Fires on the Water

Re-imagining educational elements

by Laura Parker Roerden

In the late 1960s, a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland from industrial pollution became a galvanizing image in the environmental movement and was credited in part with garnering the support to create the EPA, which in 1972 led to the Clean Water Act. The river was a local problem; it would burn more than a dozen times before garnering national attention when Time magazine made it a cover issue, but it had been the crucible for national action.

We are in a place where we need again to knit our local realities to global outcomes. We have entered into the worst species die-off since the massive loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Only this time, the extinction is humankind’s responsibility. Global warming and habitat loss are thought to be the main causes of a species die off at a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than normal. It is predicted we will have lost 30-50% of all species by mid-century if we do not get a handle on the global impacts of our actions on our world. 

Those of us who work in education see the worry for the future in young people. This is the world they know they will inherit. Yet our curricula often feel disconnected from the very problems education seeks to prepare young people to solve. Our hopes for public education as preparation for civic engagement seem impotent if rooted only in textbooks, when so much of their real world seeks to be better understood and so many young people ache to be useful and belong.

So indulge me for a moment while we re-envision education as a place where our pressing problems can be solved while also teaching the important content we seek to impart; where schools are places that engage student’s hearts, hands, and minds in service and inquiry; where students build the self-efficacy, grit and resilience so sorely needed to address the challenges they will face as adults.

Imagine a high school classroom in coastal New England exploring the geo-political cause of our energy dependency on fossil fuel through a deep dive into 17th and 18th century whaling. They are engaged in understanding their own town by understanding how whaling touched it, whether they are in a coastal town like Provincetown that sent ships halfway across the world to whale or one in the interior that used whale bones and baleen in the making of corsets, buggy whips, or umbrella stays. One small group is engaged in building a replica of a skeleton of Right whale in order to explore how its anatomy led it to be targeted by whalers. Another small group is looking at census data for their town and comparing it to the rise and fall of whaling hauls. A third group is looking at town maps from three time periods—before whaling, at its peak, and after it ended—and are asked to notice the patterns of development and how waterways, railways, and roads contributed to the transportation of goods. A fourth is reading scientific papers about whale population dynamics before and after whaling and populating a timeline with data. 

The class then fast forwards to current times and studies those same whale populations. How have populations recovered? What threats remain for whale populations targeted? They examine how the switch to fossil fuels is affecting their towns and the whale populations studied. The class chooses a threat (in this case plastic pollution) and devises a project to rid their school and community of single use plastic in public places like sports fields and parks.

Students are engaged in what is known as interdisciplinary, place-based education. But this project can also have a global spin. Rather than stop the inquiry at the boundaries of their towns, what if students were also teamed with other places around the U.S. or the world: a classroom in Honolulu; one in Long Island; a third in Alaska; another in the Canadian Arctic? They are connected online as teams with one member from each place. Students explain their local communities’ development in terms of the broader history of whale oil and fossil fuel, and other social, economic, and political trends across the country and world.

Place-based learning is not new, but it does have the potential to revolutionize education. Recent studies conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on high school student’s satisfaction from a sample of 22,000 young people showed young people to be “tired, stressed and bored” at school. Knowing what we know about the adolescent brain, it’s not likely that a student who is experiencing those emotions is also at their cognitive best, which raises significant questions about what we should be doing differently.

Rather than be siloed into classrooms, curricula and instruction where the community is both teacher and classroom anchors students to where they live, shores up relevancy, improves self- efficacy and deepens learning. Whether mucking about in a stream, interviewing elders, or volunteering at a soup kitchen while studying root causes of poverty, tying curricular outcomes to the immediate world has great benefits for students. A growing body of evidence points to the following:

  • better performance on standardized tests
  • reduced discipline and classroom management problems
  • increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning
  • greater pride and ownership in accomplishments

We need this sort of education now more than ever. Not only will the complex problems of our world demand sophisticated solutions, they will also require collaboration with people we have never met in person. The high school students of today are as likely to have colleagues in India, South Africa, and China when they enter the workforce, as they are to have colleagues sitting at the next desk. Equally important is the ability to shift perspectives from the local to the regional to the national to the international lens. In a global economy, an awareness of local culture, economics and history is critical to understanding how the part relates to the whole.

Clearly, our efforts to address major global problems, such as the extinction crisis and global warming, require a shift from our sense of ourselves as mere agents on the planet to living beings deeply embedded in nature.

What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. As environmentalist David Orr posits, “The sum total of violence wrought by people who do not know who they are, because they do not where they are is the environmental crisis.” This is a different call to action for educators: one of connection.

Research confirms the importance of connection in nurturing social responsibility. Shelley Berman, author of Children’s Social Consciousness and the Development of Social Responsibility, looked at the research on activists and found that pro-social action was “less about moral principles and more about a sense of self as connected to others and to the world as a whole.” Moreover, the studies also point to “an additional motivator of activism: a sense of meaning and a sense of place within the larger context.”

The Tlingit people traditionally existed as largely disconnected and isolated small bands of people along the inland waterways of southeast Alaska. While their lives were centered on the local, the Tlingits would also invite bands of other natives to join them by lighting small fires on the water. Neighboring bands passing by would see the fires and know they were welcome to stop in and share in a potlatch and an evening of storytelling.

Our schools similarly need to light fires on the water and invite schools across the world to share in learning starting from their own communities outward. These fires that burn on the water are a clarion call to see the local as global and to more deeply spark imagination, nourish learning, and build the innovation, action, and creativity young people need to face the problems they will one day inherit.

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