Student Engagement

Why Celebrate Earth Day?

April 21, 2010

Editor's Note: After nine years teaching upper elementary school, today's guest blogger Jason Flom is quite adept at getting schooled by 21st century learners. Fortunately, his years as an outdoor educator at The Mountain Institute and North Carolina Outward Bound School gives him one advantage over his students -- an awareness that such a thing as nature existed. As a result, Jason levels the playing field through Service projects both near and far. His students often have over 100 hours of community service during the year with projects ranging from longleaf pine ecosystem restoration to water testing.

Why do we celebrate Earth Day?

1. Because we can.

2. Because we should.

3. Because it's fun.

We Can

Few things are more important than access to clean water, food and shelter.

In the developed world we take that access for granted and consequently allow little things consume us. Traffic. Being late. A whiny toddler refusing to eat breakfast. Politics, parents, children, bills, grading, Glee. The list goes on.

Across the country and around the world, such struggles are the norm, if we are lucky.

However, for far too many people, debates on education policy would be welcome issues -- the challenges of the fortunate. If we have the luxury to get wrapped up in deliberations over testing, funding for salaries, and truth vs. propaganda, it means we have crops to harvest, clean water in our taps, and roofs over our heads.It means our basic survival needs are met.

We can celebrate Earth Day because we are fed, watered, and housed. Without those, we'd be focused on meeting basic needs. Celebrating Earth Day is a way to appreciate the fact that we are fortunate enough complain about the mundane.

We Should

Earth Day began in 1970 with a mission to educate people about environmental issues. Now, a scant 40 years later, its mission remains both the same and very different.

Today, the education component endures as the cornerstone of the internationally observed day, but the emerging keystone is service. Event after event seeks to activate as well as to educate. Earth Day Network describes their mission as such:

Earth Day Network was founded on the premise that all people, regardless of race, gender, income, or geography, have a moral right to a healthy, sustainable environment. Our mission is to broaden and diversify the environmental movement worldwide, and to mobilize it as the most effective vehicle for promoting a healthy, sustainable environment. We pursue our mission through a combination of education, public policy, and activism campaigns. Earth Day Network has a global reach with more than 20,000 partners and organizations in 190 countries. More than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.

By engaging students in activities that connect them with people around the world, we increase their sense of global connectivity. They find themselves a part of a international community committed to minimizing our footprints. They find that the bumper sticker, "Think globally, act locally," can actually be translated into action.

In such a context, students must wrestle with the moral, ethical, geographical, logistical, cultural, economic and scientific challenges to striking a balance between what humans want, what they need, and what must be protected. Not only does it immerse them in relevant learning and meaningful application of skills, it provides them with authentic preparation for adapting to a world yet to be.If we know anything about the Earth it is this: The one constant is change. Perhaps by observing Earth Day with our students, we will take one step toward standardizing sustainability.

It's Fun

Let's face it, our schools, classrooms, and lesson plans are being co-opted by skill development geared toward improving student performance on high stakes tests. The pressure to perform on standardized assessments equates learning and schooling with testing, mastery, and memorization.However, as most teachers, parents, and students can tell you, learning is much more of an organic, constructive process. Students need to be both motivated, involved, and engaged.

By their very nature, Earth Day activities necessitate we go outside. Perhaps to explore, or plant, or investigate, or play, or test a hypothesis. Like birthdays, this once a year event, gives us an excuse (and cause) to break from the mold of the everyday, to look ahead, to envision what might be, and to join together with others doing the same. It is in this novel context that students are introduced to the world around us.

Plus, it forces us outside, into nature, where students may just make connections with something other than a textbook and a #2 pencil.

The problem with such fun is that it makes me think, "Maybe we should just go back outside and teach" all the time.

Not just because we have a good time outside; Not just because it provides an environment for the tangible application of learned skills; and Not just because it increases the likelihood that more students will have access to reaching understanding of a concept.

We should go outside and teach because it is there that answers to some of the most vexing problems to sustainability have already been answered by nature. And finding those answers is not only educational and it's fun, it is necessary.

Earth Day, observed by nearly 20% of the world, raises the stakes of learning beyond the immediate horse race of standardized scores to the very sustainability of our planet. That is a high stakes test we cannot afford to fall short on.

Let's take this Earth Day, April 22, to plant seeds in the minds and hearts of our students by connecting them with the world. Let's engage them in looking anew at the planet and their potential on it, because we can, we should, and because it's fun.

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