Archive for the ‘politics and environment’ Category

Last October, I wrote a post thinking about the 21st Century Education movement that concluded with an idea for a new course:

What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindlenot in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic . . . think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon.

Well, I quickly managed to ensnare my friend and wunderkind colleague (and edublogger) Peyten Dobbs to help me propose, develop, and teach the course, and my principal leapt at the opportunity when we presented it to him (having Peyten on board no doubt helped). So here we are, two and a half weeks into just such a learning expedition, one that will likely rank among the most interesting of my career. It’s high time I put up a blog post with a few details and some early observations.

The official title of the course is Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing, and it’s one of a slate of semester-long writing courses that our 8th graders can sign up for as a supplement to their year-long English course. Workshop has been a course offering for at least the 15 years I’ve been here, but this year marks a substantial (and needed) revision in that we’re offering themed sections (others include screenwriting, journalism, and literary magazine) with an emphasis on publication to an authentic audience. Compared to the previous incarnation of Workshop, which had the students writing a series of short papers with perfunctory purpose (a descriptive paper, a persuasive essay, etc) and an audience of one (the teacher), Environmental Writing looks to capitalize on the the allure of real-world relevance and controversy and provide compelling reasons for writing—writing first as a tool for learning about complex issues and later to communicate our findings and positions about what we’ve learned.

True to the blog post that started us on this path, we’ve started the year by jumping straight into the political controversy and cultural confusion surrounding the issue of global warming: on Friday we completed our viewing of An Inconvenient Truth, and this week we’ll begin The Great Global Warming Swindle. We’ll follow these two films with a short piece by science writer Peter Hadfield that takes a critical look at both. By this point we expect the students to feel both bewildered and bestirred, suffering from some serious cognitive dissonance and ready to dig a bit deeper to find out just who is telling the truth, so we’ll set them up in groups to identify and investigate their questions and make sense of the confusion. Ultimately, each group will tasked—after choosing a format and audience—with communicating what they have learned, both about the issue in question and learning in general.

At least that’s the idea. There are lots of details still to be worked out as we go, as we’re not entirely sure what directions the class will want to take and want to leave the options open. So far, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine of watching film for about half the class period and then quietly writing to process our individual thoughts, feelings, and questions. Then again, perhaps “comfortable” is exactly the wrong word—already, I think, the students have a sense for just how much of an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride they have ahead of them. Conversely, Peyten and I are pleased that relevance and controversy have animated the classroom and ignited learning as we had hoped. Starting later this week, we’ll inaugurate a class blog where two students per day will give updates, sharing what we’re up to and what they have to say about it—I’ll be sure to provide a link once we have it up and running.

Well, I started this post promising some early observations, but I see I’ve gone on long enough (and the hour is late enough) that I’ll just have to save them for now. I’ve already got several months’-worth of blog fodder after just the first couple of weeks, so watch this space. And fire away with your questions—one of my favorite things about blogging is how comments and push-back from my readers (all five of you) help me question my assumptions and hone my thinking.


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In the lively comments thread following my last post, my long-time friend Mike voiced vigorous opposition to its central premise:

I don’t think that Sustainability or Environmental Science should be a concern of any level when discussing Big-E education (meaning public school). Public education already suffers from big tent rainbow syndrome. The curriculum is ridiculously bloated. I view the insertion of Sustainability and related nature field trips as just one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.

I should mention that I met Mike when we were fellow English Education students 15 years ago.  He had a brief but accomplished career in the high school classroom before moving on to the corporate world, and his wife continues to do terrific work as an elementary school teacher, currently within the Atlanta Public Schools system.  His voice is not one to be summarily dismissed. I promised him a thoughtful response, so here goes . . .

Over the years, David Orr of Oberlin College has been one of the educators and writers to most profoundly influence my thinking (I particularly recommend his book Earth in Mind), and so I’ll start with a simple quote of his that has become perhaps my philosophical touchstone:

All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum.

