Co-Teaching Campus Ecology

On April 22nd, fourteen St. Olaf students assemble themselves into two neat rows–fidgeting as they take their seats beside the blonde wood of the Boe Memorial Chapel pulpit.

Several of these young men and women have never attended a religious service in this holy space. Despite the Lutheran affiliation of the liberal arts college they call home, this beautiful stainglassed venue is both welcoming and intimidating. What does it mean to be “religious?” they’ve wondered on several occasions.

This is the ceiling they saw as they sang the St. Olaf fight song for the first time. The multicolored line of international flags inspired as they attended orientations for studying abroad in Spain and Ireland and Norway and New Zealand. The towering silver organ pipes accompanied dozens of musical performances and provided a backdrop for countless guest speakers.

The space these students fill is riddled with overlapping stories. It is a place for reflection, love, appreciation, critique, and wonder. Today, this cohort of fourteen has the opportunity to share their story–fitting the familiar exploration of their “Campus Ecology” class into the unfamiliar format of a “chapel talk.” They have wondered about the capacity of religion for social change, criticized and complimented the way religion works at St. Olaf college, and brainstormed ways to move ideals to action.

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As a co-teacher for our St. Olaf Campus Ecology class this semester, I’ve had the opportunity to work with this group of passionate students boasting diverse majors. Throughout the semester, they have all become invested in our democratic educational environment.

This is a course that aims to bridge the curriculum of the classroom with the curriculums of everyday life. The recurring St.Olaf experience of “Campus Ecology Chapel” on Earth Day each year is just one example of our experiential learning.

Dreamed up by St. Olaf senior Elise Braaten in 2004, Campus Ecology began as the senior project for an independent major titled “Wild and Precious Life: Educating for an Ethic of Sustainability.” Elise taught the course alongside my mentor Professor Jim Farrell—convinced that students needed to understand the environment and systems at play around them.

Each year, the course follows Braaten’s initial vision of “practical idealism,” incorporating:

  • Plot projects: A study of the things we do not take the time to notice. Students select a piece of land on the St. Olaf campus and visit it at least once per week–chronicling the natural world around them. They incorporate readings and discussion from class as they study the sound of the chickadee in March or the beer can whose blue ink has stained the snow. Through these plot projects, students come to “know” the world around them in a new and dynamic way. They are incredibly creative with the loose guidelines we give them–participating in intellectual play and reverting to a childlike sense of wonder as they write about playing in the mud, talking to trees, and living completely in the moment. This project is meant to be reflective and groundbreaking–leading students to question what “education” really means.


  • Campus Tours: Throughout the semester, our group has taken tours  of the St. Olaf power plant, the innerworkings of the cafeteria, the LEED Platinum Certified Regents Hall, the St. Olaf Power Plant, and the natural lands. These tours show students that every piece of the St. Olaf community has “experts.” Our professors are not only the PhD certified men and women at the front of our classrooms, but the amazing people who serve our food, power our dorm rooms, and orchestrate the everyday complexity of our small city on a hill.

After learning where their food comes from and why, students experience their cafeteria completely differently. Examining the electricity use of our campus, they think harder about turning off the lights. Furthermore, Campus Ecology students are often inspired to share what they learn with their friends–changing habits and encouraging a more sustainable St. Olaf culture through peer education.

We always follow up our touring experiences with discussions about how to “frame” environmentally friendly behavior–combatting the pessimism and overwhelming nature of the environmental movement with messages of hope. In this sense, we take a “local to global” activism approach–engaging our immediate community and branching outward to think about how we can create change on a larger scale.

Here are several images from just one of our tours: The St. Olaf Power Plant.

  • Seeing the moral ecology of everyday life: In the classroom, we have units on the “nature of cars,” parties, religion, the “real world,” education, clothing,  and electronics. Working with Jim Farrell’s book The Nature of College ( co-written by former Campus Ecology students) as a constant reference, we unpack the objects and practices of the college student’s lifestyle from an environmental perspective.
  • Reflective Journal Entries: In addition to their multimedia plot projects, students are asked to keep a Campus Ecology Journal. Written in 3-4 times per week, this journal allows connections to occur between personal experiences and the content of the course. The best journal entries occur when students begin thinking outside of the box. For example, one student wrote a Mommy Manifesto after our class period devoted to the “politics of parenting.” Another wrote an 8 page single-spaced essay about her definition of “fun” and how it differs from the version offered by society and popular culture. One student, a musician, was inspired to write an original song inspired by our course’s discussion of “time poverty” in American culture. He performed it with several of his classmates for our Chapel Service.

In all journals, students work creatively to research the things they wonder about–following their interests in a way that isn’t possible in many of their other college courses.

  • Final Projects: Each year, after spending a semester discussing what it takes to change norms in a community, students are given the opportunity to impact their St. Olaf community. In previous years this has included the development of materials for the SustainAbilities Program, environmentally themed “annotations” placed around campus, and work on student-run environmental campaigns. In 2012, the Campus Ecology class drafted the activities that would make up the SustainAbilities Representative Handbook. I was fortunate to be a student researcher working on the SustainAbilities co-curricular education program over the summer of 2012, and much of what we accomplished would not have happened without the Campus Ecology class.

