Feb 242020
 

Nearly four years ago I wrote in Adbusters about how I had been raising my son to be an ecowarrior. At the time, he was just three. So there wasn’t much to it: supporting my wife, Aynabat, in breastfeeding; keeping my son, Ayhan, away from screens; getting him outside and letting him eat dirt; and spending oceans of time with him from day one, no matter how monotonous. Yes, sometimes it was a slog, with the hours slowly ticking by while we rocked Ayhan, talked baby-talk, or sang yet another rendition of “Five Little Monkeys.” Or as we fed and changed him, and especially as we scraped his shit out of cloth diapers, washed those vinegary rags, and hung them on the clothesline.

Yes, those were some long days, especially in the early going—days when my wife and I actually fought over who’d get the privilege of washing the dishes, just to get a bit of Zen time.

But so many of the moments were incredible. Ayhan’s first laughs, his first teeth, his first words, his first steps, his first efforts to wash dishes (now he’s busy and we can relax!)—and as a game-loving father, his first games. Not just my picking up Sophie Giraffe after he’d thrown it from his stroller for the twelfth time, giggling, with Papa playing along, but chasing him around the playground, and especially playing board games.

And as my son turns seven, time with him is still as joyful, maybe even more. He’s a little man now, playing serious games, learning karate, romping through the woods, helping around the house, having deep conversations, making up stories, learning about the world, and joining me at community events, meetings, and protests.

I wondered, when I finished the first “Raising a Future Ecowarrior” essay, what I might say in the future that would translate as easily to other families. In particular, I was interested in the early childhood stage, about how they’re living and what they’re learning—especially as my wife and I have chosen to have only one child and to homeschool him.

I realize now that there are a number of lessons I can share. Here are some rules of thumb my wife and I have found most valuable over seven years of homeschooling our little son and ecowarrior.

GO OUTSIDE AND GET MOVING

I’m still proud that we got rid of our stroller when Ayhan was two years old. Living in DC with no car, we walked and rode public transport everywhere. So getting Ayhan’s legs conditioned for life beyond the stroller put him on the right path for being active and strong. That’s not changed. He’s lean and powerful—as I rediscover whenever I try to tickle him and get a knee to the jaw. (We’re about out of the tickling stage now because of that, a sad stage of development.)

Much of our early outside time together was in the highly engineered modern “playground” urban dwellers are familiar with. At best, they are quasi-natural structures in a sea of woodchips, with some potential to stimulate creativity. At worst, they’re hot, rubberized hellholes, where toddlers leave covered in toxic plastic beads (which probably end up in their stomachs, as well).

In our hundreds of hours exploring playgrounds, we slid down slides, played on swings, chased each other, and played with other children. Sometimes I played along or sat back to get a rest and reflected sadly on how most other parents are far more engaged with their phones than their kids or the other parents.

I recognize that for parents needing a break, the phone is a magical portal—to news, a game, a video, a conversation, or an excuse to ignore others. The constancy of smartphone use on playgrounds suggests addiction more than distraction, however. This is behavior that kids, quickly recognizing the covetous value of the smartphone, will mimic in the future.

Beyond the playground adventures, we’d garden in our car-sized DC yard. Ayhan would help me compost, tear up the garden (thinking he was helping me plant), and play in the dirt. And as he got older we started to regularly explore Rock Creek Park, hiking, building dams in the creek tributaries, even guerilla pruning, once I learned how to prune properly.

A year ago, we moved to Middletown, Connecticut—a walkable town that also seemed very resilient to the coming climate crisis (and far more affordable than DC). On the one hand, wilderness was more accessible; on the other, for the most part, we now had to drive to it (a barrier in itself for an environmentalist who hates driving). We’ve continued to hike and join naturalists’ explorations, and do some camping. And we also got a plot at a community garden—which kept us gardening and taught us an important lesson in what happens when invasives send out their seeds just as you till the earth (it’s not pretty).

Then, this past fall, as I had been in Connecticut for six months and the cultural norm that “20 minutes of driving is close” opened up the option that “nearby” was a primitive skills homeschool group that met once a week. At Ayhan’s age, it’s mostly just playing—but playing with a purpose, such as games like Fire in the Forest that teach basic safety and awareness drills—and as he gets older they add in skills like bow drill, camouflage, bark basket weaving, and so on. Most importantly he’s in the woods for six hours every Tuesday, where he learns to be comfortable in cold, hot, wet, dry, and snowy weather. And he is surrounded by birds, trees, and mentors who recognize the inherent value of a living Earth.

