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July 15, 2013

Planting Seeds: Our Environmental Education Experience with First Graders

Every Wednesday morning this semester, Rachel Roenfeldt and Molly Sullivan, ventured off campus to John Mack Elementary for our Joint Educational Project (JEP) assignment. JEP is service-learning initiative that connects USC students to schools in the community. Students adapt curriculum from one of their university courses to teach in a local classroom. On the first day, along with two classmates, we walked into Mr. Cherriokee’s first grade class where we were greeted by 26 eager students very curious about the new visitors in their classroom. Little did we know, this was the beginning of a joyful experience for all of us. Over the next eight weeks, we educated the first grade students about environmental issues and concepts, including water usage, recycling and the benefits of healthy soil. Although we faced obstacles along the way, our JEP experience was both rewarding and eye-opening.

Classroom Whiteboard (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Classroom Whiteboard (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

At first, adapting our ENST 320A syllabus to a first grade level seemed like a daunting task as we were learning the concepts simultaneously. We employed methods such as discussions, small group activities and   visual aids as opposed to dense lecture. In order to keep the language and explanations age-appropriate, we covered simple broad topics. The general outline of our lessons consisted of a KWL chart, introduction to the day’s topic, several hands-on activities, and a wrap-up. The KWL chart, standing for Know, Want-to-know and Learn, is a commonly used tool in elementary education, which helps assess student knowledge before and after lessons. At the beginning of each session, we completed the “learn” section of the chart in order to recap the previous week’s topic. We ended by completing the “know” and “want-to-know” columns in relation to the next week’s topic. This allowed us to tailor our lessons to the student’s knowledge and inquires. We quickly discovered that their perception of the environment was rather limited (as would be expected for six and seven-year-olds) to plants, animals, trees and, their favorite, rainbows.

One of the key components of our lessons was small group discussion. Each of us would teach at a separate table with six students. Focusing direct attention on a small group made it easier for them to grasp concepts, stay engaged and get to know us on a more personal level. For example, during our lesson on the water cycle, we colored in and labeled a diagram of the water cycle and discussed vocabulary in our groups. Individually, we each had our own teaching style, which allowed us to adjust to different students and their needs. The small group dynamic enabled us to form relationships with the students at our tables, which in turn made the students feel more comfortable (and sometimes way too comfortable!) around us. In addition, shy students were more willing to participate and ask questions in smaller groups than in the larger class setting. We encouraged their interaction and input by engaging them directly and preventing the more talkative students from dominating the group (Arbeau, Copelan & Weeks 2010).

In order to teach the more difficult and complex topics, we found using visual aids such as pictures to be highly effective. Due to their age and grade level, students had not been previously exposed to a lot of scientific vocabulary and language. This would have proved to be a larger obstacle if not for the use of pictures in our lessons. The students responded well to the visual aids and enjoyed seeing what new photos we had every week. Mr. Cherriokee even kept some of the visual aids to display in the classroom.

We built upon the use of these aids by performing hands-on activities in our small groups. Instead of standing at the front of the classroom and lecturing about environmental issues, we created activities that brought world issues into their classroom. For example, with our lesson on water pollution, each student was given a cup of water and was then asked to “pollute” the water using paper, vegetable oil, and dirt. Individually, the cups did not appear to be contaminated. However, when we poured all the students’ cups into one container, they could see the accumulation of pollutants in the water supply. This activity also informed them about personal responsibility in connection to the environment.

Through each of our lessons, we taught the students that they had the power to affect the environment, both positively and negatively. By exposing them to issues such as water shortage, food waste and pollution, they could understand the direct connection that humans have on the well-being of the environment. Even though a lot of our examples of human impact were negative, we stressed the fact that the students could help the environment through positive actions. Throughout the course of the semester, we engaged the students in a recycling competition. Broken up by table groups, students would bring in recycling from home as well as from school lunches and snacks. Despite the fact that this was a competition, the students recognized the importance of recycling and realized that they as individuals and as a classroom, they could make a difference. Another activity that we did was plant a bean plant and tracked its growth. Because the students were responsible for the health and growth of their plants, they developed a sense of ownership and pride. Activities such as these promoted a sense of environmental stewardship and made seemingly large concepts and issues relatable to first graders.

Bags from Recycling Competition (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Bags from Recycling Competition (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Environmental education and curriculum is still new to schools. There is little information in schools about environmental issues and concepts, despite the fact that the EPA issued the National Environmental Education Act in 1990 (EPA 1990).  This document recognized the need to inform students on environmental issues, however, the act was merely symbolic because it lacked requirements and actions. Only recently has there been a push to require environmental and climate change curriculum in schools, with the release of The New Generation Science Standards  on April 9th of this year. Developed by Department of Education officials in California and across the country, it identifies climate change as a key concept necessary for students to grasp. Each state will decide whether or not to adopt the new standards. Currently, it is estimated that only one-third of American students learn about climate change and other environmental issues (Watanabe 2013).

Because of the lack of environmental education in elementary schools, our students at John Mack most likely would not have been exposed to important environmental information without our  influence and presence in their classroom through JEP. It is extremely important to educated children at the young age about the environment and their impact on its health in order to encourage changes in their lifestyle and daily actions. Becoming more aware of the natural world and the responsibility each human has on it at an early age increases the likelihood that they will continue to make environmentally-friendly decisions and choices throughout the rest of their life. This will help to expand the environmental movement and continue the education and promotion of proper actions and responsibility on an individual scale.

Student Bean Plant (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Student Bean Plant (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Even though we taught our first graders at John Mack Elementary about the environment, we exposed them to skills beyond academics – an unintended bonus. Through our relationship with the students, we showed them the joys of education and further inspired to question and understand the environment around them. Studies have shown that if adults are educated and are enthusiastic about learning, their students will show the same interest (Long & Hoy 2006). As older students coming into the classroom, we were role models to encourage higher education, simply by being in college (Hamre & Pianta 2001). For some, this was the first time that they had heard of college; one student thought that USC was a beach! In addition, the students were incredibly excited to see us each week and grew more and more attached. The personal relationship that we formed between the students not only affected the outcome of our lessons and program, it also affected us as teachers. Every week, we looked forward to seeing the students’ enthusiasm, curiosity and youthful energy. We learned to think on our feet, how to plan lessons effectively and manage a group of sometimes (well maybe more than sometimes) rowdy first graders. Through our lessons and explanations of the concepts, we in turn learned and solidified our own knowledge about water and soil sustainability.  Overall, JEP was an overwhelmingly positive experience for everyone involved.

This post was written by Molly Sullivan and Rachel Roenfeldt.

 Works Cited

Arbeau, Kimberley A., Robert J. Coplan, and Murray Weeks. “Shyness, teacher-child Relationships, and Socio-emotional Adjustment in Grade 1.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 34.3 (2010): 259-69. Web.

Hamre, Bridget K., and Robert C. Pianta. “Early Teacher-Child Relationships and the Trajectory of Children’s School Outcomes Through Eighth Grade.” Child Development 72 (2001): 625-38. Web.

Long, Joyce F., and Anita W. Hoy. “Interested Instructors: A Composite Portrait of Individual Differences and Effectiveness.” Teaching and Teacher Education 22.3 (2006): 303-14. Web.

“National Environmental Education Act.” US Environmental Protection Agency. US Environmental Protection Agency. Web.

Watanabe, Teresa. “New teaching standards delve more deeply into climate change.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 9 Apr. 2013. Web.,0,6820335.story.


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