A Pedagogy for Ecology

A Pedagogy for Ecology

A Pedagogy for Ecology
by Ann Pelo

s a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity. I believe this identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the Earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the Earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honorable relationship with our planet.

We live in a culture that dismisses the significance of an ecological identity, a culture that encourages us to move around from place to place and that posits that we make home by the simple fact of habitation, rather than by intimate connection to the land, the sky, the air. Any place can become home, we’re told. Which means, really, that no place is home.

This is a dangerous view. It leads to a way of living on the Earth that is exploitative and destructive. When no place is home, we don’t mind so much when roads are bulldozed into wilderness forests to make logging easy. When no place is home, a dammed river is regrettable, but not a devastating blow to the heart. When no place is home, eating food grown thousands of miles away is normal, and it is easier to ignore the cost to the planet of processing and shipping it.

Finding a Place
Our work as teachers is to help children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the Earth bursts out of its cement cage. For me, teaching in a childcare program in Seattle located next to a canal that links Lake Union and Puget Sound, “place” means the smell of just-fallen cedar boughs and salty, piquant air, the sweet tartness of blackberries (and the scratch of blackberry thorns), the light gray of near-constant clouds, the rough-voiced calls of seagulls, and the rumble of boat engines. It is exhilarating to offer children this place as home ground.

Other places are less compelling as home ground. What does it mean to do this work of connecting children to place when the immediate environment numbs rather than delights the senses? What can we embrace in a school neighborhood dominated by concrete, cars, and convenience stores?

Children’s worlds are small, detailed places—the crack in the sidewalk receives their full attention, as does the earthworm flipping over and over on the pavement after rainfall. Children have access to elements of the natural world that many adults don’t acknowledge. When we, like the children, tune ourselves more finely, we find the natural world waiting for us: cycles of light and dark, the feel and scent of the air, the particularities of the sky—these are elements of the natural world that can begin to anchor us in a place.

Rather than contribute to a sense of disconnection from place by writing off the environments around our most urban schools as unsalvageable or not worth knowing, teachers can instill in children an attitude of attention to the natural world in their neighborhoods. The sense of care for and connection to place becomes the foundation for a critical examination of how that place has been degraded. Rick Bass, in The Book of Yaak, describes his experience of the interplay between love of place and willingness to see the human damage done to that place: “As it became my home, the wounds that were being inflicted upon it—the insults—became my own.”

Every child lives someplace. And that someplace begins to matter when we invite children to know where they are and to participate in the unfolding life of that place—they come to know the changes in the light and the feel of the air, and participate in a community of people who speak of such things.

Cultivating an Ecological Identity
Children know how to live intimately in place; they allow themselves to be imprinted by place. They give themselves over to the natural world, throwing endless rocks into a river, digging holes that go on forever, poking sticks into slivers of dirt in pavement, finding their way up the orneriest tree. They learn about place with their bodies and hearts. We can underscore that intuited, sensual, experiential knowledge by fostering a conscious knowledge of place.

How do we cultivate a love of place in young children’s hearts and minds, moving beyond the tenets of recycling to intimate connection with their home ground? From my experiences as a childcare teacher, I’ve distilled a handful of principles.

• Walk the land.
• Learn the names.
• Embrace sensuality.
• Explore new perspectives.
• Learn the stories.
• Tell the stories.

My primary work is as a teacher in a full-day, year-round childcare program in an urban Seattle neighborhood that serves families privileged by race, class, and education. I’ve also worked closely with teachers and children in urban Head Start programs. The principles I suggest resonate in these widely varying contexts; all children deserve home ground.

Walk the Land
Contemporary U.S. culture is about novelty and fast-moving entertainment: a million television channels to surf, and news stories that flash bright and burn out fast. This disposition to move quickly and look superficially translates to a lack of authentic engagement with the Earth: Get to as many national parks as we can in a two-week vacation, drive to a scenic view, take some photos, and drive to the next place.
As teachers, we must be mindful of this cultural disposition to superficial knowledge. It’s easy to fall into the habit of aiming for novelty, offering children many brief encounters with places, experiences that leave them familiar with the surface, but not the depths. Instead, we ought to invite children to look below the surface, to move slowly, to know a place deeply.

For many years, my emphasis in planning summer field trips was to get to as many city parks and beaches as I could. Each week, we’d head out to two or three different places, so that by the end of the summer we’d taken a grand tour of the city. I thought that by visiting a range of places in Seattle, the children would come to know their city. We had a hoot on those trips, but each place was a first encounter, and offered novelty rather than intimacy. The children came away from those summers not so much with a sense of place as with confusion about how these various places fit together to make up their home ground. We’d skimmed the surface of Seattle, but didn’t know its depths.

Now, my emphasis has shifted. I plan regular visits to the same two or three places over the course of a year. Spending time at the same park and the same beach, we see it change throughout the year. I point out landmarks on the beach to help the children track the tide’s movement up and down the beach. At the park, we choose a couple of trees that we visit regularly; we take photos and sketch them to help us notice the nuances of their seasonal cycles. From the top of a big rock at the park, the children play with their shadows on the ground below, noticing how shadow and light change over the year. The children greet the rhododendron bushes like dear old friends, and know the best places to find beetles and slugs.

My commitment to walking the land consciously with children has changed how I walk with them to the park in our neighborhood. I used to focus our walk on getting there efficiently and safely, and chose our route accordingly. Now, I’ve charted a longer route, one that takes us past a neighbor’s yard full of rosemary and lavender and tall wild grasses. We take our time walking past this plot of earth, and I coach the children to point out what they notice about this familiar place. I worried that the children would become bored, walking the same path every day, or would stop seeing the land, so I developed several rituals for our walk. We pause at the rosemary to monitor changes in its fragrance, buds, and foliage, and to watch for the arrival of spit bugs, whose foamy nests delight the children. We pause at the wild grass to compare its growth to the children’s growth, an inexact but joyfully chaotic measurement.

Learn the Names
When we talk about the natural world, we often speak in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we see: “a bird,” “a butterfly,” “a tree.” We are unpracticed observers, clumsy in our seeing, quick to lump a wide range of individuals into broad, indistinct groups. These generalities are a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this red-winged blackbird, here on the dogwood branch, singing its unique song.

Most of us don’t have much of a repertoire of plant, insect, animal, tree, or bird names; I sure don’t. For many years, I wasn’t particularly interested in learning the names of the flora and fauna, and imagined that learning the names would be a chore, a tedious exercise in memorization. When I turned 40 and visited Utah’s red rock desert, it awakened me to a passionate love, born in my eastern Washington childhood, which I’d forgotten, or never consciously acknowledged: love for a spacious, uncluttered horizon, love for dirt, rock, and sage, for heat and dust and stars, for open sky. Being there taught me that learning the names is an exercise in love. I was in an entirely unfamiliar place, and had only the clumsiest of generic names for what I encountered: a bush, a rock, a lizard. As I began to fall in love with the red rock desert, I wanted to know everything about it, including the names it holds. I bought a field guide and began to learn the names—the identities—of the plants, the creatures, the types of rock. Each name was a step closer into relationship. The names helped me locate myself in the desert.

I carry a field guide to the Pacific Northwest with me now, when I’m out with the children in my group. We take it with us when we walk to the school playground around the corner, and when we go farther afield. We turn to it when we encounter a bug we don’t recognize or find an unfamiliar creature revealed by a low tide. And I’ve created lotto and matching games from the field guide, photocopying images of familiar trees, birds, marine creatures. We use the images for matching games and bingo games: Together, we’re learning the names of this place that is our shared home ground.

Embrace Sensuality
In a culture that values intellect more than intuition or emotion, typical environmental education too often emphasizes facts and information in lieu of experience. Plenty of plastic animals, nature games, videos, and books for children invite them to intellectualize—and commodify—the natural world. Teacher resource catalogues offer activity books and games that teach about endangered species, rain forest destruction, pollution, and recycling. These books and games keep the natural world at a distance.

To foster a love for place, we must engage our bodies and our hearts—as well as our minds—in a specific place. Intellectual and critical knowledge needs a foundation of sensual awareness, and, for very young children, sensual awareness is the starting place for other learning. How does the air feel on your skin? What birds do you hear on the playground?

A friend of mine taught in a Head Start program in a housing development that had been the scene of several shootings, and that had more graffiti than green. She wrestled with how to stir children’s numbed senses awake in that harsh landscape where playing outdoors was dangerous. She decided to bring the sensual natural world into her classroom. She added cedar twigs to the sand table, and chestnuts, and stems of lavender. She included pinecones and seashells in the collection of play dough toys. She supplemented her drama area with baskets of rocks and shells, and included tree limbs, driftwood, stumps, and big rocks in her block area. She played CDs of birds native to the Northwest. And in early fall each year, she welcomed the children to her program with feasts of ripe blackberries, making jam and cobbler with the children, telling them about her adventures picking the blackberries in a wild bramble in the alley behind her apartment building.

