Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Teacher Citizen

Because Global Warming Isn't Happening
To the Science Department Only:

10 Ways to Incorporate Outdoor Experiences in the Language Arts Classroom

by lisa eddy

Happy Yule, ms. eddy!

During our Yule celebration with family and friends, Rebecca gestures toward the beautiful, dark-haired young woman in the recliner on my right. “Did you know,” she asks, “that this girl is really going to do something good with her life? I mean, she's really smart, and she cares about the planet. She's going to be an environmental journalist! Isn't that great?”

I turn toward Chelsy. She asks, “You knew that, right?”

I nod, remembering a recent conversation we had in the hallway at school. She had talked excitedly about going out to sample the River Raisin for her dual-enrollment Environmental Studies class at Adrian College. “Yes, you shared that with me last week. I am so proud of you,” I say and turn to Rebecca. “This is great! I know Chelsy has a really strong connection with the land. I think her career interest may have been influenced by the outdoor project she did in American Literature class last year.”

“Yes, that's right,” Chelsy says.

“She wrote a great multi-genre composition. She explored the connection between war's destructiveness to people and people's destructiveness to land.”

Chelsy nods.

Rebecca looks stunned. “Wow,” she says, and looks from Chelsy to me and back again. “That is amazing. How great is that?—for both of you.”

Chelsy and I look at each other and smile. This moment is the best gift I could hope for—whatever the occasion. When the guests have gone home, I fall asleep feeling grateful for this brief exchange and for the opportunity to contribute to the sustainability movement through language arts education.

What is Place-Based Critical Pedagogy?

In his article, “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place,” David A. Gruenewald “invite[s] theorists, researchers, and practitioners to...consciously blend approaches from [two] powerful traditions: place-based education and critical pedagogy.” He says, “a critical pedagogy of place ultimately encourages teachers and students to reinhabit their places, that is, to pursue the kind of social action that improves the social and ecological life of places, near and far, now and in the future” (Educational Researcher, Vol. 32, No. 4). Gruenewald argues that it is the job of schools to educate students for a sustainable future by grounding our teaching in “pedagogy that is socially and ecologically critical.”

“But isn't that the job of the science department?” members of the English Department may ask. Certainly it is, but also, dear colleague, it is our job as well. How can we tell it is our job? Look around. Find an area of our lives that will not be affected by the changes now occurring in the environment. Think of a career that doesn't have an impact on the soil, water, and air on which all life depends. Look at the faces gazing back at you from the student desks. Ask yourself, “Will my teaching 'improve the social and ecological life of places, near and far, now and in the future?'”

In talking with colleagues over the years, I've found that many English teachers share my concern about the natural world, but that just as many are unsure how to bring socially and ecologically critical pedagogy to life in their classrooms. With all the preparation for the ACT/MME and making sure to meet the HSCE's, it can seem like place-based critical pedagogy is an impossible dream. Also, English teachers often tend to think of environmental education as canoing down the Huron River with a group of fifty students—an activity that truly is impossible at many schools, due to concerns over lawsuits and dried-up field trip budgets.

But environmental education is a broad umbrella under which thousands of opportunities to interact with the natural world exist. Several studies have found that what brings people to environmental activism is not a school field trip where thirty kids trample a forest for a day but outdoor experiences that allow children and adolescents to form emotional and psychological connections to nature and time spent with adults who model respect for nature (Louv, 149). What this means for us as English teachers is that we don't have to orchestrate complicated field experiences for large groups of students—and we don't have to know the answers to the questions our students ask about the natural world. Instead, we can look for places where the language arts curriculum and landscape intersect and create opportunities for individuals, pairs, and even family groups that allow students to connect to the natural world in their own ways. Most often, once students find themselves outside, Nature takes care of the sense of connection, just by being Herself. Most of us just can't help feeling inspired, rejuvenated, and connected to the greater whole when we go outdoors!

One Caution

One danger of environmental education is that the focus becomes environmental devastation, which can lead to hopelessness and despair. It is important that we guard against this. It is crucial that we nurture students' connection to land in a way that fosters joy and hope. Fortunately, examples of positive responses to the environmental challenges we face are only a mouse-click away, on websites like the Children and Nature Network (, Living on Earth radio show (, and Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots Network, among others. Undoubtedly, our students are aware of issues such as global warming, species extinction, and pollution, but such knowledge often does more to foster fear and despair. Providing a student an opportunity to feel a connection to plants and animals in her own yard, on one city block, or even in a single tree can do more to empower her to seek sustainability in her life and work than a whole decade of bad news. Fostering an ecological conscience in others requires that we and our students get outdoors and have a good time!

