Environmental literacy is achieved when schoolchildren — and adults — attain the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to work individually and together toward sustainability and conservation. My guest this week, environmental education specialist Dr. Todd Klawinski, envisions a future in which all public schools make environmental literacy for students and the community part of their mission.
Dr. Todd Klawinski works for the Caesar Rodney School District, a 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District for sustainability, in Kent County, Delaware. He’s been a public school educator for 20-some years, and he reached out to me to share the work his school district is doing. He started at the Caesar Rodney School District in 2006 as a middle school science teacher before joining the district’s instruction team in 2017 as environmental education specialist. Todd is passionate about outdoor education returning to public schools, and he advocates for sustainable schools that promote health and wellness. At the end of the day, he just loves learning and teaching kids about nature and how to grow up being kind while contributing to the community.
Todd says he was born into the world with a calling. He had opportunities in childhood to foster that calling, including taking age-appropriate risks, like catching frogs in ponds. At the age of 7, he was practicing Mark–Release–Recapture with frogs.
He maintained his interest in the natural world through adolescence. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from what’s now called Stockton University in New Jersey, where he was part of S.A.V.E, or Stockton Action Volunteers for the Environment. He went on to get his master’s degree in education from Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan, and just this year completed his doctorate in environmental literacy education at Wilmington University, based in Wilmington Manor, Delaware.
Todd says his early passion was wildlife biology, and he learned that it’s tricky to study animals — they move, unlike plants. By the time he was wrapping up his undergraduate work, he was focused on botany, specifically learning about the plants and the animals that need them to survive.
He became a technician with the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension in New Jersey. He studied blueberries and cranberries, researching their DNA through polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR, a laboratory technique used to amplify DNA sequences. He also worked on a project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, looking into pesticide use for the control of blueberry maggot.
Realizing the path he was on would be technician to researcher to a Ph.D., finding some stuff out, then finding some more stuff out, and so on. He decided that he wanted to be involved in research that more directly made a difference. So he shifted gears to education, working mostly in middle school and high school.
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A Green Ribbon School District
The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools initiative is like Blue Ribbon designation, but its focus is on sustainability in schools
Caesar Rodney School District’s Green Ribbon was awarded for adhering to three pillars: decreasing negative environmental impacts locally while increasing positive environmental impacts, and increasing the health and wellness of all people coming onto campus, and providing effective environmental and sustainability education.
Todd adds it’s also important to think about all the health of wellness of the creatures — the local biodiversity — that come on campus.
One way the district improves health and wellness at its schools is by establishing community gardens where students can grow vegetables and get their hands in the dirt — though Todd likes to say gardening makes us “soily” rather than dirty.
And the addition of compost tumblers to campuses lets children experience first-hand diverting organic material from the waste stream.
One program the district runs at Allen Frear Elementary School is a “litter-free school zone” in partnership with Keep Delaware Beautiful. They teach that picking up litter is a civic duty.
“The fifth-graders at Frear Elementary, one of our star schools that’s becoming a model, is cleaning up their campus — every fifth-grade class as part of a civics lesson,” Todd says.
Environmental literacy, or ecological literacy, is the goal of environmental education. Environmental education happens in schools but also in museums, churches, homes, etc.
Todd says environmental literacy is like reading literacy in that you must work on it from kindergarten through 12th grade and into adulthood to become truly environmentally literate.
Environmental literacy delivers the knowledge, facts and skills that influence behavior and empowers individuals. Todd points out that people wouldn’t recycle if they did not understand conservation of matter; for example, there is a finite amount of aluminum in the world. But when they can identify a problem they can develop the will to make a difference and the confidence to know they can effect change.
A lot of us are aware of a problem and want to do something about it, but we don’t feel like we can because we’re just one person. Environmental literacy allays that sense of hopelessness.
Among the concepts taught in environmental education is that there are two worlds, Todd says, the skin-deep human world, and the skin outward — what’s called “nature,” “the environment” or “the unbuilt environment.”
