The acculturation of children into traditional schooling models either disenfranchises underprivileged children or rewards mediocrity, both of which enable a model guaranteeing them little power in their own destinies. This essay attempts to begin a conversation of how using environmental or eco-critical principles as a framework for educational systems that empowers students to achieve by developing their natural curiosity.
As I read through the several authors we were assigned, I recognized core principles of discipline and leadership commonly called “Character Education” in schools. The Character Counts website lists the six pillars of character education: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship. The first pillars of character appeared as I read Thoreau’s “Economy.” In his chastisement of fad and fickle consumption I saw the responsibility of choice and the discipline of citizenship necessary to create sustainable communities. Later in “Higher Laws” Thoreau explores vegetarianism as a humane choice and recognized the pillar of caring and fairness of choice applied to animals. Berry emphasized the pillars of responsibility, and especially in “The Making of a Marginal Farm” I recognized the trustworthiness required for humanity to responsibly take on the stewardship of the land. In Dillard I first recognized a pattern that when humans were separate from earth and considered Nature a source of personal gain, neither earth nor humanity benefitted. This pattern repeated itself in Silko’s ceremony and echoed throughout Alice Walker’s and Terry Tempest Williams’s essays. From there I considered environmentalism a natural fit for developing and affirming the goals of modern education as a place for equal learning and equal access that develops children into responsible, caring citizens willing to contribute to society for future generations; the definition is my own.
For many schools, teaching character education without religious values presents challenges. However, character education is nearly universally regarded as necessary tool for children to mature, and without maturity, educational advancement stalls. Environmental education teaches character education without religion while acknowledging a spiritual connection more universally accepted. For this reason environmentalism makes an excellent choice for framing educational platforms across the curriculum.
Eco-Education: A Mission Statement for Modern Education
Some of my favorite school memories are from my weekends of outdoor education while attending St. Paul’s Lutheran School in New Orleans, or “Outdoor Ed” as we called them. St. Paul’s is located in the 7th Ward between the French Quarter and the Industrial Canal, adjacent to the now infamous 9th Ward, and as urban an environment as they come. We students never considered outdoors a learning environment. A blacktop parking lot served as our playground, and other than a few runners of grass shooting through the tar cracks, we had no green space. The blacktop sported boxes of painted white lines on which to hopscotch and play foursquare. Below is a current photo of the school grounds from St. Paul Lutheran School and Church, the playground behind the building. With the exception of a necessary facelift after Hurricane Katrina, this building, courtyard, and parking lot appear the same as when I attended the school from 1978 to 1980. Clearly we urbanite school children lacked nature or green space and judging by this picture, still do. For urbanite school children from New Orleans, just considering the
St. Paul’s Lutheran School, New Orleans, LA
prospect of sleeping in the woods roused the demons of darkness. The bunk beds and the cabin were irrelevant details to our imaginations. We were sleeping in the woods!
The most direct definition I found that described my experience comes from the Education Encyclopedia published by stateuniversity.com: “The term outdoor education emerged in the early 1940s to describe the instructional use of natural and built areas to meet student learning objectives in a variety of subject-matter disciplines through direct experiences.” As an educator, I can imagine the wording in a permission letter to parents: “Outdoor Education is an outdoor, classroom experience for students. During the weekend, teachers use the natural setting of Fontainebleau State Park for teaching students about environment.” Because no outdoor education program is funded through tuition, I imagine the description more pedagogical for the grant makers: “The Outdoor Education program promotes an environmental awareness inspiring experiential learning through a cross-curricular integration of the natural environment and traditional classroom subjects…” As a student, we thought: “Whooohooo!!! No classes and they call it learning!!!” Essentially, Outdoor Ed is summer camp with curriculum. Regardless of perspective, the middle school students and teachers boarded a bus and headed out of town for a long weekend of nature loving, natural living (in cabins!), campfire singing, bad food and bonding—even student rivals became friends during Outdoor Ed. We students looked forward to Outdoor Ed from the first day of school as the long weekend took place late fall. Actually, we looked forward to Outdoor Ed for several years; we had to grow up and practically become adults before going since Outdoor Ed was reserved for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Camaraderie developed between teachers and students as we bonded over the common experiences of bad sleep, early rising, and bad food, which we devoured because we were hungry and tired at the end of the day. We had to wash dishes! Oh, the torture!
Our teachers integrated the curriculum into the natural setting, not necessarily changing the topics of the lessons, but using the natural environment as a springboard for the lesson. Being outdoors inspired our creativity. Granted, our creativity in play was not necessarily part of the curriculum, but the teachers were more tolerant of our pranks and endured the leaves and twigs we dropped into their hair—or strands of hair in Mr. Zoch’s case! Eventually, Mr. Asher, our English teacher would trot us to a clearing and require we sit down on logs or rocks or even the grass, (eewwww!), then tell us to observe our surroundings with an occasional prompt to write take notes about the trees (they have leaves!) and grass (it’s green!), or gravel (flies well through the air!) and though we eschewed his earnest attempts at introducing us to nature, we appreciated the relaxed environment and the opportunity to learn without walls as much as a middle school student can. Those notes inspired stories and poems upon our return to school, and for that we were most thankful since notes and memories of Fontainebleau State Park far exceeded the beige tiles of the classroom for poetic inspiration.
