By Kayla Benjamin

It’s summer vacation, but instead of enjoying their hard-earned rest days laying on the couch or the beach, 18 public school teachers from around Prince George’s County spent the last week of July on a series of field trips focused on climate change. Hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the five-day experiential course aimed to help educators develop opportunities for students to learn about the natural world and our shifting climate through outdoor experiences. 

“We have the ability to really instill in this next generation of humans the importance of belonging in your community, belonging in society, and ensuring that this place—this Earth, this community — still exists,” said Lejae Woolcock, CBF’s education outreach coordinator for D.C. and Baltimore. “These students need to understand the power that their voice has, the power that their actions have—and [it’s] coming from teachers who care, who want to take a week out of their summers where they should be resting.” 

Woolcock and other CBF team members designed the course in partnership with educators from Prince George’s County Public Schools’ (PGCPS) William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center. The whirlwind course took the teachers to five different natural spaces around the region, including one day spent on board a boat in the Potomac. 

On July 25, the second day of the course, the cohort met at Clagett Farm, a 283-acre piece of land in Upper Marlboro. CBF owns and runs the farm using regenerative agriculture practices, which seek to work with natural systems to produce food in economically and environmentally sustainable ways. The teachers saw part of the farm via hayride around noon, with Farm Partnership Manager David Tana hopping off the tractor occasionally to play tour guide. 

“I don’t want to have to farm like I’m on a space station,” Tana said of the farm’s central focus on healthy soil and no-pesticide approach. He said Clagett produced about 75,000 pounds of produce last year, about 40% of which went to food banks. 

The rest goes to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where community members can buy “shares” of the crop in the winter and pick up a portion of the freshly harvested produce each week. 

In addition to the sprawling rows of vegetables growing in the field, the teachers enrolled in the “Prince George’s County Climate Change Investigations and Actions” course got to see some of the farm’s grass-fed livestock and native tree nursery. 

“We love these summer programs because, through exposure like this at Clagett Farm, or like tomorrow [when] we’ll be paddling with our rivers and streams program, it gives the teachers opportunities to see how they can bring their students to these outdoor learning opportunities,” Woolcock said. 

Prince George’s Places New Emphasis on Environmental Education

While PGCPS and CBF have partnered up for professional development courses before, this particular curriculum ran for the first time this year. It’s one of many new and growing initiatives related to the Climate Action Plan that the school district passed last year, at the urging of students. 

The eight-part plan, which includes 58 separate recommendations, aims to slash the school district’s carbon emissions and build out strong environmental justice curriculums. Donald Belle, environmental outreach director with the William S. Schmidt Environmental Education Center, serves on the committee that focuses on putting the plan into action. He also co-led last week’s teacher course. 

“We want this to be an ongoing series… where each summer we bring teachers out to look at climate investigation. That’s exciting to me,” Belle said. “We want this group to help share their experience with other teachers, so then we get a new bunch of teachers next year.”

This summer’s cohort came from schools across the county and comprised educators from fourth and fifth grade all the way up through high school. Most, but not all, taught science—the group also included an art teacher and an English teacher. 

Nancy Gordon, one of the course’s participants, teaches environmental science at DuVal High School. An environmental educator in the DMV region since 2003, Gordon said she seeks out courses like this one every summer and looks for ways to incorporate those experiences into her classes.  

“[Students] come out of the book into the real world, and that’s what they need,” Gordon said. “The environment surrounds them. They’re part of it, and they need to be advocates for it.”

During the teachers’ day at the farm, the early afternoon proved sweltering, with high humidity and glaring sunlight. But around 1 p.m., storm clouds started to roll in, ominously thundering in the distance while the teachers finished lunch and kept one eye on the sky. Minutes later, the rain poured down, beating steadily on the top of a greenhouse where some of the group took shelter. 

It was just days before the District would go into a multi-day heat advisory. Those high temperatures helped fuel Saturday’s destructive storm, which knocked out power for over 200,000 households and pulled trees down onto homes, cars and streets.

“I tell my kids all the time: you have the most impact on your environment where you live,” Gordon said. “They often speak of things being away from them. You know, when you start talking about global climate change, they think it’s away from them, like if you’re talking about China. But no–it’s right here.”