I have taught at four universities and in a women’s prison. I’ve created service learning programs for three of these schools.

I teach to connect students to other people, to their immediate environment, and to other species. By using place-based pedagogy, I put students in the real world in order to understand it and themselves, and to transform it and themselves.

As a teacherBig lecture of social science methods and nature study, I strive to provide students with the academic tools–both qualitative and quantitative–to document and analyze this real world: how to qualify sources, how to use popular media sources and academic literature, how to conduct interviews, how to do public surveys, and how to observe and learn from the natural world. My coursework is designed to provoke and support in-class debate and dialogue through journaling, writing and research assignments. I also assign action-exercises.

During directed class discussions, students share their findings and teach each other. As a former journalism and creative writing instructor, I also encourage students to publish class papers as columns in local media, both print and online. I have helped many of my students publish in Alabama, Louisiana and in Wisconsin. Here are some recent examples of this work:

Monica Nigon

Luis Carlos Piñero

Amanda Rudie

At ShermanMy teaching goals are to imbue students with a detective’s dogged curiosity to foster lifelong learning, and a deep sense of empathy for others, human and non-human. My teaching mission is to educate citizens–not just consumers–who understand that democracy is a muscle that must be exercised.

Prison students in Alabama, journalism students at Auburn University, and writing students in post-Katrina New Orleans taught me what they needed to become engaged citizens. Over and over again my students teach me that if you create programs that put them in the real world, they will learn and become part of community solutions. See:

Aid to Inmate Mother’s Prison Writing Program: “Time with the Butterflies”

Tiger Cub mentoring program at Auburn University (Press Release)

Tiger Cub newspaper

I discovered birds as one portal to learning while teaching in post-Katrina New Orleans. See Chronicle of Higher Education.

In Madison, I have been able to integrate this post-Katrina teaching experience into the university’s introductory environmental studies courses. In addition to assisting with core courses, I designed a capstone course for the Nelson Institute to meet a community need in my lower-income neighborhood. Community leaders, concerned about gang activity, needed youth mentors. Parents were afraid to let their kids play outside, yet they lived next to Warner Park, the study site for my dissertation research. Many of them are children of color. So I created an environmental justice course based on Richard Louv’s text, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and John Robinson’s Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.Warner tour

My course — Environmental Studies 600: Birding to Change the World — pairs UW undergraduates as mentors with Sherman Middle School students in the Nature Explorers after-school club. At the university I teach my college students bird identification and naturalist skills. Later in Warner Park, we spend two and a half hours with the middle-schoolers, utilizing Anna Botsford Comstock’s “nature study” pedagogy. See “Natural Mentors,” and Wisconsin State Journal.

This environmental justice course teaches our undergraduates how race, class and place intersect; UW students become part of a community solution. Our students conduct weekly public research on the park’s natural history and share their findings with the middle school students. The Sherman Middle School principal said some of his kids are considering college because of their mentors’ influence. This program is a tool to recruit future scientists of color.

In this particular course, birds are the portal for learning how to observe, how to listen, and how to connect to our place. Avians are just one portal. This type of course could be based on any other urban animal, on plants or on local watersheds. But birds are one of the most visible and accessible forms of wildlife. They grace our dull city hedges with flashes of color and bursts of song. For urban children and college students nationwide, birds are the nature they see and hear every day without having to be driven to a zoo or “wilderness.”

Nature clubFor our UW students, the course also provides them with an immediate opportunity to engage with concepts in course readings and discussions. They learn the socioeconomic reasons why children, particularly lower-income urban kids, are too often divorced from nature and have lost the right to unstructured play. In Louv’s book, UW-Madison students read about the criminalization of play and nature-deficit disorder and then go to Warner Park with their middle school “co-explorers” only to find that they are not allowed to throw snowballs (against school rules), and that some kids will get in trouble at home if they get dirty (their families do not have easy access to washers and driers—a reality that shocks college students).Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the US; some of our children’s parents are in prison. Others have psychological challenges and have already been funneled into school district categories of “special needs” or “troubled.” Our students learn directly how class and race affect these children. I also bring community leaders into the classroom to lecture on the socioeconomic reality in this neighborhood.

At the same time, our students’ perceptions of class and race are challenged as middle school kids teach our college students nature lessons about their park and their nature. A seventh grader teaches his college mentor, a former marine in Iraq, the difference between a Cooper’s hawk and a red-tail. Another seventh-grader shows his mentor the secret spot where marsh turtles sun themselves. A geology student splits stones with a rock hammer, helping a boy discover a geode. A forestry major teaches her middle school co-explorer–a fungi fanatic–how to identify mushrooms and lichens. Then the girl shows the aspiring forester where to find puffball mushrooms in the park.

2. First Geolocated Catbird to Return to Warner Park from Central America (Trish O'Kane)Birding also teaches my undergraduate students skills that can help them in future jobs. During their weekly birding homework students must observe, listen, and write down what they see and hear, honing their note-taking skills. They learn how to be quiet and connect to the soundscape, a new realm of ecology. They learn how to be flexible and teach outside in any weather conditions. I organize student mentors in small groups so they collaborate and work as a team.

The mentoring and service learning component reinforces qualities that serve students in any future environment and that builds citizenship. Students must practice humility as they discover weekly that a bug, bird or sixth-grader can become their teacher. They cultivate curiosity while doing research for the children they work with; every week, the middleschool students assign two environmental research questions to our college students. UW students research the answers to these questions and present their findings to the kids. This weekly public research teaches our students how to use credible sources and how to become a lifelong learner.

Through birding together every week, often in extreme weather, and by working with the middle school students, this course becomes more than a class–it becomes a flock. Students must do their weekly birding homework with a class “buddy.” I try to pair the more experienced student-birders with the uninitiated; this is one teaching method for building community within the class and it works. In their final reflection papers, environmental studies students report that this is one of the few college classes in which they made deep friendships and connections to the community beyond the campus bubble. Some of our students become so attached to their middle school co-explorers that they repeat the course. Every semester, 2-3 students decide to enroll again the following semester for independent study credits.

Sherman KidsThis community-based environmental studies course and service learning program is a successful model that can be replicated wherever a university needs to strengthen community ties and recruit future students of color. It serves the needs of both the academy and the public. It is a model that can be adapted to any biota.

Here are five courses I have created in the past 12 years:

1. Environmental Studies 600. Capstone Seminar – Birding to Change the World. University of Wisconsin. 2013. This environmental justice course blends natural history and urban ornithology with mentoring of middle-school students in Warner Park. Outdoor Lab. To read the syllabus, click here. Environmental Studies 600 Syllabus 2013

2. Communication Writing. Loyola University – New Orleans. 2006. Creative writing and rewriting, interviewing, reporting. Taught in post-Katrina New Orleans. To read the syllabus, click here. Communication Writing 101 Syllabus 2006

3. Beginning Reporting. Loyola University – New Orleans. 2006. A basic course out-of-class reporting, note taking and story writing. Taught in post-Katrina New Orleans. To read the syllabus, click here. Beginning Reporting 250 Syllabus 2006

4. Feature Writing. Auburn University. 2005. In-depth news reporting, the art of interviewing, profiles and features. To read the syllabus, click here. Feature Writing 3220 Syllabus 2005

5. Communication and Community-Building. Auburn University. 2003. A journalism course that required students to investigate Auburn’s own civil rights history as part of a campus-wide diversity campaign. To read the syllabus, click here. Communication & Community Building 4970 Syllabus 2003