Though our curriculum revolved around the natural environment, not all lessons were natural. Invariably, our science class stumbled upon tracks that our science teacher, Mr. Zoch insisted we cast. At that point, Mr. Reavers, the art teacher would join our group to give us some pointers on the proper proportions of plaster to water. As my Plaster of Paris hardened in the “dinosaur footprint,” I imagined a planet of dinosaurs; and when I held the plaster footprint, the topography of the planet of the dinosaurs developed greater proportions. Volcanoes erupted, ginormous trees towered over the dinosaurs, their branches shielding vines twisted into thick ropes; and in the distance, waterfalls cascaded from snowcapped mountaintops; and there I was, scrambling toward a cave I called home, “Karina!” Oops, Mr. Zoch caught me daydreaming—again!
Admittedly, a favorite show, The Land of the Lost, partially inspired my imaginative trek through dinosaur planet, but holding my plaster footprint sparked my brain into creative overdrive, an imagination inhibited by the readymade setting provided by a television production crew but inspired by a natural setting and a little bit of lesson planning. In his article “Principles of Ecocriticism” William Howarth writes that eco-critcism essentially means “house judge” and presents the Greek roots of the terms eco (oikos or home) and critic (kritis or judgment) to encourage us to consider what eco-criticism mean to any one of us learning the field (69). Since questioning is a fundamental principle behind learning, a logical placement for questioning our place within our Earth home is within the educational system. In that spirit, eco-criticism immediately links to education since education is the experience of learning. Environmental philosophy can then become a framework for educating school children across all of the disciplines.
Richard Louv, a passionate advocate for children’s rights to experience nature writes “A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health,” in other words “children are positively affected by time spent in nature” (173). How are children affected so positively? One way is understanding place on the planet, what Howarth tells us Edward Hoagland calls “our widest home”(69). When children are outside, they immediately gain a perspective of themselves in a larger context. I once asked my daughter when she was in the fourth grade why she liked her school so much, and I fully expected her to tell me she loved her teachers and her friends, but she said “I love the playground.” When I asked her why, she replied “because I feel like I’m on top of the world!” Howarth points out a more historical example, “After 1750 global exploration and colonization by Western powers promoted dynamic new ideas in the natural sciences, as major discoveries enlarged known space and time. Within a century, scientists charted ocean currents, traced the ice ages, found the site of Troy and the remains of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people” As soon as our world is expanded, our experience diminishes relative to our environment. When humans sense a diminishment of our experience, arguably what creates our body of knowledge, curiosity propels us forward to understand more about our place in the world. A quick glance over the last fifty years of space exploration illustrates the world wide, cross cultural human need to progress! More concretely, a 2009 study by Barbara Cooper of learning environments for fifth graders showed that “students are physically engaged, develop a sense of place and learn skills in the field that reinforce concepts learned in the classroom.” Nature motivates children to learn because nature invites the natural curiosity of children to explore and following a classroom lesson, nature invites trial and error, natural applications of learning principles. Essentially, the natural world opens minds to differences and being in a natural environment shapes intellects better prepared to take on the complex challenges of a modern curriculum because these intellects shaped through the lens of environment are tuned automatically into considering the environmental perspective, the costs, the benefits, and the naturally physical and naturally spiritual aspects of the natural environment and humanity’s place in it.
