Faith plays an influential role in the lives of billions of people in the world, with about 84 percent identifying with a religious group. As Ramadan, a month-long ritual focused on self-purification and refocusing attention to faith, comes to an end for roughly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, it is a good time to reflect on the intersection between conviction and nature.
Green Muslims, a Washington, D.C., based organization with the mission of helping their community live in the environmental spirit of Islam, began with a conversation between a group of friends about how to ‘green’ their Ramadan. At first they took small measures, like switching to reusable plates and having zero-trash iftars, or evening meals, when they could break their fasts. Those simple actions set off a chain reaction of stewardship within the community that led to the formal establishment of Green Muslims as a volunteer organization in 2007.
The nonprofit works with a number of different Muslim communities in the D.C. area, but serves as a national resource for those across the country that are looking to tie their faith back to the natural world. “There is really a passion and a yearning for learning more about what our tradition is amongst the Muslim community everywhere, and we hope to provide those resources and incubate that energy to take it to the next level,” said Colin Christopher, Executive Director of Green Muslims.
With many youths spending an increasing amount of time indoors, exposure to and connections with the natural world are lost, often times leading to rises in health problems like allergies and obesity. In a push to alleviate nature deficit disorder, Green Muslims launched the ‘Our Deen is Green’ Youth Outdoor Education Program this year. The program offers a wide range of field trips to places like the Chesapeake Bay, farms and conserved lands to demonstrate real life examples of how Islam and the environment are intertwined.
Each trip offers themed lessons that cover subjects such as, water, food waste and renewable energy. The goal of the program is to reconnect the participants with outdoor spaces and encourage healthy behavior changes, like wiser food choices and increased awareness about human impacts on the planet. “In Islam, we understand that God has an amount of trust in us as Khalifas, or stewards of the Earth. We really see our responsibility as people who need to conserve and protect the natural environment; we are called to do so, it’s our responsibility,” said Christopher.
The final trip of the year was to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where the kids toured the historic Peirce Mill and learned how the Earth’s natural processes like water flow and wind create energy that can be harnessed with minimal negative impacts to the environment. Prior to touring the mill, all eight kids sat contently in a circle making windmills out of paper and pencils while discussing where their energy comes from. “Why are we always talking about water?” asks a young boy. “Because we are made of water,” replies Christopher. A look of awe falls over the children’s faces. The importance of water is a theme that weaves through all lessons taught during the program.
The Qur’an has hundreds of verses that talk about water, animals, wind and the sun, and Sharia, or Islamic law, directly translates into ‘the pathway to the water source’—meaning that protecting water is of utmost importance in the tradition of Islam. “Every part of our natural environment is integral to the greater whole. In Islam, we talk about, if you have one limb that is unhealthy then the entire body is unhealthy and sick. So, the Chesapeake Bay is a really integral part of that entire ecosystem and we can’t afford to neglect the Bay or other parts of our ecosystem," explained Christopher.
Although the organization aims to spread awareness about the link between Islam and the environment, Christopher believes that diversity is the backbone of the Muslim community and welcomes anyone, regardless of faith, to volunteer and participate in Green Muslim events. “I think that the challenges we face relate to education. There is a lot of misinformation about Islam and what Islam is,” noted Christopher. “We are trying to bring back the teachings of our traditions within our community and explain that conservation, moderation and love for creation are core components of our tradition.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
On a verdant spring morning, tie-dye clad students of the Gunston School, a private high school of about 160 students in Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gather on the dew-covered front lawn to participate in a team-building exercise. Giggling teens in conga line formations scramble around in an attempt to follow directions shouted through a megaphone by Emily Beck, the sustainability coordinator for the school. It’s Earth Day; there’s an electric energy in the air.
A one-mile access road offers the tranquility of hundreds of lush acres of farm fields, all placed under permanent conservation easement, leading up to 32 acres of campus that are nestled into the nape of the Corsica River. The rural expansiveness sets the tone for a core message that is threaded throughout everything the Gunston School does: sustainability.
