“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
“After an afternoon hike on the Appalachian Trail and cooking by the fire, I saw a visible calm wash over my students.”
—Tamara Jolly, Half-Earth Project Master Educator Ambassador
Civil Rights Trip Update:
I previously talked about my sabbatical year in the Adirondacks and earning a degree in environmental conservation. Now nearly a year back in the classroom I am even more driven to uncover new connections in my work. My students now see me as the woman who lived in the woods and loves trees. I love this new identity, but I am also a fierce advocate for human rights. One way I’ve channeled this passion is by leading an annual Civil Right Trip. This ambitious program was started by a teacher who understood the important impact such a trip could have on high school students. I’ve been involved with the trip for over 10 years and since 2017, have been part of a dedicated team of teachers and school leaders that plan, fundraise, and chaperone this week-long journey through the Southeastern United States. Students are selected from three high schools in the Baltimore City area with very different demographics. After months of preparation, we get on a bus to freedom ride to the south for a life-changing journey.
This year, I decided to bring my Adirondacks experience and environmental club experience to the Civil Rights Trip. After my sabbatical, I began to move through our world differently. I’ve always loved nature, but now care more deeply, noting the smallest insects, the rich soil, the beautiful trees, and most of all the BIRDS. I’ve become an obsessive birder, or bird nerd as my students call me. Birding has allowed me to see a new connection between preserving biodiversity and our Civil Rights Trip. When we preserve space for history, we are also preserving it for biodiversity. It is somewhat of an unrealized side effect of protecting these historic spaces. One of my favorite birding trips was to the John Brown Estate in Lake Placid. There, I was able to tour his home and be reminded of his great sacrifice to help end enslavement in our country, while also compiling a pretty hefty ebird checklist. In years past, we visited Baltimore’s Hampton Mansion, another place that educates the public about enslavement in our country. I felt that the beautiful grounds should also have interpretive signage that showcases the biodiversity that thrives on the land. It was these experiences that inspired me to bring my binoculars with me on the trip.
After a pandemic hiatus, this year’s group was eager to gather, get on the road, and learn! The students were moved by the places and especially the people they met, including Former Ambassador Andrew Young and Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampon. One student told me, “Ms. Jolly, I always thought this was a black and white thing, but now I realize it was really about right versus wrong. It was about love versus hate.” After hearing Senator Raphael Warnock’s sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King Senior’s church, we spent time exploring the Sweet Auburn neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King grew up. The trees were in full bloom and the birds were plentiful. I started pointing out the various birds to students, and even teaching them to identify their calls. I like to think that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have appreciated these observations, having himself been deeply affected by a couple summers he spent working on a farm in rural Connecticut at about the same age as students on our Civil Rights trip.
While they used to know me as their Frizzelesque science teacher who is passionate about Civil Rights, now they also see me as the lady who brings her binoculars on trips, and sees biodiversity everywhere she goes. There are so many historical sites that are ebirding hotspots, and that is an important connection that I feel we need to make. I believe that by continuing to preserve history we will also increase biodiversity and work towards our half-earth mission.
The following essay was first published at the start of the school year, fresh off my year-long sabbatical studying environmental conservation. Like many educators, my summer dreams of a new initiative became increasingly challenging as the year progressed. My hopes of a seamless integration of nature into my curriculum have become more difficult, but I have not given up hopes of making this a reality. Recently, a short conversation with a student reinvigorated my passion for this necessary work. I had brought my binoculars to school, and he saw them sitting on my desk. Immediately, he ran to me and said, “I watch a fishing blog and the guy always calls these bi-nos on the show.” We began to talk about his love of nature and told me how he feels like the only black boy in school with nature-related hobbies. I assured him that there were other students, like those in my environmental club, but this conversation lingered in my heart and mind for days. He felt othered by his passion, and that is why we must normalize these experiences for all students, no matter where they live. The future of our planet depends on it.
Since writing the blog, I have had a great deal of joy and success watching students begin to engage with our outdoor campus. They love using plant identification apps and posting observations on iNaturalist. I often open my email in the morning to messages from students about a new discovery they made while on their way home. Our classroom aquaponics set up is a daily showstopper, especially our new fish, Supernova, and our large collection of classroom plants and propagations make up our collective classroom family. Students have even begun planning and preparing for our updated outdoor vegetable and pollinator garden that we are planting this spring, with the help of a local farm. These small changes have made a great impact on my students, and I look forward to seeing the results of a new Half-Campus project I am rolling out this spring. Additionally, I have been working with the Half-Earth Project Master Educators Ambassadors on some new updates to the Mapping Design Project that includes teacher notes and activities that spotlight inclusivity. Through my work as a fellow at the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, I have been working on a number of initiatives that inspired some of the updates to the Mapping Design Project. I hope that these additions will help educators, in any educational setting, find ways to connect this content to each and every student in their classroom.
First Annual National Wilderness Month
On August 30th, the month of September was declared National Wilderness Month by President Biden. September has been designated as the month to raise awareness about beauty, fragility, and power of wild landscapes.
