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Excerpt from Ecoliterate

Excerpt from Ecoliterate

The Center for Ecoliteracy's 2012 book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, begins with a striking story.

Students in a first-grade class at Park Day School in Oakland, California, spent several months transforming their classroom into an ocean habitat, ripe with coral, jellyfish, leopard sharks, octopi, and deep-sea divers (or, at least, paper facsimiles of them). The most in-depth project of their young academic careers, it culminated in one special night when, suited with goggles and homemade air tanks, the boys and girls shared what they learned with their parents. It was such a successful end to their project that several children had to be gently dragged away as bedtime approached. 



By the next morning, however, something unexpected had occurred: When the students arrived at their classroom at 8:55 a.m., they found yellow caution tape blocking the entrance. Looking inside, they saw the shades drawn, the lights out, and some kind of black substance covering the birds and otters. Meeting them outside the door, their teacher, Joan Wright-Albertini, explained: "There’s been an oil spill."



The children already knew a little bit about oil spills because of the 2010 accident in the Gulf of Mexico — but having one impact "their ocean" made it suddenly personal. They leaned forward, a few with mouths open, listening to every word. When she finished, several students asked how they could clean up their habitat. Wright-Albertini, who had anticipated the question, showed them footage of an actual cleanup — and, suddenly, they were propelled into action. Wearing gardening gloves, at one boy’s suggestion, they worked to clean up the habitat they had worked so hard to create.

Later, they joined their teacher in a circle to discuss what they learned: why it was important to take care of nature, what they could do to help, and how the experience made them feel. "It broke my heart in two," said one girl. Wright-Albertini felt the same way. "I could have cried," she said later. "But it was so rich a life lesson, so deeply felt." Indeed, through the mock disaster, Wright-Albertini said she saw her students progress from loving the ocean creatures they had created to loving the ocean itself. She also observed them understand a little bit about their connection to nature and gain the knowledge that, even as six- and seven-year- olds, they could make a difference.

It was a tender, and exquisitely planned, teachable moment that reflected what a growing number of educators have begun to identify as a deeply felt imperative: To foster learning that genuinely prepares young people for the ecological challenges presented by this entirely unprecedented time in human history. We are, after all, living at the dawn of an age that has recently been called the "Anthropocene," or "Age of Man." Unlike all the periods that came before, this age is characterized primarily by the ways in which humans are changing nature’s systems. And since all life depends on those systems for basic needs, including food, water, and a hospitable climate, there is clearly much at stake. There are also abundant opportunities to practice truly relevant schooling.

Ecoliterate aims to support and inspire you in your efforts to foster the kind of learning that meets the critical needs of the twenty-first century — and it offers an antidote to the fear, anger, and hopelessness that can result from inaction. It moves, again and again, from breakdown to breakthrough, revealing how the very act of engaging in some of today’s great ecological challenges — on whatever scale is possible or appropriate — develops strength, hope, and resiliency in young people. And it presents a model of education for doing so that is founded on a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence.

"Ecoliterate" is our shorthand for the end goal, while "socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy" is the process that we have identified for getting there. We believe the new integration of intelligences it represents offers important benefits both to education and to our societal and ecological well-being. It builds on the successes — from reduced behavioral problems to increased academic achievement — resulting from the movement in education to foster social and emotional learning that has emerged during the past few decades. And it cultivates the knowledge, empathy, and action required for practicing sustainable living.

Ecoliterate profiles community leaders including indigenous Alaskan Sarah James, who is working to protect caribou and native communities from the effects of oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness; Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography who brings a deep spiritual sensibility to his work in helping nations resolve water conflicts; Teri Blanton, a coal miner’s daughter who is bringing nationwide attention to the impact of mountaintop mining in Appalachia; and three young leaders, Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, and Aaron Sharratt, who are inspiring people to grow and cook their own food in southern New Mexico.

It also profiles teachers and students — from New Orleans, Louisiana; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Oakland, California, and elsewhere — who are demonstrating the capacity to understand and care about the interrelationship between human actions and natural systems, and who are moved to act upon their knowledge, values, and understanding both in small ways and ways as large as saving a mountain. And it presents five core processes of socially and emotionally engaged ecoliteracy, and some strategies for using Ecoliterate as a guide for professional development in formal and informal study.

The basic idea is this: At times of instability in a system — be it a school, a nation, or the biosphere — there is always the possibility of breakthrough to new forms and ways of thinking and acting. In these times of instability—in our schools, our nation, and our biosphere — Ecoliterate reflects our core belief that educators are ideally situated to lead a breakthrough to a new and enlivening ecological sensibility for the twenty-first century.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by Center for Ecoliteracy.

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