Explore New Perspectives
Living in a place over time can breed a sense of familiarity, and familiarity can easily slip into a belief that we’ve got the land figured out. We stop expecting to be surprised, to be jolted into new ways of seeing; we become detached from the vitality of a place.

Our challenge is to see with new eyes, to look at the familiar as though we’re seeing it for the first time. When we look closely and allow ourselves to be surprised by unexpected details and new insights, we develop an authenticity and humility in our experience of place, and wake up to its mysteries and delights.

Several years ago, one of the 4-year-old children in my group posed a simple question: Why do the leaves change color? Her question startled me awake: I saw the transformation of color through her eyes, a phenomenon consciously witnessed only once or twice in her young life, and one full of mystery and magic. Her question deserved my full attention, not a recital of the muddled information that I remembered from my science classes in school, and not a quick glance at an encyclopedia. Madeline’s question launched our group on an in-depth study of the lives of leaves that carried us through the seasons.

My co-teacher, Sandra, and I took the children on a walk through the neighborhood to study the trees. Moving from one tree to the next, we began to see a pattern, and shared our observation with the children: the leaves on the outermost branches began to change color before the leaves in the center of the tree. The children built on our observation, adding what they’d noticed: The leaves first changed color on their outermost edges, while the center of the leaves remained green. I suggested that we gather leaves to bring back to our room, where we could study them up close and record what we observed, sketching the details that we saw and adding nuances of color with watercolor paint. As we sketched the lines of the leaves, children pointed out the resemblance between the skeletal lines of leaves—the “bones” of a leaf, the children called them—and the tendons and lines on our hands: “The lines of the leaf feel like human bones.” “The lines are like the lines on our hands.” Excited by the children’s observations, I suggested that we sketch our hands, just as we’d sketched the leaves, knowing that our sketching would help us see ourselves in new ways, as cousins to leaves.
As we sketched, I asked the children to reflect on why the leaves change color in the autumn. “What is it about autumn that makes leaves change from green to red, orange, brown?” The children generated several theories: “In the fall, it’s cold. Leaves huddle together on the ground to get warm. The trees are cold because they don’t have any leaves to keep them warm.” “The color is a coat to keep the leaves warm, because it’s cold in the fall.”

From this analysis, one child made a leap that deepened our conversation: “Leaves get sad when they start to die.” From this decidedly unscientific conjecture, the children forged a potent connection to the leaves: “Like we give comfort to others when they’re sad, the plant needs comfort.” “I think a hug would help a leaf, and being with the leaf.” “Maybe you could stay with it. You just give it comfort before it dies.” “When it drops on the ground, that’s when it needs you.”

At Hilltop, we use an emergent pedagogy, developing curriculum from the children’s questions and pursuits. In our study of the lives of leaves, I experienced the value of this pedagogy, as we lingered with questions, theories, and counter-theories, and with our not knowing. Our emergent curriculum framework allowed us to explore Madeline’s question in the spirit in which it was posed: a question about the meaning of change and the identity of leaves. Through our exploration, we became intimates of leaves, anchored in our place.

Learn the Stories
To foster an intimate relationship with place, we need to know the stories and histories that are linked to that place, just as we do in our intimate relationships with people. In our work with young children, our focus in gathering these stories is as much about the children’s imaginings as it is about scientific facts. We can invite their conjectures to complement the facts, opening the door to heartfelt connections.

Visiting a Head Start program one afternoon, I watched Natalie catch ants on the asphalt slab that served as the program’s playground. She hovered over a crack in the pavement, carefully picking up each ant that crawled from the crack and dropping it into a bucket. Curious about her intention, I asked what she was planning for the ants: “They’re bugs and we hafta kill them.” I imagined contexts in her life in which this could be true: Had her family dealt with invasive insects at home? Had she experienced the pain of bee stings and itch of mosquito bites? I wanted respectfully to acknowledge these sorts of experiences, yet I didn’t want them to become her only references for understanding and relating to the natural world. I said, “Sometimes, when bugs come into our houses, we have to kill them to keep ourselves healthy. And some bugs can bite us in painful ways. But sometimes we don’t have to worry so much about the bugs we find. I’m curious about these ants. Where do you suppose they come from?”

