What We Come to Love, We Come to Care ForBy Jeff Grogan

Jeff GroganJeff Grogan teaches at Stow Middle School with his collaborator and teaching partner Steve Buzzell. They recently attended CWI's Summer Institute on Service-Learning together.

Over the years I have seen an intrinsic motivation in my students as they have participated in service-learning activities. In particular I am thinking about our 7th grade class government. As a part of this initiative we hold bi-weekly class meetings to discuss issues and to hear from the various committees we have established in the classroom. The committees include: Activities Committee (responsible for running primarily Adventure Based Learning Activities at least once a week), Challenge Committee (hosts class-wide debates and other fun “mind” type activities), Decorations Committee (helps teacher select and set up curriculum themes, and ensures the class has the students’ stamp), Celebrations Committee (responsible for ensuring student birthdays and other appropriate events are celebrated), and the Newspaper Committee (responsible for publishing a periodic newspaper where students can “publish” their best works and where they can talk about the local and international issues that are of interest to them). While all of these committees are great, some of them are more great than others. However, the process students participate in is extremely valuable.

 As I write this I state the “learning” of their service activities in a soft sense, meaning that I know the students are learning about civic responsibility, compromise, team-building, cooperation, empathy, and they develop a sense of community, but they are not necessarily learning science objectives. While this initiative is undoubtedly valuable, the process steals time from our curriculum. The challenge I sought to address by taking the CWI Institute on Service-Learning  was to make a more solid academic connection, one that focuses their service to tangible science and language arts standards. I feel that focusing this work on the concept of sustainability will help make the science connections, so here goes service for science (and social studies).

The hope for the unit Steve and I have planned together is for students to be motivated and inspired to take care of their worlds. Each year teachers are asked to accompany their students to the VT State Scholar-Leader banquet. I have been invited twice over the past four years. At the banquet, Vermont's Governor speaks to the students. He always mentions how Vermont has so much to offer its residents, yet high school graduates exodus the state in droves each year. Why? Is it to expand their horizons? Is it because they are not as connected to their own neighborhoods and woodlands as I would like. I will never be sure, but I hope they return eventually.

 “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections” –Walt Whitman. Whitman’s words above speak true of my experience, whether here in VT or abroad while on vacation. However, the more we step upon the earth the more we learn a reverence for it. I would gladly walk my students anywhere to explore nature, but where better than right here in our own backyards? I get a huge kick out of inspiring a sense of wonder at the beetle found in the corn plants of the school garden, or the spotted salamander found under the rotting log in the forest. There are so many amazing and interesting organisms right here that we do not need to study the African elephant or the cheetah, etc. These exotic animals are in danger and need help, yes, but keep it local and try to keep it positive, and eventually the focus of our students will expand to global realms. I am completely down on negative, gloomy topics about the environment being taught to children (though in this crisis state the earth is in I beg its attention in high school). I recall getting too into “gloom and doom” environmentalism while in college, and it is depressing. Should these gloomy topics be taught to young children—of course not! Positive natural experiences lead by an adult with reverence and respect for nature will naturally yield ecologically concerned and intelligent adults. With a focus on experiencing rather than teaching, the students will eventually learn of the need for preserving the rainforests or saving the polar bears, etc.

I use the natural environment behind the school each fall for studies. I see kids inspired, engaged, and often intrigued by what they discover back there. For me, when they discover the richness of the environment, that nurtures a conservation ethic in them because they know what is there and they want to keep it there and help it survive and sustain. What we understand we come to love, and what we love we want to care for. I believe that people are inextricably bound to the earth, emotionally and physically. After all, aren’t we all composed of the same few elements. Don’t we all depend on the same sun and the same oxygen? These basic concepts involve all of us, and we can all access this connection by simply getting out. Direct contact with the natural world is everything if we are to cultivate the conservation ethic that this earth needs. If I do this I can rest assured I have done all I can to do my part in the sustainability of our earth. I feel good by serving the earth and community, and my students will too, no doubt.

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