07/11/2017 by Michael Brosnan |

Lessons from Exeter’s Environmental Literature Institute

Open book sitting in the grass

“Hope is the embrace of the unknown.”
— Rebecca Solnit

“Worry is a misuse of imagination.”
mural on a bike path)

In her keynote address at the Exeter Environmental Literature Institute (ELI) in June at Phillips Exeter Academy, Robin Wall Kimmerer made it clear that Western culture, especially in the United States, would benefit greatly by shifting its way of thinking about the natural world. “It’s not about belongings,” she said, “but belonging.”

Kimmerer — a writer, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation — had just published an article in Orion magazine on this subject. In it, she explores how language can shape one’s view of the natural world. In English, with the pronoun “it,” we objectify everything that is not human. A hermit thrush and a slice of cheese. A beech tree and a shoe. A river and a tube of toothpaste. All “its.” This sort of moral exclusion not only separates us from the natural world, it also makes it easier to see everything around us as resources to own, use, discard — and, thus, our current environmental crisis.

As a thought experiment, Kimmerer asked her SUNY students to refer to other living organisms in their writing not with the pronoun “it” but with “kí,” which is a shortened version of the Potawatomi word for Earth. What many of her students discovered was an instantaneous closer connection to the life around them.

Human ingenuity has enabled us to use much of the natural world to our advantage. But the cost of this sort of intense consumption has led us to our current problem: sharp climate change that is destabilizing and imperiling life on earth and putting our own future at risk. In addressing human-driven climate change, Kimmerer preferred to focus on a holistic connection to the natural world as the pathway forward. Through a deeper connection to and understanding of the natural world, we can find greater contentment and purpose, and reason to respect and protect the environment. But at a follow-up ELI session, she did remind the group of certain alarming facts, including that we’re losing about 200 species a day to extinction. An article in Nature magazine the same week also made it clear that we have a very short window of opportunity to address climate change before its worst manifestations become the new chaotic normal.

The ELI, now in its second year, is designed to shine a spotlight on these issues and to view formal education through an environmental lens. It wants to surface a conversation and raise urgent questions: What should our relationship with the earth look like? How should we see all other species? What is the human cost of not shifting the cultural mindset toward sustainability (or, as Kimmerer put it, reciprocity)? And does any of this matter in school?

In planning the event, Jason BreMiller — the ELI founder and director, and English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy — says, “We tossed around the notion of how helpful it would be to create a space where teachers could gather to share their ideas about pedagogy and build their courses in a collaborative space. So the primary vision for ELI involves the establishment of a community of educators dedicated to thinking about the natural world in their classrooms.”

“The goal,” adds Stephen Siperstein, co-director of the institute and a humanities teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, “is to bring together educators…who want to incorporate environmental humanities approaches into their teaching. As the slow-rolling disasters of climate change and global inequality continue to unfold, teachers must provide each other with mentorship, support, and resources to tackle such issues in the classroom.”

Participants came from public and private schools with specific concerns about the courses they teach: What environmentally focused books work best with middle and high school students? What are some successful project-based classes? Has anyone set up an interdisciplinary course with science and the arts? How do you address climate change with students who resist the science? How do we make Emerson and Thoreau accessible to today’s students — or should we just stop trying? Should we examine the intersection of environmental justice and racial justice?

Throughout the week, many of these questions would be explored and answered.

Rochelle Johnson, professor of English and environmental studies at the College of Idaho, addressed the question of Thoreau’s place in environmental literature today. The greatest value of “Walden,” she said, is less about living by oneself in nature and more about asking core questions about what it means to be alive.

Thoreau’s two-year experiment tells us a great deal about the value of living simply and paying attention. But as a citizen scientist, he also collected data in the mid-19th century that is being used today to understand climate change. Thoreau also explores the issues of social resistance and nonconformity. While he died relatively young, we’re still converting his voluminous journals into print. We’re still finding relevant material.

To drive home the latter point, the ELI group read a passage from Thoreau’s journal that highlights his sense of loss at the environmental degradation in his era. His expressions of frustration match what many feel today. But his response — to acknowledge the problem, then get out into the field and carefully observe what is still there — also offers a valuable lesson: allowing space for outrage while encouraging engagement.

Throughout the week, the ELI faculty and participants kept noting writers who have something valuable to contribute to the conversation, adding to the list of books and other resources that work well as environmental literature. But courses in environmental literature are less about specific content than about engaging students on both an intellectual and visceral level — and instilling in students a sense of agency.

