Teachers, the time has come to incorporate environmental education projects into your planning for the school year. All school categories apply: public, private, home. Most students enjoy projects related to ecology. The following is one suggestion for a project that will work for K-12 students anywhere. As a bonus, the project will generate assignments in language arts, mathematics, art, music and social studies.
My favorite across-the-curriculum environmental project was the adopt-a-tree program my wife implemented when she taught third grade at a local school. She asked each child in her class to select a tree in the schoolyard and become familiar with it over the course of the academic year. At least once a week during science period, the students would tromp outside to see what they could discover about their tree. The math teacher taught them how to measure their tree’s circumference and a simple method for estimating its height. They wrote (language arts) about its inhabitants, which included insects and spiders, birds and even a lizard. The art teacher had them draw pictures of their tree. The music teacher collected songs about trees for them to sing. In history class they learned about the importance of forests in the country’s development.
In science class they asked and answered questions about each tree. Does it lose its leaves in winter or is it evergreen? What color are the leaves in autumn? Do they have a smell? What do the flowers look like? How big does each kind of tree get? What vines, mosses or other plants grow on the tree? Questions in biology are endless and can be asked and answered at appropriate levels of complexity for different grade levels.
In the spring semester, an unanticipated development occurred in the adopt-a-tree program. A grounds maintenance crew was planning to cut down a large, impressive magnolia that had been chosen for study by several children. The class had spent most of the year learning all they could about their trees. As often happens in the process of becoming familiar with something, the students gained respect for and an appreciation of the thing they studied. The magnolia was no longer just a tree. It belonged to the class. No one wanted to see it removed. Third graders are a bit too young to know about lying down in front of a bulldozer. Instead, they collectively talked to the headmaster and asked that the tree removal plan be halted. It was. Some rethinking by the administration was forthcoming. The students left for the summer with a sense of accomplishment. They had saved the magnolia – and all the plants and animals associated with it.
The adopt-a-tree project can be adapted for all grade levels in any setting – parks, neighborhood, nearby woods, in fact, anywhere a tree grows. Students would discover that not all learning takes place in the classroom. They would increase their knowledge of the natural world. If nothing else, the exercise gets pupils and teachers outdoors – a place everyone ought to become more familiar with. I imagine the students from that long-ago class have a greater appreciation for trees than most people. That’s what happens when you get to know something well.
Students engaged in environmental projects taught across the curriculum, from math to art to history and so on, not only learn about different subjects but also gain insight into the holistic nature of life. Some teachers could use a dose of such insight themselves as a reminder that all aspects of the curriculum are interconnected. No course stands alone. Reading and writing are part of the learning process students are familiar with. Going outdoors to find the item about which to read and write will be an adventure for most of them. If you are not a teacher or parent of a student but know one, suggest the adopt-a-tree idea to them. Or try it yourself.