Teaching Students To Love Nature From Behind A Screen: The trials and tribulations of online learning.
A large part of my role as a Sustainability educator is connecting students with nature. In a primary school setting, one would think that this is not necessary, but sadly it is. Nature play, forest learning and finding their place in the ecosystem is fundamental to children feeling responsible for the environment. Without this connection, students think that animals, insects and plants are something to be experienced from behind a screen of some sort; that global warming and plastic pollution only happens on tv. Hence why our school has decided to dedicate a teacher and a timeslot to the teaching and learning of Sustainability… and all was going well until COVID 19 hit our shores.
Teaching moved from something that was hands on and authentic to something completely digital and intangible. Teaching children to love nature from behind a screen is counterintuitive and extremely difficult. How do you deliver a different curriculum to each of seven different year levels digitally that was written specifically for hands on learning? How do you get students to get outside and get dirty when their parents, the media and the government are urging them to stay indoors and sanitise everything? How do you teach them to be environmentally sustainable when they can’t interact with the world?
The first round of remote learning was like teaching blind. I created a website and wrote up elaborate lessons for each year level. Students were given the option to complete set tasks at their leisure, if at all. Parents complained that it was too much work overall (not just from me) so lessons became basic and tasks became simplistic. Still, families were scared to allow their children to get out into nature so student engagement remained low. I struggled to provide an authentic learning experience to students who were struggling to survive the change. Then we went back to onsite learning and things began to look optimistic again.
We spent a few weeks at school drawing rainbows with chalk on the ground, learning about wombats, planting potatoes and reconnecting with the school environment. Our recycling program and cooking program came to a screeching halt but I was still able to engage kids in current issues such as the reintroduction and preponderance of single use plastics. We watched the leaves on the trees change colours and we moved mulch into the gardens. Life seemed to be getting back to normal and we all looked forward to the school holidays.
Then COVID 19 hit again. Schools were given an extra week’s holiday and teachers prepared for remote learning. This time I was prepared! I would engage kids with Webex meetings and the topic would be TREES. Lessons would be greatly simplified and shortened and the emphasis would be on admiring nature. Tree Planting Day was during this time and for the first time in twenty years our school wouldn’t be participating. The theme was Love A Tree so I asked students from all year levels to take a photo of themselves hugging their favourite tree. Most students complied but I still had emails from students telling me that they weren’t allowed to “touch a tree because of COVID”. I despaired at the thought of children being locked up away from nature but the other ones that sent me videos of them making nature collages and planting apple seeds kept me buoyant and determined to persevere. And then we were told that we would be returning to face to face teaching after the holidays, but with one more week of remote learning to start the term.
My final task for the students was to go on a neighbourhood walk with their family and play bingo: spot a magpie, find a tree, smell a flower etc. I thought that everyone could easily do this, after all, we could now exercise for two hours a day. However, I was met with a barrage of emails from students who were “not allowed to go for a walk” or “not allowed outside” so they couldn’t do the task. I answered each email with care and waited patiently for school to resume. So, for the past week I have been teaching outside, making students sit on the grass, much to some of their horror and fear, touching trees, exploring the textures of bark, doing leaf rubbing and listening to the birds sing. Reactivating the five primary senses after what has been essentially six months of lock down has been crucial. Teaching Sustainability in COVID times has been a roller coaster of successes and failures; one that has made me feel sick to my stomach and exhilarated all at the same time. But now, I want to get off this ride!