Natalie was quick to imagine the ants’ story: “The ants are in the hole talking. If they hear loud noises, they won’t come out. We have to be very quiet! If they see us, they stay in because they’re scared. When one ant wasn’t looking, I got him! I’m faster than them—that’s how I catch them.”

“What’s in the hole that the ants come from?” I asked.

“Maybe their family,” Natalie mused. I offered her a clipboard and a pen, and invited her to draw what she imagined was in the hole. She began to sketch, talking aloud as she worked: “They’re a family. They talk to each other and bring food to their baby. In the house, there’s food and a table and a bed and a seat.”

Natalie stopped drawing to look into her bucket: “There’s 15 ants in the bucket! That’s more than one family. That’s a lot of families. They share one house in the hole. The ants come not fast because they’re talking, saying their plan to come out to see what’s outside. They want to find their family that’s in the bucket. The ants in the bucket want to get out of the bucket and go to their family.”

Natalie abruptly dumped the bucket upside down next to the crack in the pavement, and tapped it on its bottom. “Go home, ants! Go to your home. Go to your family.”

When I invited Natalie to imagine the ants’ story it helped her see her bucket from the inside as well as from above, and shifted her relationships with the ants. She moved from a defensive posture to that of being a protector. Particularly for children living in places where the natural world is degraded or dangerous, imagining the stories of a place can inspire new possibilities; it casts children into an active role as people who care about and take action on behalf of a place.

Tell the Stories
We’re often encouraged to see the Earth as landscape, which is scenery—something to look at, but not to participate in. But when we collapse the distance between the land and ourselves and allow ourselves to become part of the story of a place, we give ourselves over to intimacy. This can be our work with young children—weaving them into the story of the place where they live.

One way I’ve begun trying to link the children to the land is by using observable markers anchored in place to measure our lives. “You’ll start kindergarten in the fall, when the blackberries are ripe.” “Christmas comes in the darkest part of winter, when the sun sets while we’re still at school, and the sun doesn’t rise until we’re back at school the next morning.”

And I’ve been playing a game with the children that I learned from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, “The Sound of a Creature Not Stirring.” We listen for the sounds we don’t hear (a leaf changing color, an earthworm moving through the soil, blackberries ripening)—a way to focus our attention on the Earth around us and to participate in what’s happening in it.

A Foundation for Action
In The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World, Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world. Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work. . . . Obligation grows from love. It is the natural shape of caring.” She writes: “To love a person or a place is to take responsibility for its well-being.”

From love grows action. In my work with young children, I share stories of local environmental activists who have used their love of place to fuel their action. For example, I tell the story of a group of children and their families who launched a campaign to save the cedar tree at the school playground where we often play.

Children have loved the cedar tree at Coe School for a long time; children played at this tree even before you were born. One year, a mom was at a community meeting and learned that the city park department was planning to cut down the tree because it was damaging the asphalt on the playground with its big roots. She told the children in her daughter’s kindergarten class, and those children and their families decided that they had to work to protect the cedar tree and to help the park department find another way to fix the problem of broken asphalt. The children and their families wrote letters to the city workers, telling them about how much they loved the cedar tree, and sharing their ideas for taking good care of the tree and the pavement on the playground. They had a meeting with the city workers, who hadn’t known that the tree was important to the children. After the meeting, the city workers decided not to cut down the tree; they made a plan with the children and their families and the other kids at Coe School about how they could work together to fix the asphalt and take care of the tree.

I watch for opportunities for the children to add their own chapters to the story of activism on behalf of beloved places. I want them to see themselves as part of a community of people anchored by fierce and determined love of place and who take responsibility for its well-being.

The poet Mary Oliver instructs us on how to open the natural world to children: “Teach the children. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
And devotion is the beginning of action.

Ann Pelo is a teacher educator, program consultant, and author whose primary work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning, and the art of mentoring. She is the author of five books, including The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identify in Young Children; Rethinking Early Childhood Education/ and The Language of Art: Inquiry-based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings.

This article is reprinted with permission from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Available from www.rethinkingschools.org.

Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Teaching Science:

SalmonWatch1811-72Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Let’s say you wish to incorporate an activity in the neighborhood of your school into a unit you are planning in science, and have been thinking about asking the math teacher if she would be interested in working with you. Then you learn from a friend that plants on the bank of a stream, when they are in leaf, pull water from the ground to use for photosynthesis. In fact, she tells you, they pull so much water up that the level of the stream drops visibly. This observable change in the height of the stream seems to you to be a door to math, writing, science, and perhaps even art. So, you begin thinking.

