Representation matters. And when it comes to seeing themselves represented in books about exploring nature and the outdoors, black children are not being represented.
The 2019 Atlantic article Where is the Black Blueberries for Sal? by Ashley Fetters highlights the dearth of black protagonists in books where the main characters are exploring in nature or going on a wilderness adventure for fun. In a follow-up article, Where are the Books about Black Kids in Nature?Andrea Breau of Diverse Book Finder wrote about DBF’s comprehensive search of their collection of picture books with Black and Indigenous people and People of Color as protagonists. The search turned up just 16 books that met this criteria. Notably, only four of the sixteen were written by authors from that same diverse group (learn about the #ownvoices movement here).
The reasons for this lack of representation are complex, but, unsurprisingly, many of them are rooted in systemic racism and historical injustices toward black people.
Now, more than ever, as our country reels from the horrific and racist treatment of black people by police officers, dog walkers, and self-appointed vigilantes, we must do more to rebrand nature as a place for all people, including black children.
Last school year, before the words “global pandemic” were part of every conversation I had, I embarked on an ambitious and sadly ill-fated mission to eliminate landfill waste from my 1st grade classroom. Nowadays, I would give anything to just be able to teach in a real classroom again. However, I’m also trying to see this situation as a chance to start fresh, to reevaluate some of the practices that are so deeply ingrained in elementary school culture. The shiny new plastic-encased markers. The individual plastic-robed glue sticks. The squeezable tubes of yogurt. The list goes on.
Whenever I do get the opportunity to return to my classroom, I want to do things differently, and there’s no better person to talk to about my aspirations than Jacqueline Omania, the inspirational teacher behind the Zero Waste Classroom Project and winner of the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.
What is a zero waste classroom?
It tries to make no landfill trash.
It tries not to use plastic– we use real forks, spoons, and cups.
It tries to recycle and compost.
It practices rethinking, reusing, and refusing.
It practices and studies about being a sustainable person.
Why do you make your classroom zero waste?
Once I got informed about plastic recycling not really happening, I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. So I shared it with my kids.
Having done a zero waste classroom for the fifth year now- I feel it completely inspires all my students.
They can connect, they can make changes and see and measure it. They know the world has great challenges, but they are empowered daily with the desire to learn more and the ability to make a difference.
What have been the biggest challenges to going zero waste?
It’s not as much as you would expect. The trick is to get the kids onboard, to make it theirs. Make them feel like it’s reachable for them. It’s a matter of intention. You try to be intentional to make the least waste you can. It’s definitely a process–it took 5 years to get there.
My obstacles are things that come from school. For example, all our math [materials] come wrapped in plastic. I’m required for them to use whiteboard markers when I teach math.
What surprised you about this project?
In any moment it could be destroyed, but it wasn’t. The kids embraced it on a deeper level, naturally, without a lot of force. They all wanted to do this, to do their part. Kids feel so powerless in the world. For them to know there’s a concrete way they can make a difference. [that] what they’re doing is worthy [and[ they have a role in the world–they really want that. They’re so proud, so bold. They impress me so much.
What kinds of impacts or changes have you seen in your students since starting this project?
They’re more engaged with their writing in general. They’re often writing their speeches [for press conferences]. They’re engaged because they know it’s going to have a purpose. With math, they’re doing multiplication and division for each trash audit. They’re super engaged with their learning.
I’ve had really positive feedback from parents. [They’re] so proud of their children for being advocates for the environment.
We’re stronger as a community together. This had a ripple effect around our school. I opened up the Ocean Club for the whole school–all their friends came. The other kids wanted to know about it and talk about it. Now we have 45 kids coming.
Where do you go from here?
My vision would be to empower every kid to get on board. If you set up everything with a Kindergarten cohort on board, you’re set.
More teachers need to be doing this, but we need the education piece for people to care. I’m hoping to create staff developments about this in a different way. Not telling teachers what to do, but showing them what we do.
It’s more than the materials–it’s parent education. More education to not buy those school supplies. They don’t need their own stuff. I think we all just need to share more. We’re constantly buying and dumping. We have so much excess, and we just need to redistribute all that. We have to rethink the way we are together, and the amount of stuff we have.
Learn more about the Zero Waste Classroom Project with these videos:
Have you ever wondered how much trash you produce in a day? How about a whole lunchroom of elementary school students? Nanette Heffernan, author of the newly-published children’s book Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet, became curious about this question while working as a lunchroom volunteer at her children’s elementary school about a decade ago. She conducted a trash audit, meticulously counting every chip and plastic bag in the trash for a week.
“I told the principal, if you support waste-free lunch, I’ll do it for another week, and I’ll make a hat,” said Heffernan. Within the first day, the hat was complete, and it quickly grew into a suit because there was just so much trash.
For Heffernan, what started out as a somewhat facetious challenge, soon morphed into an iconic and highly-impactful visual reminder of the astonishing amount of waste produced by school lunches every day. Ten years later, Heffernan continues to don her trash suit at school assemblies, festivals, and other educational events to draw attention to the environmental impact of single-use disposables. “Your first breath you laugh, then you pause, and then you react,” she said.