PBCP In Practice: Ten Ways To Re-inhabit the Local Landscape Through Language Arts Activities

Grab your coat and hat! It's time to get started. Try these inquiry activities that link the language arts curriculum to the local landscape with your students.
  • What happens when we explore the landscape through writing sensory observations? Using Annie Dillard's essay, “Seeing,” as a model, invite students to describe the “free gifts from the universe” that they find in the local landscape. OR using Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses as a model, invite students to create snapshots and thoughtshots of an outdoor sensory experience. OR using Byrd Baylor's picture book, The Other Way to Listen as an inspiration, invite students to write a “soundscape” of an outdoor place after spending time listening to the land.

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through Multiple Intelligences? Invite students to experience and respond to the landscape through one or more intelligence. Using the Logical-Mathematical intelligence, a student can calculate, quantify, and discern logical or numerical patterns in the landscape; using the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence, a student can create a workout for physical fitness by interacting with the landscape; using the musical intelligence, a student can identify the music of the air, water, plants and animals of the landscape OR create instruments from found objects on the site. Of course, all outdoor activities further the development of the Naturalist intelligence (Gardner).

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through genre models? Share a genre model in Writer's Workshop that illustrates a writing technique for students to try in their own writing. One of my favorites is If You're Not from the Prairie, by David Bouchard, a beautiful pattern poem/picture book that inspires students to write pattern poems about the local landscape. After trying the pattern from Bouchard's book, one of my students decided to use a favorite childhood book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, as a genre model. He wrote a humorous piece about giving Bigfoot a haircut in his multi-genre composition, “Bigfoot in Lenawee,” where he wrote several pieces about the mythical creature living in his yard. Other favorite genre models among the students are the Harry Potter series and other fantasy books. Many students have been able to see the local landscape in new ways when they look through the eyes of their favorite authors and characters.

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through literary lenses? Read a literary selection in which the author describes a landscape. Invite students to observe and describe the local landscape by adopting the attitude toward landscape the author uses. Try using the essay, “Seeing,” by Annie Dillard or a children's book, like Eve Merriam's The Wise Woman and Her Secret. Along with selections that emphasize curiosity and appreciation for the natural world, it can be fun to try others that are not necessarily nature-focused, like Edgar Allen Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or Kate Chopin's “The Story of an Hour.” Using models that are not nature-focused allows students to become aware of the ways that writers use details of the natural landscape to create setting, mood, theme, central image, and symbols. As in life, landscapes in literature are often overlooked. Helping students to see landscape through literary lenses can help them enrich their writing through the use of details of setting as well as reconnect to the natural world.

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through historical lenses? A chronological approach to literature is an excellent way to get students to think critically about the interrelationship between human history and natural history. At the school where I teach, we make our way through American literature from Indigenous Oral Tradition, through Colonial Literature, the Enlightenment, the Romantics, the Realists, the Modernists, the Harlem Renaissance, and on to Contemporary literature. As we move along the time line, I invite students to adopt the attitude toward nature they find in the texts from that historical period. For an interesting history-science-literature intersection, see Fritjof Capra's 1996 book, The Web of Life, where Capra discusses the contributions of 18th and 19th century Romantics to the paradigm shift that took place in science, from the “mechanistic Cartesian paradigm” to the older view of Earth as “an integrated whole, a living being,” a paradigm found in contemporary science, in “systems thinking” and “the Gaia Hypothesis.” When students have been introduced to systems thinking, invite them to step outside to explore the networks of relationships in the real world, especially those among the human and non-human members of the Earth community. In my classroom last spring, this exercise led to an epiphany for a student who believed that outdoor assignments had nothing to do with fixing cars. By using systems thinking, Jeff began to see the parallels between the fuel, power, and waste systems in cars and those of Earth. His discovery led to a strand in class discussion (which began on the topic of the literary selections) where students discussed the environmental impact of cars and the possible effects of alternative-energy vehicles on the future job market and the economy.

