Dr. Seuss’ classic tale “The Lorax” is a parable warning against overdevelopment. In the story a greedy, faceless creature clear cuts a forest and critically pollutes a formerly pristine wilderness despite warnings of the Lorax (one of the land’s inhabitants) in order to manufacture a worthless product gobbled up by mindless consumers.
When he’s cut down the final tree, the factory shuts and those who have pillaged the land leave it for dead. The final hope for reclaiming the landscape is a lone seed saved from one of the forest’s trees by the now-repentant manufacturer. He gives the seed to a child, whose care and feeding of the seed will be critical to restoring the environment.
For the School of Environmental Education (SEE) at Riverside-Brookfield High School, “The Lorax” is more than a story. Its lessons are the foundation for a new interdisciplinary program?”sometimes known by its shorthand title, “Zoo School”?”for freshmen that will draw on resources at both the school and Brookfield Zoo, linking education and the environment.
Some 30 incoming freshmen are getting a jump start on the new program during a two-week orientation session that began July 10, meaning that Zoo School is officially underway at RB. Last Wednesday, the students sat down to watch “The Lorax,” introducing them to a theme that will serve as the program’s underpinning?”conservation.
After watching the video, the class and faculty made the first of what will be many visits into the field?”this time a short hike along the Des Plaines River in Riverside to record their first observations of the environment there?”walking past and over man-made earth bike ramps, clambering over the concrete embankment of an abandoned streetcar bridge and finally standing amid a forest clearing with the river gurgling past on one side and cars racing along First Avenue on the other.
“It’s notable that a high school is taking the lead in defining itself as an environmentally oriented high school,” said Alejandro Grajal, vice president of education and training at Brookfield Zoo. “In an age when generic education is not producing [results] … having a high school with a bent to science and natural sciences is positioning itself as forward-thinking.”
School officials floated the SEE program last fall as a way to bring real-world applications to subjects across the entire spectrum of the freshman curriculum?”science, math, English and physical education. While the curriculum must also meet state standards in those subjects, the focus will be on environmental issues and environmental literacy.
In all, some 65-70 freshmen will be participating in the program’s inaugural year. And while RB does have some teaching teams, the interdisciplinary approach to SEE is new for RB.
“It’s something that’s common in the field of education, but we don’t have a lot of it,” said Tim Scanlon, RB’s assistant principal for curriculum and instruction. “This combines not only [faculty] support but interdisciplinary study.”
The RB “team” of teachers includes science teacher Jame Holt, math teacher Jenny Waldock, English teacher Suzanne Shanklin, PE teachers Laura Drzonek and Art Ostrow and guidance counselor Michael Ziroli.
“This is really one of the first teams like this anywhere,” said Holt, hired just this summer and drawn to RB specifically because of the SEE program. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to develop an awareness of what’s around us, but also a sense of stewardship. By the end of the year, we hope the students have a better understanding of how things impact the environment around us.”
The critical piece of the puzzle for SEE, however, is the participation and commitment of Brookfield Zoo. And, with just five weeks until the school year begins, the zoo liaison has yet to be named.
“It’s just paperwork,” Grajal said. “We’re going through the HR process of announcing the position, and requesting CVs and applications. We’re committed to it, and it’s going to happen.”
One of the hurdles, just cleared, was the signing of a Memo of Understanding between the two institutions, which formalizes the longtime relationship between the zoo and high school, which have existed as neighbors since the zoo opened in 1934.
“We’ve been neighbors for many years and we’ve done a lot together over those years,” Grajal said. “This is a great opportunity for us and is very timely. Both the zoo and RB are launching major grounds renovations, and this is a really good way to start on a formal footing. It provides a basis for our relationship in the future.”
The liaison, paid by the high school, is envisioned as someone who will have daily interaction with SEE’s teachers and students, will coordinate all activities involving Brookfield Zoo, help develop the curriculum and participate in the various field study opportunities.
“The zoo is the critical piece,” said Holt, a native Minnesotan who taught earth and space science, biology, animal behavior and physical science at Carl Sandburg High School before coming to RB. “The liaison will be an important part of the program for blending all the disciplines.”
While the SEE program will include a significant amount of classroom work, the program’s faculty hopes to include such elements as camping, rock climbing, kayaking and numerous hands-on activities at Brookfield Zoo as well as interaction with zoo researchers and scholars.
“We hope to mask the learning by being really fun and engaging, and [provide] real-life applications,” said Waldock, a second-year math teacher at RB. “We’re looking for new ways to teach, and having opportunities to get outside the classroom is a very good way. I’m really honored to be part of this.”