Green Language Arts and English

Integrating green language arts and English (or your students' mother tongue) with school greening and education for sustainability comes naturally with increasing ecological and environmental awareness. This can mean anything from choosing Nature-friendly metaphors to writing Nature poetry, from reading Nature literature to studying the 1970s classic
Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach.

Green language arts and English simply means bringing an ecological, environmental and sustainability awareness or focus to the teaching of reading, writing and media studies. It includes extending the notion of "literacy" to encompass the rest of Nature. Ecological literacy implies a deep understanding of the natural world, and green language arts enhances this understanding by having students read and write about the natural world — and critique what they read and write and view.

While sustainability — meeting today's needs without jeopardizing the interests of future generations — has become a dominating force in a range of disciplines, it has yet to play a substantive role in English studies. In light of worsening environmental crises and accelerating social injustices, we need to use sustainability as a way to structure courses and curricula.

— Derek Owens

The first and perhaps easiest way to green language arts is to put a capital N on the word "nature" (when you mean the natural world) and a capital E on the word "earth" (when you mean the planet). This makes a point right away, valorizing these entities while also distinguishing them from their homonyms (nature as essence, earth as soil).

Watch your thoughts, for they become words...
Choose your words, for they become actions...
Understand your actions, for they become habits...
Study your habits, for they will become your character...
Develop your character, for it becomes your DESTINY...
— Unknown

The second easiest step is to become aware of what we say and how we say it — choosing Nature-friendly language and metaphors and helping our students do the same. If we are, indeed, what we say, then we need to watch what we say (and write) and understand the impacts of our language choices.


by Baba Pedro

Humans call humans who steal
Those who are greedy they call
Those who are foolish they call
Those who are stupid
Those who double cross
you dirty rats
Cranky old women
Cranky old men
Deceitful people
Irresponsible people
Lazy people
Male gigolos
Mean women
Any man we dislike
a dog
Any woman we dislike
a cow
Those they despise
Any human not fit to live
an animal

If the dumb brutes could speak,
what would they call humans?

This poem speaks to how hard it is to grow up, at least in an English-speaking society, with a compassionate attitude toward other animals ("other" animals because we're animals, too) and the rest of Nature (the "rest" of Nature because we're Nature, too). Green language arts can change this.

Our conceptions of Nature are reflected in our language. Nature-friendly language has the power to create a sense of kinship with the natural world. The opposite is capable of separating us from Nature and keeping us from peace. Many of the metaphors we unconsciously use are violent and anti-Nature, militaristic, or mechanistic and devoid of Nature. By re-examining our use of language and creating new metaphors, environmental adult educators can rebuild spiritual relationships with the rest of nature.
— Dr. Lilian Hill and Julie Johnston, in Adult Education and Humanity’s Relationship with Nature Reflected in Language, Metaphor, and Spirituality: A Call to Action

Teachers who want to teach green language arts and English can contribute to transformative sustainability education by helping their students

  1. choose enjoyable (and "learningful") Nature stories and stories about animals to read
  2. spend time outside, using the schoolyard and the learning garden as their muse for Nature writing or writing about environmental themes (poetry, journalling, memoir writing, and other green language arts activities)
  3. Northern Wild, David R. Boyd

  4. read Nature literature from their own country and other countries (for example, one of my favourites is an anthology called Northern Wild: Best Contemporary Canadian Nature Writing, edited by David Richard Boyd; ASLE (see below) has an extensive list of American anthologies of Nature writing dating back to 1875)
  5. read texts that speak to humanity's connection
    with the rest of Nature (and/or our culture's disconnection from the natural world)
  6. critically appraise the "Man versus Nature" theme so widely discussed in English classes
  7. explore personification of Nature versus "naturification" of people, in Romantic poetry and in life (for example, Nature as object — the picturesque — versus Nature as process in which to immerse oneself)
  8. research the question of why Nature came to be "romanticized" during the Romantic period (an example of integration would be a study of the industrial revolution — destroying large tracts of field and forest, more people living in cities, no longer unselfconsciously part of the natural world — in social studies while reading books such as D. H. Lawrence's 1913 novel Sons and Lovers, or Thomas Hardy's 1891 Tess of the d'Urbervilles)
  9. study myths and legends based on Nature; for example, in the medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, students can explore and discuss
    • the symbolism of green (Nature's positive aspects such as renewal, fertility and rebirth, as well as the counterbalancing wild, destructive, uncontrollable aspects of Nature)
    • why the Green Knight is green (dressed in green, colour of land, with embroidery of gold, colour of the sun, is the Green Knight perhaps symbolizing the masculine/feminine balance of Nature?)
    • whether the Green Knight is a manifestation of the Green Man common in medieval art
    • how this epic poem uses Nature as a basis for understanding human nature ("Outer and inner turn out
      to be versions of each other, suggesting that man is always already in Nature, and Nature forever in him," according to William F. Woods in Nature and the Inner Man in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight")

