Reflections on Teaching for Sustainability by Tre McCarney

Students set off tracking on a cold winter day.
After several lessons preparing a group of third and fourth grade students for the long awaited adventure in their schoolyard, I peer out the window and am greeted by a freshly fallen blanket of snow.

Reflections on Teaching for Sustainability

by Tre McCarney

Tre McCarney is a  former Shelburne Farms educator who worked with the
Sustainable Schools Project on its first pilot site, Champlain Elementary School
in Burlington, Vermont.

After several lessons preparing a group of third and fourth grade students for the long awaited adventure in their schoolyard, I peer out the window and am greeted by a freshly fallen blanket of snow. Upon entering the classroom, I make clear that this is not recess but rather an investigation. They are the detectives who have to solve the mystery: Who are the wild neighbors living in their school grounds? I manage to outfit every student with a set of snowshoes. I watch them practice the daunting task of staying on their feet in the deep snow, and hear the joy in their voices as they put the knowledge they have gained in the classroom to use: “A deer track!” We trek toward the ravine to discover who has been there.

The bitter cold of early winter is only a memory on this brilliant morning as the students plod forward. We take the trail along Engelsby Brook and catch glimpses of signs left in the snow. A few of the rosy cheeked students observe a set of tracks and predict they were made by a squirrel because of the pattern left in the snow, the size of the feet and how deep the tracks are. We march on.

An enthusiastic student on my heels discovers several gray downy feathers stuck in the snow in the middle of the trail. The students unanimously agree it is a kill. The idea of a real kill on their school grounds consumes them with excitement. Their euphoria is heightened when they get a whiff of another clue left by a creature living in their community. The aroma of this black-and-white-striped animal is a sure sign that spring is almost here, for they know that skunks are dormant much of the winter. As we continue our quest, I hear the students conversing among themselves. “I think the skunk lives there,” shares a student as she points out to a hollow log to a fellow student. “Is a skunk a waddly walker or a hopper?” questions another student.

I look up to catch a glimpse of a few brave students blazing the trail. They begin heading back toward the rest of us, who are busy looking for scat, browse or other evidence. One child says nervously, “I think someone is sleeping up there in a tent. A sleeping bag is on the ground, too.” Both the students and I knew from teachers, parents and the local newspaper about the reputation of the Engelsby Ravine. Its polluted water runs directly into Lake Champlain, less than a mile away from the school. And a community of homeless people have set up a homestead there, minutes away from the front door of Champlain Elementary. I turn the students around and head back toward the trailhead and eventually back to the comfort of their classroom. What the students and I became unintentionally aware of that morning had a lasting impact on my understanding of sustainability.

At a PTO meeting at the school, a parent raised her hand and asked, “What does sustainability mean?” Another parent commented jokingly, “I don’t like that word.” I often have the same feeling myself and am relieved I don’t have to respond to their question and comment. I am far more comfortable teaching and identifying animal tracks and signs than teaching “sustainability”. In fact, when given the opportunity to work on the Sustainable Schools Project, I thought I would never be able to interpret the grown-up concepts of sustainability and teach students in an age-appropriate manner. Now in our second school year, I have discovered that I have been learning about sustainability alongside the students.

What makes my work with students “education for sustainability”? Understanding the interconnectedness between social and ecological systems and viewing humans as part of the ecological system is a sophisticated way of thinking for an adult, let alone a child. How can we as educators nurture a student’s inherent gift to ask questions while at the same time empower them to make a difference for all the members of their community? When I teach, I hope to encourage life-long learning, give students tools for developing a sense of place, foster respect for all life on earth, and inspire stewardship.

During the lessons that attempted to prepare my students for their outdoor discoveries that morning, I focused on activities that would develop their observation, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Through our investigation of the natural community in their schoolyard, I was left with many questions. How does the ecosystem maintain balance and support all of its members when the social system cannot? What can we learn from ecological systems that might ease the struggles that face our social systems? Will the skills and sense of place we continue to develop in the citizens of our community prepare them for decision making? I don’t have the answers, but I have faith that eventually, the work that I am a part of at Champlain Elementary School will have a lasting effect on students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and myself.

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