I spent the third week of October with my 6th grade students in the Santa Cruz Mountains, learning about poison oak and banana slugs, compost and food waste, gardening and invasive plant species, and how ecosystems change as one moves higher in elevation. We ate Redwood Sorrel (tastes like green apples), munched on Douglas Fir pine needles (if you like oranges, you’ll LOVE these little babies), and snacked on carpenter ants (tasted like skins of green grapes). We draped banana slugs over our noses, went on solo night hikes, climbed up a 1,000 mountain and stared out over redwood-carpeted mountains.
Sure, my students learned information, but even more importantly they interacted one-on-one with the environment in an entirely new way. They empathized with nature. They connected concepts they’d learned through books and discussions with sensory impressions they gathered directly in the field. For a few students, this was the first time in their lives they had seen the ocean in person.
The naturalists at Mission Springs Outdoor Education Camp reinforced a lot of what my students had learned using the EEI Curriculum in the classroom prior to visiting. I felt validated and good about this, and the week provided me with a lot of time to actively reflect on my own teaching as I observed both the naturalists and my students’ reactions to them. I couldn’t help thinking about Principle II of California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts, which were approved in 2004 under a law referred to as the California Education Initiative (EEI). Those five principles are printed inside each of the teacher’s manuals for the EEI Curriculum units in grades K-12. Principle II states:
People Influence Natural Systems
The long-term functioning and health of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems are influenced by their relationships with human societies.
Looking at the arid landscape in which I now live, it was evident our changing climate and the historic drought which has been denying water to California has taken a toll. But I realized something else that seems to get less attention in the press on a daily basis.
Natural systems influence us, too.
While a quick Google search using the search terms “how environment affects child development” turned up over 33 million links in about one-third of a second, I didn’t need research to confirm what I saw when 25 kids got to spend a week hiking up and down steep, dusty trails with grins on their faces and sweat on their brows.
As much as I might have dreaded a week away from my own family and the 16-hour days, I was happy to go because I knew my students were going to come away from their week at camp profoundly changed. Watching my students stand in the middle of a redwood fairy ring gazing up, listening to needles raining down on them from winds in the tree tops 200 feet above us, I could see a transformation taking place on their faces and in their eyes. The environment is really, really cool when you get out in it!
It’s been said by a lot of people in a lot of different ways that knowledge is power. Learning about the environment through resources such as the EEI Curriculum is a logical step to take when it comes to educating the next generation of leaders about their environment. I would add that promoting outdoor education experiences is a logical next step which can leverage the good work that’s being done back in inside EEI classrooms. Granted, not every class will have the opportunity to go to an environmental science camp every year, but each of us can do little things on a daily basis to more directly connect our kids and the content they learn to their feelings about the environment
Here are a few of my favorite, simple environmental “Ah-HA” moments to share with students:
Spring and fall are great times to take students out to a large field, space them out to where they can’t talk to one another, and ask them to lay on their back and watch the clouds. It never ceases to amaze me how many times kids have commented over the years in shock and awe, “THEY’RE MOVING! YOU CAN SEE THEM MOVE!” Yes, yes clouds do move, but we rarely take the time to help kids appreciate little things like that.
“Do the Dew”
Kids walk and run in grass all their life getting their shoes wet, but do they really understand where dew comes from and why? Teaching about the water cycle and then going for a walk around campus to find where water vapor has condensed into liquid water is a fun hide-and-go-seek activity for kids. Be sure to include a chilled drink bottle or glass of ice water. A related activity: using a document camera and a capped highlighter, place drops of water on top of the highlighter cap to actually show kids how water’s surface tension can do the seemingly impossible and hold a dew drop in place.
Realia is really fun
A lot of teachers are familiar with the term “realia.” It refers to the practice of bringing in “real stuff” to the classroom whenever possible. Studying the rock cycle? Go out and get some igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Learning about natural resources? Bring in some cotton balls or wheat berries or a chunk of tar you found at the beach. Kids like to touch and feel and smell stuff. One of my favorite realia items to pass around my classroom is a 55 year-old bezoar my dad removed from a cow’s stomach. Kids are simultaneously grossed out and fascinated by this naturally made ball of felt!
Watch more TV
Sounds counterintuitive, right? What I really mean is we as environmental educators need to actively seek interesting films, TV shows, internet videos, and photographs to show our students. I would strongly recommend using a blog to curate film and images for students to view and share with their families and friends.
Edublogs.org is what I recommend, since they’re often not blocked by district firewalls, free from ads and pop-ups, and are powered by WordPress which makes them easy to manage. My blog has proven to be an invaluable tool as I teach EEI. I build a page for each unit and add videos and websites connecting to what we’re reading and discussing, like the page I built for an EEI unit on the water cycle. It’s important to watch videos with your kids, to pause, and to discuss what’s going on, too. By doing this, we can take a passive experience—watching something—and turn it into an active experience—watching and thinking and talking about something. When my students and I watched together the first episode of David Gelber’s Years of Living Dangerously, they were hooked and begging to watch the rest of the series!
During our week long science camp experience, students had no TV, no electronics, zero phone or internet time. Did they miss it? From my observations (and my fellow teaching colleagues whose classes also attended) the answer was a resounding no. They were too busy connecting to the environment first-hand.
When we returned from our outdoor camp experience, I showed my students a picture of my grandfather. I kept the bottom of the picture covered, as we analyzed the picture using a document analysis tool created by the National Archives. “Where was this picture taken, Mr. Bentley?” one of my students asked. “Those look like redwood trees.” Revealing the bottom of the photo, my students could see my grandfather’s writing along the bottom: “Santa Cruz Mtns. 1932 Jim Bentley”. He was 17 years old, grinning for the camera in front of redwood trees. I explained to my students that one of the jobs he had during The Great Depression was working on a timber harvesting crew. “Wait,” came a shocked student voice, “you mean he cut down those redwood trees?” I felt a bit like the Onceler from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as we spent time addressing why people would do such a thing as cutting down old growth timber to make money. We talked about economic hardships driving people to do things they perceived as justified. We talked about “Stumpy” the mossy, old growth tree stump at Mission Springs my students had climbed on and grown close to over their week at science camp.
I’m convinced that old picture had a more profound effect on my students because of the week they had spent in those very same Santa Cruz Mountains 82 years after my grandfather had been there. The irony wasn’t lost on my students. They had gone to learn and experience our environment. My grandfather had gone to work and survive the Great Depression. My students went to admire the trees. My grandfather went to harvest them.
The EEI Curriculum has empowered my students to learn about our environment, to view the world through California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts. They connected “Stumpy” to the photo of my grandfather and in that instant truly internalized Principle II. Over 80 years ago we cut old growth timber to make a living; today we try to preserve it.
Lessons like that are what give me hope for the future and inspire me to become a better teacher. I’m thankful I’ve got EEI and Ten Strands on my side to assist me in this mission.