    Composition and Sustainability

  10. become contributors to the sustainable development of their community and society by learning to correctly and effectively use purposeful and appropriate spoken and written language, and to express themselves creatively and imaginatively (as an example of integration, in civics and geography classes students can learn to communicate effectively in group discussions based on the principles and processes of sustainable development)

Composition studies, with its inherent cross-disciplinarity and its unique function in students' academic lives, can play a key role in giving sustainability a central place in students' thinking and in the curriculum as a whole.

— Derek Owens

  1. in media literacy units, undertake critical studies of advertising, public relations and propaganda (one way to integrate with science courses is to examine the false "debate" over global warming, which is a media literacy issue as well as a scientific literacy issue)
  2. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology

  3. learn about the new and rapidly evolving field of ecocriticism, an interdisciplinary study of literature and environment, also called ecopoetics, green (cultural) studies, and environmental literary criticism (some, like William Rueckert, see ecocriticism as "the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature," while others view it as a coming together of all subject areas to analyze the environment and possible solutions to contemporary environmental problems)

"Green" approaches have influenced the [English] curriculum in many areas, often leading to the reframing of classic texts. Students can be encouraged to ask questions about how far humanity is represented as part of or apart from the rest of nature in a particular work, or how the idealisation of the pastoral in the Romantic period or the construction of science fiction informs our understanding of how we relate to our physical environment....

It will be apparent that English can relate easily and fruitfully to education for sustainable development.... Students of English are intellectually habituated into sensitivity towards encounters with "the other," be this in terms of culture, spaces or materiality. There is a vibrant strand within English literary studies of concern with the relation between cultural texts and environment, and since the early 1980s this has given rise to ecocriticism. So you can see that ESD isn't just an issue for those teaching in disciplines such as geography, environmental studies, biology and engineering.
— Jane Gawthrope, English Subject Centre, UK

Some Green Language Arts Resources

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE, pronounced "AZ-lee") is a community of teachers, students, writers, artists and environmentalists interested in green language arts: the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture. ASLE seeks to facilitate interdisciplinary and innovative approaches to the study of nature and culture through forms such as nature writing, art, ecocritical scholarship, pedagogy, science writing, poetry, music, creative writing, and film, among other forms. ASLE offers membership to those who are new to the field, seasoned professionals, or just interested in people’s relationships with the natural world.

Here are two green language arts activities from Susan Caplan that will be fun for students of almost any age.

  • Word Pictures - Pretend that the natural things in the schoolyard lack names. Ask students what they would call the trees or the flowers, the rocks and the grasses, based on their appearances. Caplan offers these examples:

    Grass could become: tickle-green, whisper stalks, ladybug ladders

    Oak leaves could be called: fairy boats, tree fingers, squirrel umbrellas, wind voices

  • Silly Scientific Names - Use some field guides to show students how common plants and animals are named scientifically. Explain that the Latin names are based on the characteristics of each organism (and help scientists know that they are talking about the same species). Get the students to use their sense of humour to come up with scientific sounding names for living things around the school and beyond. Caplan gives the following examples of real scientific names:

    Parus atricapillus (Black-capped chickadee)

    Rana sylvatica (Wood frog)

    Sassafras albidum (Sassafras tree)

    Here are her examples of silly scientific names:

    Acorna droponheada (Oak tree)

    Seede stealalota (Gray squirrel)

Some of your students will delight in writing "green" poetry. Here's an example of a sustainability-themed poem:

by Peter D. Carter

tell me again
of the super things you have seen.
Of forests forever,
trees towering like skyscrapers,
wide as highways.

Tell me, tell me again,
of thundering buffalo herds,
hooves that shook the ground
like a billion jackhammers,
way before you saw them.

Tell me again, please tell me again
of the pretty pink-necked pigeons,
flocks following on forever,
flights that shadowed the sun,
like hundreds of bomber squadrons

Oh yes and tell me again
of the ever-running rivers,
so full of fish you could walk on them
like a solid silver-plated bridge.

I can't wait to grow up, Grandfather,
so I will be able to see them all
… with you.

And finally, I'd like to leave you with a short but fun "green language arts" experience. This is Tony Hoagland reading his poem "Romantic Moment" at the ‪2006 Dodge Poetry Festival‬. Enjoy, and then picture your students having the same kind of fun with their own Nature poetry or green language arts festival!

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