Personal Reflections on Nature
The first part of the unit focuses on the concept of one’s relationship with nature. The students I teach come from both densely urban environments and spacious suburbs, and each carries with them a unique relationship to the natural world. For some individuals, nature is a small tree outside a window of a four-story building; and for others, its summer camping trips in the mountains or lakeside retreats. From our diversity of experiences, comes a universal understanding that nature touches our lives in some specific and immediate way. To illustrate this point, students are invited to experience and write about a sit spot.
To inspire and practice narrative writing, students first experience the sit spot. In this variation, we spend time sitting and writing in various environments, our school parking lot, the local park, and the wharf, all within walking distance to our school community. At the sit spot, students are provided with a variety of prompts. One prompt focuses on building observational skills in response to our direct environment; students are asked to record and detail the sensory experience in each scene. In another prompt, students are asked to write about a memory that the location reminds them of and be inspired by the scene to once again practice including sensory details. Through narrative writing practice, students build their capacity to use specific details specifically to communicate their personal experiences. By implementing detailed and supported writing this way, students are able to use hands-on experience to foster skills in a low stakes environment. This also helps foster a class writing practice that welcomes experimentation and creativity.
To strengthen the connection between individual and nature, students also participate in the process of planting, growing, and tending to a potted plant. In this way, students share in a shared class experience that simultaneously individually and collectively engages each student in forging a closer relationship with nature. As the plant grows, students are asked to keep a journal where they informally write observational records on the development of their plant as well as creative writing assignments related to the growing process. When in the planting phase, students consider their origins and contemplate questions such as, how have you or your family planted your roots? In the seedling stage, students encounter questions such as, how has your family's story grown and how are you a part of it? Then in the blooming stage, students consider, what is required to bloom and how do you think you will bloom? Throughout the process, students draw parallels between their lives and their plants' life with the intention of calling attention to both our natural progression as living things and their relationship to nature via plants.
Nature and a Transforming Environment
For students, who may often find themselves void of nature through lack of exposure or experience, it may be difficult to acknowledge the deep historical impact nature has had on societal movements, including their place sitting in the classroom today. This is especially true for my urban students and students of color, as most high school humanities’ curriculum tend to take white western perspectives of land ownership and acquisition in the US. Thus, next portion of this unit moves from the personal into the historical and cultural connections we have to the natural world and our place in it. Together we explore how our individual cultural and ancestral backgrounds were bound to the lands we come from and the formation of the land on which we now reside. This objective is accomplished by the study of place in poetry and literature, as well as through the observations we make in the neighborhood our school resides in.
This portion of the unit works in tandem with the U.S. History course as the class reviews pre-Columbian, colonial, revolutionary, and industrial periods. Concepts covered include: Colonization, Immigration, Migration, pre-Columbian Civilization, Gold Coast, Transatlantic Slave Trade, Constitutional Convention, Industrial Revolution, Indian Removal Act, Civil War, 13th Amendment, Indigenous, Industrialization, Environmentalism. Meanwhile, to help establish connections between past and present and people and place, the English class focuses on these historical periods and themes through literature. While not covering up the history of Eurocentric violence, the unit will also not only address the trauma of black and indigenous people in relation to the land but also will also greatly emphasis the personal, cultural, and spiritual connections POC have continuously held with nature.
Throughout the unit, students read a variety of poetry, historical fiction, and nonfiction. First students spend time reading selected poems from the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, engaging in verses on cultivating gardens, taking in the ocean, defeating cockroaches, and anthropomorphizing yellow jackets from poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Natasha Trethewey. In each poem, students will unique perspectives on the way individuals interact with the comical, calming, or unexpected elements of nature. To further expand on relationships with the land, students explore José Oliverez’s Citizen Illegal through which he meditates on his experiences living in Chicago in contrast to his Mexican parents and ancestors’ experiences with the desert landscape that surrounded their immigration journey. Oliverez’s poems help establish the concept of how my urban students may interact with the nature in their cityscape while also asking them to consider their familial or cultural relationship to the land that extends beyond their immediate experience. The class also dives into the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel that traces the descendants of two half-sisters, born into different villages in Ghana and the parallel experiences as one begins a line of descendants in the Gold Coast while the other is sold into slavery. The novel provides historical context, but also includes rich imagery and themes that depict the ways the natural environment affects the movement of people and the development of culture. Together, in class we focus on main passages that reflect generational change and movement in relation to land.
To accompany our readings, students also take a walking field trip to Long Wharf Park. The wharf, which lines the coast of the Long Island sound, provides layers of historical context through observation alone. Taking in only the natural features of the wharf at first, students are be asked to speculate through observation about the type of environment and the inhabitants of the land that would have resided there before the start of the New Haven colony. We discuss the Quinnipiac people of the Algonquin tribe and read nonfiction accounts of their interactions with the ecosystem. Moving forward in history, we inquire about the formation of the New Haven colony and question why this specific spot was chosen and what benefits the land possessed for colonization? Upon further exploration of the wharf, we navigate towards the site of The Amistad and discuss the forced movement of enslaved, such as the people of Mendeland (present-day Sierra Leon), to New Haven. Next, observing the building surrounding the area, we discuss the way in which new technologies, beginning in the industrial to modern period, were constructed around the wharf and the impact industry had on the shifting population. Lastly, after taking note of the Gulf Oil gas tanks, we discuss the environmental impact of industrial development on the land and the impact fossil fuels have on the ecosystem. Students are asked to consider ethical questions such as what impact do fossil fuels have on our local and global communities and what steps we can take to improve environmental health.