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through cultural lenses? The Hopi settled where they found blue corn; the Ojibwe settled where they found wild rice; and the European diet and economy were drastically altered by the potato from the Americas. For most of human history, culture and landscape were inseparable. The landscape controls our diets, our housing, our clothing, our language, our health care practices—even our religions! A brief study of creation myths from different parts of the globe makes this apparent. Twentieth-century technological advances created an illusion that human life was separate from the natural environment, but as nature reacts to the changes brought about by human activity with droughts, hurricanes, and floods, we are being reminded again of the human-land relationship. Literature offers an incredible array of myths, legends, poems, and novels that illustrate this relationship. For example, let's look at corn. We find it in the Navajo Origin Legend and the Hopi emergence (Blue Highways), the “first Thanksgiving” accounts of the Plymouth colony, and in Sherwood Anderson's short story, “Corn Planting.” In each of these texts, corn plays an important role in a cultural practice: creation/origin traditions, harvest celebrations, and grieving rituals. What role does corn play in American cultures now? Our diet is (genetically modified) corn-based; we are seeing epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes because of our dependence on corn and high-fructose corn syrup. Some biofuels are made from corn; this is causing food prices to rise; consequently, some of our Mexican neighbors are unable to buy corn to make tortillas, a dietary staple. Most of the corn grown in the world comes from a handful of seed companies who are gaining ever-tighter control over the food supply through seed patents. Clearly, world cultures are still being shaped by this humble food and the land on which it grows. One way to begin such an exploration might be for students to keep a food journal for a week, then explore the journey the food made to get to his plate. If we ask ourselves, “how does landscape shape the cultures of the writers, characters, and students in our classes?,” it could take us around the world and back again.

  • What happens when we explore the landscape through college and career lenses? “The Green Collar Revolution” (Curwood) is underway, and our students will have opportunities in fields we can't imagine. We are awash in articles, TV shows, radio stories, and websites that document the greening of our world, in all aspects of life, from hair care to lawn care, from green babies to green roofs. It is an exciting time to be young, to be able to participate in the sustainability movement as one grows into adulthood. I bring up topics related to college and career as often as possible in my classes. I encourage students to try the types of thinking required by their career fields, especially in their field research assignments and multi-genre compositions. Students have looked at the local landscape and asked these career-related (in parentheses) questions: “What would happen if this landscape were a battlefield?” (military) “How is this landscape like the human body?” (medicine) “What music does this landscape create?” (musician) “How do human homes affect the homes of non-human beings?” (construction) “What happens when the landscape is the context for pre-school and elementary learners?” (education) “How does the landscape inspire me?” (art) “How has the landscape shaped who I am?” (literature) “What happens when land is used for sports?” (football) “What happens when land is used for food production?” (agriculture) “How is my mood affected by the landscape?” (psychology) Two excellent resources for information on career connections to land are National Public Radio's Living On Earth, and E (Environment) Magazine. Both are available online, and I often share radio stories and web pages with classes as topics arise in student research. Another way to explore the language arts-career connection is by identifying career-specific genres of writing. Students may select genre models from their career fields for guides to their own pieces of writing.

  • What happens when we link language arts and landscape through guest speakers? Over the years, I've invited several guest speakers to the classroom: poets, novelists, and college students—graduates of our high school—to talk about the role of reading and writing in their lives and work. This year, I invited Bev Ruesink, owner of Needle Lane Organic Farm. She held the students spellbound with a basket of vegetables she had brought, which included blue corn (which students recalled reading about in William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways), and her descriptions of farm life. They were surprised to hear that growing vegetables for 500 local families requires reading, writing, accounting, website design, publishing, and advertising. Another surprise for students was learning that Bev holds a degree from MSU. Of particular relevance for my students was Bev's explanation of the effects of “eating local” on the landscape and the economy. Many students in our district have seen their parents lose automotive industry jobs in recent years, so this message really hit home. Their written reflections were among the most enthusiastic and appreciative I've ever read. A couple of students asked about the possibility of working on the farm next summer, and one young woman became so excited about eating good food that is grown in a good way, she went directly home and convinced her grandparents to buy a CSA share next spring. Other community members I'd like to invite to the classroom include the city Forester, a community college biology teacher, Nature Conservancy members who are involved in land restoration on a local site, and Indigenous elders from the local Powwow committee. Guest speakers are a real treat—for students and teachers. By talking to community members at the local farmer's market, the health food store, nature centers, colleges, green businesses and environmental organizations, one can easily find excellent speakers who generously donate their time to help spread the word about earth-friendly living.