Finally, there’s Karate. It may not be as important as nature time, but it’s a close second, teaching as it does respect, discipline, confidence, and an understanding that on those few occasions where one must fight, a few well-placed strikes will disable your opponent. At the Washin-Ryu Dojo in Middletown (an easy bike ride away), classes consist of both adults and children, with the children—including the Orange-belted Ayhan—even teaching forty- and fifty-year-olds how to properly perform Karate kata.

My sobering thought here is that Ayhan needs Karate because the future will be a bleak one where conflict will inevitably increase. I’m not going to lie: at this point I don’t see a realistic pathway out of our unsustainable consumer society other than through the rough road of civilizational collapse. And in that world, self-defense will be essential.

THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF DEATH FOR KIDS?

What is the correct level of exposure to the “real” for a child? Ayhan has watched a rabbit and turkey being slaughtered. He’s also seen (in documentaries) animals killing each other—as well as real train accidents. Is a seven-year-old capable of processing this? Some would argue for sheltering children from this, and from the horrors that climate change is bringing. I disagree.

Throughout history, children saw life and death firsthand. They weren’t hidden away when loved ones died or animals were made into food. And when wars and famines came, they were part of that too. Well, “Winter is Coming” in the form of catastrophic climate change. Our children should be both physically and psychologically prepared for it. Sheltering your children from the harder parts of life, the disasters unspooling around us, will only incapacitate them.

STAY INSIDE AND LEARN LANGUAGES

I once asked a knowledgeable colleague: “What one thing would you teach children to ready them for the world that’s coming?” Without hesitation came his answer: languages. He explained how they create opportunities, improve economic options—the data shows that they even improve brain health (increasing self-control and reducing the odds of dementia).

I took that to heart. Luckily I’m married to a trilingual woman. Aynabat, a Turkmen, speaks Russian and Turkmen and has taught Ayhan Russian from day one. They read countless Russian stories, practice Cyrillic writing, even surprise me when she reads Gulliver’s TravelsAnimal Farm, and How to Train Your Dragon to him—in Russian! Turkmen she added a year ago but he’s taking to it—though there isn’t an accessible Turkmen-speaking community like there is a Russian one. Living just down the hill from Wesleyan University now, we have found a Spanish tutor to add a fourth language. While my son’s third and fourth languages certainly won’t be at the level of his first and second, if all goes well, he’ll have a handful of them—and their corresponding cultural worlds—to draw upon as he grows up. The idea is as valuable as it is revolutionary in the Monolinguistic States of America.

STAY OFF SCREENS AND DO CHORES

We made a decision from the beginning to keep Ayhan away from screens. Other than video calls, Ayhan didn’t get any screen time until he turned two (which the World Health Organization recommends). Even after two, his screen time has been minimal—less than 30 minutes a day (from years 2 to 7). Once in a while we’ll watch for an hour, then days will go by with no time for cartoons as we’re too busy with forest school or karate, or playing a game. When we do watch, surprisingly little of it comprises cartoons. We watch nature documentaries, or the Electric Company (from the ‘70s), or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Then there are the Magic School BusOctonauts, and Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That. The choices get even more exotic when it’s Aynabat’s turn to pick: classic Soviet cartoons like Cheburashka or Three from Prostokvashino. With his love of trains we even watch shows like Mumbai Railway and the NOVA documentary Why Trains Crash. (Ayhan is surely one of the few seven-year olds that can tell you what Positive Train Control is.)

The Amish have a rule that’s always made sense to me: that, by seven, children should “break even,” giving to the household as much as they get. We’ve been working to make sure Ayhan does his part. While we do battle over dishes—he dislikes them—he is solely responsible for trash and recycling. He also hangs and folds the laundry, picks up around the house, and vacuums. He often resists doing his chores, of course, but he does get them done, which I’m happy about. That he sees both his parents cleaning regularly, and doesn’t have an easily accessible distraction—i.e., a screen—makes it easy to get him to be fully engaged. And it makes our lives a lot easier. The next step—both for the life skill and the parental relief—is teaching Ayhan to cook.

