Posts Tagged ‘environmental education’

Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.


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Day four down the Altamaha was predictably terrific. We swam, we laughed, we lounged, we paddled, we ambushed trip leader Joe Cook’s canoe with a perfectly planned and executed water cannon sneak attack. We look at the daily map less and less, no longer so concerned with how far it is to the take-out.

But we go to bed tonight with a bit of worry about tomorrow. For starters, the daily mileage takes a big jump upward—we’re looking at a 22 mile day. That in itself isn’t a big deal (today’s fifteen miles was almost casual), but sadly we won’t be paddling the same river: two miles below tomorrow’s put-in, this beautiful river becomes a sewer, accepting 50 million gallons a day of wastewater from the Rayonier Pulp Mill in Jesup.

According to Joe and others who have run this stretch before, this effluent has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed—”it will seriously make you gag” is the common refrain—and the river doesn’t start to feel clean again for some twenty miles or so downstream. Last year, the Georgia Water Coalition ranked the Altamaha as #2 on its Dirty Dozen list of the most polluted or impacted Georgia rivers (topped only by 33,000 fish being killed after a spill last May on the nearby Ogeechee.). Take a look at these aerial photos from Riverkeeper James Holland to get a visual sense of just how bad the problem is:

I’m struck most by the “two miles upstream” and “two miles downstream” images right around the 2:00 mark. I don’t expect anyone will be swimming or engaging in water cannon wars tomorrow.

But then again, we’re not sure what to expect. Paddle Georgia’s route down the Altamaha has predictably turned up the pressure on this issue, and I imagine the folks at Rayonier are a little nervous to have some 350 river lovers getting a first-hand experience of their waste stream. Evidently we may have some television cameras coming with us tomorrow, and the general expectation is that Rayonier will find a way to take a one-day hiatus from fouling the river. What will we find? Will we still be able to see this river the same way in the days to come?

I have to mention that the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce has been wonderfully welcoming to all of the Paddle Georgia participants. Here at base camp they’ve got a hospitality tent set up, along with a big inflatable water slide/plunge pool combo that the boys have absolutely worn out.  At the last two take-outs, volunteers have helped us haul our boats away from the water, and today they gave out snacks and ice-cold water in reusable commemorative bottles as we came off the river. Rayonier, they have made sure to tell us, has been the chief sponsor of their hospitality efforts. It has made for an interesting dynamic. Will has really been wowed by these efforts, but Andrew evidently has a more cynical bent: “They’re trying to make us feel better about this smell,” he said this afternoon (we took out only about a mile from the mill). I guess I agree with both of them.

Joe Cook reminded us all after dinner tonight that the raison d’être for Paddle Georgia—beyond just having a good time—is to educate us about our rivers. Tomorrow will certainly be educational.

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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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Well, we’re days away from the start of a new school year, and I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, having just come across the trailer to the film Mother Nature’s Child:

I just finished six-days worth of Apple training to build up my digital teaching skills in preparation for our one-to-one MacBook rollout next week, and I had been positively salivating at the thought of what my English students will be able to do with iMovie. So this little clip hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.

The quote in the trailer from Stephen Kellert of Yale University says it all:

Children, in a space of a generation or two, have had a profound change in their experiential contact with the natural world. Children today spend on average over 44 hours a week in front of a monitor of one sort or another . . . children just don’t go out in nature.

And we’re about to give every student in the Junior High a new laptop and markedly increase their screen time as a result?

I’ve written before on my divided mind when it comes to the 21st Century education movement’s fetishizing of technology, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d admit that this boosterism is supercharged by the desire to market and sell product. I’m struck by the astonishing rapidity with which we moved to go one-to-one. If only we had devoted a small fraction of comparable energy and resources to the kind of experiential learning we have spent years talking about.

My Principal and friend, Bo Adams, likes to advocate “both/and” over “either/or” thinking when it comes to balancing outdoor, experiential learning and digital roaming, and last October he commented on my earlier rant by saying “I hope that our school’s push for 1:1 laptops (or other mobile devices) is at least partly for the purpose of facilitating such place-based learning.” I share that hope, and I appreciate that one of his first questions to the faculty this year is as follows:

In the often confusing world of educational acronyms, “PBL” here means “problem-based-learning,” not “place-based-learning,” but Bo is spot-on that the two are an excellent fit. Given the degree to which we’re about to increase our students’ screen time, taking intentional and sustained steps to give them a sense of balance and connect them with the real world isn’t just a cool idea. I think it’s a moral imperative.

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Three summers back, when I loaded my boys into my (dearly departed) Subaru and drove to Yellowstone (the trip that gave birth to this blog), I met writer and former teacher Brian A. Connolly in Lamar Valley on the morning I took the boys wolf watching. I’ll be forever thankful for how he generously shared his knowledge of and love for wild wolves (and his spotting scope) with the boys and I, and I’ll also be forever thankful for the poem he put in my hands when he found out I am a teacher.  The small print at the bottom reads “Please share this with any teacher you feel is in need of a poem!”  Following the back-and-forth in the comment threads of my last couple of posts, I went and dug it out to share.


It is such a shock
being back
from the wild valley
where for months I lived
in a tent within the sound
of wolves howling,
where bears ambled down mountains
to wander through camp
dressed in the cream of moonlight.

I must clean up my act
for tomorrow’s faculty meeting,
departmental gatherings,
discussion groups where goals are set,
rubrics, outcomes, behavior
modifications are outlined.
I’ll shave, trade sandals for shoes,
wear long pants
so that we can decide
in the high school cafeteria
what we want these kids to know
and how we can tell when they know it;
what battery of tests
will indicate they are ready
to go into the world,
take charge of things,
and do to those who follow
what we have done to them.

Tomorrow, looking sharp, civilized,
with unfailing courage,
I will suggest as a progressive
educational experiment
that we try a field trip;
ten months is all I’ll ask.
Instead of eighty pounds of books,
we give each child a down bag,
a few utensils, a compass, of course,
a blank journal, a good pen.
Drop them off, alone, in wild valleys:
the Tetons, Yellowstone,
the Beartooth, the Sawtooth, the Cascades,
the Adirondacks, the Green, the White,
the Alleghenies.
Let the rustling and snuffling sounds
of darkest night teach them to listen;
let glacial meltwater teach them
the true nature of cold;
let those beings making a living
on icy summits teach survival;
let wildflowers teach beauty;
let morning fog among valley pines
teach them peace;
let the glassy stars
spread across the dark
like a sparkling cloud
be their curriculum.

No tests will be needed,
no mimeograph sheets.
And when they graduate,
each one will know who he is,
that he is part of a living world,
and that his job
is to live in that world
with grace and respect.

–Brian A. Connolly

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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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