Call for Contributors -An Open Ended World History

Any educators out there interesting in contributing to an open source world history text? This would be posted on Openendedsocialstudies.org and made available for free for anyone – schools, teachers, students – struggling with a lack of quality digital resources during these distanced, virtual times.

Ancient World History: An Open Ended History is a free online history textbook adapted and expanded upon from open sources. It is an attempt to develop a middle school world history course that is truly expansive – a true world history, in other words. While it examines historical events and figures, its approach is cultural and thematic.  The text does not aim to be strict chronology of the world – rather, it is a primer for the student who is not a specialist in history.  A primer for being a semi-informed citizen of the world. As such, it features many “digressions” into societies and cultures that don’t always make the cut in conventional textbooks. It is also a work in progress, especially over the 2020-2021 school year.  Please use and share freely – to supplement or replace what you have at hand. 
If you would like to contribute chapters to the ongoing project, please click here.

Chapters will include, but are not limited to:

  • Human Origins
  • Ancient India
  • Ancient Mesopotamia
  • Ancient China
  • Ancient Egypt
  • Sub-Saharan African Kingdoms of the Ancient World
  • Ancient Americas
  • Aboriginal Oceania
  • Comparative World Religions
  • Art of the Ancient World

If one of these topics interests you, drop me a line and let’s hash it out!

 

A History of Criminalized Blackness in the United States (Free Lessons for Middle or High School Classrooms)

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Sign seen at a protest in Washington, DC, 2020.

An injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us.

Black lives matter.

But here’s a sobering thought – at various early points in the history of our nation, certain people decided very consciously that they absolutely should not. And many of our modern institutions – from the police to the courts to the schools – were built on this cracked foundation.

The historical decisions that have shaped our moment are often invisible to us – like water to fish, we swim in the choices our ancestors have made.

But we when we realize that this is the case – that our reality is not set, but a sum total of historical choices – we become responsible for our own actions.

And then, we are truly free.

Here are a selection of free history lessons from our archives – suitable for middle or high school classrooms – that shed a light on our current moment. If you aren’t teaching lessons like these in your social studies classes, ask yourself – why not?

  • The Evolution of the Virginia Laws of Servitude and Slavery (1643-1691) – Read along as Virginia colonial officials criminalize blackness in real time. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Comparing Slavery and Factory Life – Apologists for slavery often argued that, in their day at least, their system of slavery was better than free market capitalism.  Let’s put that to the test…  (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Were the Freedmen Really Free? – After the Civil War, Southerners sought to reconstruct slavery in everything but name. We are the direct inheritors of this system, which was only partly deconstructed in the 1950s and 60s. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Social Reform Movements – Who Should Be the New Face of the $20 Bill? – Progress has always been earned, never granted. Give students the change to reimagine our national pantheon to include the social reformers and progressives who are often more responsible than any president or general for the way of life we cherish today. (research activity)

Two relevant chapters from our totally free, open source textbook The United States: An Open-Ended History:

  1. The Origins of Servitude and Slavery in Colonial America
  2. Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom

Do you have other relevant lessons?  Share them – I would be honored to host them for free so that they can reach a wider audience!  Reach out to me here.

Twenty Days of Home School Social Studies Curriculum (for Middle or High School)

Well, hello there.

Like most of you, I’ve suddenly found myself teaching online social studies classes. Good thing there’s a whole library of free lessons at Openendedsocialstudies.org, just ready and waiting to support your middle and high school world and US history needs. Please browse and share widely in your social circles.

Here’s a look at some lessons my own home-bound students will see in the twilight days of this school year, preempted so abruptly by our national quarantine.  We’re trying to keep it light, airy, and most of all relevant.

Most to the point, we’re trying to teach these kids something about how to be a good, well-rounded person.  Wasn’t that why you got into this business in the first place?

So, get your kids away from the computer screen as much as possible – that is where they’re going to be for math and ELA.

Everything below is written to apply to the town where I teach, but can easily be adapted to your hometown.

Good luck and be good to each other.

Tom,
Founder, Openendsocialstudies.org


Day 1 – Map Your World

Make a hand drawn map of your home and your yard (if you have one.) Use a measuring tape (or improvise one if you don’t have a measuring tape.)

Your map should be to scale – 1 inch equals 5 feet. Include and label all rooms, windows, doors, and major trees and landscaping. Also include a compass rose and a key, if necessary.
Scan/take a photo of your map.

Day 2 – Plant Life

Pick a tree or plant in your yard. If you’re in an apartment, that’s ok – pick a plant/tree around your building.

Figure out what it is and write a brief report (in your own words, approximately one paragraph). Address questions about: the conditions under which it thrives, its relationship to humans (do we use it or its fruit or leaves for anything, or is it just for decoration), whether it is native to our state, whether your family planted it or it was growing there when you moved in.

You’ve got to be a detective for this one – describe the plant in Google image search, ask an adult who might know what it is, or download a leaf identification app on your phone (there are lots of free ones).

Day 3 – Ask an Adult

Ask an adult to tell you about the neighborhood they lived in when they were your age. Think of at least two related follow up questions. Document the answers in interview format – like this:

Student: Mr. Kenning, what am I supposed to do again?

Mr. Kenning: Interview an adult?

Student: Wait, what?

Mr. Kenning: Ask an adult some questions about the neighborhood they lived in when they were your age!

Student: That’s all?

Mr. Kenning: That’s all!

Day 4 – Read This

Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Day 5 – Dig a Hole

1.Find an out of the way space. Dig a hole at around a foot in depth. To provide a sense of scale, take a picture of your hole with a ruler or some other object in it.
2. Answer the following survey on your own sheet of paper:
Name:
Age:
Grade:
Teacher Who Made Me Do This and Their Email Address:
Best Friends:
Favorite Food:
Favorite Music:
What’s Going on in the World Right Now:
Advice to My Future Self:
3. Place you answers in a carefully sealed Ziploc bag, along with anything else you might want to bury in your time capsule.
4. Throw it in the hole, cover the hole, and dig it all up on April 1st in the year 2025 (or, before you move from your current house – whichever comes first).  Write me a note when you do, and let me know how you’re doing!
Try to go easy on the grass – if you must dig through grass, you can usually cut a piece by getting your shovel up underneath it and levering it up.  You can then replace it when you are done by dropping it back into place.  If you are totally not allowed to dig, place this under a big rock, a paving stone, or somewhere else hidden.

Day 6 – Estimate your Impact

Use this tool – https://ei.lehigh.edu/learners/cc/carboncalc.html – to estimate your carbon footprint. Answer each in a short paragraph, in your own words:
  1. Summarize the “Analysis” tab – what are your biggest impacts?
  2. Were there any sources of carbon that you hadn’t considered before taking this survey?
  3. Is there anything you could reasonably do to lessen your impact?

Day 7 – Eat a Piece of Fruit

Find a piece of fruit in your house. If you don’t have any, find something fruit flavored. Write a brief report on that piece of fruit, including information about its history and where it is cultivated.

Day 8 – Public Records

Look up your home’s tax/historic information. If you live in Pinellas County, you can find it here: https://www.pcpao.org/searchbyAddress.php
Answer the following questions:
1. In what year was your home built?
2. What is the “Land Size” of your property?
3. How many sales are recorded for your home/when were they?
4. How has the value of your home changed over time?

Day 9 – Ask an Adult

Ask your adult to show you some photographs of his or her self when they were your age. Ask them three questions inspired by the photo. Record/document the answers in interview format.

Day 10 – Smoke Detectors

Find all the smoke detectors in your home. Get up on a chair and press the test button.  They should make a loud noise.  If they don’t, you need new batteries.  You’re welcome. Send a photo of yourself up on the chair.

Day 11 – Record a Podcast

Using your phone or computer, record a short podcast (minimum two minutes) – on the theme “What is my life like while I’m stuck at home because of the Coronavirus?”

Day 12 – Make a Meal

Make or help to make breakfast, lunch, or dinner today for the members of your family. Submit a selfie of you in the kitchen/doing the work.

Day 13 – Native America

What Native American group occupied the land where you live now?  Figure it out, give me a paragraph about them, and tell where I could can go to see some of their artifacts or the ruins of their towns.