GET OUT AND INTO THE COMMUNITY

With his first years being in DC, Ayhan had many chances to engage with the world. Ayhan joined his first march when he was three, when a group of Bernie Sanders supporters marched by our house, and we tagged along. Sure we only walked only a few blocks and he had no idea what any of it was about, but growing up with Trump as president, he’s quickly found out. Ayhan joined more protests—the Women’s March, the Climate March, the Science March—and even helped me as I created an anti-Trump card game. (So became very knowledgeable about presidential politics.)

Then in 2018, after several years of contemplating a move to Middletown, CT, I got offered a job there, in which I organized and joined many community events. Aynabat (and I to a lesser degree) had drilled Ayhan in manners and emotional intelligence from an early age: Look into people’s eyes. Ask “How are you?” Shake their hands firmly. This year I brought him to many of the events I organized: repair cafes, hikes, boat trips, beach cleanups. And Ayhan has excelled at being a polite helper—cleaning up trash, making participants feel engaged and welcomed, making signs. Just writing this, I realize how proud I am of him.

I’m not sure what has led to this—positive reinforcement to a large degree, and perhaps the fact that he’s never seen a screen in public (other than those annoying TVs that seem to be in most restaurants now). So he looks actively for interaction rather than distraction. But this year was a great time to test all that out and strengthen many of the lessons. Over the years, I hope this community engagement will become even stronger and more self-directed. Being right downtown, he’ll soon be able to walk to community meetings on his own, if he so chooses (his current career ambition is to be the mayor of Middletown and a metro engineer, so perhaps). It’ll be interesting if a boy chooses to engage and whether he’d be taken seriously even if he did. Or maybe he’ll choose to get involved in a more globally focused movement that takes youth more seriously. Time will tell.

INSIDE OR OUTSIDE, PLAY ALL THE TIME

Much of the best learning can barely be called learning. We build Legos, read stories, write letters to far-off family, and play board game after board game. It’s worth remembering the degree to which children used to learn through play—pretending to hunt, mimicking parents as they ground grain or cooked, tagging along with an uncle or aunt as they foraged, and so on. Learning doesn’t have to be boring—it doesn’t have to be “ok, this is official learning time.” Yes, there’s some of that even with us—we have workbooks in both Russian and English we use to practice writing and spelling—and “workbook” is certainly his least favorite time of the day.

Instead, mostly we just play. As I write this, my work table is covered with SeaFall, a legacy game that consists of a series of about 15 games. It’s meant for 12-year-olds but he and I are playing through the series, and having enormous fun —other than the time Ayhan‘s ship sunk! Games teach not just strategy but emotional control. As I always tell Ayhan, I still get very upset when I lose, and sometimes even want to cry. But as you grow up you just learn to tamp that down (which, sadly, is an important part of growing up).

This all feels a bit celebratory to me. There have been times when it was really hard—especially before he learned to walk, where he whined and clung to us so much we barely thought we could go on. And Ayhan, unfortunately, inherited his parents’ temper. But we’ve been fortunate to have the time to set our son’s path in a way that made him a kinder and more ecologically-grounded child.

Could I have done all this if he was in school all day?

I’m assuming no. We wouldn’t have had time or energy to drag him to karate three times per week. He would’ve gotten far less outdoors time. Playing would be a rare treat, and the drudgery of workbooks more frequent.

There have been gaps in his education so far. We probably don’t spend enough time writing instead of reading, and probably not enough time with math. But that’s more than offset by other skills—especially awareness of nature, languages, and social/emotional intelligence.

Ultimately, the take home message is similar to that of the first three years. Feed your child well, keep him away from screens, get her outside, and play as much as possible. Processed foods rot the body and screens rot the brain, while nature—even a few trees or a community garden—nourishes the soul and reminds us of how beautiful and mysterious, and worth defending, Earth is.

First published in Adbusters, Sept/Oct 2019.

 February 24, 2020  Posted by on February 24, 2020 Tagged with: , , , , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 232016
 

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In this fifth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an activist high school in São Paulo, Brazil. At this school students are activists first, students second. They’re learning by doing and, in the process, bringing about positive social change in their city, their country, and their world.

It’s hard to even see the Freire School of Activism in São Paulo, Brazil as a school. The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work. Of course there are classes—two days a week—where all the basics are covered. Portuguese and English, math, history, systems thinking, sustainability sciences, persuasive speech, advocacy, law, and ethics. But unlike other high schools in São Paulo, all coursework is regularly oriented toward how students can use this knowledge to make their communities, their city, their country, and their world better.