Educating children (and “their grown-ups,” as Heffernan likes to say) about how to reduce waste is just one part of Heffernan’s work as a sustainability consultant. Her new book, Earth Hour, aims to reach an even wider audience of children who are looking for ways to get involved in protecting the planet. Earth Hour is a global environmental movement sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. This year, Earth Hour takes place on Saturday, March 28. Wherever you are on the planet, at 8:30pm on March 28, you shut your lights off for the hour as a pledge of what you’re going to do for the environment for the rest of the year. “It’s not about how much energy you save in that hour,” says Heffernan. She likens the event to Valentine’s Day. “We love each other year-round, but we go out of our way to show it on Valentine’s Day. It’s the same for Earth Hour.”
Heffernan emphasizes that participating in Earth Hour is a way for people of all ages to get involved in a tangible way. “Kids have so many rules,” says Heffernan, noting that children are often told they have to go to bed at a certain time, eat their vegetables, do their homework, and more. “It’s easy for a child to feel overwhelmed when you hear these stories about climate change. They think, ‘What can I do, I’m only 7?’ You can participate [in Earth Hour] when you’re 7, and you don’t need permission.”
Above all, Heffernan hopes that her book inspires optimism. “[Kids] have so much power in their little hands to make a difference. With that finger they can turn off the light, with that hand they can turn off the water, they can say ‘no thank you’ to single-use plastic. Whatever their pledge is, it makes a huge impact,” said Heffernan.
I recently became one of the co-moderators of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Early Childhood Environmental Education Group, an online community of like-minded educators, parents, researchers, and more who are passionate about connecting our youngest children to nature. The group is a goldmine of resources, opportunities, and fellowship, and I encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in this topic to join the group (it’s free!). Here’s a snapshot of some of the great features of the group (and the larger eePRO community).
Pose or answer a question from a fellow group mate, and do some fantastic networking in the process. This is the most lively and interactive portion of the site and you are sure to come away with great new ideas.
Find out about upcoming learning opportunities, such as webinars, online courses, conferences, trainings, and more. Successful completion of a learning opportunity earns you Learning Hours, which are noted on your eePRO profile.
If you’re looking for a new job in the field of environmental education, you might want to peruse the curated job postings on the site. They are sorted by location and you can also search by a variety of other criteria.
“Most first graders don’t get to go to City Hall, do they?” quipped one of my first grade students last week. She was referring to our field trip the day before to San Francisco City Hall, where our class of nineteen 7-and 8-year-olds successfully lobbied our elected officials to ban plastic straws in San Francisco. The trip was the culmination of our year-long journey towards becoming Giraffe Heroes, brave and caring people who stick their necks out for others and don’t give up even when it’s hard or scary. In other words, they were learning how to be activists.
Student activism is a hot topic at the moment, thanks in large part to the national spotlight on brave young people like Emma Gonzalez and the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But how exactly does one become an activist? What if you’re shy? What if you’re only in first grade? Can you really make a difference? I certainly don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do have my own experiences as a teacher helping my students find their inner activist. Here is what I have learned.
Connect the action to issues THEY care about. A common stumbling block for teachers hoping to turn their students into activists is apathy or lack of investment on the students’ part. I think we can all agree there’s nothing worse than trying to force students to care about an issue about which they are unmoved. The solution? Let the students choose the issue. Sometimes issues arise organically based on current events, and sometimes the process is more intentional and involves lots of brainstorming and discussion. It’s unlikely that you’ll find an issue about which all of your students are equally passionate, but, by using some of your teacher-magic-finesse, you can usually find a way to combine ideas and settle on an issue that the majority of your class will buy into.
Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. Handing over the reins to students dramatically increases their levels of investment and engagement in any project. Keep their ideas and interests front and center throughout all stages of your project, and let them do the majority of the work. As the teacher, your role is to provide structure and parameters within which the students can be creative and generative, and to help them refine their vision to something that is actually possible and doable. For example, my students this year wanted to attend a Board of Supervisors meeting and speak during the public comment portion, but once we learned that the meetings started at 7pm and typically lasted 4-5 hours, I helped them refine that goal to asking for a meeting with one Supervisor instead. They will likely need your help with working out some of the nitty gritty logistics of whatever action they decide to take, but leave the big-picture planning and vision-setting to the kids. As an added bonus, keeping the project kid-focused goes a long way towards getting parent buy-in (and reducing push-back). Which brings me to…
Invite families to participate. Another common barrier for teachers hoping to bring out the inner activist in their students is resistance from parents and guardians. Sometimes families don’t agree with the cause the students have chosen, and sometimes they are concerned about risk and student safety. I find that inviting families to join in the process alongside students is very effective and helps ease their minds. I have a suspicion that much of the push-back stems from fear of the unknown, so I try to make our process as transparent as possible for all involved. For example, I invited all families to join my students in their rally at City Hall last week. A good number of parents and siblings showed up, and once they saw how excited and engaged their children were, they soon picked up signs of their own and joined in chanting, “Go away plastic straws!” Additionally, when families know that the project is based on students’ own ideas, and not imposed from above, they tend to be much more open-minded.