Day 14 – Your Public Purpose

Read this article about the Californios Verdes – https://openendedsocialstudies.org/2019/04/19/californios-verdes-and-your-public-purpose-project/. The assignment at the end asks you to create a year long project. You don’t actually have to do this assignment – but if you DID have to do it, what kind of project would you take on?  Describe it and why it is important to you in a five to eight sentence paragraph.

Day 15 – Sketch

Find something outside and sketch it. Your artwork doesn’t have to be “good” – but it must demonstrate effort. This shouldn’t take less than five minutes.  Take a photo of yourself holding your sketch and upload it.

Day 16 – Your Officials

Who is your mayor?  What is one thing he has done for the city? Who is your deputy mayor?  Where is city hall?

Day 17 – In the Shade

Find a shady spot outside and read a book there for at least ten minutes.  Take a selfie in your spot, with your book, and submit it.

Day 18 – Your Parks

Use Google Maps to help you pick a park or nature preserve. Write a one paragraph history of that place OR, if applicable, a one paragraph biography  of the person it is named after.

Day 19 – Read This

 Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
 ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

Day 20 – Surprise

Surprise me with your own act of creativity or whimsy – a hobby, a piece of art, an act of kindness, etc.  It can be anything.  Tell me about it/share a photo of it here, and tell me why you are proud of this thing.

Ontario librarian creates online guide for teachers to find available Indigenous course content

Via the CBC, for all of those looking to include more indigenous content into their lesson plans, when the textbook publishers and the government appointed panels fail us:

A librarian at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto has compiled a list of Indigenous education content available.

The resource compilation is a response to the recent cancellation of Truth and Reconciliation curriculum writing sessions that were to build upon Ontario’s curriculum by infusing Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy across all subjects and grades.

Educators and librarians doing it for themselves – we owe it to the next generations to curate a more expansive definition of world literature and history!

 

Some Ideas for Teaching about the Philippines (and the Philippine-American War)

LESSON PLANS

“I have asked myself many times: Is the Filipino worth suffering, or even dying, for? Is he not a coward who would readily yield to any colonizer, be he foreign or homegrown? Is a Filipino more comfortable under an authoritarian leader because he does not want to be burdened with the freedom of choice? Is he unprepared, or worse, ill-suited for presidential or parliamentary democracy?
I have carefully weighed the virtues and the faults of the Filipino and I have come to the conclusion that he is worth dying for because he is the nation’s greatest untapped resource.” – Ninoy Aquino
  • Islands in a Friendly Sea: Some Basics of Filipino History and Culture (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who are the Filipinos?  What is their history and culture?  How has it been shaped by island geography?  By contact with the outside world?
  • Manila at the Crossroads of World Trade (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): For more than three centuries, Manila was one of the crown jewels of the Spanish Empire, sitting at the intersection of global trade between Asia, the Americas, and Europe.  How did this global trade shape the Philippines – and how did the Philippines shape global trade?
  • The Origins of the Philippine-American War (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): How did the Filipinos gain independence from Spain, only to have it snatched away by their alleged ally, the United States?  How does this experience resonate in both Philippine and U.S. history?
  • The Brutality of the Philippine-American War (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Why was the Philippine-American War so violent?  Did this violence help or hinder the goals of each side?  Should there be rules that govern the conduct of war?
  • The Philippines in the American Empire (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): After nearly 400 years, how did independence finally come to the Philippines?  Was the United States conquest of the Philippines an anomaly in its history, or was it business as usual?
  • “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Full text of this imperialist poem, as well as an answer in the form of an anti-imperialist parody.
  • Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): This exhibit juxtaposes the visual message presented by the stereoscopic images with excerpts from the letters written by U.S. soldiers that were first published in local newspapers and later collected in the Anti-Imperialist League’s pamphlet, allowing us to get a glimpse of the Philippine-American War as it was presented to Americans at home, reading the news or entertaining friends in their parlors.
  • In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):  How did the American media cover the war in the Philippines?  An excerpt from “In The Trenches” by John F. Bass, originally published in Harper’s Weekly.
  • Ninoy and Marcos – “A Pact with the Devil is No Pact at All.” (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):  Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Cory Aquino, and the People Power Revolution toppled the kleptocratic Marcos regime through nonviolence, answering with their lives the question, “Is the Filipino worth dying for?”

