Teaching Environmental Literacy: Seeking Balance Maryland students face a new graduation requirement: they must be schooled in environmental protection before they finish high school. The path-breaking proposal creates new challenges for teachers, who must seek out a balanced approach to a sensitive subject.
NPR logo

Teaching Environmental Literacy: Seeking Balance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140490275/140467379" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Teaching Environmental Literacy: Seeking Balance

Teaching Environmental Literacy: Seeking Balance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140490275/140467379" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host: In Maryland, the start of the new school year brings a new requirement. All schools in the state must develop plans to promote what's being called environmental literacy. As NPR's Larry Abramsom reports, the new requirement - the first requirement of its kind, creates some new challenges for teachers.


LARRY ABRAMSON: On a warm summer day, about a dozen teachers are paddling canoes on Blackwater Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. These teachers are getting professional development training to prepare them for the state's new environmental literacy requirement.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What kind of nest is that up there, Dave?

DAVE GELENTER: It's osprey. There's actually osprey on the nest.


ABRAMSON: Ospreys screech as we pass their nest near the home of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which sponsors these training sessions. The group also pushed for adoption of the new requirement. Foundation instructor Dave Gelenter tells everyone to raft up and pull all their boats together.

GELENTER: We're going to find out how hot or cold this water is. We're going to find out what the amount of oxygen that is dissolved in the water is. We're going to find out what the salinity is.

ABRAMSON: But this is not a science course. The focus is really on encouraging teachers to integrate environmental topics into their coursework. Nan Henry teaches sixth grade science at Annapolis Middle School. She already spends a lot of time on these issues - but other teachers need coaxing.

NAN HENRY: I don't know if it's not interested, so much as, a lot of them depend on me to do it.

ABRAMSON: Under the new requirement, environmental literacy will become a district-wide 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 six-hour day. The goal is to integrate environmental concerns into science, into social studies and other topics.

GELENTER: Why is it so hard to save the bay? We know what's killing the bay.

ABRAMSON: Of course, any environmental issue quickly slides from biology to policy. As the lesson moves on, Dave 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: I think a lot of farmers feel that the finger has been pointed at them as the cause of the problem. Why are farmers using so much fertilizer on their crops?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Because we want perfect tomatoes.

GELENTER: We don't just want perfect tomatoes...


GELENTER: We also want them cheap.

ABRAMSON: These issues are sensitive anywhere, but especially in parts of the state that depend on agriculture, and the other 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 catch-up, and they're making sure the new curriculum includes an ag perspective.

This is another professional development retreat in rural Harford County put on by the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation. The group offers resources so schools can study the role that farming plays in the state economy.

Steve Hillyer is an environmental science teacher at Havre de Grace High School, and he comes from one of the area's many farm families. As teachers eat lunch, Hillyer tells them about his Ag and the Bay program.

STEVE HILLYER: Show students in the environmental program how agriculture doesn't have to be an opponent to environmental activism, that basically, stewardship, sustainability, and conservation - which is wise use of natural resources - go hand in hand with the whole idea of environmentalism.

ABRAMSON: And 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.

BETH MARTIN: 'Cause a lot of people, they just don't know. You know, they don't have the opportunity to take field trips and to actually go to the farms and see all the plans and all the - you know, everything that the EPA is enforcing on us.

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

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.