Secular Homeschooling & Environmental Activism

Secular Homeschooling & Environmental Activism for Climate Change

Deforestation! Climate change! Ocean acidification! Pollution! Endangered species extinction! The list of things to worry about in our environment seems endless and overwhelming. For a child, understanding of these issues can also lead to existential depression and feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. However, that need not be the case: even young children can get involved in environmental activism and make a difference in caring for our planet!

Secular homeschooling families have many opportunities to get involved in environmental activism. While there are dozens of checklists, how-to sites, and green living tips out there for small-scale actions, big change requires big actions.

The first step is getting informed. The internet is great, but to get a hands-on experience, go to your local parks. Go for a hike, and note the things you say (and pick up some litter!). Walk, bike, or take public transportation to your nearest science museum, and talk to the staff there. Explore your backyard, and use Project BudBurst to track seasonal changes in plants, CoCoRaHS to measure precipitation, and eBird to note bird migrations – all while becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to the body of knowledge used to track changes!

Secular Homeschooling, Environmental Activism, and Climate Change

Once you know your environment, learn about the problems it faces so you can be fully prepared for environmental activism. Is there a particularly polluted stream near you, or a logging project up for consideration? How is your city or state addressing air pollution and climate change? Some of the best ways to find out are the letters to the editor in your local newspaper; social media groups for your town; and talking to your local elected officials. Find out about local activist groups, and start going to meetings. Don’t worry about being too young – you’re there to learn and to protect your future. There may also be a chapter of the Sierra Club or Citizens’ Climate Lobby, among other groups.

Remember those elected officials? Talk to them and build relationships. Express your concerns through letters or emails (writing practice!), phone calls, meetings, and public hearings. If you can coordinate to attend hearings as part of a broader organization, even better. Those organizations don’t have to be environmental, either – get a group of friends together, invite your co-op, or bring your Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop! Getting other people involved is one of the most important actions you can take, because it shows elected leaders that popular opinion is on the side of environmental actions. If there is a process for citizens’ initiatives, you can even gather signatures to put environmental protection laws on the ballot!

If you’re more of the hands-on sort, attending restoration work parties is a great way to get involved. Invest in a good pair of gloves and shoes, and get messy pulling up invasive plants, picking up litter, planting trees, or repairing trails. You might be able to volunteer with a museum or other group to work on bigger projects, or help with their educational outreach programs. Visit your local recycling center and learn about what they can and can’t recycle, and then tell your family and friends.

Most importantly: Remember and use your youth. This is YOUR future you’re fighting for, so go out and be the change you wish to see in the world!

(Want to take classes with real life scientists, who will teach you everything from nature photography and Wild Weather, to chemistry and climate change, to how to Think Like a Scientist? Check out GHF Online’s offerings – registration is open now for Summer and Fall!)

Read More About Secular Homeschooling, Environmental Activism, and Climate Change

Vetting Secular Science Curriculum
The Benefits of Secular Homeschooling
Project Based Learning with Policitical & Environmental Activism





The Responsible Homeschooler

The Responsible Homeschooler

It’s spring! Or almost spring, depending on where you live. As I write this, the spring peepers are chirping, undaunted by the recent snow. It’s a lovely time of budding trees, muddy puddles, and rebirth and growth.

I love spring for all the learning opportunities too. Spring is time for tadpoles, ladybugs, and nature walks. Worm farms, bird egg observations – all of that makes for great, hands-on learning. If your kids are like mine, they’re raring to raise some tadpoles into frogs, or caterpillars into butterflies.

Lots of us homeschoolers live in areas where it’s impossible to go out into nature and gather frog spawn or caterpillars. So we do the next best thing: we order a kit online. It’s educational, right? How could that be a bad thing?

Well, it can be negative for several reasons. I wanted to share those reasons, and offer a few alternatives and solutions to the issues.
1. Invasive species

Sometimes the mail order kits are for native species to your area. Sometimes they are not. The companies who sell the kits may not check to see if this is an issue, and worse, they may not offer any guidance on what to do if the animals aren’t native.

Once you’ve grown those tadpoles into cute little frogs, what do you do with them? What about the butterflies – you’re supposed to release them, right? If they are not native to your area, at best they will die from starvation, and at worst, they will compete with native species for resources.