To keep costs to a minimum, class days take place at a few local churches, and tutorials and campaign meetings, which dominate the week, typically rotate between students’ homes, public libraries, and cafés. Most meetings consist of updates and strategic planning for the dozen or so campaigns that the students have chosen to initiate and participate in—from efforts to establish new health clinics and bike paths, to campaigns to reduce air pollution and clean up abandoned brownfields. There is even an ongoing campaign to persuade city officials to pass a law requiring green roofs and rainwater catchment systems on all new or rehabilitated buildings—essential infrastructure as climate change has made access to fresh water a dire challenge in the city.

What’s been most powerful about this educational model is that the students, like any good campaigners, learn to reach out to a broad range of constituencies to build strong coalitions. Students at Freire learn to identify potential partners, communicate strategically, engage groups with varying interests, and apply a whole host of skills such as running meetings, management, and organizing. Inevitably they also end up spreading a philosophy of empowerment to their families and communities as they seek out broader support, often inspiring others to join the campaigns.

Beatriz, now a teacher at the school, graduated from the very first class of Freire in 2024. One of the earliest campaign successes of the school was an effort to expand the Clean City Law—which banned billboard advertising across the city—to the entire state. The removal of billboards from the city had significant impacts on revealing social inequities and also reducing materialism and unhealthful consumption patterns. Although the campaign succeeded a few years after Beatriz graduated, her role in organizing nonviolent civil disobedience actions—including a relentless “ad-jamming” campaign to replace billboard ads with public service announcements and artwork—had a major impact in exhausting the opposition and persuading the populace and the state to pass the new law. Today, 15 years later, the state of São Paulo continues to be the largest ad-free area in the world.

Now Beatriz teaches Portuguese, persuasive speech, and civil disobedience, and serves as a mentor and advisor for students as they run their campaigns. It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns (with them organizing the spokespersons, community liaisons, lobbyists, and other leadership) and that teachers only take an advisory role. A recent survey of the school’s first ten years of graduates found that the majority have continued to be socially and politically active, and many have gone on to be leaders in local and state government, in education, and in socially responsible business.

Beyond activism, complementary skills such as conflict mediation, debate, and management are deeply integrated into the curriculum at the Freire School. And everyone is encouraged to participate in physical activities—particularly aikido, a martial art that encourages exploration of both how to de-escalate conflict and, when that fails, how to use the attacker’s energy against himself, a skill regularly put into service in the students’ activism. While there are many more campaigns to wage, the Freire School has been instrumental in making the city and state of São Paulo into healthier, more sustainable, and more livable places to reside.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


This concludes the School Days in 2040 series. What do you think? Would you want your children to go to any of these schools? To the Forest School? The River School? The Social Entrepreneur or Activist School? Or the Eco-engineering Academy?

Teachers: Would you want to teach at these schools? Do you know any schools that approach this level of “Earth-centric-ness”? Is there any chance that education will ever reach this level of potential? Or will the stresses of dealing with and paying for climate disasters in the coming decades simply deplete state coffers to the extent that education becomes poorly funded and we should count ourselves lucky when our children graduate literate? Your reactions, comments, and insights are welcome!


Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 September 23, 2016  Posted by on September 23, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Sep 082016
 

In this fourth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an eco-engineering high school in Singapore that is training highly moral scientific leaders to guide investigation of the world’s most controversial environmental technologies.

Arivan has just stepped off Singapore’s MRT train and is now walking his last few blocks to the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy along a pedestrian and bicycle-only street. This is his favorite part of the commute. Even though school starts later in Singapore to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, the train ride is still chaotic. But these few last blocks along Agnes Avenue—with its lush tree canopy, birdsong, and verdant sidewalk cafes—is more park than street. Of course, not all roads in the city are so  picturesque. But Arivan is proud that the students of Garden City Academy have played an important role over the years in helping to make Singapore one of the greenest cities on the planet.

Even as a second-year student, Arivan is still orienting himself to the possibilities—and responsibilities—that come with being a student at Garden City. Ever since he was little, Arivan’s education has been strongly centered on character education. Having a strong moral character, or more simply put, “being good,” has been deeply integrated into every aspect of Singapore’s educational system—from teaching empathy early on to exploring the moral complexities of modern life as children mature.

With Arivan having passed both his character education and science exams at the top of his class, he has earned a coveted spot at Garden City (although, naturally, he accepted it with humility). Students here gain access to some of the most controversial environmental technologies on the planet—from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nanotechnology, to geoengineering and carbon capture and storage (CCS). They are expected to graduate not only with in-depth knowledge of these technologies, but also having helped advance humanity’s understanding of them, and of how to use them responsibly, if at all.

Garden City’s philosophy is that as the planet’s ecological crises have accelerated, the need for eco-engineering has too. Not only are governments working diligently to make their cities and industries more sustainable, but widespread ecological disruptions are requiring us to make our key systems—water, electricity, transportation, agriculture, coastal infrastructure—more resilient. As the climate heats up even further in the second half of the century, there will be greater pressure to try more controversial technologies in an attempt to dig humanity’s way out of crisis.

Rather than ignoring or banning these technologies outright, the Singapore government feels that it’s better to train the next generation of scientists to be morally evolved leaders that can analyze rationally whether the sacrifices that come with using the technologies merit the benefits. As an added bonus, many of the eco-engineers that have graduated from Garden City have become a valuable asset to Singapore, bringing significant global leadership in patent development and generating abundant journal citations, royalties, and remittances.

When Arivan started at Garden City, he was invited to participate in a longitudinal study on the health and environmental implications of saltwater-tolerant perennial rice. This GMO crop was designed back in 2025 and has been undergoing long-term testing to ensure that, along with being safe, it is productive, palatable, and profitable. During the early years of the study, students were involved in growing and harvesting the rice, and feeding rice meal to rats. When the field tests found no adverse health effects, students moved on to feeding the rice to chickens, then dogs and cats.

Two years ago, the students (under the close supervision of faculty scientists at the school) declared the rice safe for human testing. The rice is now served in the school cafeteria. After all, one of the mottos of Garden City is, “What we expect of others, we must expect of ourselves.” Arivan now plays an important role in collecting and analyzing health data. As a student in the school’s GMO track, he is routinely reading the latest journal studies and has even joined his team to present at the prestigious International Congress of Agricultural Biotechnologies. He and others in his track also regularly present updates of their own work and broader “field briefs” to students in the other three tracks at Garden City: Geoengineering & CCS, Nanotechnology & Biomimicry, and Urban & Civil Design.

This morning, the day is starting with a presentation from a Civil Design team working on “growing” Singapore’s first living house. Planted nine years ago, the trees and grasses that make up the house have now fused to a point where the interior will now be built. As the lead presenter explains, “If all goes well, we’ll have our first resident by the end of the school year.” When not at full school presentations, most students are either taking core courses or participating in their teams’ studies.

Of course, it’s not all science and moral education at Garden City. Languages—particularly English and Mandarin (the top two scientific languages), along with Malay—are a required part of the curriculum. The Arts and other means to cultivate creativity and critical thinking also are encouraged, as are opportunities to get outdoors in Singapore’s many managed natural spaces. Arivan is part of the wilderness skills club and is currently learning how to make fire using a bow drill. As Garden City administrators often state, “Connecting students to the eco-social-technical organism that the city has become reveals the mysteries of our living planet and their duty as stewards.” While that might sound like jargon to the outsider, it’s music to the students of the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 September 8, 2016  Posted by on September 8, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Sep 012016
 

In this third story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores a high school in India specializing in training future social entrepreneurs, farmers, and even midwives.

With lunch now concluded, Lakshmi excuses herself from the meal at her parents’ home, grabs her knapsack, and heads off to school. Unlike most schools, class at Bunker Hill doesn’t start in the morning but in the afternoon, continuing late into the evening. Here, in the southern Indian hill station of Ooty, much of the economy still revolves around agriculture, so mornings are reserved for helping parents or extended families with their farms. The high-elevation town is dominated by a mix of sufficiency gardens, tea plantations, and commercial plots of “English vegetables,” an export that, due to global population growth and the loss of agricultural land from climate change, is now as valuable as tea.

Today is a particularly important day at school. The entire student body—comprising 500 high school students—is gathering to hear four finalists present their project proposals for a new social enterprise that will be implemented when school gets out next month for the summer. Afterward, the entire school will discuss the projects and vote on how to distribute the $50,000 reserved for social enterprise investments each year.

