When considering the assumption of “for whom nature is for”, it is important to note trends in accessibility and use of natural lands. According to the US Forest Service, “Blacks or African Americans, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 1 percent of national forest visits in 2010. Hispanics or Latinos, who make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for less than 7 percent” (Flores, Valenzuela, Roberts, Falco). It is also important to consider the proximity in which people live to what is deemed as natural or protected lands. According to Pew Research, “Among urban residents, 44% are white, compared with 68% in suburban and small metro counties and 79% in rural counties. In fact, whites have become the minority in most urban counties (53% of them are majority nonwhite) since 2000; only about one-in-ten suburban (10%) and rural (11%) counties are majority nonwhite” (Pew Research 2020). These statistics indicate that white folks have the greatest geographic proximity and access to traditional natural environments. The city of New Haven demographics reflect the nationwide trends with “30.8% Hispanic or Latino, 33.6% Black or African American, 43.6% white” (US Census Bureau 2021).
High School in the Community (HSC) is a small, magnet high school located in New Haven, Connecticut. Of 237 students enrolled at HSC, 87% are students of color and 75% of students come from low-income families. When correlating demographics, assumptions about the lack of experience students have with nature at HSC are understandable. The inequities in representation of low-income folks and people of color in the outdoors stands as a point of recognition and challenge in the face of the school’s mission. With High School in the Community’s magnet theme of leadership, social justice, public policy, and service, HSC takes pride in being a “small school for students who want to do big things” including recognizing, interrogating, and reimagining what nature means and looks like for each student and their community as a whole. Through project-based curriculum and mastery-based grading policies, HSC strives to empower students to step up and make a positive impact on society while pursuing their individual educational goals.
In English II specifically, sophomore students study a yearlong enduring theme of social justice. The Social Justice Symposium asks students to select and then research a social justice issue that concerns them, synthesizing their work into a proposal for making a positive change. At the culminating event, sophomore students invite community members to discuss the real life actions that, based on their research, students recommend to address the problem. At its core, the Social Justice Symposium means to encourage students to inquire into and challenge the conditions that create social injustice in the local and national community and share solutions with school and community leaders.
The implementation of The Urban, The Wilderness, and Me unit works to engage students in the social justice symposium process—reflecting, identifying, researching, and acting—and spans the first three months of the academic year. The unit contains four main concepts: 1) personal reflection on nature, 2) nature and the urban environment, 3) access to wilderness, 4) environmental injustice. Students first engage in the practice of natural observation. Students reflect on their past observations of nature and are asked to keep records of their relationship with the urban landscape and their experience with nature through personal reflections, daily observations, and notes as they develop their learning of relationships of authors, poets, scientists, outdoor enthusiasts, activists and the land. In class and through outdoor experiences, students have space to integrate their own and their cultural relationships, connections, histories, and memories with nature in both urban and wilderness settings.
The unit not only aligns with the major goals of High School in the Community’s Social Justice magnet theme but also with the initiatives of the WILD (Wilderness Inspired Leadership Development) program. Students involved in the WILD program have the opportunity to engage in outdoor experiences ranging from day hikes at local state parks to overnight backpacking trips on Connecticut and New Hampshire portions of the Appalachian Trail. The purpose of the trips is to help students foster independent and group leadership skills as they navigate wilderness. Entwining the unit with the WILD program gives students the opportunity to experience learning in a traditional nature environment as well as develop observational and narrative writing skills.
Through reading, writing, and hands-on experience students construct their own understandings of the relationship between self and nature within their classroom, their neighborhoods, and the outdoors. Students engage in first hand observational learning by: growing, tending, and connecting with a plant in their class and later at home; creating photojournalism stories about the natural elements they encounter in their daily lives and beyond; visiting urban wildernesses in the school community such as the Long Wharf neighborhood, and participating in wilderness day and weekend trips. To further their understanding of historical relationships with nature, students read, watch, and research practices of indigenous peoples in the Standing Rock community and Nova Scotia Water Protectors organization. The unit culminates in an environmental action project which students design based on a school need they identify and implement by engaging with students and faculty in the school community.
Becoming Metacognitive: How can nature teach us to think?
In his dedication of What The Robin Knows, Jon Young acknowledges the importance of present and past indigenous and nonindigenous people, “who sit, watch, and wonder—and ultimately share their stories and questions with others for further learning, reflection, and just plain excitement. These sources continue to build our collective understanding of bird and animal language [the natural world]” (Young, Gardoqui v). Young frames his viewpoint through the long and ever evolving lineage of observational learning. He acknowledges the ancestral and modern indigenous and present day observers’ oral and written knowledge has led to deeper understanding of patterns and approaches commonly found amongst animals and beyond. Young elaborates on his framework, highlighting the unique indigenous observational skills of scouting and tracking that he argues are fundamental to scientific method. He asserts, “[trackers and scouts of native traditions from around the world] use traditional techniques and knowledge to make their living. They cannot afford to be too far off base in their thinking and conjectures…These people are very grounded in the real world” (Young, Gardoqui xxii).