Invasive species are a huge problem in the U.S. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, the annual costs of invasive species cost us $120 billion every year. The ecological impact is far worse. More than 400 of the 1,300 species protected by the Endangered Species Act are threatened because of invasive species. It’s a big deal.

2. Spreading Illness

Even if the animal you raise is native to your area, there’s a bigger problem: illness. Frogs raised in captivity can carry the Chytrid fungus (Chytridiomycosis.) It’s deadly. Chytrid fugus is spreading across the world, devastating the amphibian population in its wake. Worse, an infect frog may not show signs of the fungus while still being able to spread it.

So those tadpoles you order from an online source? They may carry the fungus. If you release the frogs into a local water source, they will spread it, wiping out the local population. Animals and people walking through the water will spread the spores to other water sources, sending the fungus out far and wide.

For butterflies, the disease threat is slightly different. The biggest threat to monarch butterflies is from toxic protozoa called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE for short.

Infected butterflies may look perfectly normal. They fly from plant to plant, dropping spores onto the milkweed that caterpillars ingest as they eat. Sometimes the caterpillars can pupate and hatch, but more often they die, or hatch as deformed butterflies unable to get out of the chrysalis.

3. Genetic Issues

Any company that sells kits or live eggs is farm-raising the animals. No matter how hard they try, they’re working with a limited gene pool. That has unintended and potentially bad effects when these animals are released into the wild and interbreed with the local native animals.

For monarchs, there’s a bigger issue. Monarchs bred and raised in California, for example, may not be able to migrate if sent to the opposite end of the country. Farm raised monarchs may well be stuck, doomed to wander around and never find their way.

For critters like frogs, those inbred genes can have unintended consequences too. It can cause defects or make their progeny more susceptible to illness.

4. Poaching

Did you ever stop to think about where the animals originally came from for those farms? Sure, those monarch caterpillars you ordered are farm bred, but how did the farm acquire the originals?

Poaching is a huge problem. According to the North American Butterfly Association, harvesting monarchs is a commercial business at the monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and California. Live butterflies are worth about $10 per butterfly, according to the NABA article on releasing butterflies.

So what should you do?

With all of this negative information, you might be wondering what, exactly are you supposed to do if you want a kit to raise critters? You have several options, but you’ll need to make a pretty hard decision before you order any kits. You’ll probably want to sit down and discuss this with your kids too, because it’s a difficult choice.

1. Make the decision before you order

Any kits for raising animals should be kept indoors as pets when they mature, or humanely euthanized by putting them into the freezer. They should not be released into the wild for any reason. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s a great ecological lesson for the kids on being responsible and taking care of our planet.

Some organizations will tell you that it’s ok, that the animals are native to your area or that they will boost the faltering populations. It’s not worth the risks.

2. Stay local

It’s better to try to raise local animals when possible, as long as you stay within the legal restrictions. Our state of Virginia allows us to collect up to 5 specimens of an animal as long as they are not on the restricted or endangered list. Those require a permit. Check your local fish and game department for guidelines on how to stay legal.

For frogs, put out a small kiddy pool of water in your yard in the spring. Frogs are opportunistic little critters, and unless you live in a barren wasteland the water will probably acquire some frogspawn fairly quickly. Be prepared to feed a lot of tadpoles, and also be prepared for some carnage as local predators discover your buffet of tadpoles.

For butterflies, plant host plants and go caterpillar hunting. Inspect the leaves carefully to find the caterpillars, and cover the plant with a net (a net laundry hamper works well.) They do best outside in natural conditions anyway, and you can check on their progress easily by lifting the net. If you chose to raise monarchs inside, make sure you rinse off the milkweed to eliminate OE spores.

Some of the easier butterflies to raise are black swallowtails and monarchs. Black swallowtails love anything in the carrot family: dill, parsley, rue, and fennel. Monarchs will only eat milkweed, and based on my experience last summer, they prefer the native variety in your area over anything else.

For ladybugs, capture a collection of adults in the spring and feed them a steady source of aphids for a few days. They’re prolific little bugs and will leave you a present of eggs to raise. Make sure you have a good steady supply of aphids because the larvae are voracious.

