express their feelings about our responsibility to live in harmony with the land. Is it our responsibility? Can the actions of one person make a difference? What kinds of actions does living in harmony with the Earth require? —LLC
Visit a natural history museum. Or, have students look through books with photographs of paintings depicting the environment. They may analyze, discuss, compare, contrast art works and give critiques. Pupils may be inspired to write poems or stories about ideas generated from the special works and they may then create their own works of art.
Sources of activities:
CCN — Carrying Capacity Network Clearinghouse Bulletin, June 1992.
KT — Kind Teacher, Natl. Association for Humane and Environmental Education
IEEIC — Inegrating Environmental Education Into the Curriculum… Painlessly. National Educational Service, 1992.
RC — Rainforest Conservation, Rainforest Awareness Info. Network, 1992.
ECO — Eco-Acts: A Manual of Ecological Activities, Phyllis Ford, ed.
JOD — Just Open the Door, by Rich Gerston, Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1983.
LLC — Living Lightly in the City, Schlitz Audubon Center, 1984.
EGO- Education Goes Outdoors, Addison-Wesley 1986.
CON – Connections: Life Cycle Kinesthetic Learning. The Energy Office, Grand Junction, CO 1993.
CTE – Consider the Earth by Julie M. Gates, Teacher Ideas Press, 1989.
FSS – From Source to Sea, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
GGC – Growing Greener Cities and Environmental Education Guide
American Forests, Washington DC 1992
LCA – Let’s Clean the Air, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
NTW – No Time to Waste, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
TPE – The Private Eye, Kerry Ruef, The Private Eye Project, Seattle, 1992.
Place-based environmental education through the lens of art and creative writing
by Tess Malijenovsky
lace-based environmental education is taking front seat inside and outside classrooms across the country in part to prepare future generations for the environmental challenges they’ll face ahead. That is, climate change, natural resource competition, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and rampant species extinction. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them.
This is why we mustn’t undermine the value of creative thinking in outdoor environmental education. While our education system tends to emphasize critical thinking skills for good reason, sometimes the critic within must be silenced for the improvisation of ideas and solutions: In a study published by PLOS ONE journal, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring and conscious control were suppressed in jazz musicians playing improv. Despite differences in the analytical- and creative-thinking processes in the brain, however, both entail a sophisticated application of knowledge.
Nature-themed art and writing exercises are ways for educators to elicit creative thinking in students when teaching environmental education. What’s more, nature illustration outdoors, for example, can break through learning barriers and focus the attention of students from diverse backgrounds and learning levels while delivering life science lessons, as witnessed by Straub Environmental Center’s executive director, Catherine Alexander.
Alexander recently spent a day at the Little North Fork of the Santiam River with 20 elementary-aged summer campers studying and drawing the plants, fungi, and animals surrounding their beautiful setting in an old-growth ecosystem. The students, representing a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, took their seats on mossy patches of sunlight, encapsulating science concepts in a portrayal of their immediate watershed environment.
Imagine a children drawing an osprey. As she focuses on her drawing, the child listens to her teacher talk about the length of the bird’s wingspan, the purpose of its long, sharp talons, what it eats, and where it lives. According to the brain lateralization theory that more divergent thinking occurs in the right side of the brain, listening while drawing helps distract and relax the student’s inner critic, expanding the reach and flow of new connections in her mind. Less intimidated or hypercritical in the art-making process, the child’s attention focuses on the charismatic creature she is drawing and learning about. The art lesson unravels into an engaged science lesson about the osprey’s ecological niche and life cycle.
“Art is more than a pastime,” says Alexander. “It can be an enabling portal for a number of academic subjects. The summer campers reminded me that art can have rhetorician value for students with learning disability or for whom English is not their first language. It can be a powerful equalizer and high-interest segue into all kinds of educational pursuits.”
One free, online resource to help educators tie art and creating writing activities in life science lessons to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards is the “Toolkit for Educators,” developed in partnership by Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and Straub Environmental Center. The toolkit provides teacher-tested life science lessons plans that use Honoring Our Rivers (HOR) with the corresponding learning standards.
The HOR anthology, a program of Willamette Partnership, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, encourages students to fall in love with rivers and express their connections to them creatively – through art, photography, poetry, stories, and foreign language – in hopes of naturally cultivating the next generation of watershed stewards for the Pacific Northwest species and communities who depend on these vital systems.
