A Teacher’s Perspective on Connecting Students to Nature

For this issue’s Interpreting Nature column, please welcome guest author, Robert Jeffers. Mr. Jeffers, a teacher at Dorsey High School, is a key component to the success of the Greenhouse Program over the past five years. A Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, and Finalist for California State Teacher of the Year, Mr. Jeffers is also involved in education policy through fellowships and conferences. He teaches English, Film, and Environmental Stewardship courses for 10th-12th grade students, and he is also faculty advisor for the school’s EcoClub. In the essay below, he speaks to the importance of getting students involved in nature-related activities

“Hey Mr. Jeffers, I think that’s a Steller’s Jay! Can you help me ID it?” asks Monica in her always earnest tone when it comes to the species she loves. Even armed with iBird Pro 6 in my iPhone I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t help her out, and as usual I deferred to the more experienced birders in my life during this Spring Break class trip to Yosemite. At the same time I couldn’t really contain my joy at both Monica’s budding skills as a birder and at her growing interest in our feathered friends. She’s a bona-fide bird-nerd of the highest order and I couldn’t be happier or prouder. Sure, Monica was probably born with a proclivity toward the natural world and toward animals, but if I’m being honest it’s a program like the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Internship that’s nurtured what started as a kernel of interest into something that she may pursue in college and beyond. Credit for Monica’s evolving interest should be spread around, but much should reside with those of Los Angeles Audubon who support the Greenhouse Program. I can’t impress enough how powerful a program like this can be for our city’s “at risk” youth.

My tenure in LAUSD started now ten years ago when I moved here from Seattle to join Teach For America as an English teacher. Having come to LA by way of Seattle, and before that Humboldt County in Northern California, the natural world always held special sway for me even though I was neither a biologist nor naturalist by trade. And, as a teacher, I’ve witnessed arguments about Nature Deficit Disorder by those like Richard Louv play out in real time, so I worked to integrate elements of the natural world into my curriculum inside the classroom and through extracurricular activities like running the campus EcoClub and working with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures, Inc. to get students off the pavement and onto the trail. Now in my ninth year at Dorsey High School, I’m more than convinced that students, especially inner-city students like mine, need nature for both their personal and academic development. Dorsey is in a special position, as it’s located less than three miles from Kenneth Hahn Park and the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. This access to parks can provide Dorsey students with the very thing they lack, green space. Though geographically close to these parks, my students don’t necessarily have a “nature connection” or think of these areas in terms of ecology and conservation. Even though a brisk 45-minute walk could get most of my students to these parks, many students don’t go – the lack of a car, potentially unsafe walking routes, or the obligation of weekend and afternoon babysitting obligations often serve as obstacles keeping students close to their homes and away from the parks. In addition, most Dorsey students live in apartment buildings without yards, and the few that do live in houses tend to have limited yard access. Nature is not easily accessible to them, a tragedy as alarming as any below-basic test score, and it demonstrates even more the divide that exists between students of disparate socioeconomic strata. While many see test scores, and only test scores, as the sole metric of student achievement, I find lack of exposure to the natural world just as troubling. Economically challenged inner-city students and families rarely have the time or the money to vacation in nature like their wealthier counterparts might. The Greenhouse Program tackles this disparity directly and offers a bridge that links students to nature in a way that conventional curricula might not. Being a part of the Greenhouse Program has been a high point in my career as an educator. Over the past ten years I’ve taught thousands of students at two different high schools in Los Angeles – I’ve received recognitions, awards, and been published at local, state, and national levels. I feel that I know the educational needs of inner-city students – and in particular, the urgency with which they need quality education both inside and outside the classroom.

Monica is a second year Greenhouse Intern. You’ve read about her research in these pages in issues past, and while she’s not a birding virtuoso yet, she’s getting better by the day. Her skills are formidable, and this is no small feat for a minority inner-city high school student. Though I’m sure everyone can guess, birding is not winning any popularity contests over Flaming Hot Cheetos, Facebook, or video games among most teenagers. However, when presented with opportunities like the Greenhouse Program, like the Restoration Leader Program, like a school EcoClub, birds can provide a point of entry into appreciation, stewardship, and in many cases, love of the natural world. Unfortunately, sciences like ecology, that can be studied in our backyards, neighborhoods, and parks, are sorely absent from classrooms across the country as well as our national dialogue about the state of the environment. After-school programs like the Greenhouse Program help connect the classroom to the real world, and most importantly, connect the students to the opportunities science affords in places where many residents don’t expect it.

Robert Jeffers, Dorsey High School teacher, instructs students in film production techniques as part of the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program's summer training session at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

And, it’s not just my school where the positive effects of LA Audubon’s work can be found. For physical evidence and remarkable academic outcomes, look no further than the ever-growing and evolving schoolyard habitat over at Leo Politi Elementary School. For three years now I’ve witnessed students from Dorsey High and LA Audubon’s Greenhouse Program teach Leo Politi Elementary students about ecology, lead them on bird walks, and help build the habitat that continues to attract more and more species with each passing season. That Los Angeles Audubon offers programs that support students from elementary to high school age is good news for birds and students alike. By learning from each other, the students develop respect for diversity among themselves and the species they’re directly and indirectly working to protect. When I hear Monica talk unprompted about her favorite bird, the White-tailed Kite, I have hope and confidence that no matter what profession she chooses, she’ll be an admirable ambassador for the environment (and birds!), and I can credit Los Angeles Audubon for helping her get there.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 3 January/February 2013