  • What happens when we link language arts and landscape to ACT/MME preparation? Don't laugh. I'm serious! Why not combine the State's requirements for informational reading and written arguments with place-based critical pedagogy? The 2006-07 school year was our first year as a Trimester high school, and as such, we were faced with the task of writing common final assessments using the ACT/MME and MI Work Keys as our genre models, so that our students could have several opportunities over their high school careers to practice taking The Test. I asked, “What kind of informational reading selections will foster students' ability to think critically about the way our lives intersect with the place we live, now and in the future?” I answered my question by including these reading selections in the eleventh-grade exam: an informational article about the role of soil in our lives; directions for proper disposal of household hazardous waste, such as batteries, paint thinners, and toxic cleaning products; and an employee manual that explains the process one company uses for resolving conflicts between employees and management. Once I realized that even practice test materials can be socially and ecologically conscious, writing the exam took on a new meaning, and now I find it enjoyable to think about what texts I can be use for future exams.

  • What happens when we weave language arts and landscape into informal conversation? Since implementing PBCP in American literature classes, my life outside the classroom has changed dramatically. My social and ecological relationships with the local environment have been shaped by what I have learned. To name a few of the changes this work has engendered in my own life: I have learned how to properly dispose of hazardous and toxic household products; I've switched from toxic to organic cleaning methods; I've begun to buy produce from a local, organic, Community-Supported farm and to shop at the local farmer's market; I've begun to give workshops in my community about the importance of outdoor experiences for all; and I've even begun to consider growing some of my own food. Because I've become more conscious of the inter-relatedness of life on earth, a question as simple as, “What's in your lunch, ms. eddy?” can provide an opportunity for talking with a student about our relationship to plants, animals, air, water and soil. When a student asks about my lunch, I can show her the beautiful and tasty produce that was grown just down the road at the local, organic farm and the organic, whole grain bread that was baked eight miles away in Tecumseh. Such simple exchanges have had an influence on at least two students I know, who, at times, proudly declare, “I brought a healthy lunch today!” and show me the items in their lunches that were grown locally and/or organically. On the other hand, I sometimes have to own up to choices I make that are not earth-friendly. Sometimes when I distribute hand-outs in the classroom, students ask, “Why are we using so much paper? We're killing trees!” At that moment, I have to agree that there is room for improvement, and we can talk about the tension between the initial cost of virgin paper and the long-term costs that are not apparent at the time of purchase. I celebrate moments like this, because they show me that students are beginning to see everyday actions critically, in terms of their effects on the web of life. Another inconsistency students like to point out in my life is the fact that I drive a minivan. I have to agree with them that I should drive a more fuel-efficient car—but I explain that I have spinal deterioration that requires the type of seat the van provides. Then I can talk with students about the ways I try to make up for owning this vehicle by walking and bicycling to school when weather permits and by keeping a commitment to set aside at least one day per week as a no-driving day.

Conclusion: It's All About Love

I am listening to Diane Rehm's rebroadcast interview with Alan Alda on NPR. Remembering his friend, actress Anne Bancroft, at her funeral service, Alda talks about how she had admired sea glass at the shore with his grandchildren. He says that she hadn't lectured the children about nature—she had loved it with them.

This makes me smile, and I think, “Well said, Alan!”

It is impossible to overestimate the important role that love plays in Place-Based Critical Pedagogy. In his book, Sharing Nature with Children II, Joseph Cornell captures this idea beautifully when he says, “Whether you're a nature educator or a nature enthusiast, the most effective thing you can do for the Earth is to cultivate love for all things. Love fires our enthusiasm to take nature into our care. It fills us with a vibrant, living power that communicates Nature's joy and wonder as no mere words ever can” (122). As language arts teachers, we can play an important part in the movement toward sustainable living by providing opportunities for our students to experience the local landscape in our classes. With our students, we can wander and wonder, read and write, and think, and feel, and care about where we live--for now and for the future.