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30% Happier: The Joys of Biophilia for TESOL Teachers and Their Students

by Bernadette Musetti |

The title of this month’s blog was inspired by a podcast named Ten Percent Happier, where the goal is for listeners to benefit from the wisdom, tools (i.e., meditation), and ideas shared by others in order to become happier. I am proposing that we and our students can become happier through more consciously cultivating our “biophilia,” which the biologist E.O. Wilson theorized as humans’ innate affinity for the rest of the living world. I have fused my TESOL and environmental studies work and in today’s blog focus this on becoming happier through biophilia.

My Journey

As background—I am a TESOL professional, a long time English as a second language teacher, and teacher preparation specialist. I have prepared TESOL and other educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. For many years I directed the K-5 teacher preparation program at my university and taught many of the courses in language and literacy in the preparation programs. I am currently a professor of Urban & Environmental Studies and have brought this experience together in the capstone course I teach for future teachers on Education & Global Issues, where the focus is on learning about environmental issues, cultivating our biophilia, and becoming more responsible global-local citizens.

An Evolved Collective Awareness and Our Need for Nature

I grew up at a time when the dominant cultural message, however implicit, was that nature existed to make our lives more prosperous and comfortable — a time when, for example, people changed the oil in their cars and let it run down the street into the city drainage system and waterways, seemingly unaware of the damage being done. Fortunately, things have changed, and our collective awareness is greater. However, at the same time, nature is more of an abstraction, and time in nature seems less possible for many. Certainly many of our students (and, I suspect, most of us, their teachers) prefer to be indoors, because, among other reasons, “…that’s where all of the electrical outlets are,” as reported by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, when he interviewed one child regarding where he liked to play and why. Louv famously coined the term nature deficit disorder, which refers to the negative social, psychological, physical, and spiritual implications for children due to a lack of connection with nature.

So many of our students have experienced trauma, suffer from attention deficit and other challenging conditions, including depression, climate grief and climate anxiety. One of the problems with this lack of nature in our lives is that time spent outdoors is healing and provides other benefits, which we need now, more than ever. Aligning with nature promotes physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and is an essential part of our humanity.

Benefits of My Budding Biophilia

I originally came to this work through a sense of duty to future educators and concern for the state of the planet, but along the way, I found my budding biophilia had changed me in wonderful ways, where it was much easier to balance the realities of global climate change with the intelligence, resilience, and beauty of the natural world. For example, now I find that I am grateful for everything, including the trees, the air, the waters of the world, and the sunshine on my face. I realize that the Earth is resilient and will endure, despite the current state of the planet. I have come to see myself as the Earth, which gives me some sense of peace, security, happiness, and equanimity, even as I teach about climate chaos, the massive changes we need to make across all sectors, and our growing eco-anxiety.

Many of us, without realizing it, also possess a certain level of biophobia, an aversion to or even fear of the natural world. As instructors, we can, however, develop a new level of biophilic consciousness and desire to live in harmony with the Earth, while helping our students do the same. My own growing biophilia has transformed me and made me a happier person and professional — maybe even 30% happier! I wish this for other professionals and for our students.

A Joyful Transformation

At this time in my career, I am motivated to teach Earth education and ecoliteracy to TESOL professionals because of the transformation I have undergone by doing this work myself. Promoting ecoliteracy allows our students, and us as teachers, to view nature and all life through a more species-inclusive, reciprocal lens, rather than through one that is more exclusionary and exploitive, which is often the dominant perspective in texts and media of all types. One of the books we read in my class is Andrés Edwards’ Renewal, which shows us that if we are open to learning, nature can teach us compassion, cooperation, patience, endurance, and adaptation, which we are all going to need in greater measure in the coming decades. In addition to reminding us of our humanity and promoting well-being, aligning with nature allows us greater joy, awe, creativity, and appreciation for the mysteries of the natural world.

My transformation has been joyful as well as humbling, in the best possible sense.  In a world of growing AI, nuclear threats, consumerism, growing inequality, and immediate gratification — focusing on the natural world and ecoliterate principles allows for a greater perspective; an understanding of the connectedness of all systems and life; the importance of community to make a better, more sustainable world; and the ability to anticipate unintended consequences, which is more important than ever before. I will discuss these principles further in my next blog.

In the Classroom

Celebrate and Present

This month, choose one or more conservation or environmental days to celebrate. You may even be motivated to embed one a week, as there are many to choose from. As you can see from the Project Green Schools list, the month of March includes

    • World Wildlife Day,
    • Solar Appreciation Day,
    • International Day of Forests,
    • World Water Day,
    • and Earth Hour.

You may want to have students work in groups and have each group choose a different topic and present on that at the end of the unit.

Include a Hands-on or Community-Based Activity

For example, for Solar Appreciation Day, the class could build a simple solar cooker, either using a kit or as a class DIY project with readily available materials. Several years ago, I visited the bilingual Quaker Friends School in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica, whose motto is “Surrounded by nature, supported by love.” Upon arriving, students put their lunch bags into the school’s large solar cooker so that they had a warm meal at lunchtime. (At the beginning of the day, they also deposited their cell phones into a wooden box with slots for individual phones, which they collected at the end of the day.)  I have built these solar cookers with students and enjoyed cooking simple, fun foods. This is a great activity to pair with Earth Hour, where people around the world turn off all nonessential electric lights for one hour, an act focused on reducing our consumption of energy and using renewable sources.

Because Earth Hour is organized by the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a great link to World Wildlife Day and study of your region’s wildlife. You may choose a local species and, if it is threatened or endangered, engage in study and work to help to protect it. I will discuss this further in a future blog on place-based education.

In my next blog, I will discuss five main practices of ecoliteracy and explain how social-emotional learning both undergirds and is further promoted through ecoliteracy.

About the author

Bernadette Musetti

Bernadette Musetti is a long-time TESOL professional and a professor of urban and environmental studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, USA where she is currently teaching the Environmental Studies and Elementary Teacher Education capstone courses. She also teaches an engaged learning course in "A Better World," which she tries to create through all of her teaching. She takes future K–5 educators on global immersion trips to Costa Rica and Bali to study ecoliteracy and place-based education.

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