Educators who integrate river-watershed-themed art and writing activities into their lessons can not only stimulate the creative minds of their students in an engaging educational way but give them an opportunity to be published statewide by submitting their work to HOR. The program also hosts student art exhibitions and student reading events across Oregon.
Educators can also learn more about nature-themed art instruction at HOR’s upcoming workshops at the Coastal Learning Symposium this Oct. 14 at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Teachers have the power to encourage the creative capacities of our youth while addressing the increasing disconnect between children and the outdoors. HOR exists to help them accomplish this feat. For more information, visit www.honoringourrivers.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tess Malijenovsky is the coordinator of Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, a program of the Portland-based conservation nonprofit Willamette Partnership. Prior to moving out West, Tess was an environmental journalist and the assistant editor of Coastal Review Online in North Carolina. She studied Creative Writing and Spanish at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
Wild Words: A guide to integrating creative writing into field-based education
by Becca Deysach
“I’ve always wanted to write but never gave myself permission.”
This sentiment is the one I have heard most frequently since I began teaching creative writing several years ago. I’ve heard it from my college students, patients at a mental health clinic, and empty-nesters who are finally letting themselves do whatever the heck they want.
The more I inquire about my students’ inhibitions about writing, the more I discover that people are afraid they have nothing to say, or, worse, that they will fail terribly at saying what they want. I hear horror stories of returned papers that might as well have been dipped in red ink, and the resulting belief that they were, indeed, better off not trying.
But it’s not true: they are storytellers. We all are. Some creative impulse lives in each of us—it’s part of being human, after all—and for some, the urge to paint or dance or write becomes so great that eventually it overpowers the limitations imposed by well intentioned teachers when they were young. But then it shouldn’t get to that point.
I believe that it is the responsibility of educators to prevent our students’ alienation from their own creativity before it’s too late by nurturing their inborn sense of wonder, curiosity, and creativity, whether our discipline is wilderness leadership, stream ecology, or math.
Good teachers do this in a variety of ways, including inquiry-based learning initiatives, field studies, journaling, art projects, and more. We do these things because they are fun, and we do them because we know that experiential education leads to better learning outcomes.
Creative writing workshops are another fabulous means by which students can engage more intimately with any topic at hand, integrate their learning, and deepen their relationship to their ecological and learning community. The only problem is, the same messages that make so many adults fearful of creative writing also prevent many educators from facilitating creative writing exercises, and students thus lose the chance to get to know forest with the sensitivity of a poet and the precision of an ecologist.
At the risk of making my job obsolete, though, I’ve got a secret for you: anybody can facilitate a writing workshop. All you need is a group of students armed with paper and writing implements, your own creative spark, and some basic facilitation tools.
The writing workshop I outline below is designed with field educators in mind, but the basic principles and format can be applied to any classroom, school yard, garden, or living room context just as easily.
But first, you must know the Rules for Freewriting:
Write the first thoughts that comes into your head. Don’t think, just write!
Keep your pen flowing. Don’t stop writing until the timer is up or the facilitator says, “stop”! If you get stuck, just repeat the word you’re on over and over until something else comes out.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. You can fix that stuff later.
Don’t try to control your writing! Let it take you where it wants to.
Ice-Breaker and Warm-Up
Writing and sharing can make us all feel vulnerable, so it’s important to begin any writing workshop by creating a safe and supportive space. If everyone is new to one another, a name game of your choice is a great place to start. If you are working with a group of students familiar to one another, begin with some variation of the following exercise, tailoring it to your group and your field of inquiry:
Read the following phrases aloud one at a time, and give everyone about thirty seconds to write their response before moving on to the next phrase. Urge your students to follow the Rules of Freewriting as they write.
My favorite smell is…
In my free time…
If I could travel anywhere…
My favorite book/plant/ecosystem/river/mountain/geologic era/invertebrate/chemical/constellation is…
If I could travel to any point in history…
When I grow up…
I come from…
I don’t remember…
Before any sharing takes place, let your students know that there is no right or wrong response to the prompts, and that you encourage them to share even if it feels a little scary, but that everybody has the option of passing at any point. The freedom not to share helps prevent self-censorship while writing, and that is ultimately what we’re going for.
Go around in a circle, sharing responses to one prompt at a time. So, for example, ask everybody read aloud their response to “My favorite smell is….” before going on to “I wonder…” This creates a rhythmic group poem while exposing students to new aspects of one another. I always write and share with my students in these freewriting exercises, as it models vulnerability and helps contribute to a safe and intimate group atmosphere.