While engaging in text and hands-on experience, students use their understanding of the movement of people and the transformation of environment to create a collaborative timeline that demonstrates both a historical perspective on the major US events as well as a local outlook on the changes at Long Wharf. Students are asked to make thematic connections between historical fiction and nonfiction and use specific dates and analysis of events to support these themes. As a result, students are able to use observations to understand and create a narrative of the relationship of land and people.
Overlooking the in-your-face oil tanks and barges in the wharf may trigger despair and anger over the ability for men to ruin a once thriving and picturesque ecosystem with no regard for those in the community. The presence fossil fuels and pollution signifies the lack of care for the natural world for gain of capital. In this lineage, it is easy to wonder, when people will begin to value the life native to the land. Ecologist and writer, Robin Kimmerer shares her thoughts on the connection between indigenous people and their spiritual understanding of stewardship for the land. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer posits, “Immigrants cannot by definition be indigenous. Indigenous is a birthright word. No amount of time or caring changes history or substitutes for soul-deep fusion with the land…But if people do not feel “indigenous,” can they nevertheless enter into the deep reciprocity that renews the world? (Kimmerer, 213). Our evolving industrial landscapes certainly continue to turn away from Kimmerer’s hopeful consideration that immigrants, but especially capitalist who seek to reap and sell what they take from the land, may learn to recognize the natural world as a home that should be cared for as it provides the basic needs for living. Kimmer continues, “Maybe the task assigned to Second Man is to unlearn… Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your Spirit…To become naturalized is to live as if your children's future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do” (Kimmerer, 214).
Perhaps Kimmerer’s outlook is apparent in the grassroots organizing of indigenous Water Protector movements. The water protector name, analysis and style of activism arose from Indigenous communities in North America during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The grassroots movement of water protectors is also well depicted in the documentary There’s Something in The Water, which tells the story of a community activists embark on a crusade to protect the environment from landfills and pollutants in Nova Scotia. What these movements share at its core is the necessitation of indigenous peoples to take a stand against corporate organizations and governing bodies to protect health and preservation of their both in one spiritual and physical lands. Though these movements are lead fiercely by indigenous leaders and community, they slowly grow to engage the power of naturalized community members. Though the fight may end in some success or remain in contention, it is stronger with the collaboration of all who call the land home.
As I ask students to consider their connection to land, an environment that they be brand knew to, unfamiliar with, or even rejected by, it is my responsibility to foster a similarly deep understanding of stewardship for the environment. As students learn about the history of the wharf and grapple with their personal relationship with nature, they cannot simply look away from the negative impacts of over-industrialization and capitalist pursuits. When faced with the ramifications that these forces have on their current quality of life and the quality of life they deserve, teachers should provide students models to learn how everyday people can educate and mobilize for change. Finding themselves aligned as naturalized people of the same place, teachers and students can mobilize for change together.
- Sit Spot Journaling: The sit spot journaling (part of the learning journal) is an activity used in tandem with the sit spot process. Students are sometimes asked to respond to a specific prompt during or after a session or may be able to select from a list of questions. Suggested prompts:
- Sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. List and describe the details that are stimulating your 5 senses in your sit spot.
- Identify a living thing within your gaze. Using as much detail as possible, use sensory detail to describe why this being has caught your attention. Then write a short explanation of lessons people can learn from this living thing. Example: Plants need sunshine, air, and water to thrive. What can people learn from the needs of plants?
- Look at the landscape around you. What details in the setting are natural, what details are man-made? How do natural and man-made things impact each other in this very spot you are sitting in?
- Planting Observations: Each student is be provided with a small pot (or cup), a seed, and soil. Together as a class, students plant and mark their seed. Students are responsible for the growth and maintenance of their plant. As we engage in the planting, growing, and seedling process, students are asked to detail the upkeep of their plant, the observations they witness, and their thoughts and feelings towards the process.
- “Where I’m From” Poem: Based on the George Ella Lyon poem “Where I’m From” students write a structured poem that includes descriptions of nature in their lives as well as family members and loved ones to create a poem that reflects their childhood and family history.
- Personal Narrative: After learning about and further contemplating the connection between people and place, students write a personal narrative that reflects on a memory from a place that has a lasting impact on their character or memory. Students are challenged to use sensory detail and imagery as emphasized in previous activities. It is important that students have had the opportunity to practice writing detailed observations and reflections prior to beginning the personal narrative.
- Novel Jigsaw Reading Presentation: As students read selected passages of Homegoing as a class, they are responsible for working in small groups to present a portion of the reading. Students become experts on the narrative, theme, and character development as well as relay important information about how the section portrays the movement of people and impact of place. The class pieces the entire narrative together and learn through their peers about the timeline of the novel.
- New Haven Timeline of Movement of People: This is an ongoing activity that physically takes shape in the hallway between the English and History classrooms. Here, sophomores collaborate in creating a multimedia timeline of the movement of people in New Haven (specifically the Long Island Sound). As students learn about the pre-Columbian to post-civil war era, students keep records of immigration and impact on land by adding points to a timeline. Students also further add to the timeline as they make observations of Long Wharf. Additions to the timeline may include: captions, paintings, photographs, primary documents, personal reflections. All members of the school community are able to witness the development of the timeline and learn from their peers about the environment in which their school is located.