— by Sally Hodson, Ed.D.
Part 1, Thinking in Webs
Planet Earth is home whether you’re a plant, an animal or a human. Our Earth is the only place in the universe we know for sure that can support life. So how do we prepare young people for the 21st century challenge of caring for our planet so that it can sustain future generations of plants, animals and humans? In short, how do we educate our kids to be eco-literate?
What is eco-literacy? Skills, knowledge and attitudes that prepare us to understand and make decisions that will sustain the complex web of life on earth. WOW! Sounds intimidating, but you’re already teaching eco-literacy skills to your students. Eco-literacy is is not just another special program to squeeze into an already crowded educational curriculum.
Think of eco-literacy as the language of our planet. To be literate in Earth–speak, we need to understand how life on Earth functions and how we interact with it. And we need tools to help our heads to think, our hearts to feel, and our hands to act.
What are some tools we need to include in our Eco-Literacy Tool Kit?
In this series of articles I will explore each of these eco-literacy tools and how you can use them into your everyday teaching. For each tool, I’ll share specific free downloadable activities based on my children’s book, Granny’s Clan: A Tale of Wild Orcas, which is a real-life story about a one-hundred year old great-grandmother orca and her wild family. Here is a link to the book and here is a link to the downloadable activities. Let’s start building our Eco-Literacy Toolkit.
Think in Webs
To explain a complex processes like how a body functions or how an ecosystem operates, we use systems thinking. Everything is connected. John Muir gave us one of the best definitions of systems thinking. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he said, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
In simpler terms, everywhere we look, we see “spider webs.” Using a web metaphor is an easy way for kids to visualize and understand this concept. Systems thinking sees connections, relationships, patterns and interactions.
Environmental scientists describe Earth is one great big community made up of many smaller communities called ecosystems. Each ecosystem is a complex, integrated life-support system for all the plants, animals and humans within it—soil, water, space, air and food for all living beings. Each interdependent part of an ecosystem affects all the other parts and cannot be understood separately from the whole.
To understand systems thinking on a personal level, stop for a moment and close your eyes. Place your hand on your chest. Feel you breath and your heart beating. These are two complex systems that keep you alive. Think about all the interactions involved.
Granny’s Clan explores an orca family’s marine ecosystem, their neighbors who share it, their role in a food web, how they affect and are affected by others in their habitat, and relationships between members of the family. Three activities for the book that promote systems thinking include: Tangled in a Web (food web), Dinner at the Killer Whale Café (food chain), both in the What’s for Dinner? PDF, and How Many Fish? (math & science), which is in the Home Sweet Home PDF.
Here is what Web Thinking looks in your elementary classroom:
– Environmental science that teaches how ecosystems, habitats and food webs operate
– Graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, concept mapping, connection circles (see above)
– Asking kids to be web hunters – to look for webs (connections between people, events, places and natural environments)
– Interdisciplinary learning that uses multiple subjects to teach concepts
– Looking at relationships – how each part of a whole affects the other
– Collaborative learning – cooperative activities and teamwork
– Be a camera – zoom in for details, zoom out for the big picture
In the next two installments, we’ll explore other tools to include in your Eco-Literacy Toolkit.
Dr. Hodson is a K-12 teacher and a trainer of teachers, and was executive director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA.