My first semester teaching solo

Last semester was my first semester teaching on my own and I’m really glad I never have to do it again. Don’t get me wrong, on a whole it was awesome and my department and my students were great. I saw tremendous growth in my students, I know I had an impact on my students, and I know that they have all changed their behaviors in response to our time together. But, on the other hand it was also really difficult.

I accepted the Visiting Assistant Lecturer position at the University of New England about two months after the inauguration of the new president and therefore a new era for the political climate regarding environmental issues and science in general. I knew I would be teaching about environmental issues at an interesting time for the climate, both politically and obviously in the actual atmospheric sense. At a time when science feels so undervalued, and some people still claim that climate change is “a hoax” I knew I was going to be doing important work at an important time. I knew I would be helping my students be better citizens of the world, to be more respectful, to make sustainable choices and to be messengers of the wicked environmental problems of our day. And I did that, I know I did.

But, it was also very challenging to teach 91 students about the wicked problems of our day. I had four sections of Introduction to Environmental Issues which as you can tell from the title of the class is one dedicated to teaching students about problems. Problems like marine debris, noise pollution, waste, etc. and of course the big one, climate change. There were moments last semester when I saw how hard that was on my students and I told them how hard it was on me too… I felt like I was dragging them through at times. At one point in the semester after teaching about noise pollution, something that hardly any of them had ever thought about before taking class with me, I approached one of my students who was looking very concerned. I asked her if she was alright. She said, “Great, another thing I have to worry about…”

I took these reactions and feedback as cues and made changes throughout the class last semester and also made big changes to my two sections of the same class this semester. Instead of calling them “Current Event Reports” I call them “Optimism Reports” and have students share optimism to start our class instead of reporting on hurricanes, fires, floods, extinction, etc. This has completely changed the tone of the first part of our class. I also had a member of the counseling center visit class to discuss some of the feelings associated with these topics and responses to our class.

I tried my best to focus on action, to focus on solutions, and to be hopeful. Instead of writing a journal on climate change I had them write comments in response to the repeal of the Clean Power Plan. Comments that some of them officially submitted. I had them present on specific climate change solutions during class to share people, companies, technology that are working to make a difference in climate change. And for their final, I had them create a message of ENV104 Optimism for their final exam project. Instead of giving them a normal exam, I gave them a chance to share a message of their choosing. I was pretty free-form with this final exam. I told them to find something that spoke to them and share it with an audience. Some of them chose local Kindergarten classes. Some of them chose to stand outside the dining hall and share climate change facts and solutions. Some of them sent letters. Some of them made artwork, raps, song parodies, websites, and hosted cleanups. Here are some of those final projects.

Two pieces of art using collected marine debris:

An original rap, A song parody, website A cleanup.

The semester ended with a presentation symposium where my students shared these projects. What an inspiring way to end a semester!

Also, in the last week of class during a class discussion on moving forward and taking action, one of my students told a story about his little brother’s elementary school class. He talked about how they had a compost bin in the classroom and had earthworms in that bin to break down the food. All of the students helped maintain the worm bin throughout the year. Then at the end of the year, each student was sent home with some of the earthworms to be able to start their own compost bins at home. After he finished I told the class, you know, you are my worms. They laughed. But it’s true. I have sent them off into the world with our experience from the semester. I will never know if they start their own “worm bins.” But I have sent those 91 students out into the world with knowledge about problems and their solutions. And I do like to think about all of the proverbial “worm bins,” the straws they’ve skipped, or plastic bags they’ve avoided, or compost bins they’ve started since our class and all of the people that are now part of this network of people I have reached through my first semester teaching.

This semester I am teaching two more sections of this course and an upper level science elective course called Pathways of Pollution: Science, Service Learning and Solutions. For this course I wanted to use my coursework in college teaching from Duke University and develop something that even further represented my teaching philosophy and the type of experiential, field-based and service-learning course that have made such a difference in my own academic career. This class is an upper level science elective course in Environmental Studies and I am taking a service learning and hands-on approach. Students are working with scientists and their data and getting out in the field as much as possible. Our “authentic assignments” with real datasets are helping the students learn and be engaged with the various pollutants we are covering but also benefit local organizations and agencies like the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve and the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

My students and I are contributing to a class blog which can be found here: 

I encourage you to check it out to see what we’re doing in that class!

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