 This Spring, Campus Ecology students will use their final projects to lay the groundwork for a “Green Dorm” being piloted next Fall. This dorm will be inhabited by students who have pledged to take on more sustainable habits, have conversations about the environment, and attend frequent sustainability events held in the dorm. These students will come from different academic and personal backgrounds. Our class will work together in small groups to design the programming for the dorm. 

Each Spring, Campus Ecology is co-taught by a senior student—bringing new perspective to the table and demonstrating just how much peers can learn from each other and reconsider the construction of the “normal” classroom environment.

This quote from Mary Oliver begins our course.

This quote from Mary Oliver begins our course.

It has been a privilege to work with the students of Campus Ecology and with Jim as we continue to think about the question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question spurred our innovative course, the SustainAbilities program, and influenced how St. Olaf College will operate as it continues to commit to environmentally minded initiatives and perspectives.

Watching in Chapel as the students of Campus Ecology 2013 perform Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” an original song, and several of the readings they’ve selected, I am awestruck. Even though I am a “co-teacher,” they have taught me far more than I could ever teach them.

I’ve brought my research, academic background, and personal stories to the table, but they’ve brought the curiosity, commitment, and incredible capacity to connect. Looking up at them from my place in the front row pew, I realize that this is my utopian vision of education in action. These students have taken a common context of information and run with it–reaching places and ideas we never could have predicted. This Chapel Service (and the discussion and journal entries that follow it) are far better assessments than so many of the tests these students will take. This is a narrative of learning.

I spent this past January preparing for my role as a co-teacher. As I drafted lesson plans, re-read course material, and browsed our list of 28 freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior students, I worried about the dynamic of “teaching” my peers.

Within the first few weeks of leading class every other class period, my worries and fears eased. It became clear were all teachers. I was merely a discussion leader–offering questions and links and context as the students went in a thousand directions.

Here is what I’ve learned from Campus Ecology 2013:

  • Be comfortable with silence. Those uncomfortable moments that follow a question posed to the class do not mean that it was a bad question. Give the students room to process, and you will get the best answers.
  • Knowing each student as a person is good for everyone. Because I interact with the students of Campus Ecology in class, in our shared dorm, in the cafeteria, in sports and clubs, and even at parties, we understand each other in ways that are not typically possible between teacher and student. Because we have such diverse interactions (and because I read their journals each week,) I know about the stress they’re facing and the experiences they’ve had growing up.
  • Sometimes, less is more. It’s important to invest time and energy into preparing for teaching a class, but it’s also important to leave room for spontaneity and simplicity. Some of our most exciting class periods begin with small group conversations or activities. For example, Jim Farrell and I once had the class split up into groups of 4 or 5 and discuss sustainable behaviors on campus, barriers to these behaviors, and incentives to overcome these behaviors. After giving the students time to discuss, we compiled a master list. This activity required little planning, but it was incredibly valuable. Students naturally integrated concepts from their readings, and they were excited to think about making their shared ideas into realities. This was the beginning of a community organizing experience that would continue throughout the course, and it helped to foster our sense of shared Campus Ecology culture.
  • You don’t have to be perfect: In Campus Ecology, we talk often about “perfect standards”–the idea that if you are going to commit to an organization, activity, or political campaign you must know everything about it. We discuss the “perfect standard” as a barrier to sustainable behavior and civic and political engagement–leading students to feel like identifying as an “environmentalist” means that they must live every moment of their lives sustainably or risk being judged.

Together, we recognize that it is human nature to seek a consistent identity. As young adults faced with contradictory expectations from society, our parents, our peers, and an increasingly mediated world, we feel fragmented in many ways.

After several discussions about the “perfect standard,” I realized that I was applying this same concept to my job as a “co-teacher.” In the beginning of the course, I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not knowing. I imagined a student asking me a question and stumbling through “I don’t knows.”

Now, I recognize that the greatest “teaching moments” happen when I don’t know everything about a concept. This way, we are able to research and wonder together. Students with different interests and expertise enter the conversation as leaders. Our classroom community is strengthened.

In several of the journals I’ve read, Campus Ecology students have recognized their experience in the course as “life changing.” This is a sentiment I shared in my own journaling experience when I took the class in 2011.  As a co-teacher, I feel it all over again.

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Back in the Chapel, Amanda’s cello notes weave sweetly around Helen and Olivia’s voices as they sing Charlie’s lyrics and he strums along. Kyle shakes the tambourine purposefully, Ben keeps them all together with the driving beat of his electric bass, and I feel the tears trickle down my cheek.

This was Campus Ecology embodied in one sextet– sharing a song about community and reverence and living in the present. Surrounded by all 28 members of our course in an unlikely setting, I felt like part of an incredible family. One that will live on long after the week of final exams. I can’t thank them enough.

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1 Response to Co-Teaching Campus Ecology

  1. Pingback: An Education of Villages and Artwork | growingupinamerica

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