Photo: Prof. Mohamed Shareef from Mysore (Green Pastures) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Prof. Mohamed Shareef from Mysore (Green Pastures) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The headmistress introduces the four project teams, and the presentations begin. Some students use high-tech video and slide presentations to help make their case, while others tell stories of what their enterprises could mean to Ooty. But all four teams present well-thought-out projects: a preventive health clinic; a permaculture design consultancy; a bicycle-sharing business with stations around Ooty; and finally a “Circular Café,” a teahouse that would sell local teas and vegetarian foods, procuring these from nearby farms and later returning the food waste to the farms to rebuild their soils.

After the presentations are concluded, the students return to their homerooms and spend the next two hours discussing the merits of the projects and determining which they feel should be supported, and to what level. While some of the conversations get heated, all remain considerate. Lakshmi, who loves drinking tea, is a strong advocate for the Circular Café, and helps win over her classroom to the project. Once the homeroom group comes to a decision, they elect one student to be the spokesperson for the final discussion. The 20 representatives, including Lakshmi, then gather in the auditorium and discuss—in front of the whole student body—what their homerooms decided on.

While not all homerooms chose the same winner, through a process of open discussion and consensus-building the representatives end up awarding the Circular Café the lion’s share of the funding. They decide to allot $45,000 to the project, praising key components like the identification of a vacant building on a high-traffic street; the agreement of the property owner to rent out the space at an affordable rate; and the vision for how the café could serve as a “third space” for the community, providing a place for tutoring and community meetings and for sharing important civic information via a prominent bulletin board. The remaining funds are allocated to the permaculture consultant team, which had required only $5,000 to start their venture.

For the winning team, the work has just begun. This summer will be their first taste of independently leading a social enterprise, even though collectively, over the course of their school careers, they have been involved with at least half a dozen. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be determining whether they can balance the café and their upcoming college studies, or whether they’ll need to defer admission for a few years.

This certainly wasn’t a typical day at Bunker Hill, but rather the culmination of months of collaborative work determining what the local community most needs and how to implement these new services in ways that sustain both the workers and the venture.

The school’s more typical curriculum includes a significant focus on regional ecology, agricultural sciences (including geology, biology, chemistry, and climatology), languages, first aid, and household management. Through this, students learn not only the basics like budget management, cooking, home building, and repair, but also comprehensive sexuality education—from family planning to how to raise a healthy baby and child.

There is even a track for students interested in nursing, midwifery, and maternity care. Students who excel in this track typically help to deliver their first babies at age 16 (as a doula), and by graduation they can serve as an assistant midwife. Research has found that having knowledgeable peer-midwives in schools helps to disseminate information about sex, family planning, and pregnancy more effectively and, in the process, helps to lower teen pregnancy rates.

Lakshmi didn’t choose the midwife track, although her midwife friends have certainly shared lots of stories with her. Rather, she chose the social entrepreneur track, and is eager to pitch her idea for an intergenerational learning academy next year in front of the school. She’s already brought together a team, and over the summer they’ll set the foundation for how to bring the idea to fruition. Lakshmi knows that helping to ensure that the wisdom of elders gets transferred to the community’s young people (and that the elders don’t get left behind with all the changes happening these days) would be a win-win. Perhaps the academy can even be based out of the Circular Café. However it shapes up, Lakshmi can’t wait for the summer to begin.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand and Barefoot College in India as inspiration for this scenario.

 September 1, 2016  Posted by on September 1, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Aug 252016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040. Learn more about this series.

Today, Saikou arrived early at the dock where his school will pick him up for the day. Yes, instead of taking the bus, he’ll actually be picked up by his school, as the Tigerfish Floating School is a large boat. Over the course of the school day, Tigerfish meanders up and down a few kilometers of the Gambia River, just downstream of the city of Bansang, picking up the school’s 160 students

Today, it’s Saikou’s turn—along with his other classmates who meet at this dock—to harvest the day’s catch from the school’s dockside fish farm. Lunch each day consists of a mix of vegetables, rice, and the fish that the school raises in a series of small tanks, located on each of the docks. This ensures that even the poorest of Tigerfish’s students get adequate protein each day. The fish farms also are an integral part of the curriculum: all students will graduate middle school with a comprehensive knowledge of fish farming—from growing the insects that the fish eat, to proper harvesting and management of the tanks, to even basic veterinary training.

floating school education

Makoko Floating School in Nigeria (from CEE HOPE NIGERIA, May 2014), an early prototype of the floating school of 2040

After feeding the fish and harvesting today’s catch, Saikou and his classmates see their school approaching. The floating school is a large pyramid-shaped boat—designed not for speed but for stability, even in the worst weather. The school consists of several well-lit classrooms, a kitchen, even two science labs—as science is a priority at Tigerfish. Today, the first-year students (sixth graders) are learning about circuits and solar electricity. With a solar array covering the boat, the students have the chance not only to learn about photovoltaics in the abstract, but also to take part in maintaining the boat’s electrical system.