The conversation also made it clear that courses that focus on our connection to nature have to include a complex calculus of history, philosophy, physical science, social science, art and literature. It involves reading, hands-on collaborative projects, self-expression, research, community service and field studies. All these ingredients combine differently in different schools — depending on school mission, size, location and, perhaps most important, the flexibility (or lack thereof) in the daily schedule.

This pedagogy also connects with recent brain research on how we learn, and with the views of leading educational thinkers such as Deborah Meier, co-founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, who encourages schools to help students develop key habits of mind — the intellectual and emotional skills needed to make good decisions on complex matters. Writing in Orion on “The Schools We Need,” writer and educator Erik Reece notes some of these habits of mind:

  • Quality of evidence (How do we know it’s true?)
  • Consideration of various viewpoints (How would it look through someone else’s eyes?)
  • The search for patterns and causes (What are the consequences?)
  • Relevance (Who cares?)

At ELI, Mark Long, master teacher in residence at Keene State College, said that he wants to engage students on both an intellectual and emotional level — not just in reading and reflecting, but also in real-world, real-stakes research. He outlined the evolution of teaching environmental literature, particularly in the 1990s with the publication of the “Norton Book of Nature Writing” and the establishment of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). Today, the field has grown considerably. It is also moving toward more interdisciplinary studies, using the environment as a lens to examine numerous topics, including poetry, feminism, racial justice, post-colonial studies, and, of course, climate change.

On the latter topic, Stephen Siperstein has thought long and hard. Through his teaching, research, and writing (he is a poet and co-author of  “Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities”), Siperstein’s goal is to bring “attention to the personal and emotional dimensions of climate change and to empower people to participate in wider public conversations about social and environmental change.” But he also doesn’t want students to feel helpless or alienated or flat-out depressed about the future. “Despair,” he said, “is a good precondition for new thought and habits. But we need to engage students in envisioning a better future. Despair presumes it knows what will happen. Hope does not.”

Siperstein likes to engage students’ imagination — looking at possible futures, then backtracking to see how we make shifts today that can lead in that direction. He argues that a central problem in the climate change conversation is a lack of imagination, the inability to think beyond the status quo. To that end, he engages students not only in the science of climate change but also in conversation about creative approaches to cultural change. The goal, he says, is to “imagine otherwise.”

The ELI faculty also included Clare Walker Leslie, a master artist; Diane Freedman, professor of English at the University of New Hampshire; Connor Garvey, ropes course leader; and Jason BreMiller. All were focused on this core question of how to help students (and the rest of us) “imagine otherwise.”

While serving as the institute’s designer and attentive MC for the event, BreMiller contributed often to the week’s conversations. In particular, he examined the intersection of environmental literature and Harkness teaching — Exeter’s brand of student-led classes. He also pushed the question of getting schools to commit to and accommodate environmental literature courses. “My hope,” he said, “is that ELI will help schools continue to think about how to connect their students to place in ways that will reverberate in more ecologically literate and engaged students. I hope the ELI will play a role in centralizing this approach in school curricula.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer would support this goal. “It’s not the land that is broken,” she said, “but our relationship to the land. The central question we face is how to make things whole again.” More than anything, this young institute is designed to spark a conversation among schools and educators about the role of schools in addressing this question. Given that the mission in most schools includes more than a passing nod to citizenship, perhaps the better question is: Shouldn’t every school infuse its curriculum with environmental literature?


Here are a few resources from the ELI group:


Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

Teaching Environmental Literature: Materials, Methods, Resources, by Fred Waage

Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, by Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie LeMenager

Parable of the Sower (novel), by Octavia E. Butler

How Much Should a Person Consume? by Ramachandra Guha

Beyond Katrina (poetry), by Natasha Trethewey

Ecological Literacy, David Orr


Pesticide Drift,” by Rebecca Clarren

Speaking of Nature,” by Robin Kimmerer

A Sense of Duty to Teach Climate Change,” by Amy Harmon


Children and Nature Network

Based on Richard Louv’s 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” which underscored the importance of children (and the rest of us, too) spending time outside in nature for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual health. The Children and Nature Network offers ideas, resources and opportunities for collaboration that support outdoor learning and living.

Global Weirding

Based on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, this website offers an interactive view of the future world if we do nothing to stop rising CO2 levels. (Spoiler alert: None of it is good.)

I See Change: Community Climate Weather Journal

Investigating how weather and climate are affecting your environment.

Climate Stories Project

A collection of personal stories about climate change — with links to educational resources.

A creative storytelling project about climate change. It involves fictional voicemail messages from the future (somehow accessible today) about the effects of our current action on future generation.

Back to Blog

Leave a Comment


There are no comments on this blog entry.