So what can we learn from traditional practices? Young shares, “... the more keenly our antennae are tuned to the sounds, sights, and other sensory input from our world, and the more of our brains we engage, the more we get in touch with our ancient instincts and the instinctive abilities that all animals automatically manifest” (Young, Gardoqui xxiv). And, while you might wonder how are observational skills related to reading comprehension, writing, and abstract thinking skills connected, the truth is they are much aligned. Young goes on to note the practice of the Kalahari people: “Through [their] form of storytelling—which is what imitation really is—a great deal of understanding, awareness, and connection emerges. These elements are essential to understanding bird language [forms of communication]. As awareness grows, appreciation grows, too. As appreciation grows, so does empathy” (Young, Gardoqui xxvi). Narratives, such as story-telling performances, are a form of recording, sharing, and passing down information that is essential to understanding concepts from survival to human connection.
In the humanities classroom, educators ask students to share their understanding of narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, through writing and oral communication. Student goals include: citing strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text; determining a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; and analyzing how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme (ELA CCSS). These skills are not only necessary for students to performing well in an academic setting, but are also needed to communicate effectively in social and professional environments. However, over the past few years, I have witnessed a decline in students' performance in producing such highly detailed and developed writing. I believe this stunting may be in part due to a shift in communication stemming from the digital world we live in. In response to writing prompts, students are more apt to provide short answers, in style similar to a text message, or struggle to produce details to support their ideas or clearly explain their thought process. Perhaps the high popularity of short form media, such as TikTok, has affected students’ ability to remain focused, recall detailed information, or make meaningful observations. Although communication and media have become bite-sized, students need the capacity to initiate, grow, and maintain complex thought processes as they navigate solving real life problems, evolving into each stage of life, and creating healthy relationships with themselves and community. By returning to nature, we can strive to observe, learn, and grow from the natural patterns and ways of life.
The Sit Spot
Imagine walking out into your little spot of wilderness, whether it be a nearby urban park, a patch of woods in your backyard, or a clearing in a favorite walking trail. You journey towards this location with the purpose of sitting independently and quietly. Clearing your head of daily tasks or upcoming events, you settle yourself and focus on your senses. In this position it may be easy to let your mind wander or to grow impatient with the seeming nothingness around you, but you take a moment to move through the uneasiness while your eyes scan the scene before you, your ears adjust to the swirling sounds, you feel the weather upon your skin, taste and smell the air. What do you observe when you let in all the details that surround you?
The practice of the sit spot has been a part of cultures around the world for many generations. It has been a way to observe and make sense of the natural world. Though we may have developed widespread comprehensive technology to solve our scientific questions for us, the process of the sit spot is not about answers but about the human skill of learning from observation. The sit spot practice provides students the opportunity to learn through observation in a natural, low stakes setting. Through routinely engaging in the practice, students can cultivate the ability to record and express ideas using descriptive details to strengthen their thinking and communication skills. For instance, common personal narrative writing assignments in the ELA classroom often ask students to recall and write of past experiences. Teachers usually desire their students to visualize a moment that defines them; but often the process of looking back can detract from the ability to produce highly descriptive writing. Though the scene may be still and quiet, there is value in capturing the present moment.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature can reduce symptoms related to stress, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Researchers out of the University of Chicago note, “Green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors… And experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits” (Weir). Considering the current state of the mental health crisis society faces, our students are more in need of strategies to manage their mental health. The sit spot provides students with the opportunity to learn and develop a coping strategy. It may also help with turning the observational thinking inward, considering one’s own physical and thought patterns and developing methods such as journaling or descriptive communication that can help students talk about the personal as well as societal issues that may be causing stress and anxiety.
It is important for students to learn to slow down, acknowledge the present moment, and connect with their environment. Though the practice of learning through observation of the physical world to gather knowledge about patterns, concepts, communication, and self-reflection is not currently widely practiced in traditional educational settings, I hope this unit helps educators acknowledge the importance of people and place. Through this original unit, students are called to think critically about their personal connection to nature, their relationship to the outdoors, but even more about the need to understand the connections all living things share and the protections we must work towards to ensure a healthy future for all life on our planet.
- Establishing a Learning Journal: Throughout the unit, students learn content, concepts, and skills necessary to keep in mind so they can build further knowledge. Students are therefore asked to develop a learning journal. Students are guided to use the journal as a place for free-writes, notetaking, journaling, observations, drawings, and metacognitive reflection. The learning journal thus serves as a record for academic and personal growth.