Out of the 2,220 schools in Maryland, only 20 percent—or 450—of them, including the Gunston School, are certified through the Maryland Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education (MAEOE) as Green Schools. Certified schools must meet a stringent set of criteria that includes benchmarks such as school-wide environmental behavior changes, water conservation, pollution reduction, instruction on environmental issues and many more.
Certified green schools are also required to hold an annual celebration of green practices; for the Gunston School, that materializes in the form of a daylong Earth Day celebration planned and organized by the students. Instead of attending class, students participate in a morning of workshops conducted by students, faculty and outside presenters and an afternoon film session and green fair. This year’s celebration focused on the intersection of land, livestock and wildlife and offered programs such as poetry in nature; oyster restoration through the Chesapeake Environmental Center; community supported, organic and sustainable farming practices; and a number of road, campus and shoreline cleanups.
Being a green school is embedded in the core of the Gunston School’s identity. “The Gunston School has embraced being a green school; we first applied in 2011 and we reapplied this year,” said Beck. “That has really helped to inform the students, teachers, faculty and administration about what a school can be in terms of a role model in the community.”
The Gunston School’s overarching mission is to help students grow and thrive in a way that way that will prepare them for not only college, but also to be lifelong leaders. The curriculum takes a personalized approach, with instructors working closely with each student to help them develop their leadership skills and academic strengths with a special emphasis on global awareness and sustainable living. In that focus, the school is able to harness their location and pair it with lessons through their Chesapeake Bay Studies program, an integral part of the curriculum that has been in existence for more than 20 years.
Although the Bay Studies program is weaved into lesson plans throughout the year, it culminates in an annual weeklong series of experiential seminars designed to get the students in and on the Bay. By partnering with organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Outward Bound and the Sultana Project, students are directly exposed to and informed about the ecological problems surrounding the Bay and its watershed.
“Students learn in many different ways; we have students who are classic book learners for whom getting into the Bay helps to bring that book learning alive, and we have students who are more hands on learners and they transfer that knowledge that they got during their hands on experience back into the classroom,” said John Lewis, Headmaster of the Gunston School. “I think that if the students aren’t ever really in the Bay or immersed in the watershed, they’re sort of just abstract environmentalists—they’re not actually seeing the impacts and the dynamics of the Bay system and that goes for not just kids, but also the teachers.”
Patience and adaptation are the name of the game when it comes to taking students outdoors for lessons. “The biggest fear [for teachers] of taking students outside is that they will run wild, and it’s a downside of our current education system is that the only time that kids get to go outside is for recess. So, the times that you take them outside, their mentality is recess,” said Beck.
At the Gunston School, pairing lessons with the natural world means students have learned over the years that being outside means learning, and they remain engaged. If a distraction happens, like an eagle flying by, teachers are content with taking a moment to appreciate the sighting and even adapting their lesson to their surroundings if need be, because, like many things in life, it’s important to expect the unexpected and go with the flow.
Although outdoors learning is an ideal opportunity for both teachers and students, some challenges can come along with it. Not all schools have the ample space and natural resources that the Gunston School is fortunate enough to have access to. “There are opportunities to create teaching environments in the barest amount of space or make use of your indoor environment if it is not possible to get out of doors,” said Beck. “The natural world is all around us, it’s just changing your focus a little bit to see the learning opportunities.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Think of a food, any food. It could be what you had for breakfast, or something you’ve been craving. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine what that snack would look like without the existence of fruits, vegetables or grains. Would it completely disappear? Would only a portion remain? Now ask yourself, “What is the common link—the necessary life source—behind the production of our food?”
The answer lies in the simple act of pollination. It is nearly impossible to think of something within our diet that can exist without it. Pollination, or the transfer of pollen between like species of flowers by wind or wildlife, leads to the formation of healthy fruit and seeds. It is estimated that nearly one-third of all plants and plant products consumed by humans depend on bee pollination alone.
