Earth Day, April 22, is a great opportunity to begin talking about the environment with your students, and hopefully, it will be the beginning of an ongoing discussion that continues through the rest of the school year.
The core elements of humane education are critical for the future sustainability of our planet. We have provided explanations of how three core elements of humane education: building reverence, promoting critical thinking, and youth empowerment relate to teaching about environmental topics, followed by suggested teaching techniques and activities related to those core elements.
Element #1 – Building Reverence: As ecologist Baba Diom said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” I see this sentiment as a call to action for parents and educators. We have a responsibility to foster love and reverence for our environment, and to motivate the next generation to carefully protect the planet for both themselves and generations to come.
Building Reverence for the Planet Activity: We recently developed a new activity for building reverence for the environment, One with Nature. Take your students on a field trip to a beautiful natural space outside, and provide them with the parameters for where they are allowed to go. Allow them to each find a quiet area to sit and observe a part of the natural world. Ask them to take in a specific part of their space such as, leaves, flowers, rocks, bugs, dirt, birds, a tree, or a bush through their senses of sight, smell, hearing, and gentle touch (when applicable). Tell them they will have about 5 – 10 minutes once they are sitting in their spot, and warn them that it might seem like a long time if they do not have a lot of experience sitting still and quietly by themselves for that amount of time. Once they are finished, provide the students with a clipboard, piece of paper, and a pencil, and ask them to trace what they focused on to the best of their ability. When the students return to the classroom, let them know they are going to recreate the natural space in their classroom. If possible, utilize an entire wall or bulletin board to complete this activity. Ask each student to use their sketches to recreate what they experienced on large sheets of paper. Have each student draw, color, and cut out their piece of the natural world, and ask what they think would happen if these individual parts of nature were in the space by themselves. Discuss how ecosystems thrive because the parts are all connected. Challenge the students to recreate their natural space by asking one volunteer to add their cutout to the wall, in a place they think it fits best. Then ask who has a part of the natural space that connects to what was placed on the wall, invite that student to explain how their piece is linked, and allow him or her to add their cutout to the wall as well. Continue this way until all the pieces are connected. Ask students if they think anything is missing, then create and add those components. Discuss how the scene would change and be affected if different pieces were taken away, as well as ways that humans might harm and alternatively protect the space. Let the students know their wall will serve as a reminder that each part of the natural world is precious and to remember this when thinking about how they will act in natural spaces in the future.
Element #2 – Promote Critical Thinking: In an article written by Lee Watanabe Crockett, published on the Global Citizen Digital website, it states, “In order to engage students in critical thinking, the educator needs to act as a facilitator to allow for discussion and encourage a freer thought process…”. In general, humane education topics lend themselves very well to critical thinking. We provide students with accurate information and challenge them to develop an opinion or stance about a specific issue, based on facts and thoughtful discussion. It is essential for humane educators to develop thought provoking, higher-order thinking questions since they provide youth with an opportunity to process information and decide how they will behave, what positions they will hold, and what policies they will support.
Critical Thinking Activity for the Environment: Role plays are a great way to encourage critical thinking. Take any environmental topic that you want to teach, such as climate change, large-scale animal agriculture, or energy policy, and develop a scenario that allows students to make a decision regarding that issue. Create cards to describe each of the stakeholders involved in the scenario. Each card should explain who they are, their position on the question at hand, and some brief bullet points to explain their opinion. Break the students into groups; each group will represent one of the stakeholders. If you have the time and resources, ask students to research the topic from their stakeholder’s point of view to develop their own arguments. Allow time for the students to develop an opening statement to summarize who they are and their thoughts on the matter. Following presentations, provide each group with an opportunity to take questions from the other students, and be prepared to challenge each group’s position with your own questions as well. In this way, students will be given the opportunity to see the situation from multiple perspectives and to take all those points of view into consideration. It is important for youth to understand that, even when we have the same information, everyone has their own experiences and interpretations of that data, which can influence decision-making. It is imperative that we take everyone’s perspective into consideration when attempting to develop a solution that will do the most good and the least harm for all those affected.
One scenario that we have taught numerous times is based on a city deciding whether or not they will provide a permit to a plastics manufacturing company that wants to build a new plant in their community. One of the reasons people support the company is because the community has a high unemployment rate, and jobs are needed. On the other hand, some people oppose the company’s plans because they are concerned production of plastic materials will be toxic to their community and will harm people, especially the elderly and children, as well as wildlife. Similar scenarios could be developed on whether or not a community supports rezoning for the construction of a large-scale animal farm in their community, what type of energy they want their city to invest in, or the development of regulations that would force companies to reduce their carbon emissions.
Students love to role play, and in my experience, they often really enjoy this type of activity. It provides them with an opportunity to take a complicated topic and narrow it down to a specific situation so they can more easily understand how that issue might affect people, other species, and the environment. After students have a better understanding of the issue, you could provide examples of similar real-life situations and discuss decisions made in actual communities.
Element #3 –Empowerment: In humane education, we build reverence because we believe our feelings and the feelings of others are important; therefore, one of our goals is to encourage youth to tap into their emotions. We promote critical thinking because we are not only people of the heart, we are also people of the mind, and it is important to consider how others feel and think about something. As Carl Sagan said, “…intelligence is…the manner in which information is collected and used”. Once we know how we feel and think about information we have received, we can decide what we want to do or how we want to act. It is when we act that our emotions and thoughts really matter because that is how we apply our opinions to the real world.
Empowerment for a Sustainable Future: While we spend a lot of time teaching students about many of the problems facing our world today, we also spend a lot of time discussing different strategies for change as well. We often do this by telling students stories about change-makers and discussing how these people had a positive impact on causes they believed in. Some examples of effective strategies for change that we discuss with students are: direct action, consumer power and how we can “vote” with our dollars, awareness campaigns, and lobbying to influence government officials to create and/or pass legislation.
Challenge students to consider how all of those strategies for change can be effectively applied to whatever environmental topic you are discussing. It is essential that positive change-making tactics are addressed when talking about large environmental problems so that students are not left feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or apathetic. They need to know that people have successfully taken action to improve problems that seemed impossible to change and that they too can make a difference on any issue that troubles them.
If there is an issue your entire class is concerned about, brainstorm potential change-making actions, and consider facilitating a service project so your students can collaborate with one another and put their ideas into practice.
If you are looking for some tangible hands-on projects that you can do with your class to practice environmental conservation, check out our blog, 10 Great Eco Activities for Kids to Celebrate Earth Day.
We’d like to wish everyone a very happy Earth Day, a day we can all keep in our hearts, minds, and actions throughout the whole year.