Students in Hillsborough County’s Nature’s Classroom paddle hard as they head back from their river exploration trip. While boating they inventory the species they see (birds, reptiles. etc.) and collect data on various water parameters such as oxygen level and temperature. Credit: Nature’s Classroom
We expect so much from our teachers these days. I blame Harry Potter for this.
Harry’s teachers at Hogwarts use wizardly magic to make things happen and never have to worry about running out of supplies. Clearly, we expect the same from the humans working in Florida schools, despite the distinct lack of sorting hats and snowy owls.
Some people act as if our teachers are so powerful they must be stopped from passing along their secret knowledge. No talking about racial inequities! No “inappropriate” books in the school library! No mentioning anyone’s sexuality!
But if there’s a gunman around, one so scary even the cops won’t go after him, let’s give these same teachers guns to shoot at him. Even though we don’t trust them to teach straight, we trust them to shoot straight. No to talking about race, yes to racing to fire back!
As we’re all debating the caliber of our teachers, and the caliber of weaponry they should be packing, I just want to make one small point about our educational system.
I think that one of the things we should be teaching our kids in Florida is … Florida. Specifically, the part of Florida that lies outside the classroom.
My Florida baptism
Why do we send our kids to school? I mean besides the fact that keeping them out is illegal.
We send them so they can learn what they need to know to secure their own futures, as well as that of our state. That’s why we pay teachers to help them learn all about math, science, literature, languages, history, and civics. These are all very important subjects. (Well, maybe not algebra. Don’t get me started on that.)
Florida does require fourth-graders to learn about Florida history, geography, and government. Back when I was in the fourth grade — roughly the Jurassic Period — that meant we were required to learn all 67 counties and locate them on a map, as well as memorize a few other bits of trivia, such as how to spell “Juan Ponce de Leon.”
Our only discussion related to the Florida outside our classroom was whether the weather was suitable for running laps in P.E. class. Coach Grant made us run a LOT of laps. (I’m glad he wasn’t armed — he might have fired a few shots to make us run faster.)
But the environment is pretty important here, too.
Our beaches, springs, swamps, forests, estuaries, and aquifer, not to mention our amazing native species — these are all things we should be teaching our kids about, as well.
Remember that Florida’s environment is the foundation of our economy. As we learned during the 2010 B.P. oil spill, and then during the lengthy red tide algae bloom of 2017-19, any damage to the environment leads to major damage to our economy.
Plus, nature is cool! I vividly remember back in 19mumble-mumble, when I was around 6 or 7, my parents and I spent a couple of weeks driving around and camping at various Florida state parks.
That trip lives on in my memory in part because it was so much fun, and in part because it’s when I “accidentally” slipped and fell into the Suwannee River. I call it my Florida baptism.
Yet despite the environment’s importance and its awesomeness, according to Jennifer Jones, president of the League of Environmental Educators in Florida and a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, “The state of Florida really lacks a focus on environmental education.”
Florida’s Department of Education and Department of Environmental Protection used to work together to encourage teachers to give lessons on Florida’s environment, she said. Not anymore.
A few of what she called “teacher-champions” do their best to get the kids to see what a wonderful place we live in. But they’re the exception, not the rule.
You’d think their parents would make sure their children had some idea of how delightful Florida can be. Yet, as the Chamber of Commerce likes to point out, roughly 900 new people are moving here every day. Most of them have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into — er, I mean, where they’ve landed. They think Disney is the alpha and omega of the state’s attractions.
“A lot of the kids we work with have never been on a boat before,” said Peter Clark, founder of Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde. “Or never even been to the beach.”
Katie Mastenbrook, who runs Tampa Bay Watch’s Marine Education Center, told me that she and her staff see kids going from “trepidation, to fear and being nervous, to excitement, to being inquisitive, and then joyful. … I have been with many children when they are having their first experience holding a fish, going on a boat, seeing a dolphin in the wild, and you can really just see their mind turning.”
Almost always barefoot
I posted something on Facebook about my Suwannee River dunking and got a huge response. Turns out a lot of my fellow Florida natives went through some similar formative experience.
“I was fortunate to have a mother who took me and my sisters to the beach and to parks including the Everglades,” wrote one.
Another said, “As a kid I swam in a huge Lakeland lake (saw snakes but not gators), frolicked through mucky orange groves barefoot, swam way out at Ormond and Daytona (pre-‘Jaws’ and sunscreen).”
“We grew up with a sturdy tree fort in the pine rocklands and a mango grove,” a third one recalled. “Our trails and paths through these woods were well worn. We were almost always barefoot.”
Not all memories were golden. One of my friends warned me, “If it’s Florida and a good 20 percent of the article doesn’t touch on mosquitos or some other sort of biting bug, you’re writing a lie.”
