ESL With an Environmental-Awareness Twist

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 26, 2007 2 min read
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While on vacation--and kayaking down a Maryland river--I unexpectedly met some English-language learners and heard about an innovative extracurricular program they participated in at a Baltimore high school. A fellow paddler kindly gave me some paper so I could conduct interviews and bring this blog item to you.

The five ELLs were from Digital Harbor High School and were taking part in a kayaking and camping trip down the the Patuxent River organized by a local environmental group, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, that my husband and I also participated in. For the teens from Morocco, Mexico, Vietnam, and Liberia, the Patuxent River Sojourn was the culminating activity of a semester-long program at their school that weaves together lessons in English and environmental awareness.

The Patuxent River Sojourn aimed to educate us participants about the value of the river and its bordering forests and wetlands. The frog and toad choruses at night from the marsh were phenomenal. I spotted a beaver for the first time in my life.

Lori Edmonds, a doctoral student in language, literacy, and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, designed the program at Digital Harbor High School and connected the students with the opportunity to join the Patuxent Sojourn as the final activity for the school year. She calls it Language through Environmentally Active Programs, or LEAP. Since January, she and another graduate student from her university had been teaching English lessons with an environmental theme after school one day a week and on some Saturdays. The students took swimming and kayaking lessons. They tested the quality of water in the Baltimore Harbor and wrote a letter to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon recommending how to improve the health of the water.

The students also interviewed their parents or relatives about how people in their home countries care for the environment. On the river trip, they gave a presentation. Particularly interesting was a short speech by Tu, a 16-year-old from Vietnam. (Ms. Edmonds asked me not to use students’ last names.) Tu, who goes by Troy in an English-speaking crowd, said that in rural villages in Vietnam, people don’t want to cut down trees--he said that some Vietnamese believe their ancestors’ spirits reside in trees and, if they are set free, they will haunt nearby villages, causing crop failure or other catastrophes. How much more wilderness might be preserved in the United States, I reflected, if people believed that misfortune would be brought to them if they cut down trees.

Ms. Edmonds said she based her extracurricular program for ELLs on two instructional approaches. She drew from the work of one of her professors, JoAnne Crandall, about the importance of content-based instruction--the idea that students learn English best while engaged in learning a subject. The other is that teachers should build upon students’ “funds of knowledge,” which Luis C. Moll, a professor at the University of Arizona, has emphasized.

The program at Digital Harbor High School was paid for with $12,000 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.