There is a creek which runs past the southeast corner of the school grounds, and you decide to use it as the site where your students will make their observations. You check it out, and find a spot where they can set a meter stick on a flat bottom rock to take their measurements. The creek is no more than twenty inches deep at its highest level on the bank, so you don’t have to be overly concerned about student safety while they take their measurements, and you decide to plan for doing the work.

Students will work in groups of four, which, for this class, means seven groups. If the creek traveled farther through the school grounds, you could have each group set up its own measuring site. Since that’s not the case, you decide to have the groups make quick depth measurements so that you can walk to the creek, take measurements within 15 minutes, and return to the classroom. As they wait their turn, each group estimates the percent leaf cover, based on what they think 100% leaf coverage would look like. You could have had the groups observe different aspects of the creek, but decided that would involve too much planning and confusion. This is your first effort outside the classroom, and you just don’t want to make it more complicated than it already is. A wise decision.

Now, you have to work out how the observations they will make tie to more than one curricular area. This is the tricky bit. You decide to have each group hang a data sheet on the classroom walls, depicting the data they have taken in ways they feel best illustrate their observations and interpretations. To enable them to do this, you and a math teacher help them learn to make data tables, how to organize these tables to make best sense of the data, learn to graph the data and how to make decisions about what to place on the x- and y-axes. As the work progresses, you and the math teacher have students review and assess their tabulation and graphing practices. Here’s a question for you: Are any of the above activities covered in the math standards?

As students move through this work, you coordinate with their language arts teacher to build in writing and reading activities which are tied to standards that teacher is working on. For instance, you want your students to describe what the project is about, how they are making their observations, what they think these will show them, and how this whole system works from the time rain falls from the clouds until it is either incorporated into carbohydrates, or enters the creek. How many disciplines’ standards describe this kind of work?

Thinking about this, you decide to ask their art teacher if there are ways they can use her curricula to communicate student work in this project. She replies that she’ll think about it, and may be able to work it into what they will do later in the year. Encouraged by this, and the willingness of the math and language arts teachers to work with you, you decide to start exploring standards to see how they play out in the work as you’ve visualized and planned it.

What follows are three broad phases of this project, and up to three standards each addresses in each discipline. I chose 6th grade because it is at the middle of the K-12 experience. Note that the standards named in each area were chosen from a myriad of possible standards. Some may involve more than one part of the project, but are mentioned only once. Here they are:

• Choosing the location for the project, discussion and decision to estimate leafout and measuring depth of the stream, the processes it will involve, and who will carry them out. Students perform a preliminary assessment of the site via sketches which will inform an annotated collage/painting produced in the final stages of the project. Together, they involve aspects of these standards:

Art – Make connections between visual arts and other disciplines. Create a work of art, selecting and applying artistic elements and technical skills to achieve desired effect.

Language Arts – Apply more than one strategy for generating ideas and planning writing. Generate ideas prior to organizing them and adjust prewriting strategies accordingly (e.g., brainstorm a list, select relevant ideas/details to include in piece of writing). Delegate parts of writing process to team members (e.g., during prewriting, one team member gathers Internet information while another uses the library periodicals).

Mathematics – Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another. Model with mathematics. Describe the nature of the attribute under investigation, including how it was measured and its units of measurement.

Science – Explain how the boundaries of a system can be drawn to fit the purpose of the study. Generate a question that can be answered through scientific investigation. (This may involve refining or refocusing a broad and ill-defined question.) Describe the water cycle and give local examples of where parts of the water cycle can be seen.

• Students make their observations and carry out the plan for their investigation. This involves these standards:

Art – Choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas. Recognize and describe how technical, organizational and aesthetic elements contribute to the ideas, emotions and overall impact communicated by works of art. Describe how elements of art are used to create balance, unity, emphasis, illusion of space and rhythm-movement.

Language Arts – Maintain a journal or an electronic log to collect and explore ideas; record observations, dialogue, and/or description for later use as a basis for informational or literary writing. Understand and apply new vocabulary. Use multiple resources regularly to identify needed changes (e.g., writing guide, adult, peer, criteria and/or checklist, thesaurus).

