All-School Interdisciplinary Unit: Why Land Ethic?

Posted on January 3, 2016



The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”            – Aldo Leopold

As soon as I was asked to facilitate the planning of an all-school, interdisciplinary unit at AHS, I knew the perfect topic: Land Ethic. Whatever we do, it depends on and has an effect on land. Nothing we do is outside the realm of Land Ethic–or so it seems to me. Not everyone, however, agrees that it is a perfect topic. For that reason, I would like to take a few moments to explain why I think the topic is a good choice for our school.

Why Land Ethic?

We are at a crisis point in human existence. Because of our ignorance of and/or resistance to the idea of Land Ethic, we have brought our planet to a place where things are out of balance: our energy, food, and transportation systems must be drastically changed to slow carbon output and slow earth’s temperature rise. When it comes down to it, we are one people who live on one planet, and we can teach in such a way as to focus on our local landscape in a global context, living up to our name, IB World School. Looking at our courses with a Land Ethic lens connects the local landscape to the global context.

What is Land Ethic?

A Land Ethic is a philosophy that seeks to guide the actions when humans use or make changes to the land. The term was coined by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) in his book A Sand County Almanac (1949). He wrote that there is a need for a “new ethic”, an “ethic dealing with human’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” (Wikipedia).

The Land Ethic teaches us that we should consider our actions in light of their impact on the living, breathing community that is the land, and that we should select the alternative available that does the least violence, or impact, to that community. The Land Ethic grows strongest when we have experienced the Land, grown to love and respect it, and have labored to enhance or restore it or, as Leopold would have put it, when we have practiced “conservation” defined as restoring the capacity of the Land for self-renewal. We understand the Land Ethic and when we think of right in relation to the Land as follows: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. Are you ready to face the challenge of looking at the Land in this fashion? If so, then you understand the Land Ethic. (Boy Scouts of America)

I love it that the Boy Scouts base their “Leave No Trace” lessons for land use on Leopold’s work. I was a Cubmaster and Cub Scout Den Leader in Ypsilanti, and I lived and worked for a summer at Camp Munhacke on Bruin Lake in the Pinckney Recreation Area. One of the things I love about Camp and Scouts is that they are interdisciplinary. While we do divide into classes such as canoeing, swimming, art, drama, archery, etc, the “content” is generally “how can we be good community members?” where “community” includes all our fellow campers or Scouts, as well as the landscape of Camp. At Camp, we sing songs about the land and the people living on it, we have oral tradition and documented history of the land, we have language and culture built upon the land, we know that the relationships we treasure with each other are dependent upon the land, and for all these reasons, we hold it as sacred. When I worked at Dr. Johnson’s Camps in Raymond, Maine, we even had a land-based ceremony each Sunday morning, where we expressed our gratitude for life and for the land through poetry, song, drama, and speeches. At Camp, the land nourishes us in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Every camper and every counselor can tell stories about the heart-wrenching scene we know as The Last Day of Camp, when the idea of living without that landscape and one’s fellow campers is literally sickening and tears fall like rain. Having worked at camps and known the intense learning, growth, creativity, and relationships that are cultivated there, I have always wanted my classroom to be as much like Camp as possible.

What happens when we see ELA through a Land Ethic lens?

To that end, I implemented what I learned in a Leopold Education Project workshop (1998) and began teaching my ELA11 courses with a Land Ethic lens in 1999–with 1 lesson– and continued to do so until my courses were “standardized” by KC4 in 2011. When I made the move toward Land Ethic, I continued to teach the works of literature that I had always taught; I still taught the research and writing lessons I had always taught; but I unified and deepened the learning available in the “same old” curriculum by putting on a Land Ethic lens. Seeing the course through a Land Ethic lens significantly deepened students’ learning of the literature, of the research process, and of writing, design, and publishing. Likewise, students’ relationships–with land, with each other, with the community, and most importantly–with themselves–were deepened by seeing themselves as community members in the local/global context of land.

The Land Ethic lens super-charged my students’ learning and my teaching, research, and learning. As I saw what was happening in my classroom–astonishing feats–on the regular, I began to share my experiences in professional development workshops as an Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Consultant (2002) and as a Leopold Education Project Facilitator (1998). As soon as I started this work, there was interest in it from outside the classroom. In the summer of 1999, I worked for the Summer Institute for the Arts and Sciences (for gifted students) at Adrian College. It was a land-based camp that included investigation and restoration of a local Nature Conservancy site (Ives Road Fen) and I offered a writing course called “Earth-Centered Writing.” Writers composed individual pieces of writing to be read and/or to be performed; a collaborative, performance piece for the end-of-camp talent show; and a literary magazine for an audience of camp participants, parents, and community members. It was an interdisciplinary (STEAM) camp: students explored the fen through direct observation, biology, chemistry, writing, dance, music–all the disciplines–in a project-based curriculum that looked at life through a Land Ethic lens.