Exploration, Observation, and Writing
Once you’ve warmed your group up and they’ve begun to get comfortable with writing freely and sharing, you can move on to a longer exploration and writing exercise. Ask your students to split up and give them a couple minutes to find something in their environment that catches their eye—a rock, a plant, or a natural feature, perhaps. Depending on the type of class you are teaching, you could be specific about how they should focus their attention (“Pick a rock layer that you find intriguing”), or you could leave it open and let curiosity be their only guide.
Alternatively, you could collect some natural objects—a handful of river stones, branches covered in lichen, or decaying bark—and ask your students to each pick one. This may be a better option with younger students.
Once your students are settled in near the focus of their attention, ask them to observe it with most of their senses (taste is usually not appropriate). When 3-5 minutes have passed, ask them to begin a 5-10 minute freewrite that begins with a multi-sensory description of their focus and follows the Rules of Freewriting. Remind them to let their writing take them wherever it wants to go. You will time them.
Give your students a two-minute warning before their writing time is up, then ask them to finish up their last thoughts and rejoin the group quietly when the stopwatch strikes five (or ten).
Sharing and Feedback
Once again, ask students to share their writing. You can also ask students to give supportive feedback to one another’s writing at this point. This encourages students to pay close attention to qualities that make good writing, builds group trust and support, and helps build writing confidence in individuals.
A few of the many things to give feedback on are:
Images that stand out
Interesting questions the writing raises
Any other strengths
Keep in mind that some groups are awkward about giving feedback and will need a little bit of modeling from the facilitator at first.
In addition, I ask people to refrain from giving “constructive feedback” on all off-the-cuff freewriting. It hardly seems fair to ask people to write whatever spills out and then critique it. Only once a piece has been revised is it ready for suggestions for improvement, and even then positive feedback is just as important.
It’s often most satisfying to end a writing session with a final, short piece of writing. Three-to-five minutes will do, and it’s up to you if you share for this final round. In lieu of sharing the whole piece of writing, you could ask students to share their final line.
A few suggestions for your final writing activity:
Have students pick a favorite line from their own piece of writing and use it as the starting point for another one.
Ask students to write down the last/first/favorite line from their previous piece of writing on a slip of paper, put the slips of paper into a small pile, and ask each student to pick a random slip to use as their first line.
Use one of the phrases from the warm-up activity as a starting point.
Have them close their eyes and listen, then begin by writing what they hear.
Start with “Today I learned…..”
At the end of a workshop, I always like to thank people for their bravery and thoughtful participation. It makes everyone feel good and eager to come back for more.
Congratulations! You’ve just facilitated a successful writing workshop!
Just as writing prompts are meant to be springboards for stories to emerge, the basic writing workshop model I outlined above is intended to be simply a starting point for integrating creative writing into your educational repertoire. Let your own imagination, course objectives, and field of study be your guide as you give your students permission to become the creative writers that live inside of them.
And, in the process, you might just meet the creative writer inside of you.
Becca Deysach teaches creative writing and environmental studies for Prescott College and Ibex Studios: Adventures in Creative Writing (www.ibexstudios.com). She is excited to work with teachers in all disciplines to integrate creative writing into their curricula and can be reached at email@example.com.
In my nature explorations, I’ve always been fascinated not just with identifying the species I encounter, but with digging deeper and learning their backstories. There are many stories behind the plants and animals that fill our landscapes. Sometimes they’re hidden in history, myths and cultural narratives. Sometimes they’re hidden in our very words.
ith Catching Fire, the second film installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, fans of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic dystopian world will be celebrating. Many educators will too, since the film’s release will revive the series for students, and thus its relevance in language arts programming.
From a literary perspective, The Hunger Games is an action-packed hero’s quest told through the eyes of a strong-but-flawed heroine fighting to survive in a dystopian future. It’s a great entry point into explorations of the monomyth, and it can be easily compared to other classic quests like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lion King and many comic-book superheroes.
But The Hunger Games is also about a society that is completely broken—as unhealthy as societies can get. Even though it only glosses over most of the issues it touches on, it is a great springboard to deeper examination of all sorts of environmental and social justice problems. Panem is post-climate change North America. There are parallels with the Occupy movement (Panem’s 99% live with ongoing environmental strife, food insecurity and resource depletion while the remaining 1% live in the Capitol, where the nation’s wealth and power are concentrated). And just why is Panem still coal-powered, anyway? Enter conversations about technological innovation and sustainability.