THIS UNIT WAS INDEPENDENTLY FINANCED BY OPENENDEDSOCIALSTUDIES.ORG.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

How to Teach Like A Traveler

“The best thing would be to take your students on a field trip every day – a world tour that throws light on experiences that most of your class can scarcely imagine. But of course, for so many reasons, that isn’t possible.

In the meantime, we educators have a duty to report the world back to our students – in all its unvarnished wonder. The great Mark Twain wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely…’

Are you teaching with the spirit of a traveler?”

Thomas Kenning, the creator of Openendedsocialstudies.org, has written an article which appears in this month’s issue of Teacher Plus magazine entitled “How to Teach like a Traveler.”

Check it out now, and check out our library of lessons designed to help you do just that!

Climate Change in the Classrooms

From NPR, four out of five parents wish that teacher taught students about climate change:

“And that support crosses political divides, according to the results of an exclusive new NPR/Ipsos poll: Whether they have children or not, two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats agree that the subject needs to be taught in school.

A separate poll of teachers found that they are even more supportive, in theory — 86% agree that climate change should be taught.”

Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project

Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?

This lesson was reported from:

The Californios Verdes – which means in English the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally-conscious young people based on the shores of the Sea of Cortez in La Paz, Mexico. In their own words, they are “a new generation of young leaders united by love of nature and interested in working for the conservation of the environment and a better quality of life.”

The members of Californios Verdes are alumni of environmental education programs run by Ecology Project International (EPI), a nonprofit organization which works in communities around the Americas to connect students to their local ecosystems through meaningful scientific field experiences.  These young citizens of La Paz, aged 17 to 25, were inspired by what they learned on the beaches and in the water around their hometown, but they found few opportunities within their community to exercise their newfound passion for environmental justice.

Undaunted, about a dozen of these young folks formed the Californios Verdes in 2011. Their mission? “To be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects.” Together, the Californios Verdes seek to realize the vision of “a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”

What exactly does that look like?

For the Californios Verdes, it means a weekly meeting, rain or shine, to organize and plan their public activities. One of their most successful campaigns saw the group advocating for a statewide ban on single-use plastics. These are the cups, straws, bags, and utensils given to you when your order takeout or buy something at the store. They are often used exactly once, maybe for just minutes, before ultimately ending up as refuse in world’s oceans. There, these plastics are frequently ingested by wildlife, sometimes killing the animal unfortunate enough to have mistaken them for food.

Some animals that consume these plastics are subsequently eaten by humans. What this means is that if you have ever eaten seafood, you likely carry a small amount of microplastic residue inside of your body!

This a shocking fact. The long term effects of these microplastics on the health of the world’s oceans – not to mention the health of the world’s humans – are not fully understood.

When the Californios Verdes learned all of this, they were motivated to take action. They canvassed the scenic waterfront in La Paz, educating the public not just about the need to dispose of plastic waste properly, but also how important it is to reduce demand for these plastics in the first place. They also helped to educate local restaurant and shop owners whose businesses rely heavily on the tourists drawn to La Paz by its natural beauty – a beauty that they themselves were jeopardizing through their reliance on single-use plastics.

It is no small understatement to say that the public education and lobbying efforts of the Californios Verdes were instrumental to enacting anti-single-use-plastic laws in their state. Representatives of the group were even invited to be present when the governor signed the bill into law.

This albatross died from the large quantities of plastic waste it ate. This plastic became lodged in its digestive tract. The bird effectively starved to death, even though its stomach was full. This is the exact kind of waste that the Californios Verdes have worked so hard to eliminate in their community. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

One of the Californios Verdes’ favorite projects involves educating the community about vulnerable ecosystems in the area surrounding La Paz. One such effort focuses on nearby Playa Balandra. This popular beach is prime real estate, and American-owned hotel chains have submitted various proposals to build resorts on its otherwise pristine shores. The Californios Verdes sponsor beach cleanups, cookouts, and nature hikes at Balandra – anything to help residents better understand why the promise of a few dozen hotel jobs today is worth little if it irrevocably disrupts the natural character that brings tourists to the region in the first place. They hope instead to spark the same sort of passion for the environment that EPI originally helped to awaken in them, thereby paving the way for even more robust community investment in green tourism and sustainable business in at Playa Balandra, in La Paz, and in their whole state.

Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. As Carlos, a seventeen year-old who rarely misses a meeting of the Californios Verdes puts it, “If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?”

The Californios Verdes at Playa Balandra, widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches. The Californios Verdes routinely work to educate the surrounding community about the importance of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

It’s inspirational to realize that the Californios Verdes, many of them too young to vote, have already done so much to help shape their community for the better. They are ground zero for a grassroots movement that aims to change the world, starting with their own city block in La Paz and radiating outward.


Public Purpose Project

Look, I hear you – your life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – you’re busy. And you’re a kid.

But so are the members of the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —

What have you done this week to make the world a better place?

Taking a cue from the Californios Verdes, every Friday for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. This is very much going to be a student-directed project. Your PPP does not have to be related to the environment, though it certainly could be. It should be built around a cause about which you care deeply. It’s something you’re going to be spending a lot of time with – so be thoughtful in your selection. Your main goal is to produce something that leaves your community nicer than you found it.

You might, for example:

  • Identify a need in your school or community. Develop and carry out a service project to address that need.
  • Design and create a mural in your school or community.
  • Research, develop, and share a historical or ecological walking/driving tour of your community.
  • Produce a documentary video about your community focused on an aspect of its history, its ecology, or some exemplary charity/activist group working to make it a better place.
  • Produce a work of environmental storytelling (a video, a published article, a photo exhibition, a social media feed with original content) raising awareness about a species, park, ecosystem, or ecological issue in your region.
  • Research, design, and produce a sustainably-sourced line of products that raise awareness of an environmental issue related to your region – think of T-shirts or reusable shopping bags that feature local flora and fauna, reusable water bottles, etc.
  • Implement a composting or recycling program at your school.
  • Develop and implement a plan to make your school more green.
  • Volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours with a local organization and tell the story of your experience.

Consult with your teacher for questions on topics like group sizes, as well as on specific due dates.

General Timeline:

End of First Quarter: In communication with your teacher, develop a detailed proposal for your project. This proposal should identify a specific need in your community. It should also layout a clear set of goals you aim to achieve relevant to addressing that need. Lay out the specific steps you plan to take take toward meeting your goal. Set out a realistic timeline for achieving your goals by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your plan, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you might anticipate. You should research other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, in other schools or communities, with an eye toward answering the question: What lessons from that project can I apply to my own? Your report should be delivered in the form of a Google Slide presentation, shared with your teacher, and presented to the class at large. Your teacher and peers will offer constructive feedback on your plan.

End of Second and Third Quarters: Add new slides to your original presentation. These new slides should update your instructor and peers on the status of your project, answering questions like: How far along are you? What new, unanticipated challenges have presented themselves? How have you addressed those issues? What have you learned? What new questions do you have? How can the group support you? Has your timeline or goal changed in any way? Be sure to include photos, videos, or other documentary evidence of your project in progress.

End of Fourth Quarter/School Year: Your goals should be met, your project realized. If it is not, explain what happened, striking a constructive tone. It isn’t a time for excuses, and there shouldn’t be any last minute surprises. You should have been working on this steadily through the year. Deliver a final presentation taking your teacher and peers through these last months of your project. Reflect by addressing the following questions: Were you successful? What did you learn? What would you have done differently? If you were to continue developing this project, how would you extend it?


THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

A female sea lion sleeps on a small, rocky island near La Paz, Mexico. Her fate is connected to yours – she competes for food in the same ecosystem where humans fish extensively. She swims in currents carrying our plastic waste. Populations of animals that she loves to eat are threatened by oceans changed dramatically by human-driven climate change. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes)

Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” – John Steinbeck
This lesson was reported from:

In 1940, the author John Steinbeck joined an expedition to the
Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their purpose was scientific – they wished to document and understand the ecology of the Sea of Cortez. They traveled with a small crew aboard a 75-foot boat named the Western Flyer, collecting scientific samples and data of the fauna they encountered, all with the goal of writing a scientific guidebook – one part species catalog, one part travel adventure – entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. (1941)


John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl – are considered classics of Western literature. (Wikipedia)

First edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, 1951.