Paradoxically, the more locally-focused my course became, the further its reach extended. Soon, down the street turned into in the next county which led me across the state, and before long, it took me around the nation. No matter where I told our story of reading, writing, and research transformed by a place-based approach, some reactions were consistent. As workshop participants looked at student projects, a few things were almost always said:

“How old are these students?” (High school juniors.) They’d shake their heads, clearly impressed.

“Are these honors students?” (Students of all abilities created these projects.)

“What do students think about having field experiences as part of their research process?” (Like any assignment, ranging from utter loathing to raving ecstasy.)

“Do the students understand what a fantastic opportunity they have with this approach?” (Yes and no.)

“Can you meet standards with this approach?” (Absolutely, although the learning experience with this approach is far exceeds any offered by externally-imposed standards.)

It sounds crazy or boastful, I know, but exaggeration is unnecessary when I present my students’ work to an audience, whether the audience consists of students–in high school, college, or graduate school, teachers (K-16), parents, writers, scientists, artists, conservationists, Catholic nuns, anthropologists, scholars–virtually every audience who has seen the work of the Adrian Maples has been by turns astonished, delighted, enlightened, and inspired by the observations, insights, images, and ideas expressed through a variety of written and visual genres. I have seen workshop participants of all ages moved to laughter, tears, and action by the writing of AHS students. I have seen AHS students move from apathy to impassioned, from terrified to boastful, from novice to expert, from silent to outspoken, from identities as non-writers to identities as published poets, musicians, essayists, and technical writers. I have seen students write their way out of Special Education classes, into careers, and through the harrowing darkness of trauma and grief. Through cultivating a relationship with the land where we live and solving the problems that face them as readers, researchers, and writers, students discover new perspectives and entertain new possibilities in their relationships to language, literature, land, and humanity.

Viewing literature and land through a Land Ethic lens opened the door to an interdisciplinary approach, and students were invited to pursue any topic, as virtually ANY experience or idea can be explored for the underlying Land Ethic it expresses.

When a door opens, it invites us to walk through it, and walk through it, I did. My journey has taken me to some completely unexpected and utterly delightful places: to present at local, state, regional, and national workshops and conventions in MI, OH, WI, and NY; to universities, camps, nature centers, and parks; to urban, suburban, and rural sites; to camps for gifted students, to community groups, to a community center for adults with cognitive disabilities. Wherever I go on this journey, it brings people together around the ONE thing we all have in common: our home, this pale blue dot, Earth.

Going Places

While place-based work is earth-bound, it is, at the same time, out of this world. Because of my earth-centered work in the ELA classroom, I have had some unbelievable experiences like:

A student’s (Kelsey Jacobs) Land Ethic essay was published in the LEP’s national newsletter, Strides. A workshop participant decided to use the multi-genre approach from my ELA course as the framework for her PhD. thesis in Historical Interpretation. I wrote a year-long, place-based, interdisciplinary ELA curriculum that includes everything from the research that explains why a place-based approach is beneficial to students academically, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially to rubrics for evaluating student work and student portfolios. I made a comment online about my work that brought an inquiry from National Public Radio journalist, Ari Shapiro, which led to an email exchange where there was talk of a possible interview–which is where it ended, as he moved from educational to political reporting. My research has been published in Language Arts Journal of Michigan, eMuse, English Journal, and The Connecticut Reading Association Journal. Two of my ELA students earned MFAs in poetry and non-fiction (Lia Greenwell and Aimee Lewis) and cited their experiences with the place-based writing project as the catalyst for their discovery that they were writers. They continue to write about land and their relationship with it. Two students became environmental educators (Cale Stoker and Sierra Gale) and cited their experiences with the place-based writing project as the catalyst for pursuing that career path. I have been invited to contribute my place-based work to two book projects. I met Carl Leopold and Nina Leopold Bradley, two of Aldo Leopold’s children. I have received emails teachers from around the U.S., often from Social Studies teachers, asking for lessons I’ve developed, because Ed or Sil Pembleton (LEP Workshop facilitators; Naturalist Journey Guides) told them that “they need to talk to lisa eddy.” I have been invited to present with WMU professor, Allen Webb and high school colleague, David Kangas at National Council of Teachers of English.Our NCTE presentation was attended by over 70 participants, and one of them (Ryan Goble) works with NASA and offered to share resources with us after the workshop.

Adventure Awaits

See what I mean? The list above is just a fraction of the out-of-this-world experiences that have come from taking a Land Ethic approach in ELA. I don’t know if my AHS colleagues have had similar experiences with their curricula, but I do know that a place-based ELA curriculum empowers students, empowers me, and takes us to worlds undreamed of–as learners, writers, and citizens.

If we, as teachers, can cultivate an open and curious mind about Land Ethic that the existing AHS curriculum embodies and expresses, we, too, might strengthen our relationship to the place where we live and that sustains us. We might also strengthen our relationships with one another, and we might begin to see this place and these people a little bit more like campers see their beloved summer camp: as someplace sacred–as a place to love and cherish.