Educators at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, understand this fact and work to teach others about the important role that pollinators—like bees, butterflies and bats—play in our ecosystem. For the past 17 years, the center has partnered with the Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association (AABA) to provide a home for more than 80,000 honeybees each year. When needed, AABA donates bees to Arlington Echo to replenish the center’s four outdoor bee boxes and two indoor observation hives. While the outdoor apiary is used for ecological purposes—providing habitat for the bees—the observation hives are used to teach children and adults alike about insect anatomy and life cycles, pollinator survival, community roles and math.
While it started as a recreation center, Arlington Echo quickly evolved to support authentic, hands-on learning. Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is part of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and has been for 45 years. In fact, it is visited by every fourth grader in the county. “Education facilitates change,” said Sheen Goldberg, Teacher Specialist at Arlington Echo. The volume of students they reach each year provides a valuable opportunity to plant the seed of environmental awareness in many young minds. Here, people learn to make the connection between pollinators and the food they eat.
“One of the major issues we face today… is a lack of knowledge about the environment and where things come from,” said Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Arlington Echo’s Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Department. “[Food] doesn’t come from the grocery store. And it’s not just our kids [who are unaware]. Sometimes, it’s parents. Sometimes, generations don’t have that connection with the land and nature. There’s not that experience or exposure. All people see is that chicken comes in a package and isn’t an animal that’s running around on the ground. There is a detachment to where our stuff comes from.”
Spreading knowledge and linking people to their natural environment is a vital part of Arlington Echo’s mission. By connecting the dots between healthy pollinators and a healthy environment, they hope to incite positive change and help pollinators overcome the challenges they face. Population growth and development have encroached on pollinator habitat; chemical contaminants harm their health; and both native and invasive pests, parasites and diseases threaten populations.
“Right now, pesticides are a really big deal. Bees are going through something that we are calling Colony Collapse Disorder because we don’t actually know what causes it,” said Heather Calabrese, Program Assistant at Arlington Echo. “There is some research that points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It’s interesting how it, and many other pesticides, work. It doesn’t actually kill the animal right away. It effects the nervous system, disorienting it, [the animal] stops cleaning itself, eating, feeding other animals, and then it starves to death or dies of disease.”
Although honeybees, like those kept at Arlington Echo, are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive. Instead, they are considered an important part of our natural ecosystem, and their decline is directly linked to habitat loss. Development fragments wildlife habitat and pushes native species out. “Because of development, we lose native plant populations. If there is not enough food for our pollinators because we have built on their habitat, then we won’t have the native pollinators,” Parker explained.
Over the past 60 years, managed bee populations have declined from 6 million to 2.5 million, an alarming number that has sparked many states and organizations to offer financial and tax incentives to encourage people to keep bees.
Parker, Goldberg and Calabrese are all enthusiastic about keeping bees and claim that once you start, you can’t help but become fascinated by the social complexities of the critters. “You can put as much or as little work into maintaining the hive as you would like,” said Goldberg. “The bees are clean, hardworking and good at taking care of the hive for the most part.”
The educators at Arlington Echo stress the importance of making connections between the natural world and human health. Many of the things that harm pollinators also pose a threat to humans, water and other wildlife. “There is the developmental part of… pollinator population decline, but also the pesticide use,” Parker said. “Those pesticides end up in our waterways. You know, everything is connected. You pull one string and the rest unravels. So, even though it seems like a small piece, it is part of a bigger issue.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
As I strode to the front of Ms. Molly Moran's second grade class at Annapolis Elementary School one June morning, I was confident in my lesson plan, so elegantly simple that I didn't even need the 3X5 index card in my shirt pocket on which I had it drawn out.
