By: Karen Graham

A year ago, before the Coronavirus changed everything, my son Ira became infatuated with the milkweed bug.  He was 5 years old, attending kindergarten at our local public school.  When class was out he’d run to the school garden, where between raised beds of kale and strawberries, a burgeoning milkweed flourished. There he’d sort between the sappy leaves and collect the red and black, beetle-like critters, allowing them to crawl up and down his arms and distinguishing one from another by the patterns on their backs.  When COVID 19 closed in-person classes, the garden, milkweed and the beautiful little bugs were suddenly gone, and kindergarten was Zooming in to school from home.

Milkweed bugs feeding on milkweed seeds.

For Ira and my three other children, the winding down of school and other activities created a new kind of downtime that none of us were used to, and our daily rhythms began to change. New activities included two-square competitions in the street, chess matches, and making painted rock gardens. My friends and family developed new interests and pastimes as well.  For many, these included discoveries of the natural world.  

My sister became a monarch expert. She spent hours watching caterpillars transform and photographing miraculous green and gold flecked chrysalises.  Early morning swims  in the sea became one friend’s daily ritual. Her “quiet sit” routine in the water has continued ever since, strengthening her connection to the ocean as her comfort level and observations deepen. 

In our home, I noticed that more time at home meant sinking deeper into simple things that normally go unnoticed. Last summer we bought a blow-up pool and one afternoon, Ira scooped a honeybee from the grassy water, setting her down on the pool’s edge. We watched, transfixed as she cleaned herself, her proboscis uncurling over and over, swiping her front legs over her antennae. At the time, this felt like such a great occurrence that we took videos of her that we watched and re-watched dozens of times later that evening. 

Honeybee on the pool

Noticing the details in our natural world – using our senses to zoom in on the living things in our own backyards – is the premise for the lessons I write for Earthroots. When Earthroots could no longer provide in-person ecoliteracy lessons at Journey School, our Executive Director Jodi asked me to write curriculum that delivers the lessons another way. Prior to this, I’ve written curriculum as a District Trainer and public school teacher in Long Beach, where I taught elementary school students learning English as a second language.  My goal as a teacher was to help my students make meaningful connections between their lives and what they were learning. Lessons began with activating their prior knowledge, and most of the time this meant providing them with hands on, multisensory experiences. Giving my students time to self-discover and connect on a personal level is what made them want to learn more. 

Earthroots ecoliteracy programs connect students with nature by giving them hands-on experiences with things like cob building, composting, watersheds, and gardening. My job as a curriculum writer is to write lessons that parents and students can do on their own, while facilitating meaningful connections between the content and their own lives. This means thinking about what kids may or may not have access to when learning from home. Thinking back to Ira in the garden with those milkweed bugs, I realized that with all their nymph stages, eggs, and food right there, I could teach life cycles using his favorite critters! Writing about the bugs expanded to include milkweed identification, native and nonnative species, seed dispersal, instar stages, and more. 

The more curriculum I wrote, the more I wanted to learn.  The more I learned, the more I noticed small details in my natural surroundings and the interdependence between living things all around me. When I thought about teaching cob building in this format, I immediately thought of the Black Phoebe, a small black bird commonly seen in local parks and neighborhoods. I remembered watching a phoebe build a mud nest on the wall of my home a few years ago, and so began the lesson on the black phoebe – nature’s cob builder. Writing the lesson included researching the exact architecture used by the phoebe as they build their nest, and the final product includes a step by step activity, where the student builds a mud nest against a wall just like a phoebe.

My kids building like a Black Phoebe against the wall of our home.

This year, Earthroots is continuing to provide lessons for Journey School, and I’ve had the privilege to research and write more ecoliteracy lessons on fascinating topics. One lesson on acorns included preparing acorns for food, which led me to explore many acorn forests, gathering, sorting, and leaching acorns with my children, and cooking with the acorn flour we made.

Black Oak acorn and leaf

Leaching harvested acorns for food

Researching for lessons has included reading books and online articles, talking to experts in the field, visiting natural areas and making observations, and learning from the experienced minds of Jodi and Shane. Some of my favorite lessons to write were Oology Rocks, Honeybee Jobs, Becoming a Frass Detective, Plantain First Aid, and Infusing Lavender Oil. I’m currently working on a scat identification lesson to go with Jodi’s scat cookie recipe – one of my daughter’s favorite recipes!

Nature journaling of bird eggs for Oology Rocks lesson

Many of the lessons come with hands-on nature kits that bring the activities to life. Participants at Earthroots Volunteer days have graciously helped assemble these kits. The Compost Tie-Dye lesson includes a mordanted organic bandana, avocado pit, and dried skins.  The Lavender lesson includes dried lavender, lavender essential oil, and a labeled glass bottle for the finished product. My hope is that the students using these lessons make meaningful connections to the plants and living things they learn about and observe.  I hope to plant a seed of curiosity within them – a seed that sprouts and grows, driving them to help protect, and invest in the world they live in. 

If you are interested in bringing these hands-on lessons to your child’s school or homeschool, please let us know by contacting Staci Hansen [email protected]

Dried Lavender Love

Volunteers prepping kits at Earthroots Volunteer Day

Working for Earthroots has put me in the unique position of being able to merge two of my greatest passions – nature and education. I am so grateful to be part of the Earthroots community.

Ira holding a bug

Categories: Big Oak CanyonNature