Mathematics – Graph ordered pairs of rational numbers and determine the coordinates of a point in the coordinate plane. Represent a problem situation, describe the process used to solve the problem, and verify the reasonableness of the solution. Find a percent of a quantity as a rate per 100 (e.g., 30% of a quantity means 30/100 times the quantity).

Science – Plan and conduct a scientific investigation (e.g., field study, systematic observation, controlled experiment, model, or simulation) that is appropriate for the question being asked. Work collaboratively with other students to carry out the investigations. Predict what may happen to an ecosystem if nonliving factors change (e.g., the amount of light, range of temperatures, or availability of water or habitat), or if one or more populations are removed from or added to the ecosystem.

• Students are conducting the analysis and synthesis of their data, and constructing, critiquing, and presenting their reports. This work involves these standards:

Art – Respond to works of art, giving reasons for preferences.

Language Arts – Use a variety of prewriting strategies (e.g., story mapping, listing, webbing, jotting, outlining, free writing, brainstorming). Produce multiple drafts. Publish in a format that is appropriate for specific audiences and purposes.

Mathematics – Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables. Determine whether or not a relationship is proportional and explain your reasoning.

Science –Summarize the results from a scientific investigation and use the results to respond to the question or hypothesis being tested. Organize and display relevant data, construct an evidence-based explanation of the results of an investigation and communicate the conclusions. Recognize and interpret patterns – as well as variations from previously learned or observed patterns – in data, diagrams, symbols, and words.


To me, the project, outside and inside the classroom, appears to act as a vortex, drawing several disciplines into it; integrating them in the process. The effect of this activity in the students’ brains must be related to their involvement and investment in the work, and empowerment as persons that teachers and others report when they describe student work in the world about. In most cases, this outcome is also associated with success in passing the annual tests students take to measure their accomplishment of state and national standards.

It takes courage for a teacher in today’s schools to attempt something like this. What we need are teachers and environmental educators who have done this kind of work to mentor those who haven’t, but would like to. A good place to start that would be at annual state science teacher conferences, and at state and regional environmental educator conferences. I know from my own personal experience teaching and working with teachers that a little help goes a long way. If you’re interested in the idea, leave a comment. Or, better yet, write an article and post it here. Or (where did I find this thought?) be a conference presenter.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”


Are economies the only things that expand and contract?

Are economies the only things that expand and contract?

Are Economies the Only Things that Expand and Contract?

Do we need to inject more time for contemplation into our curricula?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor


Photo by Jim Martin

Concentration and contemplation. Expand and contract. Walk drive. Makes life varied, interesting, doable. In school, the intensity of work in the field or lab can make the follow-up work seem interminable. Slowing down to contemplate and write may seem, not a waste of time, but using time that needs to be spent preparing for the next test or lab or field trip. Some of us assume it can be done quickly, just make a table, graph the data in the table, and write a one-paragraph conclusion, then move on. But it’s contemplation that drives home the learnings. And makes life purposeful and meaningful. Even at the cellular level, it takes neurons time, hours to days to weeks or more, to lay down an effective memory. Even though the transmissions that set up the neuronal networks involved in that memory moved at velocities well over 100 meters per second. Contractions and expansions, working together to make the world meaningful.

Years ago, Dryas and I met a man who loved to restore old homes. Something he enjoyed working with, and which was a pleasant surprise for me, was the concept of expansion and contraction of space. For instance, two large spaces, two rooms, in our house were linked by a short, low, narrow passage. Moving from one room to another meant leaving a large space, contracting as you traversed a low, narrow space, and then expanding again into a large space. Traversing them was a small adventure. How do we recognize and use these large and small elements of our lives? Do we even allow them?

Even when life becomes unbearable – a bitter divorce, the death of one we’re close to – the emotional contraction is concentrated, intense, then opens to an expansion into a world we’re beginning to know and explore. The period before the event, if it was a life involved and invested in, was an expansion, the time we enter into understanding. It’s this concentrated period of exposing ourselves to new information, then moving to an extended period of contemplation that has the capacity to consolidate new learnings so they become elements we can easily bring to mind and to bear on new experiences. Even divorce and death.