My former boss at EPA's Wetlands Division, John Meagher, had invited me to talk about what I do in my work through the ReSET program he directs. ReSET is a D.C.-based non-profit volunteer organization that partners working and retired scientists, engineers and technicians with elementary school teachers to improve science motivation and literacy. ReSET's goal is to introduce children in the classroom to science, engineering and technology as being enjoyable and exciting (i.e., fun!).
John did his lesson first. I had scoped out his topic and identified a meaningful connection between his talk and mine. He was going to teach a hands-on, desk-top laboratory lesson about buoyancy, including a key vocabulary word: "gravity." (Did you know that a lacrosse ball sinks in fresh water but floats in salt water?)
I decided that was my link. The audience would be primed. I had decided on the audience participation approach, to put the pen into their little hands.
It was my turn. On the flip chart at the front of the class, I drew a hillside – a single black line – with wavy blue water at the bottom of the hill: the Bay, just like right outside the classroom window. A stick-figure person. A lolli-pop green tree. A cloud. A fish in the water. A swimmer. Rain.
I asked the class: "Where does the water go when it rains?"
The class: "Down to the Bay!"
One smart kid got it right: "Gravity!"
"How many of you have or know people who have dogs?" All the hands went up. Another volunteer drew a red dog on the hillside.
Then the clincher: "What do dogs do when you take them out to walk in the morning?"
The entire chorus: "THEY POOP!"
Ms. Moran interrupted: "Oh, Mr. Mike, you just got them to say their favorite word!" The audience, giggling, was wrapped. "Wait!" I said, fumbling around the front desk, "There's no brown marker!" Ms. Moran stopped the lesson until she could find one.
There was no shortage of volunteers to draw the little brown pile behind the dog. It was not exactly to scale.
"Where does that poop go when it rains?" "To the Bay" "Why?" "Gravity!"
"How do you think the fish and the swimmer feel about that?" "Yech!"
"What do you think you can do about that?" They knew that answer too.
And the lesson was over. I haven't had that much fun since the last time I caught a steelhead on a fly rod in a snowstorm.
Seriously, if you like kids half as much as I do and care about the future of the world, combine the two by volunteering with John for the ReSET program. John has the lesson plans; you and the kids have the fun.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Christina in Havre de Grace, Md., a high school mathematics teacher looking for ways to work the Bay into her lesson plans. “Since the Bay is in our backyard, I would like my students to analyze some of the statistics from the Bay. Where can I find teaching resources related to the Chesapeake Bay?”
With school about to start back up, tying the Chesapeake Bay into your lesson plans is a great way to ease students back into the swing of things. It’s likely that many of them spent some time on and around the Bay during the summer, so they will have some personal connection to the topics of your lesson plan.
Fortunately, there is a great resource right on the web for all your Bay education needs, Bay Backpack. Clicking on Teaching Resources at the top of the page will bring you to a handy search tool that will help you narrow down the hundreds of lesson plans and curriculums available on the site. You can refine your search by subject area, education level, type, alignment and keywords.
In Christina’s case, we could select “mathematics,” “high school” and “data,” which will bring up about 10 resources to use to create lesson plans. Data sets will become available for her students to analyze in their statistics class, and the data will actually have meaning to these students who live right on the Bay, as opposed to using “canned” data with no personal meaning.
If just looking for data in general, the Chesapeake Bay Program website has a significant amount of data available for download. However, it is probably easier to find data that is easily adapted to lesson plans from the Bay Backpack site.
Lesson plans aren’t the only thing Bay Backpack can provide educators. Field studies, training opportunities and funding resources are all available on the site, free to be used by educators at all levels.
Bay Backpack is a great resource for teachers looking to incorporate the Chesapeake Bay into the classroom in new and innovative ways. We often underestimate the ways we can instill values of environmental stewardship into the classroom beyond science classes, but this website helps to break down those barriers. Working awareness of the Bay into day-to-day lessons across all subject areas helps to establish an environmentally conscious mindset among students from a young age, ensuring that they will become the stewards of the Bay and our environment in the future.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week!