Jen Cullerton Johnson is an educator and the author of Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, a biography of biologist, environmentalist, and activist Wangari Maathai. We asked her to blog about ways teachers can bring awareness of nature and environmentalism into the classroom; here are her five key suggestions. We hope you find them useful, and of course, feel free to add your own suggestions and methods in comments!
Green teachers everywhere know that students can’t become stewards of the environment without hands-on interactions with nature. Describing the root system of plants puts third graders to sleep, but if you bring in several plants and allow the students to feel, see, and discuss, the room becomes atwitter with curiosity. Active learning impresses the mind. Passive learning depresses it. Green teachers facilitate a nature-based experience for their students. In each lesson they teach, in each interaction with their students, they look for ways to connect the environment with other subjects.
However, green teachers are up against big odds. The sad truth is most of our nation’s students have a passive relationship with nature. Computers, indoor play, and lack of opportunity often trump time spent outside. Students may see trees out the window but be barred from playing in the woods. Children may notice elephants and lions in a zoo but fail to understand why coyotes and cougars eat from garbage cans in urban areas.
Yet, despite students’ lack of interaction and connection with nature, there are many ways you can be a green teacher.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Be a Model. If students see their teacher cares for the environment, they will too. If you are excited and passionate about turning off the lights or saving the dolphins, your students will be too. What a teacher models, students reflect. If you model good habits for helping the environment, so will your students. You empower everyone around you!
Dare to Start Small: Problems in the environment did not happen overnight. There are no quick solutions. Reflect on what you deem essential when it comes to the environment. Ask:
- What do I want my student to know/feel/understand about the environment?
- Do I want my students to become more inquisitive and curious?
- Do I want my students to understand data and how it reflects in the environment?
Whatever you believe is the biggest challenge for the environment, bring possible solutions into every area of your classroom. Let it flow into all areas of how you teach—for example, maybe a writing workshop in which students hold different types of rocks and write about the sense. Maybe you feel strongly about connecting students with their urban environment through roof gardens, or maybe you want students to remember that what they eat grew on a tree and not in a plastic wrap bubble. All of these suggestions reflect back to you, the green teacher.
Show Me the Green: Get creative and bring nature into your classroom. Take a clue from Word Walls. Teachers use Word Walls so that students have opportunities to see words. The more exposure to words, the better the chance the student has in learning them. The same is true for the environment. The more artifacts, objects, and visuals you have in your classroom from the natural world, the more your classroom becomes its own ecosystem.
Read-Do: We learn by sharing stories. Environmental stories reach out to students in a special way. Some environmental books entertain. Some inform. Others persuade. They all push their readers to do something. Students connect their reading with an action. When students do something physical in response to reading a book, that connection stays with the student. Do a read aloud that includes activities where the students can take what they have read and make a positive impact. Plant a tree. Be kind to a neighbor. Turn off a light. Recycle a can.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Don’t give up on being green. Many ideas come and go in the schools. Green teachers, like all teachers, are up against standardized testing, merit pay, and larger class size—you name it and we teachers deal with it. Our profession is a challenging one, but without a doubt the most rewarding one. Greening the curriculum actually gives students a deeper, more profound sense of self, wonder, and stewardship.
If you have ideas on how to green the curriculum or have tried something in your classroom and would like to share, please share them in comments below!
Visit Jen at her website, JenCullertonJohnson.com.