The point of environmental literacy is taking all that knowledge and all those skills — whether we learn it in school or through experiences — and then having the will and the interest and the ability to actually do something with it, Todd says. He notes the ultimate goal is behavior change.
Environmental literacy is not just another academic discipline such as science or social studies. Instead, it permeates a range of disciplines such as environmental science, ethics and politics.
“Environmental literacy comes about through all disciplines,” Todd says. “I can’t think of a single discipline where environmental literacy either isn’t or shouldn’t be infused.”
For example, the Caesar Rodney School District is the first in its area to teach a course titled Environmental Science and Sustainability.
“If you just do environmental science, you’re leaving out that civic action part, which is what I was saying about behavior, the will to change, getting out in the community.”
The Delaware affiliate of the North American Association for Environmental Education and the Delaware Department of Education are having conversations about the approach to environmental literacy, Todd says. However, they are not aiming to establish standards. “Standardized testing that just has a foul ring to it,” he explains. Rather, they want to get on a pathway toward a hybrid of formal coursework within schools and environmental education programming with partners outside of schools. And the goal is to achieve competencies, not meet standards.
Todd’s district works with community partners such as FFA (Future Farmers of America), a Master Gardener and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“It’s infusing environmental literacy and everything we teach and everything we do to show growth in those concepts so we don’t get to the major problems we have today, like climate change or decreased biodiversity and so forth,” Todd says.
They also aim to show that they are not putting a significant workload on teachers and administration. Each school will have the chance to adapt its environmental literary focus to best engage students, staff and parents and increase their locus of control — the degree of their belief that they control the outcome of events in their lives.
Todd advises not focusing on everything — like trying to take in the spray from a fire hydrant all at once. There are many pathways to environmental literacy and acting upon it.
A few behaviors many of us were taught from a young age, like recycling a can and turning off the lights when leaving a room, put us on the pathway to energy conservation. We may feel like we’re not doing much, but when we add together the conservation behaviors of the 8 billion people living on this planet, the cumulative difference is immeasurable.
A Return to Sustainability
During the Great Depression (1929 to 1939), society understood waste very differently. And while the eldest among us may remember that era and still practice a frugal and “waste not, want not” lifestyle, younger generations missed those lessons or never learned them quite as acutely as their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents did.
“We understood waste very differently,” Todd says of that time in history. “We understood resources differently.”
Back then, tossing an infinitely recyclable aluminum can into a landfill was unheard of. But today, many recyclable materials go to waste instead of being given a new purpose.
“I don’t think it’s going to take us a hundred years to get back to that ethic,” Todd says. “I think we can do it in a much shorter time.”
He envisions getting to a place where each state ensures that all public schools offer some form of meaningful systemic environmental education programming from prekindergarten all the way through high school.
One way Todd’s school district is measuring growth in environmental literacy is by auditing elementary school cafeteria trash to determine how much meat, fruit, vegetables and paper is thrown away. They did this five years ago, so they can compare that to recent data to get a sense of whether teaching students about composting and reducing waste is having an effect. They can also learn from the audit what foods the kids are most likely to throw away uneaten and can address the issue by adjusting cafeteria menus.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Todd Klawinski of Caesar Rodney School District on environmental literacy. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What lessons in childhood helped build your environmental literacy? Let us know in the comments below.
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“Achieving Environmental Literacy: An Evidenced-Based Model for Public Schools” by Dr. Todd Klawinski
The CR Report Summer 2018 (see pages 22-23)
The CR Report Spring 2019 (see page 14)
The CR Report Summer 2019 (see pages 20-21)
The CR Report Winter 2019 (see pages 12-13)
The CR Report Spring 2020 (see page 13)
The CR Report Winter 2020-21 (see page 13)
“Forest Service Observes Outdoor Classroom Day” from Delaware.gov:
“Gov. Carney helps launch Litter Free School Zone Program” from Delaware Public Media
“Caesar Rodney Gets $227,000 for Environment Education, Projects” from DelawareLive (2022):
Pathways to Sustainability, from the National Wildlife Federation Eco-Schools USA program
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.