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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An Environmental Educator Makes a Splash Challenging Students

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Christopher Swain describes himself as an ordinary guy. Maybe. But how many of us ordinary folks would consider swimming 1,000 miles along the Atlantic coast to raise awareness about the planet's fragile health?

Credit: Basil Childers

The Plan

The 40-year-old environmental educator and activist starts swimming on April 22 -- Earth Day -- kicking off a real-life adventure tale certain to captivate students. Swain hopes to stop at 2,000 schools during his extended campaign, called Swim for a Healthy World. At each stop, he will not only share his compelling story but also challenge students to design their own projects that address environmental concerns with real action.

Swain expects the Atlantic journey to require 200 days of hard swimming. He'll spread out swim days over a year or more, allowing ample time for school visits and community events.

A technology tool kit is being assembled with the help of Changents that will harness social media, video, global-positioning-system mapping, and other technologies. The online tools will allow for real-time updates plus long-distance participation, which means schools far from the Atlantic shoreline will be able to take part in the adventure.

The Obstacles

As Swain makes his watery journey from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Washington, DC, he will no doubt have to dodge boats, swim through floating garbage, and perhaps endure a lightning storm or two. He's faced all those challenges, and more, during past swims that took him the entire length of the Columbia River (1,200-plus miles), the Hudson, the Charles, and Lake Champlain. You can read about his past swims, or check out the award-winning documentary about his Pacific Northwest swim, Source to Sea: The Columbia River Swim.

What's different this time is the focus on kids and the projects he hopes they will launch. As a parent, Swain appreciates the potential of children to advocate tirelessly for what they think is right. "Kids can push you to the limit," he says. He believes that getting kids to advocate for a healthy planet is his best strategy for creating real change.

Addressing the critical issues of climate change and the loss of biodiversity "is going to require decisive action," Swain adds. He notes that not many adults seem willing to upset their everyday routines for the sake of the planet "even when they know what's wrong."

That's why he's willing to jump into cold and often dirty water, day after day, to offer a living, breathing example of what commitment looks like. Challenging himself is something that just makes sense to this "ordinary guy" who aims to leave the planet in a little better shape for his two young daughters.

The Goal

But don't expect Swain to tell kids what they should do. His own adventures have taught him that our best efforts come out of our passions. He likens his love for the Columbia River to "caring about a sibling with a catastrophic disease," he says. "I would do anything in my power to help."

Bringing Chris Swain's story into the classroom offers not only plenty of drama but also a lot of real-world learning potential. I can imagine student projects integrating everything from water quality to geography to creative writing to math. And, in the spirit of Swain's example, the more challenging it gets, the better.

You'll soon be able to find resources for planning projects or request a personal visit to your school on the Swim for a Healthy World Web site.

I'll be checking back with Christopher Swain during the coming months for updates, and I promise to share those in future Spiral Notebook posts. Meanwhile, if this ordinary guy's example inspires some extraordinary projects at your school, please share your stories here.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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