It seems patently obvious to me that we have an obligation, in teaching our students about the world they live in, to accurately render their relationship to it. If we neglect the environment in our curriculum, if we teach students that they stand apart from the natural world, then we are lying to them, plain and simple. To give another concrete example, I have written before about this failing in my own discipline and the typical English curriculum in secondary schools:

Literature—with its timeless role of examining the human condition—has always evolved to address the significant issues before each generation. In our curriculum, then, we rightly read and discuss works that deal thoughtfully with weighty and complex themes like race and gender and war. But as contemporary writing rapidly evolves to raise new questions about humanity’s role as a citizen of the ecological community, this new environmental literature has yet to be significantly included in the mainstream educational canon. That omission, I think, does send a message.

And it seems particularly short-sighted to cling to a status quo curriculum that largely and falsely ignores our connection to the natural world at a time when issues of sustainability grow inexorably more important with every given year. Given the current global trajectories of vital environmental indicators—population growth, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and ecosystem function decline—sustainability stands to dominate human affairs in the 21st century. In fact, Orr makes a strong case that our incomplete curriculum not only doesn’t help us understand environmental issues but actively exacerbates them:

Education is not widely regarded as a problem, although the lack of it is. The conventional wisdom holds that all education is good, and the more of it one has, the better . . . . The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth.

I’m not willing to go so far and reduce the value of education to such a stark dichotomy, as there are certainly other lenses than the environment through which we can assess it. But he has a point, doesn’t he? Here’s one context where the saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” seems penetrating and not clichéd. I don’t see environmental education as a mere add-on to an already overburdened curriculum. Instead, education will have to substantially evolve if it is to reflect and address our changing world.

Nonetheless, before I get too carried away with high-minded philosophizing, let me come back to Mike’s chief complaint, that in the imperfect real world of school, teaching sustainability is just “one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.” That’s a valid and noble concern. In some cases I’d agree—all attempts to teach sustainability are not created equal, and I’ve written before about ineffective and effective practices in this regard. Nonetheless, research evaluating cutting-edge approaches (such as the Place-Based Education and Environment as Integrating Context for Learning models) directly refutes Mike’s claim. Done well, environmental education increases student achievement in key core subjects (not just science), reduces discipline and classroom management problems, and promotes student engagement and ownership in learning. These findings square with my own teaching experiences: I routinely see levels of student enthusiasm and ignition in environmental education contexts that I rarely see anywhere else.  Simply put, relevance matters when it comes to curriculum and our students’ learning, and, as an integrating context, what could be richer and more relevant and compelling and rewarding than the environment?

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During the week before last, I traveled with a group of colleagues to attend Solution Tree’s 21st Century Education Summit in Chicago. It was a largely laudable conference, focused on transforming modern education in order to be relevant in and responsive to our students’ rapidly changing world. Colleagues Bo Adams (my Principal) and Bob Ryshke (Director of the Center for Teaching) do a nice job of processing the various sessions and messages herehere, and here in their own blogs. (Evidently they were communing with their keyboards in the evenings while I went out on the town with my less productive colleagues—shame on us.) Anyway, I found much to think about and much I already agreed with, having long placed an emphasis on the “4 C’s” (Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation) in own my classroom, in addition to my designated territory within the traditional “3 R’s.”

Nonetheless, with each successive speaker, a part of me became more and more disquieted, as all this talk of “how to prepare our students for the 21st Century” never substantively broached the subject of sustainability.  We heard, instead, a lot of talk about technology and Web 2.0 skills, about wikis and blogs and podcasts and Twitter, about providing and encouraging and leveraging connectivity among our students. Nothing about humanity’s running into non-negotiable ecological limits on a finite planet, about our need as educators to respond to and prepare for the ramifications. Searching for some sign of recognition of the latter, I kept looking at the upcoming session descriptions—surely, I thought, Robin Fogarty and Brian M. Pete will have to talk about the environment in a presentation titled “21st Century Thinking: What Will Our Kids Need to Know 25 Years From Now?” But alas. Kids evidently will need to know they can use their cell phones in class.

