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Where do our words come from?

Goal: Students examine common Nature-related words to gain insight on problematic thoughtprints, and to become more curious about the origin of their own words and thoughts. Participants: Pairs, grades 11-12.

Procedure: 1. Introduce Chet Bowers’ quotation “Every word has a history.” Every word (and the concept it encodes) comes from a specific time, place and culture. Through language, we inherit and pass along historical ways of thinking about the world, often without realizing it.

2. Give each pair a word commonly used to talk about ecology, such as: environment, resource, species, organism, park, pollution, agriculture, garbage, livestock, progress, virgin forest, landfill/dump, game (wild animal), recycling, evolution, ecosystem, deforestation, climate, farm, zoo, property, civilization, science, etc.

3. Students use the Online Etymology Dictionary ( to investigate their original meanings/roots and from where and when these words came into everyday use. Have students share their results with the class.

4. Ask each pair to discuss: a. How did the initial use of these new words change how people thought about Nature? b.What sorts of beliefs are hidden behind these words? (e.g. The term “environment” is based on the idea that Nature is what surrounds but does not include us.)

c. If we didn’t have these words, how might we talk about Nature? d Why is it important to know the place, time and culture from which we got Nature-related words?

Further study: Students critically examine other Nature-related words they find in media, such as their textbooks, newspapers (etc.) to identify underlying ways of thinking.

Rethinking “resources”

Goal: Students understand that the modern way of thinking about natural resources is only one of many possible cultural perspectives. Participants: Small groups, grades 5-12 (To adapt for younger learners, ask them to draw their perception of the resource).

Procedure: 1. Each group chooses an image (or, when possible, a sample) of a “natural resource”: water, air, fish, trees, rocks, soil, the Sun, etc.

2. Students silently spend a few minutes reflecting on what their “resource” personally means to them.

3. Group members discuss: a. What did you think about? What was the first thing that came to mind? b.Why do you think this came to mind? Where did you get this idea? c. In what way is this resource most significant (or important) to you? Why? d. Does this resource have significance beyond its modern uses (for human consumption/exploitation)? e. How might humans act toward this resource if they accept only the modern perspective? f. How might different cultures or peoples in history regard this resource? How might they then act toward it?

Further study: Using cue cards, make two piles, one of resources and the other of different cultures from around the world. Each student randomly chooses one resource and one culture (including a modern culture) from each pile. She or he must make a research poster showing what significance this resource has in this particular culture.

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