Environmental education (EE) needs to be an essential component in the total education of a child. In the classroom context it offers the opportunity to develop an awareness of the natural environment, of other life forms, and of the human relationship with and responsibility for harmonious coexistence with other-than-human life forms on our planet. It is crucial that educators acknowledge the potential role of environmentally oriented narratives and utilise children’s love for stories by applying ecotexts in classrooms.
A variety of learning areas can be engaged, such as language, sciences and environmental education. The sense of wonder produced by a good story can be an advantage in the process of developing environmental awareness. In this article I investigate the portrayal of the human-nature relationship in an ecologically oriented fiction text (an ecotext). I also focus on the use and application of the text within the classroom context. Practical suggestions are given on the application and utilisation of the ecotext in the classroom in order to develop children’s environmental awareness and also their language skills. Recommendations for text selection will be made, and guidelines for the analysis of ecocritical texts will be given. The article will also offer suggestions for the planning of an interdisciplinary lesson.
Two frameworks will be integrated into this study: a theoretical framework based on a literature review of the theoretical disciplines of ecocritics and constructivism, and a practical framework with the focus on a classroom methodology for the use of ecotexts.
According to Buell (2005:viii), ecocriticism is an umbrella term that covers a whole spectrum of literary theoretical approaches to an investigation of the human-nature relationship. Ecologically oriented fiction texts can offer ways for creating awareness among children of this relationship and of the ways that humans can influence the natural environment (Bradbery 2013:223). Young readers can develop a better understanding of concepts dealt with in fictional texts, such as drought, water scarcity and pollution. They can learn about the importance of an ecologically sustainable lifestyle and be able to participate in the discourse on environmental responsibility. Bradbery (2013:228) concurs with Diakiw’s (1990) claim that the young reader finds it easy to process and internalise information when it is offered in story format.
The development of an understanding of what it means to be a world citizen in the 21st century and to help in ensuring a sustainable future may seem like an impossible goal, but introducing young readers to the concept of sustainability is a small step on the way to eventual global change. According to Medress (2008), fictional texts can offer young readers the opportunity to build bridges between their own lives and the surrounding environment, as well as help them to understand what happens in the real world out there. This can help them learn and understand how to develop a greater ecological consciousness of their own worlds, global societies, and the planet as a whole. Ecotexts for children can be catalysts in the development of people who are able to recognise environmental issues, who can participate in solving environmental problems, and who will stand for and support the general principles of tolerance, justice and equality for all.
There is a connection between ecocritical observation and constructivism, and according to Garrard (2012:13) ecocritics can contribute richly towards diagnosing and solving ecological problems. Although early ecocritics rejected constructivism, the turn towards environmental justice in the late 1990s led to typically constructivist arguments “not to assert that ’nature’ is only a cultural construct, but to study how different cultural conceptions and notions of identity project different versions of nature” (Clark 2011:164).
In this article I wish to show how constructivist teaching can be undertaken with the help of an ecotext and how learners can learn ecological awareness by making meaningful connections between previously acquired knowledge and the text in hand. By reading or listening to the story, by taking part in conversations, by reflecting and thinking critically about the text, children do not only get the opportunity to learn, but also to enjoy the exercise. They can actively participate in the learning process instead of only being passive receivers and listeners. I also explore the ways in which factual information can be shared with learners through storytelling and via self-discovery, rather than through passive reception of instruction.
According to Gaard (2008:16), ecologically oriented texts must not only articulate ecological issues, but also examine the “political programs of collective action” which are necessary to investigate and address these issues. The ecotext ought to make connections between narrative problems and the narrative solutions to them, where issues such as deforestation, loss of species or pollution are relevant and for which potential solutions can be imagined and suggested. Ecotexts must contain clear messages of definite action and real participation.
The role of the teacher is important because of their knowledge of children’s and youth literature, their capacity to critically and historically analyse children’s and youth literature (specifically ecotexts) and their ability to teach with the aid of these texts.
An ecocritical analysis of the selected Afrikaans text, Velaphi die pikkewyn (Velaphi the Penguin) by Elmarie Botes (2005) and illustrated by Anna-Carien Goosen, is undertaken with the aid of story-based questions, followed by suggestions and guidelines for the planning and implementing of an interdisciplinary lesson (Life Orientation and Afrikaans Home Language).
If fiction texts can be resources for connecting abilities, concepts and information across the curriculum, we owe it to our children to apply stories where and when we can. During the telling of a story with scientific facts embedded in them, children can be encouraged to observe the world around them cautiously and attentively through all their senses. This could encourage a curiosity about the way things work, and at the same time children’s vocabulary can be enriched with new words. This will enhance their reading and writing abilities.
A story-based approach ensures that readers receive and experience information that is usually communicated only on a rational level emotively as well. This contributes to the holistic development of the child, where independent learning becomes fused with the experience that learning can be an enjoyable process.
An ecopedagogy for environmentally oriented children’s literature, according to Gaard (2008:18–20), promotes coherence between theory and practice. Such a pedagogy includes a search for suitable texts and the development of abilities and activities that aim to convert theory into praxis. Often there is also an inherent suggestion of engaged citizenship involved. An ecopedagogy enables learners to apply classroom-acquired knowledge practically through their own intervention in and action against anti-ecological social practices.
Keywords: children’s and youth literature; constructivism; ecocritics; ecoliteracy; ecotexts; environmental education (EE); literacy development; text analysis