Education Trends

Teaching and the Environmental Crisis: Resources and Models

April 17, 2013
Photo credit: ohioseagrant via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I'm not an alarmist, but we truly are in an environmental crisis, headlined by, but not limited to, global warming. Given the importance of the challenge, I'd like to see a National Environmental Education Year -- setting aside a week seems like a drop in the bucket. But since we have this week, National Environmental Education Week, let’s make the most of it.

Kids as Leaders

First, please take a quick peek at some of the many school-based actions that have taken place to help save our environment.

Fourth grade kids in Marin County, California helped save an endangered species. Chronicled beautifully in the film, A Simple Question: The Story of STRAW, it all started with one fourth grade class project to save the endangered California freshwater shrimp. It is now a regional science learning program that integrates habitat restoration and community service.

A group of high school students in Los Angeles created environmental billboards with cell phone photos. This was done as part of an eco-internship in which local students worked with UCLA's Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP) to take pictures of Los Angeles State Historic Park and then use software to help prepare them for billboards.

In Massachusetts, a high school student recently launched a petition to remove vending machines that sell bottled water in plastic containers at her school. She has gotten responses from all over the world, great support from other students, and her efforts are apparently still gaining momentum.

This is just a small sample of the many school-based actions designed to help preserve our environment. They serve as models for what should be happening in every community in our country.

Activism Onscreen

Given the importance of the challenge and the idea that classrooms should increasingly be centers to organize learning experiences that take place outside the classroom, in the community, in the natural world and on the web, this week seems like a perfect time to look at ways of increasing student knowledge and engagement in learning focused on our environment. So I want to share a few very special resources and ideas with you, and urge you to see what you can do in your school and/or community.

There is a powerful film about the history of the environmental movement now playing in theaters throughout the country, A Fierce Green Fire, directed by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Mark Kitchell. This excellent resource for teachers creatively combines archival footage with interesting and provocative narration by five high-profile narrators, including Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Isabel Allende. It's presented as five acts, each of which could serve as the focus for a unit in a social studies or science class. In many ways the film is perfectly designed for classroom use.

As an example, Act 4 focuses on the global issues of the '80s and especially the struggle to save the Amazon, led by Chico Mendes. Major issues of equity and sustainability are explored. Given the compelling hero and issues, this would be the perfect center for a unit.

Because Kitchell's primary goal is to educate and promote action, the DVD is being made available immediately for educational purposes. Bullfrog Films is distributing the DVD, and their website provides ordering information plus a host of links to other sources for teachers. The DVD, especially designed for teachers, includes a teaching guide, SDFH captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and scene selection. If you want to purchase a DVD for personal use in your classroom and your school is not paying for your teaching materials, you can call the number provided in order to obtain the DVD at a reduced price.

Bullfrog is also making available a viewer's guide and a discussion guide, while the film's website includes an excellent list of recommended films and books.

I also want to briefly draw your attention to another excellent film, The Ad and the Ego. Although this film is better suited to studying the impact of advertising on our society and the threats it poses, one part fits perfectly with A Fierce Green Fire. Like that film, The Ad and the Ego is presented in acts, four in this case. Act 3 focuses on "The Economy and Ecology of Advertising," and effectively establishes the links between advertising, our culture of consumption, and the creation of waste and the destruction of our physical environment. Here, too, is a wealth of teacher resources, starting with the official study guide, which is available as a free download.

Future Stewards of Nature

Changing gears slightly, another approach to environmental education is to bring a number of schools in a community together, exposing them to films about the environment, speakers, and different local environmental groups.

In San Rafael, California, the California Film Institute's (CFI) Environmental Youth Forum shows 17 films with speakers over the course of two days, also hosting a room where local environmental organizations can show students what they do. It's been in existence for only five years and is still growing. There are usually three films screened simultaneously throughout the day, some of them still works-in-progress seeking feedback, and 1200+ students from ages 7-18 sampling, watching, listening, asking questions and meeting local and national environmental activists. The keynote is always delivered by a former Brower Youth Award winner (an award given annually to six environmental and social justice leaders under the age of 23), speaking to the students about subjects like food justice for the poor and safe drinking water for Third World countries.

Kids interviewed this year said they were inspired to do more work in their communities around recycling and food justice. They were particularly inspired by Green Streets, a film about a recycling program started by residents of San Francisco's Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood. That screening was packed.

This program can be replicated in any community that has a small theater and a few people willing to help make it happen. CFI started the program on a shoestring with all-DVD screenings and small groups from the local area only. It has since taken off by word-of-mouth to schools all over the Bay Area and also attracted excellent financial support.

I highly recommend that educators and parents also take a look at Richard Louv's Last Child in The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Although the book is focused more broadly on reconnecting children to the natural world, chapter 12, "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From," focuses specifically on engaging children in actions to help save our environment.

The threat to our environment is very real. The need for education and action is obvious. The models and resources are bountiful. Every school and every community should make this a priority.

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