I told him that the skeeters tore me up as a kid too, but now ignore me. Probably after so many bites, my blood tastes like the mosquito equivalent of a wine-tasting spit bucket.
Most of my environmental education came from my mom, an avid backyard birder; my dad, who took me hunting and fishing (carrying a gun or a cane pole is the Southern man’s excuse for enjoying a walk in the woods); and my Boy Scout troop, with whom I went hiking and canoeing, although not often enough to suit me.
The problem with all these sun-dappled recollections of frolicking outdoors is that they date to the long-time-ago. Back then, kids routinely spent hours playing in their backyard or exploring the woods or creek near where they lived. Sometimes they’d catch critters that would wind up in a box in their bedrooms.
This was pre-cable, pre-streaming, pre-videogame, and that world is gone. There are a few environment-themed videogames, but they’re not quiiiiite as popular as, say, Minecraft or that Mario Kart game that teaches you how to survive a drive on I-95 or I-75.
Those memories also date to a pre-asphalt-everywhere Florida. Good luck finding some woods or a creek near your suburban sprawl split-level these days. You’re more likely to find a retention pond and the landscaping for a model home.
Children today “have no connection anymore to their own backyards,” said Karen Johnson, who’s in charge of Nature’s Classroom, a Hillsborough County program in Thonotosassa. “Kids don’t have the knowledge we gleaned by playing in our backyards.”
I was happy to talk to Johnson, now in her 23rd year of running Nature’s Classroom. Her program should be considered a model for the rest of the state.
Nature’s Classroom sits on 365 acres of land along the Hillsborough River. The land is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and leased by the school district. Every sixth-grader in the Hillsborough school system makes a visit.
“They hear about the challenges facing the environment and learn how the health of the river affects us all by influencing things such as our drinking water supply. Most importantly, students learn how their actions now and in the future can impact the environment in the community,” WTVT-TV reported last year.
Since the program began in 1969, more than 300,000 grade school students have passed through its gates. One of them was Johnson, herself.
“I was a sixth-grader out here in 1976,” she told me. “It had a huge impact on me and my classmates.”
One of the first things kids hear when they visit is: No staring at their phones. There’s too much real life to look at. Then the teachers keep them so busy they don’t miss their electronic distractions, she said.
What they learn about the river, habitat, species, and so forth includes lessons from science, math, and language, “all of it interwoven together,” she said. Meanwhile, Nature’s Classroom staffers work with visiting teachers on ways to extend the outdoors experience into their indoor schoolwork, she said.
The students can visit with a one-eyed hawk, a rescued bobcat, an alligator, a flock of deer, and a black bear of somewhat mysterious origin. These are not the kind of neighbors that most Florida kids have these days.
As far as I’m concerned, this menagerie beats the heck out of the standard classroom hamster.
A land remembered
Few states have made the environment a full-fledged part of their curriculum. Three that do are Maryland, New Jersey, and California, according to Stacie Pierpoint of the North American Association for Environmental Education.
In 2016, Oregon’s voters approved spending money from the state lottery to provide all fifth- or sixth-grade students in Oregon access to a weeklong Outdoor School program. The program is voluntary, but it’s open to all, even home-schooled kids.
Making environmental education a guaranteed part of the Florida school system might require an Oregon-style voter initiative, too. You know how much our Legislature hates those, but it may be our only avenue for making a change.
Our legislators and governor don’t seem to be too concerned about the lack of lessons on green topics. While they’ve banned certain subjects (ones not actually taught below college level), their additions have mostly been focused on teaching kids that Communism is bad and money (and knowing how to spend it) is good. Well, duh.
So maybe it’s up to us parents to step in and play teacher on this subject.
If I were designing a Florida environmental curriculum, the students would get to splash in a spring, tube down a river, search for pretty shells or shark teeth on a beach. There would be a wintertime field trip to a manatee viewing center, such as the one by the Tampa Electric Co. power plant in Apollo Beach.
They’d learn key Floridian survival skills, such as how to read a hurricane map, how to remove sandspurs (lick your fingers first) and why you always walk in the shade instead of the sun (it’s 10 degrees cooler).
The kids would read such Florida classics as Robb White’s “The Lion’s Paw,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling,” or Patrick Smith’s “A Land Remembered.” Come to think of it, that last one would make a good name for the whole course.
The most important thing the students would learn is that natural Florida is special and, if we have to fight to keep it, that’s worth the effort.
“When you learn to love the environment, you want to protect the environment,” Clark said. “That becomes extremely important when they’re voting adults later on.”
If you’re a parent, tell your kids that Florida has plenty of strip shopping centers, storage buildings, and big-box stores, but a dwindling number of creeks and rivers and swamps. It’s going to take some serious civic-minded magic to make sure the latter don’t all disappear under the former — say, at the snap of some developer’s fingers.
Maybe some kids who remember the wonder of their first river baptism will turn out to be the wizards who can save us all.
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