Environmental literacy: Learning the language of the land

There are many types of literacy—language, culture and digital to name a few. But what about “environmental literacy”? It’s a language unto itself—with important implications for Earth’s natural environment and our future. Teaching environmental literacy helps ensure that the next generation will be aware of the issues facing our planet and can act as its steward.

So, how do we go about teaching the language of the land?

Partnering with Pajaro Valley schools, the Aquarium builds skills and confidence in teaching environmental literacy for participants in its Environmental Leadership Collaborative.

That’s the focus of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new Environmental Leadership Collaborative (formerly the Science Learning Leaders Institute). The program is designed to help teachers meet the California’s new science and environmental literacy standards, and help ensure their students are equipped to address the burgeoning environmental challenges facing future generations.

For now, the two-year-old program focuses on Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD). Given the success of the Institute, it could provide a template for teaching environmental literacy across the state—or even the nation.

Helping meet new state standards

The Environmental Leadership Collaborative is a collaboration of the Aquarium, ChangeScale, PVUSD, the California Regional Environmental Education Community and the Monterey Bay Environmental Educators Network. During the 2017-2018 school year, 27 teachers from 17 elementary schools completed the program, which includes a three-day workshop to develop an environmental curriculum, plus four follow-up workshops throughout the year. The Institute was created, with district science coordinator Robert Hoffman, to help meet the Pajaro Valley district’s Environmental Literacy Plan, which is part of the state’s Next Generation Science Standards, adopted in 2013.

The programs helps teachers develop creative ways to turn the outdoors into an open-air science classroom.

Joey Scott, the Aquarium’s teacher programs supervisor, oversees the Institute. A former elementary and middle school teacher who’s been at the Aquarium for six years, leads the elementary teacher programs for the education division.

“We have a really good relationship with teachers and leadership at Pajaro Valley,” says Joey, “We’re the backbone organization of this program, but we work with other environmental education providers to deliver the Institute.

“Teachers work in grade-level teams that are matched with an environmental education provider. It’s a collaborative unit of instruction that includes an outdoor component—and it’s a model that’s not happening in many places.”

How plants get matter—and why it matters

Sometimes, the teachers learn as much as the kids. Nicole Beverly has been teaching fifth grade at Mintie White Elementary School in Watsonville for six years. Though her degree is in liberal studies, as a fifth-grade teacher she teaches a full range of subjects—including science.

Participants discover new ways to approach science education, and places to bring their classes for outdoor education field trips.

“After I attended the Institute, we developed a curriculum to explore how plants get matter, and where matter comes from,” says Nicole. “It’s a huge topic. We went through various experiments, spending a whole day hiking and studying the health of a creek. We looked for animal evidence and human impacts on the environment. It really helped students understand and appreciate the natural world.”

The kids weren’t the only ones learning.

“It was such a good experience for me,” says Nicole. “I never enjoyed science as kid, so as teacher, I didn’t particularly look forward to it. The Aquarium’s program taught me that it’s not scary and helped me integrate outdoor activities better in class. I learned with the kids. We investigated topics together. I realized that if I had been taught in this way, I would have been much more excited about science!”

 A win for teachers, students—and the environment

Surveys conducted after the Institute indicate that 85 percent of participating teachers reported increased confidence teaching science and environmental topics. Students, meanwhile, are engaging in projects that deliver tangible ecological benefits.

Partners like Life Lab in Santa Cruz offer outdoor education opportunities that teachers in the region can utilize. Photo courtesy Life Lab.

“We’re helping students learn about the environment around them, and the human impacts—both positive and negative,” says Joey. “A school might have an old garden that’s not being used, but with guidance and support from local organizations such as Life Lab in Santa Cruz or Farm Discovery in Castroville, teachers inspire students to plant a garden and measure the difference in biodiversity.

“Some teachers are working with the Bird School Project to install feeders at their schools and increase biodiversity. Others might work with Save Our Shores on a beach cleanup or determine ways to reduce waste at their schools.”

Rita Bell, the Aquarium’s vice president of education, emphasizes that the programs are also helping ensure that teachers meet state requirements.

“We’re helping teachers modify curricula to meet state standards,” she says. “We’re instilling confidence in teaching science concepts.”

A template for environmental teaching

The Environmental Leadership Collaborative may be a local effort, but it carries statewide—and perhaps national—implications.

“I think this is great model,” says Rita. “We’re focused on local community resources and connecting them directly with classroom teachers.  It’s working in the Pajaro Valley schools, and ChangeScale is already working with other school districts in Oakland and the North Bay.

“We’d love to export this process to more districts and raise environmental literacy across the entire region and throughout the state.”

Pajaro Valley teachers are now taking part in the second year of programs. We hope to expand the program to other school districts.

With support from Cisco Systems, the Aquarium is offering the Institute again during the current academic year to a cohort of 25 new teachers and 15 returning teachers. Other assistance comes from individual Aquarium donors, corporations and foundations.

The Aquarium will be even better positioned to expand the program with the opening of the new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership this spring.

“With the new building there will be more opportunities to have teachers onsite,” says Joey. “Our existing space has limited how many we can accommodate. Plus, the building has the word ‘leadership’ in its name, and that’s one of the things the program is designed to do: build leadership in both students and teachers.

“The Environmental Leadership Collaborative is the most exciting program that I’ve been able to work on,” she says. “There’s so much power in bringing people together—district officials, environmental education providers and teachers. Our mission at the Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean and a love of the planet, and all that comes through in the Institute.”

— Geoff Drake

Featured photo: The Aquarium connects classroom teachers with outdoor education specialists, like these at Elkhorn Slough, to help educators meet California’s environmental literacy standards. Photo courtesy Elkhorn Slough Foundation.

Learn more about professional development programs for teachers offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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