“Our natural wonders are at risk. Now more than ever, we must come together to combat the climate crisis and unprecedented acceleration of species extinction, to protect and conserve our great outdoors before it is too late.” —President Biden
With Wilderness Month coming to a close, I found myself reflecting on the importance of wild spaces and our access to them. I have spent most of my adult years working closely with incredible young people, as a high school science teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools. As a biologist and educator, I’ve grown to love and appreciate the true magic of natural spaces quite honestly through luck. My drive for adventure was cultivated through friends and travel opportunities presented through work, rather than growing up with these habits or learning them through my studies. As a black female, I never truly felt a connection to wild spaces or the land for a number of reasons, but I will save that story for another time. Through my travels, I learned first-hand how biased and exclusionary some of our most beautiful spaces can be. These experiences only reinforced how truly essential representation is for traditionally marginalized communities in our world. The unmatched beauty and healing properties of nature should be welcome to everyone, which unfortunately is not the case.
When I asked my students to go camping they scoffed at the idea and joked about it being only “for white people”. After some encouragement, they agreed to trust my suggestion and attend our inaugural trip. After an afternoon hike on the Appalachian Trail and cooking by the fire, I saw a visible calm wash over my students. The quick transformation that occurred in just an afternoon was baffling. I watched them chase each other in a thrilling game of tag, and I realized that they were allowing their inner child to return; letting go of the pressures and burdens they carried. As the sun went down, we laughed and talked fireside, watching the stars twinkle through the canopy above. As the night went on, they shared stories and bonded in ways that I could not have imagined. I am forever grateful for those moments and it was clear they were thankful as well. Before we left they asked if we could do it again next weekend, which was exactly how I was feeling as well. I convinced more students to join me for another trip which only confirmed what I had observed on our first trip. My students need to be closer to nature to truly understand that they belonged there. The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson, often speaks about the need for proximity to truly understand an issue, and this was no exception. Students cannot understand something if they feel no connection to it, so we must work to create these wild spaces in any way that we can.
I began infusing more environmental education into my chemistry course, but when I learned of statewide changes to our science curriculum concerning environmental science, it was the last straw. I decided to apply for a sabbatical to study environmental science full-time, in hopes of becoming an expert that could advocate for systemic changes to our science curriculum. Thankfully the sabbatical was approved and I earned the privilege of moving to a remote part of the Adirondack Park to attend the SUNY Environmental Sciences and Forestry Ranger School. I spent the year studying environmental and natural resources conservation through their intense outdoor, hand-on program. My temporary home, which is part of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, forever changed my understanding of true wilderness and outdoor experiences. The clean air and water, the thriving wildlife, and the local emphasis on protecting these spaces, penetrated my being in a way that I will never forget. I left knowing one thing; we must do better for our young people, especially those living in urban spaces.
All children deserve to learn holistically about the world around them, especially about their role in our natural world. Students in urban classrooms are leaving without an honest understanding of human impact and this disservice may have massive impacts on their future. We can change this, but it starts in our classrooms and communities. While large cities may not have true wilderness like the spaces promoted this month, they do have green spaces filled with biodiversity. It is not the final answer, but it is a start. By using the resources that we have to showcase the wilderness in our own backyards, we can start to forge the long-term relationship with nature that students deserve. Many city school teachers know how difficult, or nearly impossible, it is to get funding or approval for trips – especially transportation, making ideas like this feel daunting or overwhelming. Instead we must use whatever wilderness we have at our disposal.
After taking some courses on nature education and diving into literature like E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist, I realized small changes can have significant impacts in this area. While recently enjoying the graphic novel edition of the book, I observed how seemingly small events had profound impacts on his life. Similarly, I hope these elemental changes will positively affect my students. In addition to infusing more nature into my chemistry curriculum, I started a Nature Block that can easily be infused into our schoolwide advisory model each week. Simple activities (even just 15 – 20 minutes each week) are already having a shocking effect on students’ connection to our campus and community. A quiet solo observation under a tree, cloud watching and sketching, and nature inspired art projects have already started to change their perception of the space outside of our classrooms. One group of 9th graders had the time of their life simply picking their favorite tree on campus and journaling about it. It became a heated competition, and watching students argue about why their tree was better filled my heart with joy. After our first solo moment outdoors, one senior wrote, “I feel like I don’t have a body anymore and I’m just a part of nature, like a sense of belonging.” Another said, “I noticed how peaceful it can be to sit outside with no phone and take time for yourself. This activity made me feel peaceful, calm, and relaxed. I will be doing this more often.”
While it is not the exact wilderness described this month, we did create our own little wilderness right outside of our building. I cannot wait to see how the new Nature Block progresses throughout the school year. Stay tuned for updates and ideas of how to infuse nature and biodiversity education into all schools, so that all students understand it is their right to be in nature too.
Northeast Wilderness Trust Helps us Celebrate Wilderness Month
The Northeast Wilderness Trust celebrates wilderness all year round but it’s wonderful to now have an officially dedicated month for elevating awareness, visibility, and engagement around all things wild.
Here are a few ways you can share the joy and beauty of wildlands!
· Visit a wilderness area to take a hike, paddle a boat, learn about a new plant or bug, or simply sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature. To find lands protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust near you, click here.
· Throughout the US there are amazing State Parks, some more wild than other, but all worth visiting and exploring, click here. Pictured at the top of this blog post is the falls at DeSoto State Park in Alabama. Learn more about the incredible biodiversity in Alabama here.
· Share the good news with your friends and family in conversation or over social media.
· Learn something new about wildlife and nature by reading a book or article. Check out our recommended “Great Readings in Biodiversity” selections!
Keeping the Wilderness Forever Wild
In this fascinating conversation with Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, we learn what it means for an area to truly be “wilderness” and the differences and designations between public and private land. A must listen to get a better understanding of how we can work toward conserving Half-Earth.