Talk about activism early and often. In my classroom, activism is a lens through which I plan all my other curriculum. It is not a discrete unit or subject, but rather I do my best to infuse it into my lessons and activities throughout the year. For example, each year my students participate in a project-based learning unit called Adapt Your Hobbies where they learn about physical disabilities and then use the design engineering process to build an adaptation for one of their favorite hobbies so someone with a physical disability could participate in the hobby. This year, one group created a prosthetic arm with a special hook at the end to allow someone without an arm to rock climb. Throughout the year I share examples of activists of all types and forms through read alouds, videos, current events, and more. I especially try to provide examples of activists my students can relate to, such as other young children. We spend the year laying the groundwork for how to be an activist so that when spring comes around, my students are ready to engage in direct social action on a larger scale.
Leverage resources. I have finally learned after almost ten years in the classroom that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is the sign of a good teacher! I lean heavily on resources like Giraffe Heroes Project and Teaching Tolerance, as well as individual people with whom I have built relationships. For example, a parent of one of my students this year has connections to City Hall, and she was able to use those connections to set up meetings for my students with Supervisor Katy Tang and Acting Mayor Mark Farrell, a feat which otherwise would have been extremely challenging if not impossible. At the risk of sound trite and cliche, we truly are stronger together, and reinventing the wheel does not make you smart– it just makes you tired.
When I first started Forest Fridays, the only resources I had in abundance were enthusiasm and blind optimism. I knew some basic environmental ed principles from my college days in the student sustainability club, but by no means was I an expert or seasoned practitioner in the art of connecting kids with nature. I assumed that I would figure it out as I went, but I quickly realized that I was going to need some help. Since those early days I have learned a lot about how to leverage community resources which are often readily available yet seldom utilized. The kicker? They’re usually free. Here are my top three tips:
1. Invite experts to visit. If you do not have the requisite knowledge about a particular subject or skill but want your students to learn it, consider seeking out an expert in the field. Most people who are passionate enough about something to become an expert in it will be happy to spend an hour or two talking about it to kids. For example, my class is currently learning about how Native Americans in our area have historically used native plants for eating, cleaning, and healing. We read several books that vaguely touched on this topic, but it wasn’t really coming alive for the students until my co-teacher invited a member of the local Ohlone tribe to come talk to our class. She was so excited about this opportunity that she brought along her sister and a friend as well as a big collection of artifacts and tools made by her tribe. The information and firsthand experiences she was able to share with us were so much richer and more impactful than anything I would ever have been able to teach my students.
2. Borrow materials and equipment. How many times have you gotten super excited about doing an activity or project with your students only to discover that it requires a specific piece of equipment that you either can’t get or don’t want to spend the money to buy? I found myself in this situation a couple years ago when I wanted to teach my students how to bird watch. While they of course could’ve just looked for birds with their naked eyes, I knew the experience would be so much richer if they had binoculars. I balked at the thought of paying hundreds of dollars for a class set of binoculars, though. I decided to contact the Presidio Trust, the non-profit organization that works out of the Presidio National Park, to see if they had any birding equipment we could borrow. Sure enough they did, and a few weeks later a naturalist from the Trust came to meet us at Forest Friday with a class set of binoculars in tow. It turned out that several of my students didn’t like using the binoculars and preferred looking without them, which made me extra glad that I hadn’t busted our budget to buy brand new sets. The icing on the cake? I didn’t have to find a place in my already-crowded classroom to store them.
Resources vary by city, but a good first stop is your local parks and recreation department. Many public library systems also have tool-lending programs. Local birding organizations or hiking clubs may also be a good resource.
3. Partner with other teachers/schools/programs. Perhaps the best and most valuable resources we have are our peers. If you have an idea for an activity but aren’t quiet sure how to flesh it out or put it into action, then talking to another teacher can be just the ticket.
Alternatively, kids can learn so much from visiting other children’s schools, parks, and neighborhoods. The possibilities for collaboration are limitless: compare and contrast plant or animal species, teach each other about the local flora and fauna, engage in neighborhood clean-ups or planting projects, and so much more. If leaving your school feels like too much, consider partnering with another class on your campus. My first grade class recently partnered with the sixth graders to do some research about water pollution. Having the older students present allowed us to do more sophisticated work than we otherwise would have, and the sixth graders got authentic practice conducting research.
Take the networking one step further by partnering with a local organization or group. The Presidio Trust frequently needs volunteers to help with their native plant restoration projects, so we now have an annual planting day where my first graders are put to work replanting entire hillsides at a time. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as the Trust gets much-needed manual labor and my students gain firsthand knowledge about what plants need to survive and thrive.
Organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club often have good volunteer opportunities.
No matter which community resources you decide to leverage, remember it never hurts to ask. The worst that can happen is they say no, but in my experience the answer is most often yes. Happy networking!