In the other science lab, the eighth graders, including Saikou, have been spending the day dealing with a problem. The tilapia in one of the school’s fish farms have developed some sort of disease, with many of the fry dying and many of the adult fish developing skin lesions and rubbing themselves raw against the sides of the tanks. Over the course of the day, the students have dissected several fish to explore internal symptoms, examined fish cells under the microscope, and conducted online research—first on Googlepedia and then in academic journals—to assess the problem. Their hypothesis: the fish are suffering from Trichodina, caused by tiny parasites that attach to the gills, skin, and fins.

The teacher, who has been quietly nudging the process along—helping with the equipment, engaging those who get left out, settling down those who get too excited—now makes a video call to the local veterinarian and allows the students to present their case that the tilapia are suffering from Trichodina. The vet, seeing the evidence, supports their conclusion and agrees to come by the fish farm the next day to give the fish a potassium salt bath to kill the parasites. After the call, the teacher praises the excellent work of the class, although it is the success of correctly identifying and dealing with the problem that is most rewarding to Saikou and to many of the other students.

Not every day does such a “perfect” project manifest at Tigerfish, offering the students an opportunity to expand their vocational knowledge, research skills, critical thinking, and ability to work together. However, routinely integrating river life into the school curriculum tends to offer more opportunities than would otherwise exist. Biology, chemistry, climatology, ecology, and physics are all naturally a part of life on a river—a river that most of these students will live along their entire lives.

Having a deep knowledge of and connection to the Gambia River is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Tigerfish, although gaining an understanding of the many changes occurring in the ecosystem is also very valuable. As climate change and population pressures have reduced wild fish stocks to endangered levels, farmed fish have largely replaced wild fish. And after several serious floods made schooling impossible for tens of thousands of children living along the riverbank, the idea of floating schools became more celebrated—with a quarter of The Gambia’s students now spending at least some of their school years at a river school.

Recognizing the high risk for future climate-related changes—including the potential submersion of vast areas of the country—certain skills are an integral part of the curriculum: the ability to swim well, disaster education (how to respond effectively in a crisis), and, most importantly, multilingualism. Although English is the primary school language, all students also learn French and Mandinka. The hope is that knowing two global languages will increase students’ employment opportunities in good times, and, if a large share of the population eventually becomes climate refugees (a possibility that the government now openly acknowledges), knowing both English and French will help people better integrate into other countries.

While floating schools certainly aren’t solving the climate crisis in The Gambia and the many other coastal countries where they’ve emerged, they’ve proven to be an ingenious adaptation—one that Saikou feels lucky to be part of.


Author’s note: I want to acknowledge the innovative efforts of the Makoko Floating School in Nigeria as inspiration to this future scenario.

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 August 25, 2016  Posted by on August 25, 2016 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Aug 172016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040.

Keep in mind that with this diversity of examples comes a wide difference not just in geographies, student ages, cultures, and available resources, but also in the direct impacts that school systems suffer on a rapidly changing planet. In places where flooding, drought, and other climate disasters have become omnipresent challenges, these experiences and their response strategies naturally have become part of the core curriculum—even the school design. Where stability has endured, these topics remain more “academic,” with activity focused on how students can help prepare themselves and global society for thriving (or at least surviving) in a changing world. But in all cases, the shifting ecological realities of the 21st century have deeply affected how school is taught to these students of the future.

What is unified across these stories is the schools’ commitment to put the Earth at the core of their curricula: teaching ecoliteracy and systems thinking, cultivating a direct relationship with a specific place or environment, and embracing global stewardship. Also at the heart of these stories is the teaching of moral education and the “art of living together” (conviviencia), as well as cultivating creativity and an ability to “learn how to learn” (what in the world of AI is called “deep learning”). Teaching life skills permeates every aspect of the school experience. And above all, these schools teach their students to be “Earth-centric leaders,” who will work both to heal the planet as well as to help humanity adapt to the inevitable changes that we are bestowing on coming generations. These curricular elements combine to form the Earth Education Core Principles (or EarthCore for short; see figure).

