This narrative is part of a collection from professionals in the field of environmental education (EE). The collection seeks to highlight some of the ways in which Kansans have grown their love for nature into environmental literacy - leading them to the knowledge, understanding, and skills to become responsible, informed, and passionate environmental stewards. They share their stories hoping to inspire more Kansans to find their passion working in or supporting EE.
Jena Simms reflects on what led her to teaching environmental education to her students, the excitement and empowerment that EE has brought to her 1st-4th graders, and how she is having a direct impact on environmental education in Kansas through contracting with KACEE.
As I reflect on where I am and what I’m doing today in my teaching career, I look back on my own childhood with fond memories — I watched as my parents and grandparents tended the earth by taking care of the land around them. They grew their own food, stocked their own freezers, and made a living from the land they lived on. Each of them cared for the earth in unique ways, and as I observed, I stored those life lessons in my memory, revisiting them many times later in life and applying them to the way I live and teach.
After years of living an unsustainable lifestyle, I came to the realization that I needed to do things differently. Through observing others’ habits and lifestyles, taking environmental education professional development courses, teaching science to my students, and simply reconnecting with nature in ways that I once did in childhood, I began to change the way I live.
“When you know better, you do better.” I have come to a place in my life where I think about everything I use in terms of the footprint that I am leaving. Do I really need to use a straw, or use plastic bags to carry my groceries, or leave the lights on when I leave a room, or leave the water on while I brush my teeth? I have come to realize that less is truly more, and I am satisfied with a simpler lifestyle. “Malama Aina” is a Hawaiian phrase that means caring for and honoring the land. This simple saying sums it up for me.
I have been a 1st-4th grade science teacher in Wichita, Kansas since 2019 (I was a first grade teacher prior to that). It’s important to me to engage my students in hands-on activities that immerse them in nature. At our school, one of our goals is to actively engage our students in the community around them. I knew that I wanted my ‘Community Impact’ theme to be centered around food insecurity. Each school year I am determined to teach my students about food insecurity in our community and ways we can make a local impact.
Last year, our goal was to tie together a series of projects centered in science so that my students could understand — beginning to end — how to help fill a gap in our community, and in doing so, help those that are food insecure in small but meaningful ways. The result of all the projects last year has been that students in 1st-4th grade learn about food — where it comes from, how to grow it, and what it means to be food insecure — all while engaging with their own food supply through hands-on design projects.
One way we provide food to others is through a Tower Garden located in each of our division buildings. Students plant, care for, and harvest the produce from the Tower Gardens. We also have access to a greenhouse and outdoor garden that our high school environmental science teacher maintains. Through these sources, my students have learned about the food cycle and how to make an impact locally.
As a science teacher I knew there was more to discover on the topic of food and the role it plays in our lives. And when learning about food in school, where is the most logical place to begin? The lunchroom, of course! Discussions began about where our food goes when dumped in the trash cans. As students began learning about landfills, they also learned about the negative effects waste has on the environment. My students were inspired to “do better” and this led to our composting efforts. My 4th graders designed and built a compost pile near our lunchroom. Of course, learning composting introduced a whole new facet of science — the biological role of decomposition, bugs, and microscopic organisms.
Discussions began about where our food goes when dumped in the trash cans. As students began learning about landfills, they also learned about the negative effects waste has on the environment. My students were inspired to “do better” and this led to our composting efforts.
Children are naturally curious about the natural world around them and my first graders wanted to be part of the composting effort, so they built bug hotels and placed them near the compost pile to attract diverse microorganisms that would help decompose the waste pile. As students constructed these small hotels made of wood and other natural materials, they learned about the carbon and nitrogen cycles that take place as food decomposes. As the year progressed the second graders built butterfly houses and third graders built birdhouses to increase the pollinator habitats on our campus.
In January of 2022 I received an email from KACEE, and in the subject line it said, “Do you want to become a Kansas Green School?” With all the projects that were happening in my science classroom those words intrigued me. So I opened the email and began to read about the Kansas Green School program. I wasn’t sure if my elementary school students were able to take on this challenge but KACEE's Green Schools Director Rachel Wahle assured me that we could do it. I signed up for the Virtual Academy and we started down the road to becoming a Kansas Green School. This was the perfect opportunity to combine what my students were already doing with the KGS 5 investigations: Water, Waste & Recycling, Healthy School Environment, The Learning Community, and Energy.
I did not anticipate the excitement that this would bring to my students. They have officially named themselves the ‘Global Guardians’ and ask “when are we meeting with Mrs. Wahle again?” They began to actively look for ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle and took ownership of their actions each step of the way. The Kansas Green School water investigation sparked something in my students that was palpable. Students were taking action to make a difference in their own world!
I did not anticipate the excitement that this would bring to my students. They have officially named themselves the ‘Global Guardians’ and ask “when are we meeting with Mrs. Wahle again?”
As I was changing my own lifestyle habits it was naturally becoming something I was passionate about teaching to my students. The Kansas Green School program was the pathway to make this happen. The Global Guardians are self proclaimed climate changers and they are driving the change that is happening on our school campus and beyond. They are empowered to see what needs to change and get the work done.
Prior to doing the Kansas Green Schools Virtual Academy (KGSVA) with my students, I had taken several courses with KACEE including, Project WET, Project WILD, Project WILD Aquatic, and Teaching About Climate Change. These classes allowed me to interact with the KACEE staff and I knew these were my “peeps.” They supported me, introduced me to resources to use in my classroom, gave me feedback that was helpful, and came alongside me to help me be a more effective teacher. What more could I ask for?
These classes allowed me to interact with the KACEE staff and I knew these were my “peeps.” They supported me, introduced me to resources to use in my classroom, gave me feedback that was helpful, and came alongside me to help me be a more effective teacher. What more could I ask for?
One day I mentioned to Rachel Wahle, KACEE’s Green Schools Director and KGSVA facilitator, that if they ever needed any behind-the-scenes help at KACEE that I would be interested. That led to conversations with Laura Downey, the executive director of KACEE, about how I could get involved with KACEE professionally. Being passionate about the natural world, education, and environmental science is what we all have in common. So, over the summer of 2022, I was able to come alongside the KACEE staff and lend a helping hand where needed. I got to help develop the Water In Our Community eeCredential, among other things. The KACEE staff are positive, forward thinking, environmentally conscious and responsible individuals who want to help Kansas educators become the best versions of themselves through environmental education.
It was motivating to be part of the team, and I look forward to what is next for KACEE. They are making a difference in Kansas teachers' lives and thus Kansas students' lives. The courses they offer are invaluable professional development opportunities for Kansas educators, and they offer resources that are ready-to-use and which engage students in our natural world.
KACEE cares about reaching all students in Kansas, and they are dedicated to making their courses, materials, communications, etc. inclusive and accessible to all. KACEE is guided by a JEDIA action plan co-developed by a JEDIA consultant and a group of KACEE staff and current & former board members, which includes a focus on removing barriers. This means, for example, removing financial barriers by making available scholarships to offset or remove entirely the cost of courses, conferences, and other offerings. KACEE is also committed to reviewing, revising, and remaining open to changes to its EE curriculum, content, and courses in order to make these offerings more relevant to students of varying backgrounds, lived experiences, and socioeconomic situations. The future looks bright for KACEE and I am happy to be part of the journey.
Wichita Collegiate School