The book describes the complex ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez, its islands, and shorelines. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving components of their environment. Steinbeck describes the wildlife – in particular, the marine invertebrates – in colorful detail, but Sea of Cortez is perhaps most notable for placing humans and human activity firmly into his poetic take on ecology. After all, humans inhabit the Sea of Cortez, they fish in it, they mine the surrounding mountains, their carbon emissions and plastic waste from thousands of miles away effect it – humans should not be considered apart from its ecology.

Humans engage in complex interactions with ecosystems – both those in their immediate surroundings, where they live and work, and those on the other side of the planet, in areas that supply commercial goods that they consume or that are effected by greenhouse emissions. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)
(Enlarge and open in a new window.)

In fact, human activities are a significant factor in almost all of Earth’s ecosystems. The cumulative effects of their impact are large even enough to influence the planet’s climate, or patterns of weather over long periods of time.

Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include food (fishing, for example), construction material (lumber from forests, sand, stone from quarries, metals from mines, plastics from petroleum pumped from deep under the Earth), and medicinal plants (aspirin, quinine, marijuana). Ecosystem goods also include less tangible items like tourism and outdoor recreation, staples of the economy in many communities around the globe.

Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are the many and varied benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems.  These include clean air and water (thanks to plants which capture CO2 and aquifers which filter rain water) and crop pollination (by insects and birds). Even things like beauty, inspiration, and opportunities for scientific research, which help humans to better understand our world.

In addition to providing a home (habitat) for a great variety of other species, mangrove swamps protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surge (especially during hurricanes), and tsunamis – a great example of ecosystem services in action. (Florida Everglades at low tide, 2018.)

While ecosystem goods have traditionally been recognized as the basis for things of economic value – they are property and goods that one can own – ecosystem services tend to be taken for granted – available to all,
whether one “owns” the forest or not. Ecosystem services are what an economist might call a public good – something shared more or less equally by everyone for free. Since they do not cost money, our capitalist system has traditionally placed little value on protecting them – even though they are vital to life as we know it.

In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck connects the dots between ecosystem goods, ecosystem services, and human activity. While he was not the first to connect humans to the ecosystems they inhabit and exploit, his writing on the subject is both eloquent and persuasive. Early in the book, he writes:

“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

The Earth can seem huge on a cross country drive that takes days, but it is actually finite. Its natural resources are vulnerable and limited. As human population and per capita consumption grow, so do the demands imposed on ecosystems and the effects of the human ecological footprint – that is, the impact of humanity on the global ecosystem in terms of carbon released, energy used, water consumed, and waste created.

Ecosystem services are not only limited but also that they are threatened by human activities. Problems for all ecosystems include: environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For terrestrial ecosystems, additional threats include air pollution (chemicals released by manufacturing and power generation, emission of greenhouse gases), soil degradation (erosion from farming, salinization from irrigation, conversion of ecosystems for human construction projects), and deforestation (especially in tropical and coastal regions). For marine ecosystems threats include unsustainable exploitation of marine resources (overfishing of certain species), marine pollution (from deep sea oil drilling or spills), microplastics pollution (plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and too often ends up floating in the ocean), water pollution (from urban runoff and industrial manufacturing), and building on coastal areas.

Scientists have been conducting research for decades to help us better understand long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity. In a capitalistic democracy like the United States – where the priorities of both corporations and government are responsive to the will of the majority of people – it is important for all citizens to understand the findings of these scientists. Each of us must begin to recognize the way our habits of consumption impact on the ecosystems in our region, as well as – in a globalized economy threatened by climate change – ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Downtown La Paz is beautiful, just like the downtown of your city, but human development shapes ecosystems as well. Earth, rock, and sand are paved over, waves and tidal action are broken, buildings and pavement reflect or trap heat and rain, runoff from roads after a rain can carry oil, plastic wastes, and other pollutants into otherwise clean waters. (La Paz, Mexico, 2019.)

Humans have the unique ability to shape our environment. This is one thing that distinguishes us from our fellow animals and plants.