The Dystopian Nature Disconnect
The Hunger Games can do more than just raise sexy contemporary issues, though. The symbolic role of nature in the story is a portal to a deeper examination of the characterization of nature across the genre. After reading The Hunger Games and thinking more broadly about dystopian fiction, I concluded that many, if not most, fictional dystopias are set in highly urban environments or ravaged wastelands. Even those that are set in relatively healthy landscapes isolate their characters from contact with the natural world, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the countryside is the domain of the exiles. The Hunger Games is no different: the land has been wasted, resources have been depleted, citizens are prohibited from wandering freely in the forest and gates surround the districts to separate humans from their natural environment. Wild landscapes and the animals that inhabit them are perceived as dangerous—a continuation of the civilization versus wilderness binary that is a fundamental aspect of colonial and postcolonial culture.
The Nature of Rebellion
Why is this such a common element in dystopian fiction? I think it’s because the primal connection humans have with the land is fundamentally incompatible with dystopian power structures. Beyond providing sustenance, nature has a healing and revitalizing power and is intrinsically linked to human freedom and happiness (Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, 2012). Seen through the lens of the dualistic nature/culture paradigm, a dystopian superpower cannot effectively control its subjects if the people have healthy relationships with the land, which is by definition wild and uncontrollable. Excluding nature’s light and beauty excludes hope, which enables control. Separating people from the place in which they live is necessary in dystopian worlds, because a return to nature would lead to rebellion and independence. Seen in this light, the staging of the final battle in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (in which the Rebel Alliance finally succeeds in overthrowing the Galactic Empire) on the lush forest moon of Endor was highly symbolic. In The Hunger Games, the return to nature and freedom is played out through the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss’ deep connection to the land is fundamental to her survival throughout her life. As a young girl, the sight of a single dandelion inspired her to hunt and forage to keep her family from starving and to provide healing medicines. Because these acts are illegal in Panem—all resources belong to the state, and wandering in the woods is forbidden—Katniss’ relationship with the land defines her as a rebel before the story even begins. Aside from the resources the woods provide, Katniss also finds existential freedom and relief there. This bond with the natural world and the vitality it gives her is in stark contrast to the dreary hopelessness of the other residents of her community, who remain caged within the district fences, and to the shallow, overconsumptive urbanity of the Capitol residents, who do not realize they are imprisoned by their luxury.
Once she enters the Hunger Games arena, it is Katniss’ skill as a forager, hunter and herbalist that keep her alive. She knows how to read the land as efficiently as readers of books can decode symbols on a page. But beyond these skills, I think it’s Katniss’ lifelong immersion in nature that gives her the self-assurance and freedom of mind needed to defy the Capitol and ultimately spark a rebellion against its repressive regime.
Dystopias: Utopias for Educators
Katniss’ ecological literacy gives educators an opportunity to forge curricular connections with environmental stewardship and traditional ways of knowing. Questions on the links between nature, rebellion and freedom in the dystopian genre could lead to a comparative study of other dystopian novels. And it’s easy to draw parallels between the expulsion of nature in dystopian societies and our own society’s impoverished nature experiences. What is the existential and symbolic importance of natural spaces to healthy societies? With so many students already in love with The Hunger Games series, the release of the second film offers a cornucopia of discussion topics on nature and society.
Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (2012). Children & nature worldwide: An exploration of children’s experiences of the outdoors and nature with associated risks and benefits.
Natalie Gillis is a Grade 6–7 French Immersion teacher in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She likes books and backpacking, and thinks more people should ride bikes.
Considering Sustainability Outside of the Science Classroom
by Lauren G. McClanahan
Western Washington University
Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.
Given the titles most often studied in secondary literature classes, one could infer that critical topics such as race, gender, class and culture reigned supreme in the 20th and 21st centuries. From the classics to current young adult fiction, students are transported to worlds where characters are acting in and around specific settings, but the settings are not necessarily the star attraction. The settings provide context, but only as backdrops for the main characters on stage. According to Glotfelty (1996), upon reading the current canon, “you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all” (p. xvi). In secondary literature classrooms, where students study how ethics impact their moral and spiritual lives, “we have fairly well ignored our impact on the natural world or our relationships with it” (Bruce, 2011, p. 13).
