Environmental Literacy and Distance Learning

For most teachers, integrating environmental literacy into instruction typically involves taking students outside, on a field trip, into schoolyards, or attending a residential science camp. Unfortunately, a lot of those opportunities are closed off due to COVID-19 as students and teachers have been forced into a distance learning setting for health and safety concerns, and educators have had to rethink how they approach environmental literacy. Along with the inability for teachers to meet with students in person, there has been a general loss of instructional time for students in the field of science. During this unprecedented time, subjects such as English Language Arts and Math are being prioritized, which leaves science instruction and environmental literacy to fall behind. One of the reasons for the prioritization of other subjects outside of science is due to teachers being unable to use and shift the same lessons they have spent time developing for in-person instruction to a distance learning setting. 

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dean Reese, the Coordinator of Outdoor Education and Environmental Literacy for the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE). Dean is the project director for the Region 6 California Environmental Literacy Project and supports teachers in their efforts to connect students to the outdoors with environmental literacy throughout San Joaquin County and beyond. Over the past year, Dean has been providing incomparable guidance to teachers on how to transition their environmental literacy programs to fit the needs of an unprecedented learning setting – whether that be distance learning or a hybrid classroom model.  

When transitioning to distance learning, many educators have had to think outside the box and create new lesson plans that integrate their normal approach with the use of technology. Tools such as HyperDocs and Google Classroom allow teachers to have students participate in an interactive digital document where they can do synchronous or asynchronous learning. This is especially helpful when finding a solution that meets the learning needs of all students.  

“It’s about being innovative and creative, and figuring out how can we still engage students even though we can’t be face to face.” 

Dean Reese

An effective way to approach environmental literacy in this setting is to utilize digital tools such as breakout rooms in video conferencing software and interactive whiteboards such as Jamboard. Jamboard allows students to talk amongst themselves and write out questions; similar to what you can do in an in-person classroom setting.  

As Dean mentioned in our interview, it’s important to understand that students are just as zoom-fatigued as adults, so we must find ways to meet their emotional and social needs in addition to their academic needs. It’s hard for students to stay engaged in a distance learning setting, especially in science, where environmental literacy is most commonly integrated, as it’s often hands-on and interactive. To combat this, we need to utilize the space where our students live such as their local parks and backyards. A lot is going on in the ecosystems all around us and teachers should encourage students to engage with their surroundings.  

“We walk by the nature that is around us all the time without taking the time to stop and look, so there is an opportunity to understand nature right where we live.” 

Nature journaling is a great approach to incorporate environmental literacy into a distance learning curriculum – drawing, asking questions, interacting with phenomena in front of them – it is an opportunity for students to slow down, observe, and discuss the exciting things they see outside with their peers. It creates a sense of community in a time where many are removed from their usual interactions with friends and educators. 

At the SJCOE, County Superintendent of Schools, James Mousalimas, has prioritized science and environmental literacy. It is through this focus that the SJCOE has made significant progress with its environmental literacy efforts. Dean has been able to take part in several initiatives to provide professional development for teachers looking to integrate environmental literacy in a distance learning setting. The SJCOE has established and sustained environmental literacy networks that bring students, teachers, and community-based partners together to simultaneously learn in this new way. They have also partnered with the CA Department of Education where they are holding workshops to raise awareness of programs that look at the sustainability of a school, the health and wellness of students and staff, and to identify the types of environmental education tools and programs they have available.  

As a backbone of networks for advancing environmental literacy, the SJCOE has created 3 distinct groups to engage differing demographics with environmental literacy: CPEL (Community Partners for Environmental Literacy), TEL (Teachers for Environmental Literacy), and YEL (Youth for Environmental Literacy). As Dean enthusiastically proclaimed,  

“We’re gonna TEL it, we’re gonna CPEL it, and we’re gonna YEL it!”  

Dean Reese

The CPEL network provides the opportunity to identify which community partners are active in San Joaquin County and in the greater region, as well as who is providing environmental education services for our schools in an equitable way. The TEL network is a great platform for both students with YEL, and community-based partners with CPEL, to interact with teachers and make sure their environmental literacy programs and teachings are relevant to students. YEL, an engaging network for students, keeps them informed, inspires them, and provides a pathway for green careers after high school. It has also been a platform where students can talk to adults and teachers to try and get the change they are looking for in environmental education to happen within their classrooms. 

Since many organizations are now meeting virtually, it has allowed agencies such as the SJCOE to expand their resources outside their county and to the greater region, allowing students, teachers, and community-based partners to talk to other schools outside of their local community. They can share tools and new tricks to help students and teachers stay engaged and excited about environmental literacy initiatives.  

“There is so much learning done when students talk and share with one another.” 

Dean Reese

One of the things Dean feels is imperative once we transition back to the classroom, is to remember all the great tools we have discovered over the last year with virtual learning. A lot of community-based partners and state parks have created resources for students and teachers, so when there is a transition back into the classroom, educators should not forget all they have utilized during this period, and instead, integrate them into their normal classroom lessons or after school during homework hours. 

We asked Dean about his outlook on the state of environmental literacy, and he acknowledges that we are at the beginning of environmental literacy and there is much to do in terms of engaging stakeholders and allowing environmental literacy programs to prosper. However, Dean is optimistic that we will “continue to see a rise in importance for environmental literacy across counties in California.” With environmental literacy champions like Dean working tirelessly to advance the field, teachers, students, parents, and community-based partners are in good hands. 

Relevant Links 

SJCOE STEM Programs 

The SJCOE STEM Program Mission is to provide innovative programs that empower students, educators, and regional communities to engage in learning experiences integrating science, technology, engineering, and math. 

SJCOE Environmental Literacy Networks 

The environmental literacy team is building networks to connect and support environmental education between community-based partners, educators, students, and school districts and sites. We will meet throughout the year to address challenges, support each other’s work, build capacity, foster collaboration, and further integrate our districts and schools into the real work to address local and global environmental challenges. 

SJCOE Outdoor Education | Science Camp, Jones Gulch 

San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE), Science Camp, Jones Gulch, informally known as “Science Camp”, is a week-long residential outdoor education program reaching approximately 4500 fifth and sixth graders and 600 high school cabin leaders each year since 1957. On the California coast, students spend five days and four nights exploring the natural world and learning about the spectacular redwood forest and coastal ecosystems. 

Ten Strands 

Ten Strands is the leading field catalyst and “backbone organization” in the state of California and the founder of CAELI. It partners with the state government, local education agencies, providers of environmental education, community members, and funders to make environmental literacy a reality for all California’s K–12 students. 


Google’s interactive whiteboard system offers a collaborative experience for teams and classrooms. 


Flipgrid is a free and accessible video discussion experience for PreK to Ph.D. educators, learners, and families. 


HyperDocs.co is an online teacher academy and a resource-sharing hub. HyperDocs are digital lesson plans that are designed by teachers and given to students. They provide access for students to all the content and learning in one organized digital space. 

Google Classroom 

Classroom is a free service for schools, non-profits, and anyone with a personal Google account. Classroom makes it easy for learners and instructors to connect—inside and outside of schools. Classroom saves time and paper and makes it easy to create classes, distribute assignments, communicate, and stay organized. 

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