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Teaching Environmental Literacy: Seeking Balance

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Dave Gelenter leads a professional development program on environmental issues for teachers.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Dave Gelenter leads a professional development program on environmental issues for teachers.

Maryland has long required that kids get some exposure to environmental issues. But activists in the state have been concerned that some schools don't take the issue seriously enough. Starting this year, school districts face a new requirement: they have to show that they have a plan for teaching what they call "environmental literacy" — a basic understanding of environmental protection and threats to the state's natural resources.

So teachers and environmental groups are teaming up, to prepare for the new requirement.

Professional Development

On a warm summer day earlier this year, a dozen teachers paddled canoes out onto Black Walnut Creek in Annapolis, Md. They were part of a professional development program put on by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a group that pushed for adoption of the new requirement.

Ospreys screech the boats pass their nests. Foundation instructor Dave Gelenter tells everyone to pull their boats together, and "raft up" so he can do a demonstration.

Gelenter hauls out some testing kits, and hands out the teachers' assignments. "We're gonna find out how hot or cold this water is, we're gonna find out what amount of oxygen is dissolved in the water."

Not Just A Science Course

Science is part of this training program. But the real the focus is really on encouraging teachers to integrate environmental topics into their coursework.

Nan Henry teaches 6th grade science at Annapolis Middle School. She already spends plenty of time on these issues. But she says other teachers need some coaxing. "A lot of them depend on me to do it," she says.

Under the new requirement, environmental literacy will become a districtwide priority, rather than the interest of one or two educators. Now, the last thing these teachers say they want is another subject to cram into their 6-hour day. The goal is to integrate environmental concerns into science, into social studies and other topics.

A Touchy Subject

As the lesson moves on, Gelenter tries hard not to cast blame on any one industry for the Bay's woes. But it's hard not to, when the topic of fertilizer runoff comes up.

Gelenter explains that one of the reasons that farmers use a lot of fertilizer is that consumers want the cheapest food possible. That means farmers have to improve their yields.

These issues are sensitive anywhere, but especially in parts of the state that depend on agriculture and the many industries that affect the Chesapeake Bay.

Agricultural interests say, they were not included in the original group that approved the new requirement. So now, they're playing catchup, and are making sure the new curriculum includes an ag perspective.

Ag Groups Seek A Voice

Later in the summer, teachers gathered at another professional development retreat, on the shores of the Chesapeake in Harford County. This one is sponsored by the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation.

The group offers resources so schools can study the role farming plays in the state economy. As teachers eat lunch, environmental science teacher Steve Hillyer from Havre de Grace High School, tells them about his "Ag and the Bay" program, designed to show that farmers can also be good stewards of the land.

Beth Martin, a teacher at Havre de Grace High who grew up on a dairy farm, says she welcomes the environmental literacy requirement as a chance to give students a complete picture. "Cause a lot of people just don't know. They don't have the opportunity to actually go to the farms, and see the plans and everything the EPA is enforcing on on us," she says.

Backers of Maryland's new requirement say they agree, that there is plenty of common ground in their shared concern about the health of the environment. Teachers say that these issues can be tricky. But providing a balanced approach is nothing new to them. It's their goal with any subject they teach.

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