The concept of relationships is key. Closely examine any middle or high school curriculum, and you will readily find many topics being formally studied: chemistry, algebra, civics, literature and the like. However, what you won’t readily find is any meaningful connection between them, as often they are treated as separate entities, existing in a vacuum, not simultaneously acting or being acted upon. As educators, we would do well to heed Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology, which states, “Everything is connected to everything else.” The disciplines under study in our schools should not, according to Cheryll Glotfelty, “float above the material world in aesthetic ether,” but rather they must interact, playing a part in an “immensely complex global system, in which energy, matter and ideas interact” (1996, p. xix, emphasis in original).
Ignoring our impact on the natural world occurs at our own peril. Scan any headline and you are sure to find news of storms of increasing severity, toxic oil spills, and the ravages of mining, drought, flooding and famine. Secondary English teachers must come to terms with the fact that we are beginning (re: have already begun) to reach our environmental limits on this planet, “a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems” (Glotfelty, 1996, p. xx).
According to Ecological literacy expert David W. Orr, “Sustainability is about the terms and conditions of human survival, and yet we still educate at all levels as if no such crisis existed” (1992, p. 83). Orr goes on to state, “all education is environmental education” both by inclusion and exclusion (1992, p. 90). By what we teach or don’t teach, we model to our students that they are “a part or apart from” the natural world (Orr, 1992, p. 12). What this implicitly tells our English Language Arts students, which they are receiving in most cases through exclusion, is that “our ecological relationship with our habitat is either a matter of little importance or something only relevant to ‘science geeks’” (Bruce, 2011, p. 13). According to Glotfelty, “as environmental problems compound, work as usual [in the English classroom] seems unconscionably frivolous. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem” (1996, p. xxi).
But aren’t issues of the natural world, the earth and its systems, best left to the domains of science? Why must we feel compelled to study the natural world in the English Language Arts classroom? In this paper, I will attempt to offer a rationale for the inclusion of the environment into the ELA classroom, and offer a plea to the profession that the natural world (and, by extension, the constructed world) is definitely under our purview, and that as teachers of English and composition, we are morally obligated to cast the earth as a main character, for only out of action can environmental justice take root and grow.
What English Teachers Do
As English Language Arts teachers, we may feel that the issues of resource depletion and increasing toxicity are beyond our prescribed scope and sequence. Yet, I would suggest that it is well within our capacity to cross over into territory once claimed exclusively by the sciences—indeed, it is our moral obligation as teachers. According to Glotfelty (2006), we must consider “nature not just as the stage upon which the human story is acted out, but as an actor in the drama” (p. xxi and we humans as “ecologically imbedded rather than immune” (Bruce, 2011, p. 14). Because English Language Arts teachers specialize in questions of “vision, values, ethical understanding, meaning, point of view, tradition, imagination, culture, language and literacy” (Bruce, 2011, p. 14), we can easily cross the arbitrary and human-constructed boundary into the sciences. Questions of vision, values, ethics and culture are, according to Buell (2005), “at least as fundamental as scientific research, technological know-how, and legislative regulation” (p. 5).
Moreover, the English Language Arts perspective “softens” the sciences where discussions of environmental degradation normally occur. One popular point of entry is Aldo Leopold’s (1966) concept of a “land ethic,” in which he states, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community [soils, water, plants and animals]. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (p. 262). His statement is ecocentric (nature-centered) as opposed to anthropocentric (human-centered), and here is where the English Language Arts can find entrée into the sciences. By studying literature and composition in ways that notice both human and non-human species, we promote empathy for all, including soil, water, and air, upon which all life depends (Bruce, 2011). By tackling issues of environmental degradation (or, conversely, celebration), English Language Arts can focus on how humans are affected by human action and on how the whole of biota (including, but not favoring, humans) is affected.
Another natural cross-over point of English Language Arts into the sciences is through the discipline of ecology. According to Dobrin & Weisser (2002), ecology can be defined as “a science that evolved specifically to study the relationships between organisms and their surrounding environment” (p. 9). They define the relatively new field of ecocomposition as a study of relationships: “Relationships between individual writers and their surrounding environments, relationships between writers and texts, relationships between texts and culture, between ideology and discourse, between language and the world” (p. 9). Here, Dobrin and Weisser are explicit in their use of the term “environment,” in that it is more encompassing than merely “nature.” “We mean all environments: classroom environments, political environments, electronic environments, ideological environments, historical environments, economic environments, natural environments” (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002, p. 9). As English Language Arts teachers, we deal daily in the study of discourse (speaking, writing and thinking), and that means studying the relationship between discourse and any site where discourse exists, be it natural, constructed, or imaginary.