Alongside this ability to shape, we also have the ability to ask and answer complex questions through careful observation of the world around us – this is what we can science. Elsewhere in Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck said, “It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones.” 

As we begin to better understand the world around us, we find ourselves confronted with the uncomfortable truth that some of our activities as a species have damaged – and continue to damage – the ecosystems on which all life depends.

Modern technology has only enhanced these abilities to shape and to understand – just as it has enhanced our responsibility to create a sustainable future for our species and all others on this planet.

A handful of sand from the bottom of Candelero Bay on Isla Espíritu Santo reveals an entire ecosystem of marine worms living underfoot and, for most people, out of mind. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

For Writing or Discussion

1. What is an ecosystem? What goods and services do humans extract from them? What negative impacts do human activities have on them?

2. Describe an ecosystem in or near your hometown – name species of plants and animals, describe the average temperature, rainfall, etc in winter and summer. How have humans shaped this ecosystem and for what reasons?

3. In your own words, what does Steinbeck mean when he says “None of it is important or all of it is?” Do you agree with this sentiment?

4. Amongst life on Earth, human beings possess a unique level of self-awareness, as well as an unparalleled ability to shape every ecosystem on the planet for better or worse. Does that power come with any responsibility? Defend your answer.

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

  1. Trace your impact outward into the environment — list and categorize all of the (a) trash (paper, plastic, metal, recyclable or not), (b) carbon emissions (from electricity use, transportation, ordering things off of Amazon, etc), and (c) food/water (including showers, toilet flushes, and the sprinkler on your lawn) you consumed today. Be thorough and precise.
  2. Quantify each of these impacts — weigh them, measure them, use information from the internet to estimate them. There are many tools online that can help you to calculate these numbers. Represent this information in charts or diagrams.
  3. Incorporating information compiled in steps one and two, create a world map infographic or poster showing the origin points and impact points of your ecological footprint. Also, plot and illustrate the ways in which those points will effect you. For example: Where does your food come from? How is it transported to you? Is it refrigerated on the way? What is the carbon impact of these activities? What kind of biomagnification (plastics, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) is present in your diet? Was the tuna you may have eaten farmed or caught wild? Where? Is the current population of that fish in the wild sustainable? How many MPG does your car get? How far do you live from school? How long did your mom idle in carline? What temperature is the AC in your how many square foot house? Where do the plastics you trash end up? Where does the water in your toilet go after you flush? What effect does carbon have on the ice caps? Sea level? Acidification of the ocean? Where does your waste water go? What does your clean water come from? How will rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse activity impact your hometown? etc
  4. In a reflective essay: Which of these impacts can you reduce through personal choices? What challenges or barriers to change will you encounter? Which of these impacts can only be reduced through government or corporate action?

Take It Further

Identify three concrete steps you will take to reduce your ecological footprint. This online quiz may help you. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

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John Steinbeck visited Isla Espíritu Santo, an island in the Gulf of California, off the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Wikipedia describes ecosystems in the surrounding reefs as being home to parrotfish, angelfish, trumpetfish, Moorish idols, and rainbow wrasse, with many other species passing nearby including sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Birds who call the island home include brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, turkey vultures, and hummingbirds. A large sea lion colony resides nearby. By the 1990s pressure to develop on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. Tim Means, a conservationist based in nearby La Paz, formed a coalition of activists who were able to purchase part of the island from the ejido (farming commune) that wished to sell it to the developer. One third of the funds came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. Today,Isla Espíritu Santo is protected as part of the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna – Islas del Golfo de California. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

How to Teach Like A Traveler

“The best thing would be to take your students on a field trip every day – a world tour that throws light on experiences that most of your class can scarcely imagine. But of course, for so many reasons, that isn’t possible.

In the meantime, we educators have a duty to report the world back to our students – in all its unvarnished wonder. The great Mark Twain wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely…’

Are you teaching with the spirit of a traveler?”

Thomas Kenning, the creator of Openendedsocialstudies.org, has written an article which appears in this month’s issue of Teacher Plus magazine entitled “How to Teach like a Traveler.”

Check it out now, and check out our library of lessons designed to help you do just that!