At the end of the second full day, I had the chance to raise this concern in the form of a written question for a panel discussion:

We live in a time when the scientific community is sounding alarms that human activity is beginning to alter the physics of our atmosphere and the chemistry of our oceans.  Why, then, does environmental sustainability not even make the conference agenda if our focus is on preparing students for the world they will live in?

The initial response among the panel was one of embarrassed admission, something to the effect of “Yeah, well, it probably should have.” My question then seemed to hit a sympathetic nerve with panel member Elliot Seif—”This is one of my pet peeves,” he started—who launched into some thoughts about how schools need to tackle the subject head on, about how if ever there was a subject calling for deep understanding through the application of the 4 C’s, this was it. “Why don’t more schools teach a course like this?” he asked.  Good question! More on his idea in a moment.

The panel moderator didn’t read out the second half of my question, which went something like this:

Given that societal disconnect from the natural world is the root cause of our environmental problems, should we be concerned that the 21st Century Education movement’s energetic embrace of technology will only further push our students into the virtual world and disconnect them from the real?

I was tactful and didn’t word my question to say that the 21st Century Education movement was “fetishizing” technology, but that’s how I was feeling at the time. One of the sessions earlier that day had been Bob Pearlman’s fascinating tour of innovative schools whose architecture, schedule, and curriculum had been designed to foster 21st century learning, to promote collaborative, project-based, student-centered work. Cool. And yet he shared several short videos in which the the majority of the screen shots had kids staring into a computer screen, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, and almost always indoors.  In fact, the cutting-edge school buildings he showcased seemed not to have many windows at all, and one architectural rendering he put up tellingly showed the interior configuration and the layout of the parking lot outside while the natural areas around the building were nothing but blank space. In a similar vein, in the conference’s single passing glance to environmental education, presenter Chris Dede shared an example of how students could learn environmental science by manipulating ecological variables and monitoring their effects in a virtual pond.  Sheesh. Have none of these people read Last Child in the Woods?

Look, I totally get it that we have a responsibility to help our students learn to productively navigate and leverage their web-and-media-saturated world.  They face an entirely different playing field than we did growing up, and this is one genie that is not going back in its bottle.  So we can either leave them to their own devices as they wander this new terrain or we can give them guidance.  I vote the latter.  But given our predicament, do we not also have a responsibility, maybe even more of a responsibility, to counterbalance the virtual with the real, to offer a compelling alternative narrative and to help our students connect with the natural world and just what it means to be human?

Ultimately, Elliot Seif was right when he suggested that the skills and practices currently branded as “21st Century Education” could and should be a powerful and productive tool for investigating and understanding what will, no doubt, be the mother of all 21st century subjects. In fact, a perfect example appeared in my RSS aggregator while I was in Chicago, in the form of a blog post from naturalist educator “Rebecca in the Woods,” reporting from the Georgia coast. Rebecca reports a great story of how she taps into the learning potential of the wired and connected world to identify a moth she has photographed—and ends up both learning a lot about moth identification and making a contribution to the science of lepidoptery in the process.  Even as digital distractions are leading more and more children to lead increasingly indoor lives, the internet is proving to be an exciting and powerful tool for naturalists and others.  We just need to be appropriately discerning, perhaps even skeptical, of our headlong embrace of the digital world.

As for Seif’s call for a dedicated course about sustainability, one designed around “21st Century Education” practices . . . well, I have a vision of what that might look like. What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle, not in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic. What an education in using the “4 C’s” that could be! And think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon. Web learning and digital networking would obviously be enormously important in a course like this, but the context would also prompt students to think about technology from multiple perspectives, would bring our planet back into the conversation.

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Along with death and taxes, if I can count on the certaintude of anything it would be that unusually cold weather will bring out snarky comments from my global-warming-skeptic friends—like the one that appeared today within minutes of my posting a Facebook status update hoping for snow this week.

So I’m passing along a great post from The Vine blog about the difference between climate and weather.  It can be a tedious waste of energy to try to explain the concept to someone who doesn’t really care to understand, but the following graphic does a nice job of quickly and clearly putting this cold snap into perspective:

Sure we still have record lows (and will continue to have them).  And we’ll continue to have more record highs.  That’s called weather.  The trend in the relative ratios, that’s called climate.

Another item from the blogosphere today . . .  I was interested in seeing this post—Why Believe in Manmade Climate Change?—on science writer David Appell’s blog Quark Soup, the first of what he plans as a regular series of interviews with actual scientists on the subject.   I was most intrigued to see him ask a variation of the question I posed here not too long ago: What would make you change your mind?  It will be interesting to hear how scientists answer that one, what evidence and metrics they would look for.

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In my RSS reader this week, thanks to the blog children: nature: play, I came across the following quote from the late theologian and philosopher Thomas Berry :

We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this perspective we must first make them autistic in their relation with the natural world about them. This disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them.

Alas this weekend was yet another weekend in which my kids became a little more “autistic in their relation with the natural world about them.”  A cold drizzle falling outside, they stayed indoors and watched a string of Christmas movies on the television while I caught up on some school work and Belinda baked cookies.  We made one major outing to a local outfitter to prepare for a ski trip later this week (yet another opportunity to buy more stuff).  I suppose it wasn’t a bad weekend, all told, but weekends like this have a way of stringing themselves together into months and entire seasons.  I realize with a shock that I’ve let an entire autumn slip by (my favorite season) without really getting outside with the boys for much more than their Saturday morning soccer games.

Berry’s assessment of us is dead on, I’m afraid.  Is it any wonder that our culture cannot reach consensus around caring for the natural world?  That we can reduce the environment to political abstraction?  That we don’t react the same to ecological warnings as we would for potential threats to our families?

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I have absolutely no intentions of becoming a full-time climate change blogger, but while the whole Copenhagen thing is going on, I suppose it’s topical.  Last weekend I even had a colleague corner me at a Christmas party to get my take on the latest news.  Nonetheless, because it’s a topic that’s either dull or depressing or both, I’m glad to pass along this little bit of brilliance even if I can endorse only the creativity and not the message.

Enjoy!  It’s not likely to have a long shelf life.

Oh, and by the way, the skeptical colleague that prompted me to first post about ClimateGate last week, well he gave me an answer to my simple question of “What would make you change your mind?”

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A few days ago, I posted the following in reaction to the whole ClimateGate controversy:

Nonetheless, if these emails do expose some sort of grand conspiracy, the skeptics are absolutely right that the whole global warming “house of cards” will collapse now that the secret is out.  Such a collapse won’t be evidenced by increased screaming in the blogosphere or lots of I-told-you-so “expert” commentary on Fox news.  Collapse will look like organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science being forced to take new positions or lose their credibility.  And I’ll adjust my opinions accordingly if they do.  But if the American Association for the Advancement of Science (and these other organizations) stands firmly behind the consensus view even given this increased scrutiny, then this whole ClimateGate affair will not change my opinion but do just the opposite.

Well, the AAAS has responded:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has reaffirmed the position of its Board of Directors and the leaders of 18 respected organizations, who concluded based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway, and it is a growing threat to society.

The vast preponderance of evidence, based on years of research conducted by a wide array of different investigators at many institutions, clearly indicates that global climate change is real, it is caused largely by human activities, and the need to take action is urgent,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science . . .

“AAAS takes issues of scientific integrity very seriously,” Leshner said. “It is fair and appropriate to pursue answers to any allegations of impropriety. It’s important to remember, though, that the reality of climate change is based on a century of robust and well-validated science.”

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