3. Get involved

Some local organizations or universities are involved in conservation efforts and would love volunteers to help out. Our local 4-H is sending out fertilized chicken eggs for schools and homeschoolers to incubate. After the chicks hatch, 4-H takes them to a farm to be raised.

Ask around. Sometimes local organizations are raising local animals and insects. We have one lady in our area who supplies the local schools with hand-raised monarch caterpillars from the local area. She’s been doing it for years, and is single-handedly helping the monarch population maintain its numbers. Most wild caterpillars don’t survive to adulthood, so she’s giving them a fighting chance.

It might seem overwhelming or too much trouble, but responsible learning is a good lesson all by itself. We homeschoolers can impact the environment in a positive or negative way. Let’s try to keep it positive!





Teaching the Science of Climate Change to Middle Schoolers

Teaching the Science of Climate Change to Middle Schoolers, Secular Homeschool Science

Q & A on (Almost) Everything You Want to Know about Teaching the Science of Climate Change to Middle Schoolers*

 

*don’t be afraid to ask!

When I was asked to teach a course on the science of climate change to the middle schoolers in our science group, believe me, I had some questions!

As I worked to answer those questions, I gained a deeper appreciation for how interconnected everything (and I do mean everything) really is. And I got excited thinking about the many ways this course could challenge and inspire the kids with all kinds of learning…and dare I say it?  Change the world!

Here are some of the questions I asked as I got started.  I hope to help make this more approachable and encourage you to tackle the science of climate change in your homeschool or co-op!

1.  Why consider teaching about the science of climate change?

For me, this goes to the heart of why we teach anything.  We want to empower our kids with tools to build a good life—one in which they find their own point of view and understand their position in this world, where they can identify problems and think about solutions, where they can find joy and pleasure and beauty.

A course on the science of climate change encompasses every discipline necessary for developing these life tools: critical thinking, deep understanding of scientific method, geography, geology, chemistry, communication, math, physics, biology, creativity, morality, politics, economics, and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life and systems in our world.  It even includes the arts.  Talk about a powerhouse of interdisciplinary learning!

2.  Why the science of climate change, and not just climate change?

We’re specifically talking about teaching the science of climate change, not simply the topic of climate change, and this distinction is important.

Science means asking questions, evaluating data, thinking deeply and creatively.  It’s more than a collection of facts.  It is coming to grips with how we know what we know, how we figure out what’s problematic, how we imagine and create a future that works for our world.

Learning about the science of climate change means asking lots of questions and making lots of connections.

3.  Why teach this to middle schoolers?

The science of climate change is excellent for middle schoolers.

By this age, kids have learned some basic weather science, chemistry, physics, and social studies.  They are aware of the value of trees and forests.  They also have a grasp of basic farming or gardening concepts.  These things are a foundation for building their understanding of the science of climate change.  And building on their foundational knowledge is one of the things middle schoolers do best!

In learning about climate change, they will take scientific theories, models, and facts and make connections with history, with present conditions, and with future possibilities.  They will see first-hand how real-life science gets done because they will be doing it, just like the scientists whose work they are learning about.  They will devise creative solutions for the problems they identify, collaborate with each other, and present their data and ideas creatively and colorfully.  They will tackle the ethical issues in their passionate, big-hearted way.  (They probably will even get a little muddy.)

4.  Ok, but what about the elephant in the room?

There is overwhelming scientific consensus on the impacts of climate change, yet some people consider this to be a controversial topic.  Do not let that intimidate you.

Teaching controversy is a key aspect of teaching for global competence—preparing students to investigate the world and weigh perspectives is critical to their growth as global citizens.

And I think you will find, as you explore the issues and learn about this science, that the real questions are about what we can and should do to change climate change.

5.  I’m not a climate change expert!  How do I know what to cover?

You’re probably already watching documentaries and reading a lot.  Be intentional about noticing things that pertain to climate change, particularly the connectedness of earth’s systems with the peoples and ecosystems.  When something grabs your attention, explore it.

But don’t worry about becoming an expert on climate change.

