Fostering Environmental Literacy

By Jim Bentley

If you’re a teacher like me, you probably do not have room on your plate to teach one more thing, nor do you have a plate big enough to handle what’s already on it.

But what if I told you that applying an environmental lens to any elementary, middle, or high school subject with relatively minimal effort could increase your students’ environmental literacy?

Hi, I’m Jim Bentley, a California public school teacher and a National Geographic Fellow. And yes, I’m trying to sell you an idea, but not a product or a curriculum or a workshop.

So, just what is environmental literacy?

Word Cloud

It’s an understanding of how we all have a personal relationship with the environment. From the air we breathe to the water we drink  – we all depend upon and influence our planet. But let’s just say an environmentally literate student or adult has the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes to make informed decisions that are both ecologically and economically sound.

So, how might environmentally literate students behave?

Marine Plastics

Last year my 6th graders studied the impact of marine plastics and asked what they could do to help reduce the 8 million tons of plastic waste that enter our oceans annually. When they learned each second 1,500 plastic bottles were consumed in the U.S.

Students focused on reducing the use of disposable plastic bottles by promoting water bottle filling stations in their community. They used ArcGIS online to map where water sources could be found in our city…only to learn there were no reusable water bottle filling stations.


Students constructed a story map and met with parks and recreation officials to propose installation of bottle filling stations in parks throughout our community, and guess what? They succeeded! Check out this Fox 40 news video to learn more about this project from my students.

Here’s the good news: you don’t need a project as elaborate as mine and you don’t need a special curriculum to infuse environmental thinking into your lessons.

EP&Cs Horizontal_Title

California has 5 Environmental Principles and Concepts, which are big ideas about how humans relate to the environment. You can weave these ideas into lessons, helping you frame instruction in a way that draws attention to our environment while you go about the business of teaching whatever content you want.


Let’s view the topic of food webs through the lens of Environmental  Principle 2 which focuses on how humans influence natural systems.

VA Food Web

This food web could be found in any curriculum. It would be simple to weave in principle 2 by asking students to predict what would happen if humans affected any part of the food web.

For example, if humans were to build a housing development it might displace the coyote from the ecosystem – how might this affect the rest of the food web?

Likewise if we were to cut down trees in an oak woodland to build a housing development, how would that affect the food web?

Teaching with the Environmental Principles and Concepts is like using a new lens to view academic content. And it’s is something you’re going to see in the newest Science and History-Social Science Frameworks and textbook adoptions in coming years.

Fostering environmental literacy in our students. It makes learning relevant and helps them answer the question, “Why should I care?” And more importantly,  today’s environmentally literate students will be tomorrow’s leaders and stewards of our Earth.

About the Author

Jim BentleyJim Bentley teaches 5th and 6th grade students in the Elk Grove Unified School District. He is passionate about integrating filmmaking and project based learning throughout the school day and across all subjects, especially environmental science. Bentley has served as a national trainer for the Center for Civic Education, specializing in the Project Citizen curriculum which teaches students how to monitor and responsibly influence public policies. He’s recently begun working with EEI as a Teacher Ambassador. In 2011 Bentley received the American Civic Education Award for his work with students and teachers related to civics. In 2012 he received the Allan Hinderstein Award for his use of filmmaking in the classroom. You can follow Bentley and his students’ adventures on Twitter by following Jim Bentley @Curiosity_Films, or check out his students’ filmmaking by visiting their YouTube and Vimeo Channels, Curiosity Films.


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