Life today seems to emphasize contractions – tweets, texts, two people with lattes sit together talking to others on their cell phones – does it allow expansion, contemplation? As I write this, I look around my favorite coffee and crepe house and see people, many 20- and 30-somethings, talking and laughing, talking and thinking, reading; or eyes past the window, lost in thought. From time to time, a hand caresses a cell phone to life, an eye glances to see what’s there, then hand returns to thought, book, or friends. As people, we haven’t lost contemplation. Those who seem to be distracted are probably the same who have always found contemplation difficult. Of the hundred-plus people I’ve friended on Facebook, only a few send constant updates, and most of those, I know, spend quality time in contemplation.

And so it should be in school, but, paralleling school’s inability to adequately help us prepare for life in the real world, contractions tend to be the norm. Checking off standards seems to be our frenetic response to the need for doing a better job of teaching. Even though teaching less, but in more depth – expansion and contemplation – results in a better education. Test scores around the world tell us that our capacity to pass similar tests is well below that of the rest of the highly developed world. So we try to catch up by emphasizing test preparation in schools, and track our progress on tests of academic standards. We even invest heavily in preparing to take these tests. What we don’t emphasize is learning for understanding.

We don’t really understand something unless we’ve done it, thought about it, and done it again. And talked about it, and thought about it. Learning and memorizing facts in order to pass tests is effective when we are learning how to stop and go through a series of traffic lights, or to use a drill press effectively without injuring a finger. It doesn’t work as well for learning or modifying concepts for understanding. The networks of neurons for this kind of learning, learning for understanding, are much larger, and provide a broader base of information for understanding when we encounter something new. Students whose teachers engage this larger approach to teaching actually score better on standards tests than those where teachers focus significant amounts of time on preparing their students for these very tests. Let’s look at this.

Concentration and contemplation; what does this look like as an organizer for delivering curriculum? Let’s move from one large room to another via a narrow, arched passageway – contemplation, concentration, contemplation. One step further: Let’s follow the last contemplation with a sharp contraction.

Walking through the first room, observing and thinking about what’s there, we find people reading, discussing, working computers, writing. They’ve been presented with a question, “What about its local habitat influences where macroinvertebrates decide to spend their time?” The question is a short cut, devised by the students’ teacher to save time. The class has three days to develop a list of possibilities, discuss them, and find out how to observe them. They’ll do this in their work groups.

Even while they’re in this large room dedicated to contemplating the problem, some moments are busier than others, such as when they are deciding whether to add water temperature to the list, since the creek near the school has a generally predictable temperature. So, I might modify my metaphor to include large and small areas within the room; a room, nevertheless, where students know they have time to do the work.

What the teacher has done by phrasing the question in its particular way is to induce her students to employ higher level cognitive skills as a vehicle for learning. (And defining the limits of the playing field. An effectively devious method of setting boundaries.) Instead of starting by finding and memorizing facts, students begin by assessing and discriminating the macroinvertebrate habitat, which induces them to seek, acquire, and understand information, and apply what they find to answering the teacher’s prompt. This work takes time, involves research and what I call ‘negotiation of meaning’, where discourse begins to clarify meaning. While busy, students have time to think and digest information they have sought and found. Time to make sense of what they are learning. And to assure ownership of the learning.

They are starting by delineating and assessing a habitat with a mind toward developing a concept which includes macroinvertebrates and aspects of their habitat. Instead of being taught specifics about macroinvertebrates and stream habitats, then moving up the line, they start at a higher conceptual level, and the impetus for working at the lower levels comes from the students themselves by following up on the needs-to-know that emerge from their work. And they will spend their time learning the basics more effectively than if we teach to them from the front of the classroom. Not only that, but they will remember what they discover. That is what we’re after if we’re teachers.

Now, to a contraction. So they decide on temperature, water depth and velocity, characteristics of the bottom, and algae, as aspects of the local habitat which might influence where macroinvertebrates live. Now, they need intense concentration on how to observe and measure these. Then they put this into a design to answer the over-arching question, go out to the creek, and do the work. This is a straight-forward operation, much like what they usually experience in school. Except that it was derived almost entirely from their own minds. The things we’re charged with developing.

Next in the contraction is to do the work, followed by an expansion to process and interpret results. They’ll need to tabulate and analyze their results, then synthesize and interpret what emerges. After this, they will prepare to communicate their results. These processes will engage discussion and contemplation as they begin to comprehend what they have learned. By this time, they will be the owners of their learnings, and you will be tweaking things here and there to tie down the learnings which are your main curricular goals.
The final contraction? Go back to the site to follow up on questions that arose in reporting. Rarely done, but nails down the learnings. Products of their own minds.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”