You (and the kids) will learn a great deal, believe me, but the main point of all this is to foster an understanding of:

  • How we know what is going on
  • How it all works together
  • How to evaluate sources
  • How scientists do what they do
  • How we can figure out what to do next
  • Any other HOWs you and the kids come up with!

6.  Climate change can be really depressing. How do I keep the kids (and myself) from sinking into despair?

Here’s where I took a lesson from Ivy and Bean.

Yes, Ivy and Bean.

Ivy and Bean: What’s the Big Idea? (book 7) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackhall.  In this story, the fifth-grade class presents a lesson on climate change to Ivy and Bean’s second-grade class, miring the younger kids deep in an existential crisis of hopelessness and despair over the doomed polar bears and the destructiveness of humanity.  With a stroke of genius, their teacher allows the second graders take ownership of the problem: for their science fair projects, they devise clever ways to help cool down the earth.  Thus the children’s hope is restored, their creativity blossoms, and most importantly, they no longer feel that life is meaningless and the future bleak with misery and ruination.

Fact: Middle-schoolers are not much different from second-graders when it comes to hopefulness and existential crises.  Focus not only on the problems, but also on the real and possible solutions.  Always end the lessons with something they can feel hopeful about, or at the very least, take care that you don’t leave them despondent!

7.  What will the kids do in a course on the science of climate change?Teaching the Science of Climate Change to Middle Schoolers, Secular Homeschool Science

There are so many opportunities here!  With some thoughtful preparation, you can create a course on climate change that will allow your learners to:

  • engage in scientific experiments
  • learn how to gather data
  • evaluate sources
  • examine the practice of peer-review in scientific publication
  • practice data analysis and presentation
  • apply mathematical formulas to analyze data and determine potential futures
  • learn about earth’s systems in a meaningful way
  • explore humanity’s role and impact on earth’s environment and systems
  • apply chemistry to real life
  • combine a study of history with science
  • draw
  • play games
  • think creatively
  • do field work
  • take field trips
  • learn about and talk with scientists and inventors
  • solve problems
  • …and more!

8.  What will I use to teach the science of climate change?

As I prepared to teach this course, I found more material than one person could possibly need.  Some of it is fantastic.  In fact, there’s so much available from reputable sources that your primary difficulty will be deciding what not to use and keeping what works best!

Here are the primary curricula I used:

I combined these with some videos, interactives, articles, and games to create a full, rich learning experience for a relatively low cost.  Supplies for labs mostly can be found in your home or supermarket; a few will need to be sourced ahead of time.  You can easily use these for co-op classes, after-school classes, or your own family.

I challenged the kids to bring their ideas to the class, too.

Our group decided to incorporate some project-based learning: the kids decided to design and build their own green energy technology!  This is a work in progress, and I’m so excited to see what they come up with!

9.  Are you ready to learn more about creating a robust course on the science of climate change with all kinds of interdisciplinary learning?

Like you, I’m super busy and appreciate when I don’t have to do a thing totally from scratch.  Our course is still in progress, but I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out. I am more than happy to tell you what we’re doing in greater detail, including a list of supplies and links plus how to prep for the classes!  I’ll make these available on my blog over the next few weeks and months at backyardowls.com.

A final thought:

I’ve been inspired by designing and teaching this course and by the big-hearted, creative kids I’m lucky to be working with.  It really is exciting to think I can make a difference in their lives and in the world.  I hope you’re inspired, too, to see what you can do with this in your homeschool!  I promise: it’s worth it!

More About Climate Change & Secular Science for Homeschoolers

The Science of Climate Change Explained
Vetting Secular Science Curriculum
A Science Lab in Your Home

Teaching the Science of Climate Change to Middle Schoolers, Secular Homeschool Science




Plant a Native Garden with Your Kids

Planting a Native Garden, secular homeschooling

By Kathy Oaks author of Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits.

When we go to the gardening store or look at the seed and plant catalogs that arrive every spring, it can be hard to tell which plants are native, much less why we might want to garden with native plants in the first place. There are so many pretty flowers to make our lives brighter! But there are plenty of good reasons to make the effort to landscape with native plants, even if we have to look harder to find them.

