Affection for Place: Re-Enchanting the Classroom
As a teacher, I don’t think of the summer as being “off.” Sometimes I work, often I don’t. But even when I’m not working, I’m spending a good amount of time ruminating on the highs and lows of the past 10 months and outlining the year to come. There’s a type of planning that can only happen in the summer, in the absence of the daily logistics of teaching. As I spend the summer months crafting a vision for the year to come, I find myself toggling back and forth between the most microscopic and most macroscopic of concerns. How can I store student binders in such a way that my entrance routine is smoother? What values does my classroom practice instill in my students? Two important, and yet very different, concerns.
This summer I had the privilege of participating in a seminar for teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The seminar, Re-Enchanting Nature: Humanities Perspectives, brought together 16 educators from across the country to spend three weeks in Montana and Wyoming, exploring how religious, cultural, literary, fine arts, and cinematic perspectives influence our connection to the environment. Members of our group hailed from 14 states and included teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade, spanning English, social studies, science, fine art, theology, and ESL. Before departing for the seminar, I jokingly explained the program to friends as “sleepaway camp for nerdy teachers.” It wasn’t an inapt description. We spent three weeks living together on a small college campus, reading a variety of literary and academic texts, engaging in seminars, experiencing local wilderness, and talking about environmental, land-use, and cultural issues with local experts. There was no grounding pedagogy or curriculum product at the center of the experience. We were a small and diverse group of educators seeking to understand how to use narrative, experience, and art to cultivate our students’ affection for nature.
I have spent much of the past nine years thinking about how to build engagement, passion, and relevance in my science classes. I have used project-based learning, built interdisciplinary partnerships, and integrated the arts and humanities across my curriculum. Until this summer, however, I had never thought about the roles of enchantment and affection in science class. And yet my experience this summer has placed these themes front and center in my mind as I work to map out my curriculum and my teaching for the year to come.
In his 2012 lecture “It All Turns on Affection,” environmentalist Wendell Berry claims that “for humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it...to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.” Imagination he claims is not what comes in dreams, but something that “thrives on contact, on tangible connection.” He goes on to make a case for local experiences that ground a person in sympathy for all the people with whom they share that space and to argue this ability to tangibly imagine ourselves in a space, and our connection to others sharing that space, is what builds our affection for a place. “And it is in affection,” he writes, “that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”
Berry’s lecture was our first assigned text for the seminar, and for me, it framed all the conversations, imaginings, and experiences I would have over the following three weeks. As my colleagues and I hiked in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, traveled with native tribal educators, and visited abandoned toxic mines, we grappled with questions about narrative, belonging, and claim to land. We talked extensively about the power of art and of story to build narratives that connect a community to its land, no matter how sublime or how polluted.
I cannot bring my students from Dorchester to tour Yellowstone National Park, and the tragic saga of the country’s largest abandoned toxic mine in Butte, Montana is relatively unconnected to their immediate world of existence. However, I can create a curriculum grounded in our own local contexts and rich in issues that help build my students’ connection and affection for the land around us here in Boston. As Berry writes, experience is key to building affection. My students cannot care for a city or an ecosystem in which they do not see themselves, and they cannot imagine themselves in these spaces if they do not experience them first hand.
Fortunately, as an Expeditionary Learning school, fieldwork is an integral part of the curriculum. The Expeditionary Learning model also emphasizes the importance of connecting students with local experts as they become researchers in their learning journeys. I have often used experts to bring in outside knowledge and to help students see different career paths within the discipline. I had not, however, thought of the power of experts as local storytellers, and of the importance of narrative and storytelling in the science classroom. Within the science education community, we talk extensively about teaching science for public understanding and for civic literacy. Stories and the arts are the vehicles through which many people access and understand their world, and so why not harness the power of the arts and of narrative to tell stories about the places in which our students live? Why not work to cultivate affection, if that affection is what will motivate our students to care for and understand their land, their world? In “Scientific literacy as collective praxis,” an essay on scientific literacy, Wolff-Michael Roth, and Stuart Lee ask: “Do we teach biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics or do we teach young people to cope with their own world?”
I continue to zoom in on the minutia of my practice: what are my bathroom policies? How will I check agendas each day? I do not for a moment discount the importance of structure and routine in the middle school classroom to build a safe and productive learning environment, but my experiences this summer are also pulling at me to ask harder questions. What am I doing to re-enchant my students to learning, to the land, and to the world in which they live? How does my teaching cultivate a sense of urgent environmental and social outrage in a turbulent political landscape? If I care about teaching for social justice and for a sustainable future, what affection for the land will my students have as a result of spending a year in my classroom? I don’t have the answers, but I know that my challenge in the years to come will be to continue to ask myself what I am doing as an educator not just to manage my classroom and to teach science, but what I am doing to cultivate an affection for nature and a passion to fight for a healthy and just world?
Elizabeth Schibuk is a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Conservatory Lab Charter School.