"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and places to pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to the body and soul." John Muir, The Yosemite
A few years ago, I came upon a dilemma: the local nature center that we took our students to every year for their outdoor education program was failing and closing. The program itself fell into the category of "it's better than nothing" and in many ways, I was glad to see it go; so much of it was only about behavior management as children were asked to "be quiet" and "sit still" while out in the woods. Something unnatural and un-doable for many 9-year-olds. But with educational pushes like Education for Sustainability (I had recently attended a conference presented in part by The Cloud Institute) and Last Child in the Woods (which we had as a faculty just read), not to mention the hole left in my curriculum, I was faced with the problem of replacing an outdated, outsourced, and now defunct program with something new. Given the fact that concerns over budget restrictions seemed to point to not having anything at all, I set about seeing if I could create a program that included what we liked from our experiences at the nature center, and make it better. Make it transformative.
This curricular rewrite became six day-long excursions which spanned three of our four seasons exploring the relationship we have with our environment throughout the year. The idea was simple: have students select a tree on the school's campus to identify, observe throughout the year, record data about; learn about naturalists in our community-both historically and in the present day; discover the value of the natural environment--physically and artistically and respond to what they had learned through writing, art, and community service. Any schoolyard, any backyard, can become a place where we act as stewards to preserve nature.
And so we began:
Student: "What? There are trees on campus? Oh,yeah--I guess there are!"
Me: "What kind of trees are they?
Student: "I don't know!"
Me: What do they look like? What color are they? What does the bark, leaves, branches look like, smell like, feel like, sound like, taste like (taste like!?)?"
And so we headed outside and I modeled how to observe and record information about observations.
Take a closer look at the leaf. Is it bigger than your hand? What colors are in it? Is it pointed or round?
Next, look at the tree’s trunk. Feel its bark. Is it smooth or rough?
I have to admit, I was incredibly surprised by the reaction of students on this initial day. They were so overjoyed. They named their trees, took photos of them-smelled, touched, listened, drew, and some even tasted. I found out the next day that a few even had parents come see their tree. For this reason alone, I was thrilled with what had come to pass--but the beauty of it all was that there was an actual value-added in not going anywhere. Students began to see that this place, that any place, was "a place to play in, a place to pray in" and therefore was valued and deserving of our care.
As the year progressed, students measured, painted, classified, wrote stories and sang songs about their trees. We discovered the uses of, mapped the changes in the community's development and projected possible impacts of these changes. They documented the bird migration in the spring with a local ornithologist, marked the changes that occurred over the year, and made plans to plant saplings that were native to the area. To make the connection even stronger, students each took home a tree to plant and care for in their neighborhood. No longer was nature something we visited, but it was around us, connected us, and had become our own responsibility for which to care.
Spring Tree Planting
Through an in-depth, transdisciplinary approach, students are engaged in reading, writing, art, music, dance, math, science, social studies, and technology all within an overarching theme as they explore what our connection is to the environment in which we live.
By bringing this program home to our campus, we created an opportunity to integrate sustainability into the existing curriculum and meet not only state standards, but other recognized frameworks for sustainability education as well. It also stands as an example for integrating multiple ways of knowing and features joined projects that require students to interact and engage in their community, sparking excitement and investigation while fostering an ethic of service. No longer did I have a program that was about behavior management; my class had a place-based experience grounded in their own community that engaged them in not only understanding their world, but seeing the possibility of their impact upon changing it.
Some problems still remain: caring for the trees over the summer months is the most difficult. I also want to have students work to have our saplings designated as a school forest and go through this process together. Finally, with the new Next Generation Science Standards just released, I find that much of this will have to be rewritten, but this presents me with a great opportunity to reflect and assess what we've done in the past in an effort to create a better future.