First of all, many non-native plants can become seriously invasive, taking over not only your garden but also parks and woodlands nearby. Think of kudzu and dandelions, which are pests of varying seriousness. I can buy three types of dandelion seed from one of my catalogs; they were introduced in the first place by people who valued them as food. There are many more invasive plants, and most of them started in someone’s garden, although some have been introduced inadvertently. Invasive plants take over the habitats of native plants, forcing them out. But why should we value native plants in the first place?

Native plants are part of our local biomes.

When they are disrupted, the entire food web can be disrupted. There has been a lot of attention paid to bees and butterflies recently, but it goes much further than needing flowers for pollen and nectar. At the beginning of the life cycle, insects need native plants to lay their eggs on so that the eggs will survive long enough to hatch, and so that there is a food source for the larvae after hatching. Insects are now having to lay eggs on plants that are less than optimal, or even toxic to their offspring. (As a side note, any plants that don’t specifically say they are not sprayed with the insect-toxic neonicotinoids most likely are. They don’t wash off, they are incorporated into the plant, so even plants that are supposed to be good for butterflies or bees may be killing them.)

Cup plants with bees
Cup plants with bees

Bugs aren’t everyone’s favorite critters, but they are vital to the ecosystem.

Ladybug larvae will eat all those aphids that attack our plants, and there are many more that do similar jobs. Those that aren’t keeping the insect population balanced are helping the birds and more. Baby birds need lots of protein to grow, and that protein comes in the form of larvae in the spring. If the insects die off, so do the songbirds. If the songbirds die or go elsewhere for food, other animals like owls and snakes will have less food. They will have less food still when the moles and shrews and bats and other small furry animals starve with no insects to eat. The health of an ecosystem can often be seen in the health of its top predators. I am encouraged whenever I see marsh hawks and bald eagles in our neighborhood, even though we live in a large metro area. It means there are enough gardens and parks with native plants to keep our biome going.

So what can we do?

Yes, plant a native garden, and do it with your kids. Food webs and biomes and botany and the life cycles of plants and animals aren’t things that are happening somewhere in the woods and in books. They are relevant, and happening in your own backyard. My mom is a biology professor, and when she learned we were moving to Minnesota she immediately bought me “Landscaping with Native Plants in Minnesota.” We have watched Monarch butterfly caterpillars chowing down on our swamp milkweed plants, and counted bees for The Great Sunflower Project. We were ecstatic to see hawks nest in our oak tree for a few years, and we’ve seen shrews and an opossum and even a woodchuck in our urban yard, not to mention all the rabbits.

I can’t tell you specifically what to plant because your biome may be different from ours, and your tastes in plants and the space you have available to you will differ as well. We have a large yard and friends and relatives who love to give us native plants; not everyone has that. Some native plants look pretty boring but there are plenty to choose from that have beautiful flowers or unusual shapes and forms to make your landscaping interesting, even if you only have a balcony container garden. Native violets, echinaceas, black-eyed Susans, and columbines are just a few of the attractive flowers to choose from. I suggest reading “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy for the biology and lists of plants.

Native columbine
Native columbine

Here is what we do.

We plant food for us that is mostly non-invasive, and keep anything that might spread contained. We have a vegetable garden and fruit trees and shrubs. Instead of blueberries, we have native Juneberry bushes, which are related to blueberries and easier to grow.
We have a small raised bed just for the boys to plant their own garden.
We plant food to share with the birds: extra Juneberries and cherries.
We plant shrubs and trees beneficial to insects: Juneberries, oaks, cherries and plums.
We plant native wildflowers that haven’t been sprayed: swamp milkweed, cup plants, etc.

What else can you do to show your kids how biomes live in your own backyard?

Plant sunflowers and count bees through GreatSunflower.org
Leave some of your yard un-raked through the winter as insect habitat; look under leaves for wooly bear caterpillars and more.
Leave dried flower stalks up through the winter so the birds and mice can eat the seeds.
Build a home for native bees. nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife
Build a bat house; bats will eat all those mosquitoes in the summer. BatCon.org
Find your local native plant resources through WildOnes.org
Leave out natural nesting materials for your birds. AllAboutBirds.org
Check your library for age-appropriate books to read together about the nature in your area. We liked “One Small Square: Backyard” by Donald M. Silver and Patricia Wynne.