The intricacies, layers, and economical perspectives of the environmentalist echoes principles humanity communally perceives as ethical: conservation of resources, preservation of wildlife and natural landscape as well as responsible and sustainable choices for consumption. In short, an eco-critical point of view means we have to acknowledge that we share our Earth, and environmentally, humanity has reached a point where sharing resources is necessary to continued survival of all species. To achieve this platform of using eco-criticism and environmentalism as a means for equal educational achievement and opportunity, school systems must first acknowledge the crucial role of engaging the arts throughout core curriculum because the arts are humanity’s representations and expressions of nature. Artistic design principles reflect the principles of nature. Painters layer color to achieve natural landscapes, accurate shadowing, and to give depth to drawings and paintings. Civil engineers design skyscrapers and bridges to sway in heavy winds as the trees do. When people fight over environmental issues, the core of the conflict, like all conflicts, is fear of losing natural resources necessary to survive. Similarly, conflicts occur in classrooms between learning groups. Classroom resources become sources of conflict between ethnic and socio-economic groups. A teacher can only give so much attention, particularly if she is overworked and lacks support from administration. Sometimes teaching resources are low or nonexistent. When my daughter attended public school in Baltimore City, she could not take her textbooks home in some classes because the teacher had fewer texts than students. Schools, parents, and teachers all wonder how to navigate these territories while creating an environment sensitive and inoffensive. How do we include everyone without diminishing the results of others? Many assumptions lie beneath these dilemmas, predominantly the perception that the higher achieving students need more time and their needs often take precedent over the needs of newer students or students who learn more slowly. Inverting an educational focus to one that teaches from the environmental perspective can alleviate differences in the classroom. Cooper’s research also found that educational gaps closed when students worked in the field. Being in a natural environment equalized educational access, “Hispanic students prefer the field for investigation and equity. Students that are low socio-economic class rank cooperation in the field higher than the classroom and students that do not qualify for free or reduced lunch prefer the field environment.” Cooper’s study shows that differences close between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers without affecting the achievement of any group. The data also suggests the achievement levels rise across the board. Naturally, as humanity questions our place in the larger home of nature, we understand and learn more about our environment and ourselves.
Understanding environment need not be limited to the natural world. Schools can integrate urban lessons into schools programs that reinforce environmental ideas of conservation and ethical choices for sustainability. Berry proposes in his essay “Preserving Wilderness” that humans should learn to behave properly with respect to nature so as to place their domestic economy harmoniously upon and within the sustaining and surrounding wilderness, then we make possible a sort of landscape criticism” (529). For some, place is not the wild forests or rolling countryside, place is the paved grid of urban landscape. Within this concept of place, eco-criticism allows the discussion of how best to divide a landscape into the human habited and human uninhabited spaces. Integrating these ideas into school curriculum teaches children about the economy of space and the ethical use of land resources. When land is developed, the cost to Earth is permanent. In “Economy” Thoreau observes the consequences of lacking an appreciation for economical choice in housing: “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have” (27). A homeowner who inhabits more space than necessary may perceive the cost of caring for the home as small, but Thoreau points out a permanent loss of wealth in an effort to maintain an outward appearance. Thoreau also attacks the fickleness of taste when he writes: “The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires to-day. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical” (21). Integrating an economical perspective into school curriculum connects children early to concepts of conservation and preservation and the consequences of choice. In Baltimore City alone, an urban environmental walk in any number of areas can show school children the social costs of waste and fear. Though some of the abandoned neighborhoods resulted from loss of manufacturing jobs, much of the suburban sprawl that left Baltimore empty resulted from racial fears and separation. The empty waste of abandoned buildings left in the wake of white flight testifies to the weakness of perceiving land as a means to build a lifestyle.
Using environmentalism as pedagogy for educational achievement helps students understand themselves and their relationships with each other. By creating an educational platform that teaches through the lens of environmentalism, children learn diversity, consciousness, conservation, and ethics from a natural and logical place—“the widest home” in which they live. Studying nature teaches humanity to appreciate the intricacies, the extravagance, the layers of complexities, and even the fractal nature that reflects our individual as well as our communal nature as human beings. Using environmental precepts as a framework for educational goals equally engages the minds of a variety of cultures, ethnicities, and genders and bypasses education’s historical pillars created by class and privilege. Then we will have a generation of intellectual wealth prepared to partner with Earth.
Berry, Wendell. “Preserving Wilderness.” 1987. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ed. Bill McKibbon. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 516-30. Print.
Cooper, Barbara E. “Field Experience in Science for Fifth Grade Students—a Mixed Methods Study of Learning Environments.” Diss. Colorado State University, 2009. Abstract. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (2009). ProQuest Education Journals. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Howarth, William. “Some Principles of Eco-Criticism.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. By Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia, 1996. 69-89. Print.
Louv, Richard. “A Walk in the Woods: Right or Privilege?” 2013. Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture. Comp. Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P. O’Grady. New York: Pearson, 2013. 171-74. Print.
“Outdoor and Environmental Education – Defining Terms, Objectives and Purposes, Instructional Methods, History and Status in the United States and Abroad.” Education Encyclopedia. StateUniversity.com, 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <Outdoor and Environmental Education – Defining Terms, Objectives and Purposes, Instructional Methods, History and Status in the United States and Abroad>.
“The Six Pillars of Character®.” CHARACTER COUNTS! Josephson Institute: Center for Youth Ethics, 12 Dec. 12. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
St. Paul Lutheran School and Church. St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <http://www.splno.com/>.
Thoreau, Henry D. “Economy.” Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. Ed. William Rossi. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and, 2008. 5-58. Print.
Turner, Nathaniel. “A Brief Economic History of Modern Baltimore.” ChickenBones: A Journal (2004). ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African American Themes. ChickenBones: A Journal, 2004. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.nathanielturner.com/robertmooreand1199union3.htm>.