Environmental Humanities at Exeter

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A primary need of students and teachers alike

It began with a conversation. Jason wanted to talk over a new environmental literature course at Phillips Exeter Academy, and Mark, at the time the president of ASLE, was hoping to create new opportunities for secondary educators in our association. Two years later, twenty-five elementary and secondary school faculty gathered for the inaugural Environmental Literature Institute (ELI) at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Participants from Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Georgia, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Toronto, Canada, spent a week in New Hampshire developing new courses and revising curriculum for a range of secondary school settings.

We welcomed as keynote speaker and workshop leader Scott Russell Sanders, who spent a year at Phillips Exeter in 1974-75 as a Bennett Fellow. And throughout the week we were guided by the generous spirit of the late Exeter Instructor Peter Greer—whose course Literature and the Land was among the earliest environmental literature courses to be taught at the secondary school level.

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Scott Russell Sanders meets with ELI participants

Each day began with morning physical and reflective activities, including walking and running, yoga, and mountain biking. Participants then circled at the Harkness table to discuss writing by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Paul Nabhan, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, and Marc Bekoff; participated in daily field sessions with the workshop leaders; and took advantage of time set aside for course and curriculum building.

The week included a series of special events as well. Scott Russell Sanders’ presented “Taking Care of Home: Sustainability on a Small Planet.” We discussed Climate change pedagogy via Skype with Stephen Siperstein, who will be joining the faculty of Choate Rosemary Hall next year. We enjoyed an evening with John Elder reading, playing music, and discussing his newest book, Picking up the Flute, at the Water Street Bookstore. And Jennifer Pharr Davis, author and 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, shared some of her experiences walking over 12,000 miles on six different continents.

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ELI gathered at the big Harkness table on the top floor of Phillips Hall

Participants considered a range of interdisciplinary and field-based pedagogies. Master teachers Scott and John shared their experiences and provided mentoring—both in the classroom and in a writing and poetry discussion at a local biodynamic farm. Clare Walker Leslie guided participants in the art of seeing nature through drawing—in the classroom, out of doors on the campus, and in the open fields of the Colby Farm. And Patrick Thomas from Milkweed Editions offered an insider’s view of the interplay between writing and publishing. ELI concluded with the participants sharing their work in progress: revised units for existing courses, new course ideas, and aspirations for interdisciplinary collaborations.

Sketching in the field at Colby Farm with the inimitable Claire Walker Leslie
Sketching in the field at Colby Farm with the inimitable Claire Walker Leslie

ELI is committed to developing a teacher collaborative committed to developing environmental humanities at the secondary level. Our vision is to share the resources of ASLE with secondary school colleagues as well as to share the wisdom, resources, and pedagogical methods of our secondary school teachers with the members of ASLE who teach in post-secondary schools.

Jason Bremiller (Phillips Exeter), John Elder (Middlebury College), and Soctt Russell Sanders (Indiana University)
Jason Bremiller (Phillips Exeter), John Elder (Middlebury College), and Soctt Russell Sanders (Indiana University)

Among the goals of the 2014 ASLE strategic plan is to improve public discourse about the environment through community-based, K-12, and undergraduate programs. To this end, members of ELI received two-year memberships to ASLE, a collection of resources from Milkweed Editions, and a subscription to Orion magazine. We have also set up in the ASLE Member Community a Chatter forum designed to share resources and materials among secondary educators working in the environmental humanities. We are considering a workshop at ASLE 2017 featuring ELI alumni. And we are talking about a mentoring network for secondary school teachers as we plan for ELI 2017.

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