Most of all, be interested! Let your kids see you learning with them and finding out what creatures live near us, hidden but important.

Wooly bear caterpillar
Wooly bear caterpillar
Unraked garden
Unraked garden




Environmentally-Friendly Games for the Whole Family

Earthopoly - Environmentally Friendly Games

Environmentally-Friendly Games

Established in 1970, Earth Day was created to bring awareness to the public of the environmental hazards humans were creating. The 1960’s found our nation fueled by leaded gas, oceans openly polluted by industrial waste, and air pollution was so bad in some cities that children would have a black crust around their nose after playing outside. On April 22, 1970 millions of people from all political viewpoints joined forces to say “enough!”

We’ve come a long way in the last 48 years, but we have a long way to go and new threats to face down. Environmentalism can be a boring topic though, it’s hard to demonstrate the important of being a good steward of the planet when you can’t see what’s happening on a daily basis. Fortunately there are some really great game publishers with solid environmental protection plans in place who make fun (really!) games you can play that will teach your child about our planet and the importance of protecting our only home.

One of my favorite game publishers also happens to be a leader in environmentally-friendly game publishing. Blue Orange Games was founded in 2000 by two French expats living in San Francisco. Blue Orange’s environmental policy includes planting two trees for each one used in game production. Additionally, many of their games bypass paper boxes altogether and use recyclable metal tins.

Photosynthesis - Environmentally Friendly Games

Photosynthesis is one of Blue Orange’s newest games, and one that fits the Earth Day theme perfectly! Photosynthesis takes players through the process of growing trees, from planting seeds to end-of-life decomposition and rebirth. Along the way you’ll learn about the conditions needed for a forest to grow, and how forests are continually evolving in response to a changing environment. Photosynthesis was created with ages 8+ in mind.

 

Peaceable Kingdom, Environmentally Friendly GamesIf you have younger children you’ll really love the games from Peaceable Kingdom. These games, widely available at big box stores, are published using Earth-friendly ink and are made exclusively from recycled paper and plastics. Peaceable Kingdom games are geared toward young children, cooperative, and focus on developmental skills. Peaceable Kingdom also makes environmentally-responsible greeting cards and sticker sets.

 

Earthopoly - Environmentally Friendly Games

Looking for a game the whole family can play together? Late for the Sky is a publisher that makes environmentally-friendly games that play like Monopoly. Using vegetable dyes and recycled papers and plastics, Earth-Opoly is a game where you travel the world to buy properties and offset your carbon footprint.

 

 

Catan Oil Springs - Environmentally Friendly GamesAre you a fan of one of the most popular board games in existence, Settlers of Catan (updated versions are simply titled Catan)? You can turn the original game into a environmental lesson with the printable (and free!) Oil Springs expansion pack. Oil was found on Catan, but at what cost? Download the expansion pack at http://www.oilsprings.catan.com.

 

 

Planet Earth DVD Games - Environmentally Friendly GamesAre you a fan of the BBC Planet Earth documentaries? If you said “Of course I am!” (because who isn’t?) the accompanying Planet Earth DVD Board Game is a must have! Combining video clips, a board game, and a puzzle, the Planet Earth DVD Board Game is unlike any other game! This game is recommended for ages 8+, be aware that predator and prey behaviors are involved in some of the clips and may upset some children.

 

 

NASA Climate Kids - Environmentally Friendly GamesDon’t have time to play a board game? No worries, your children can learn about topics like climate change and coral bleaching online! NASA’s Climate Kids website features 15 online games, all available to play at any time from your computer.

 

Evolution Climate - Environmentally Friendly GamesAnother wildly popular game, Evolution, has taken a stand against climate change with their newest stand-alone game, Evolution: Climate. Recommended for ages 12+, Evolution: Climate relies on players to evolve their animal herds to survive a drastically changing climate. If you already own Evolution you can purchase a conversion kit to use your original game pieces, saving you money while conserving resources!

 

While it is a painful topic, learning about our environment and climate change doesn’t have to hurt. All of the above environmentally-friendly games will entertain while teaching. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s start playing!