Ecocomposition, Ecoliteracy and the “Greening” of English
The curricular responsibilities of English Language Arts teachers can be broken down into two main categories: reading and writing. They can be further dissected into reading different authors and genres, and writing for different audiences and purposes. Critical theories such as race, gender, class and culture have dominated the post-modern English Language Arts curriculum. Two new curricular approaches suggest that place be added as a new critical category. The first is “ecocriticism,” defined as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty, 1996, p. xviii). Glotfelty (1996) explains that “Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies” (p. xviii). Questions such as “How is nature represented in this sonnet?” and “What role does the physical setting play in the plot of this novel” inform the focus of ecocriticism. Whereas ecocriticism is concerned primarily with the interpretation (i.e. reading) of text, a second theory, ecocomposition, is concerned primarily with the production (i.e. writing) of text (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002), understood to include not only the printed word, but also visual and natural texts (or contexts). In this sense, the concept of language (discourse) is broadened, so that “language does not exist outside of nature,” and that language (discourse) is “the most powerful, indeed perhaps the only tool for social and political change” (Dobrin & Weisser, 2002, p. 26). Indeed, following this line of thinking, writing = power.
But how could we best frame a curriculum based upon these two new critical theories of reading (ecocriticism) and writing (ecocomposition)? The broader concept of ecological literacy might be useful for helping to locate nature in the English Language Arts. Orr (1992) suggests that, “Literacy is the ability to read. Numeracy is the ability to count. Ecological literacy…is the ability to ask, ‘what then’” (p. 85)? “What then?” would, according to Orr, be an appropriate question to ask “before the last rainforests disappear, before the growth economy consumes itself into oblivion, and before we have warmed our planet intolerably” (p. 85). One could just as easily ask, “Why should I care?” Or, “How does this affect me?” The English Language Arts skills of close observation and making connections must be brought into practice if we are to adopt an ecological literacy framework. To help us construct that framework, a framework that asks us to step outside of our minds and out into nature, Orr (1992) suggests six principles, or frames of mind, that we would do well to introduce to our students
“[A]ll education is environmental education” (p. 90).
“[E]nvironmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department” (p. 90).
“[F]or inhabitants, education occurs in part as a dialogue with a place and has the characteristics of good conversation” (p. 90).
“[T]he way education occurs is as important as its content” (p. 91).
“[E]xperience in the natural world is both an essential part of understanding the environment, and conducive to good thinking” (p. 91).
“[E]ducation relevant to the challenge of building a sustainable society will enhance the learner’s competence with natural systems” (p. 92).
Although all of Orr’s Principles are useful guides towards an ecological English Language Arts curriculum, the first two are most directly and easily applied through a place-based pedagogical approach.
The Power of Place: Place-Based Writing
A place-based education incorporates the concept of “place” or “environment” as an integrating context across multiple disciplines (Sobel, 2004). Place-based education can be characterized by “interdisciplinary learning, team-teaching, hands-on experiences that center on problem-solving projects, learner-centered education that adapts to students’ individual skills and abilities, and the exploration of the local community and natural surroundings” (Bruce, 2011, p. 21). We can use our local places, environmental issues (and all issues are environmental), and peoples’ natural love of nature, or “biophilia” (Wilson, 1984) “…to improve English education, literacy, and citizenship” (Lundahl, 2011, p. 44). Keeping in mind Orr’s (1992) first two principles of ecological literacy, we can see how a place-based pedagogy is a natural fit for the English Language Arts.
Orr’s (1992) first principle of ecological literacy, that “All education is environmental education” (p. 90) may at first seem hyperbolic, but is indeed accurate. When combined with the pedagogy of place-based education, this principle takes flight. According to Sobel (2004), place-based education:
…is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts…and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. (p. 7)
Sobel’s (1992) emphasis on the cross-curricular nature of place-based education highlights Orr’s (1992) second principle of ecological literacy, which states that, “environmental issues are complex and cannot be understood through a single discipline or department” (p. 90). By using local places as sites for linking the arts and the sciences, students make connections, and when students make connections to a place, that place becomes more personal. Place-based writing projects encourage students to more fully commit to a topic, which can allow for a more authentic writing experience. Indeed, “meaningful writing both grows out of and reflects back on a connection with place” (Jacobs, 2011, p. 51). By providing our students with unique, authentic experiences in their own communities, we can begin to harness the elusive quality of “voice,” along with providing authentic reasons and audiences for writing.
Heeding Student Voice
Taking a place-based, eco-literacy approach to the language arts can be a weighty, sometimes depressing task. The new term “solastalgia” describes the “sense of loss people feel when they see changes to local environments as harmful” (Bluestone, 2011, World Changing, p. 449). Reading the headlines today, students must be concerned with a wide array of environmental issues, some which affect them directly (increasing gasoline prices, local flooding) and some of which affect them indirectly (the melting of the polar ice caps). In order to avoid this feeling of eco-nihilism, Owens (2001) suggests that:
Educators have a responsibility to help students resist the cynicism and hyperbordom of contemporary consumer culture…[we must] give them opportunities to testify about what is wrong and what is good about those worlds…[and] provide them with a vocabulary with which they might critique their environments and develop an awareness of what exactly it is…that can make a person miserable, bored, angry, tired, scared, depressed. (p. 69)
This concept of testimony fits nicely into the more personal structure of place-based writing. As Freire (2000) states, the purpose of education is for students to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (p. 83, emphasis in original). To bring about lasting change, both reflection and action are needed; the word and the world are inseparable. Personal experience can often be considered the best evidence when building a rhetorical argument. According to Matalene (2000):
Most students quickly learn that the easiest, safest, least risky method is to keep private and public separate. This seems to me seriously wrong…we should be encouraging many voices, not turning them all into one. Surely, teaching students that they have the right and the responsibility to add their own unique voices to the American conversation is why we teach writing anyway. Surely, we want to strengthen their individual, private voices so that one day they may speak, not just listen, and act, not just watch. (pp. 188-9)
Matalene articulates the fundamental rationale for encouraging students to write from their experience, “It honors their voice, encourages their efforts, and, ultimately, follows Freire’s idea of praxis from reflection to action, to make better citizens” (Jacobs, 2011, p. 51). Certainly, the uniqueness of experience + place = voice. Additionally, when framed within a place-based, ecocompositional curriculum, students are afforded more authentic reasons to read, write, think and take action.
Response to any crisis is often technological, and with the goal of solving the immediate problem. But what if the response to how climate change is affecting the lives of middle and high school students was more reflective in nature, and focused on writing and thinking specifically about place? The following section examines a specific assignment that asked students to look closely at their unique communities and tell their own stories, through words and photos, of how climate change has impacted their lives. This assignment is an invitation to think about something that these students earnestly need to think about, something that is troubling to them, and to, “use English class and writing as a vehicle for discovery” (Ruggieri, 2000, p. 53).
First Person Singular Project: The Marriage of Ecocomposition and Place-Based Education
In my experience as a middle school Language Arts teacher, and now a teacher educator, I often come to the conclusion that my students learn best from, a) studying topics that are of interest to them, and, b) from one another. Thus, I created the First Person Singular project, where I ask middle and high school students to use text (both written and visual, through the use of photographs) to tell a story, in this case, the story of how climate change is having a direct affect on their lived experience. It is my contention that teens (and often, adults) will listen more closely if a story of such immense consequence as the degradation of our planet is told through the eyes of peers.
To begin, I ask students to photograph evidence of climate change that they may see in their own neighborhoods. In Kwigillingok, Alaska, this means photographing the damaging effects of the melting permafrost beneath their homes. In Tsetserleg, Mongolia, this meant photographing evidence of unusually harsh winters. In Burlington, Vermont, this meant photographing local flood damage due to unusually heavy rains. By locating problems in specific places, the project takes on an immediacy and an authenticity that can only be achieved through a place-based pedagogy.
After students have collected their photographic evidence, they are asked to write about what they photographed, and why they think it is a good example of how climate change is affecting their lives. In nearly every instance, the physical manifestation of a changing climate is deeply personal. In Alaska, for example, students wrote about how their homes were sinking due to the melting of the permafrost beneath their feet. Their photos and their accompanying writing illustrated homes that had to be propped up by concrete cinder blocks to remain somewhat level. One student’s essay explained how his community has already had to move once due to shoreline erosion, and he did not want to have to move again. “We can’t leave,” he eloquently stated, “but we can’t stay, either.” In Vermont, climate change looks quite different. Two months before I worked with these students, a hurricane swept up the East Coast, leaving Burlington soggy amidst floodwaters not normally seen so far inland. Several students chose to write about how the destruction of the city’s bike path impacted them. Since bicycles are their primary mode of transportation, they felt cut off from the world when the floodwaters tore apart the path. These stories are perfect examples of how the ecological relationships between humans and their surrounding environments are dependent and symbiotic. Through discourse (in this case, writing) these students were able to shape their experiences, using the power of the word in naming the world around them, and their experiences in it.
After photographs have been taken and words have been written, I ask students to read their writing aloud, into a digital recorder, so that their voice (quite literally) can be heard. I believe this to be the most powerful aspect of the entire First Person Singular project—the platform it provides to literally hear students’ voices. When combined with the photographs, the audience begins to gain a sense of who these students are, as individuals, and why what matters to them should matter to us as well.
All elements of The First Person Singular project (photos, writing, and audio) are then entered into a video production program (in this case, iMovie) to be made into a digital story. For the purposes of the First Person Singular project, digital storytelling can be defined as a multimodal activity combining written, oral, visual and gestural symbols into digital representations, such as videos, short films, feature-length films, or photo montages. Thus, digital storytelling is an ever-evolving method of artistic and academic expression, often told in the first-person narrative form (hence the name of the project). Content is most often drawn from personal experiences that are deemed important by the students involved in their creation. Through this project, students are reminded that the source of their power lies in their own story, in the earth, and the relationship between the two. Hence, students must learn to tap into and trust the truth of their own lived experiences. An example of “First Person Singular: Alaska” can be seen here:
Once students have engaged in a project that has affected them personally, they might feel the urge to take on an issue of local importance—the pollution of their local watershed, the air quality in their particular neighborhood, or the safety of their local food supply. Any number of social-justice themed projects cold be similarly told, using the combination of text and photographs, to illustrate how everything is connected to everything else, and to create a civic competence that tends to be lacking in our schools.[FL1] One recent example is the publication of “Dream fields: A peek into the world of migrant youth.” In this book, migrant youth from Washington state share their stories, through words and photos, of the conditions they find working in the damp fields of Washington’s commercial tulip industry.
Toward an Environmental Justice
As teachers, regardless of grade level or discipline, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Why?” Why do we do what we do, and what results do we hope to see because of it? The answer, I believe, lies within our belief that it is our moral and ethical obligation to do so, to model for the citizens of tomorrow how to think creatively, holistically and put their learning into practice. We want our students to eventually outgrow their need for us, to trust their own experiences as valid, and continually learn from them. Personally, I would add that I do what I do because of my own biophilia, or love of life—all life—in its myriad forms. I want my young daughter to have the same ecological opportunities that I have had—to come face-to-face with massive glaciers, to share a meal with a nomadic Mongolian family, to see the Milky Way on a clear, cool night, to experience autumn in New England, to hear an orca breathing. And I don’t just stop at my own daughter—I want every child, regardless of place—to have the opportunity to experience environments and cultures that are different from their own, before those environments and cultures disappear.
So, where do the English Language Arts fit in? Why the emphasis on “greening” the humanities? According to Jensen, “Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words can be used as weapons in service of our communities. Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words should be used as weapons in service of our communities” (2012). Some say that literature should be apolitical, and that the English classroom (or any classroom, for that matter) is not the place for politics. Well, thank goodness Rachel Carson wasn’t apolitical. Thank goodness Mark Twain wasn’t apolitical. Jensen (2012) states it well:
I would not be who I am and I would not write what I write without having learned from some of my elders who refused to believe that writers should or can be apolitical or neutral or objective. The truth is most important, they said. It is more important than money. It is more important than fame. It is more important than your career. It’s more important than your preconceptions. Follow the truth—follow the words and ideas—wherever they lead. Words matter, they said. Art matters. Literature matters. Words and art and literature can change lives, and can change history. Make sure that your words and your art and your literature move people individually and collectively in the direction of justice and sustainability. They said literature that supports capitalism is immoral. A literature that supports patriarchy is immoral. A literature that does not resist oppression is immoral. But you can help to create a literature of morality and resistance, as each new generation must create this literature, with the help of all those generations who came before, holding their hands for support, just as those who come after will need to hold yours.
Lauren G. McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in English Education and is currently Professor of Secondary Education at Woodring College of Education, Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. As a former middle school teacher, her interests include how student voice can be used to inform audiences about how climate change is affecting those in ecologically sensitive areas. Her series of “First Person Singular” video projects include students in Alaska, Vermont, and Mongolia.