First Come Reading and Writing, then Eco-Literacy

by kespeland on October 15, 2008


When Farnsley Middle School science teacher Marsha Buerger gives the signal, her students will have to make a choice.  They can stand under the poster that reads “I believe caution should be taken to protect the people, plants, and animals that could be harmed by the extraction of our natural resources.”  They can stand under another one tacked up across the room that says we should get those resources, at any cost.  Or pick the third poster: no concern for the environment at all.

“And, quietly move…interesting!”

A majority of students have gathered under the protect-the-environment poster.  But a sizeable minority has clustered around the drill-at-all-costs statement.  Just three giggling boys have chosen the I-don’t-care poster.  Buerger asks a student named Auggie to explain his choice.Cheryl Bersaglia shows 4th graders organic matter from the forest floor.

“If we, like, don’t start mining all the natural resources we can, we’re going to throw ourselves into an energy crisis we can’t get out of, and then we’re all just going to, like, Armageddon or something.  Everybody’s going to try to start getting the resources and there’s going to be big wars and stuff.”

When students return to their desks, Buerger asks them to write about their choices.  That’s because this isn’t science class.  Buerger is using current environmental topics like energy production to teach reading.  She steps into the hallway while her students watch a video about mountain top removal coal mining.

“I’m allowed to put in some of these different units that do have a higher reading level. So it’s continued with reading, I have to follow those things, but I can include other topics,” says Buerger.

Buerger says she loves covering the environment in her classes.  But she says strict state and federal requirements leave little time for covering anything but the subjects in which students will be tested.

“We have, especially in middle school, a very tight core content we have to teach.  And it’s very packed full.  And we are tested in science in the 7th grade.  So we really do need to keep the focus on the testing,” Buerger says.

4th graders inspect a sample of organic material from the forest floor.Kentucky’s education department began looking for ways to increase environmental literacy more than a decade ago.  State lawmakers established the Kentucky Environmental Education Council, which created teacher training programs and set education standards.  But teaching this content is still voluntary.  Jefferson County Public Schools environmental education coordinator David Wicks says it depends on the motivation of individual teachers.

“If that teacher moves or retires, you tend to break that chain and thereby what they did on that school campus goes into disrepair or goes back to a green grass lawn,” says Wicks.

Wicks says the district’s core curriculum touches on environmental topics. But dedicating a class to environmental science would also benefit students.

“I think you need to have both. I think there are times for a discreet course that allows that focus, allows the fieldwork.  But the bottom line is it has to be incorporated into all different curricular areas,” Wicks says.

Wicks says schools that teach kids about the environment—especially through programs that take them out doors—see improved test scores and fewer disciplinary problems.  But Wicks say schools often lack not only the time to teach environmental topics…they lack the money.  One way schools can fill the gap is to go outside the school system.

”You can see all kinds…sometimes there’s seeds in there, there’s twigs…”

Soil expert Cheryl Bersaglia is showing an antsy group of fourth graders a clump of leaves she’s scooped off the forest floor.  These students from two West Louisville schools have spent the day conducting experiments in Jefferson Memorial Forest and they’ll be camping out tonight.  It’s the first time most of them have ever been in the woods.  Forest administrator Bennett Knox.4th graders have just tested the soil composition in Jefferson Memorial Forest

“Our staff are trained as informal, non-formal environmental educators.  So we’re kind of filling a niche, where they might not be able to come out on their own because of whatever – budget constraints, time, maybe the teachers don’t have the time to fully prepare for what they might find in the woods. So our staff, through the programming that we do, can provide that role,” Knox says.

Knox says field trips are often the first thing to go when school budgets get cut. But if a recently introduced bill called the “No Child Left Inside” act passes congress, Kentucky kids could be headed into the woods more often.  The act would authorize $500 million dollars over five years in grants for everything from teacher training to field trips.

Note: See student writing from Marsha Buerger’s middle school reading class.

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