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Teaching Environmental Literacy


Working in the lo’i, or taro patch, is a hands-on way to literally connect with the earth.

Back-to-School supplies line the shelves and teachers all around the country are preparing for a new school year. With so much one can teach, it can be hard to prioritize. Aside from traditional text-based literacy, digital, cultural, and many other kinds of literacies have popped up over the years; each clamoring for attention in the classroom. Here are some resources on how to fit in the one literacy that encompasses many of the others: environmental literacy.

According to the Hawaii Environmental Literacy Plan, environmental literacy is defined as “the possession of knowledge about the environment and issues related to it, along with the ability to:
-discern credible information from misinformation
-communicate ideas in effective ways
-translate attitudes and values into daily actions which, individually and collectively, affect the environment and one’s well-being in positive ways.”


There is hope when kids love trees!

Environmental literacy is always defined and measured as an action-based literacy; one that goes beyond simply knowing about one’s environment. It is often used interchangeably with the term “ecological literacy,” originally coined by David W. Orr.  Shortened to “ecoliteracy,” many teachers are finding ways to include stewardship of the earth into traditional education.  Environmental education can be connected to any subject via class discussions and debates on current issues, non-fiction literature, and developing a classroom philosophy on conserving paper and supplies.  It all begins with environmentally savvy teachers.

The Center for Ecoliteracy was founded in 1995 and offers many resources for teachers who are looking for ways to build ecological intelligence in their students. The center has identified five practices that we at HOI use to design our courses:

1) Developing Empathy for All Forms of Life
2) Embracing Sustainability as a Community Practice
3) Making the Invisible Visible
4) Anticipating Unintended Consequences
5) Understanding How Nature Sustains Life

Discovering local plants on a hike.

Discovering local plants on a hike.

Further detail on these practices and inspiring stories on how others have implemented them can be found in Eco-Literate: How Educators are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow.

Because so much of what has been written, counted, and researched in the past century applies to or affects the earth in some way, we have a responsibility to include environmental literacy to ensure a bright future for our children. Orr once wrote “First, all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded, students are taught that they are part of or apart from the natural world.”  With that in mind, hopefully we can all find ways to teach children to think about their decisions and their impact on the earth.

Other sources: Earth in Mind, by David W. Orr

Resources for teachers:

North American Association for Environmental Educators

National Gardening Association, Kids Gardening Program



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