EARTHCORE

 

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

A final note: I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

Rima’s Day at the École Gardiens de la Forêt (Montreal, Canada)

It’s late spring. Rima has just finished breakfast and is gathering her things for her first day back at École Gardiens de la Forêt (The Guardians Forest School) after the spring holidays. Although Rima had a good time on vacation, she can’t wait to get back into the woods and play. The holidays are never as fun or as wild as stomping and romping in the fields and forests of Gardiens.

Quebec was one of the first provinces of Canada to resurrect the idea of micro-neighborhood community schools—what Americans once called “one-room schoolhouses,” although few of Quebec’s schools actually have rooms. Many of the province’s elementary schools are now micro-forest schools, where children spend a large portion or even all of their day outside and embedded in a specific place and ecosystem. Gardiens serves a small neighborhood at the edge of Montreal with a total of 16 students and 2 teachers, Marie-Claude and Loic.

All of the students live within two kilometers of the school and are picked up each morning by “pedibus”—literally a walking bus, but in reality just the group of students walking together to school and chaperoned by a teacher. Admittedly, the pedibus takes Rima longer to get to school than a car would, but not for the reason one might think. Her teacher, Loic, stops frequently to identify animal tracks, wild edible plants, a tree in bloom (and one that’s rotting), and even scat. “Whose poop is this?” he asks the students, repeating a question that he has asked so often that it’s become a running joke.

The pedibus, along with being an excellent teaching opportunity and another way to make sure kids are active, further reduces the environmental and financial costs of the school, even when compared with the solar-electric buses that are now common in other parts of Canada.

Gardiens, itself, is nothing fancy: just a one hectare plot of woods and fields where the students explore, play, and learn. Twenty years ago, this site was an abandoned strip mall with its vast stretch of parking lots, but now it is transitioning to a mature sugar-tapping forest (still another 10 years or so to production) and a community green burial ground, which has helped finance both the reforestation efforts and school operations. The school also receives community and state funds—although not as much as during the peak years of the consumer era—but selling burial plots and (eventually) maple syrup will help it generate enough supplemental income to remain open even in the event of further cuts in educational funding.

In the morning, before the sun is too high, Rima and her classmates spend a few hours in the quarter-hectare garden and adjacent hoop house, learning about growing food and agroecology, as well as harvesting the greens and vegetables that will flavor the students’ lunch, usually a stew cooked on the central fire that the students help to prepare, serve, and clean up. Today, Rima is particularly excited because she gets to help chop the veggies—a first now that she’s turned five.

For the rest of the morning, the children are free to play on their own. Some stay close to the fire to read and to continue drawing a storybook that they’ve been working on. Others, including Rima, go off and finish the fort that they started building yesterday. And a few, under the watchful eye of Marie-Claude, practice their tree climbing skills. One child, Quinn, successfully hunts a squirrel with his throwing stick, which Loic, at the fire pit, helps him skin, gut, and add to the stew. “Tomorrow,” exclaims Loic, “we can invite the class to learn how to tan a hide!”

At lunch, all give thanks to the forest, to the fields, and to Earth for the meal, to Quinn for his success in the hunt, and to the squirrel for giving up its life to sustain their lives for another day.

After the dishes are washed, the students work on math and reading, with the older children helping the younger ones with basic problems. Studies have repeatedly found that there are few better ways to consolidate learning than when the student becomes teacher.

After the afternoon lesson block, Marie-Claude leads the class in what she calls their “Deep Dive” sessions. This week, she’s been focusing on the life of birds. On Monday, they observed birds on the school grounds and proposed hypotheses on various aspects of birds’ lives: what they eat, how they nest, and who hunts whom. Yesterday, they built their own wings out of cardboard and paper feathers and “flew” around the forest while discussing the mechanics of flight.

Today, Marie-Claude, with her infectious enthusiasm, declares that they’re going to make a nest. The first 20 minutes are spent brainstorming the best ways to build a nest and deconstructing an old nest that she found in a tree. The next hour is spent gathering twigs, branches, long grasses, and mud, and the class then constructs its own nest as a group. Rima overhears Marie-Claude whisper to Loic at one point: “Wait until tomorrow when a giant egg appears and we take turns sitting on it!”

Another day filled with adventure, thinks Rima, as she ends it with a relaxing walk home and dinner with her parents, during which she shares all her new experiences and life lessons learned at Gardiens.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, State of the World report.

 August 17, 2016  Posted by on August 17, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »