As a part of a committee exploring the topic of “sustainability” for our current re-accreditation self-study, I helped to deliver a workshop on sustainability education during our Faculty Forum in-service days at the beginning of this school year. While other committee members gave tours of our new greenhouse and organic garden and introduced the solar photovoltaic array we installed last spring, I (re)introduced my peers to a little pocket of campus woodland and, in doing so, offered some thoughts about best practices in environmental education. What follows, the first of an occasional series about “reinhabiting campus,” is both a distillation and an expansion of the thoughts I had to offer my colleagues on that sweltering day in August.
On my school’s campus, a paved walkway through the trees connects an older structure known as the “Gym in the Woods” to our state-of-the-art elementary school building. Every day, scores of youngsters and their teachers walk this path on their way to P.E. class, descending a forested slope and crossing a tiny tributary of Nancy Creek on a footbridge at the bottom. I wonder what our students see as they traverse this space. Do they know and love these woods as part of “a community to which we belong,” to borrow Aldo Leopold’s famous phrase, or does this leafy corridor pass by as a green blur, mere backdrop to their transit? Students and faculty alike, we are proud of our 180-acre campus, but how well do we know its stories? For most of us, this little cove forest is a forgotten corner, one among many. But if we really took the time to get to know our campus, what might it have to teach us, and how might it change us?
Several years ago, as our school planned for construction of a new Junior High building, this particular hillside was considered as a possible site. However, the tract was eventually rejected because it is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species, I’ve been told. I don’t know any details about the plant in question, and neither, so far, does anyone else that I’ve asked. And yet here’s a real opportunity to make learning about endangered species, which is (I presume) a part of our curriculum, more experiential and less abstract for our students. First-hand experience in an increasingly virtual world—here’s an opening not to be missed. In an age when kids can easily research far-flung examples like pandas and tigers and seas turtles on the internet, we run a high risk of making important ecological concepts too abstract and disconnected from their everyday lives and surroundings. At its heart, good environmental education should be experiential, should work to reverse this tendency toward abstraction and disconnection (which lies at the heart of all of our environmental problems), not perpetuate it.
Even though I don’t know any specifics about the plant in question (being in need of some experiential learning, myself), I’d speculate that this particular population’s future is cloudy at best. Even if this pocket of woodland remains safe from future development, it (like many of the forested areas on campus) is being steadily overrun by invasive species—English ivy and Chinese privet and some sort of teeming bamboo. Left unchecked, these alien invaders will steadily crowd out native species, both rare and common alike—that’s what invasive species do. And yet here’s another opportunity—with hard work and commitment and the right expertise, invasive species can be controlled and even removed. Forests can be restored to health, as Trees Atlanta does around the city with impressive results. Given the flood of bad news regarding the environment faced by youth today, good environmental education includes service learning to encourage a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal. Our students could work to research, design, and implement a restoration plan for this little watershed. In doing so, they would personally take part in the protection of an endangered species and develop both the connection and the commitment to the natural world that effective environmental education should foster.
And from there? Lately I’ve become a regular reader of the blog Blue Jay Barrens, a daily chronicle of a property in Southern Ohio that is “managed to improve the integrity of the special ecosystems found here.” Author Steve Wilson shares a wealth of information on local human and natural history and ecology, the result of careful and sustained attention to his natural neighborhood. In Steve’s blog I see a possible model which our students might emulate, providing the impetus for their own careful and sustained observations as well as an opportunity to write for and connect with an authentic audience. Sharing their experiences of getting to know this place, documenting its richness in words and images, they’d be both reinforcing their own connections and helping to educate the wider school community. Moreover, such a project moves environmental education beyond it’s Science Department beachhead, and good environmental education is transdisciplinary. The current educational paradigm of rigid disciplinary separation is one that denies the basic ecological principle of interconnection, one that inhibits our students’ ability to productively participate in a rapidly changing world beset with challenges that are transdisciplinary by nature.
Update: Middlewood Journal is another blog (featuring beautifully illustrated nature journal entries) that I follow. It’s also a great model for the kind of transdisciplinary work our students could do.
Ultimately, we have much to learn about this community to which we belong, and I entertain a vision that we might reorient segments of our curriculum around becoming informed and engaged community members. We can start by learning about our campus’ history, both natural and human. We can gather scientific data to document and monitor its biodiversity. We can conduct meaningful restoration work and track the results. Networking with audiences near and far, we can share our story of learning to meaningfully and responsibly reinhabit campus.
Exactly how this all happens—well, I don’t know exactly. For starters, the metronomic fracturing of the standard school day presents an obvious barrier, as does the reality of well-entrenched departmental curricular aims.
But those are topics for other posts . . . I don’t want to give up the vision just yet.
Want to hear more? The thread continues with reinhabiting campus: a starting point.
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