How do children learn to care for the land? Often, it’s time spent outside with a family member that first makes them curious about nature. But teachers also have the power to spark curiosity. Walter Mirk of TPE’s Glacial Prairie Chapter has created a resource to bring the prairie into the classroom.
A sampling of slides in Walter Mirk's prairie curriculum.
Walter’s presentation contains 400 slides of information and photos. It covers topics within prairie ecology, from soil organisms to birds and from the Miocene to European settlement. While it was created for teachers in Wisconsin, the program can be tailored to any audience. The best part? It’s available for free to schools, nonprofits, and public agencies.
Such a resource is a tangible way to combat what author Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder”. Walter’s project was inspired by the students at Mayville Middle School in southeastern Wisconsin. A retired licensed clinical social worker, Walter has volunteered at MMS since 2015. He started by giving presentations about prairie in the school’s fifth-grade classes. Year after year, the kids were attentive and asked thoughtful questions, leading Walter to describe them as “the toughest audience I ever had.”
Walter and his wife Alice also helped to nurse the school’s 3/4-acre prairie planting back to health. They worked with a Fish & Wildlife Service biologist stationed at nearby Horicon Marsh to obtain prairie plants. They spent a whole day planting the seedlings alongside 89 fifth-graders. Although the work was hard, Walter remembers, the kids were “outstanding” and had a keen interest in nature. Their excitement spurred him to build a prairie curriculum.
MMS students water their prairie and themselves. Photo by Walter Mirk
The core of his presentation was a PowerPoint created by fellow TPE member Rob Baller. Walter says he kept finding more resources to add until the slides practically wrote themselves. He used the opportunity to learn more about topics that interested him, such as the arthropod life of the prairie. “And the more I read,” says Walter, “the more I became excited about what I was learning and thought of the inquisitive and enthusiastic fifth grade learners at MMS.”
He’s also learning from experts who review the project. As he puts finishing touches on the Wisconsin program, Walter is working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to create a presentation for that state. This will be challenging, he explains, because the DNR’s extensive ecological data will need to be translated for an audience of beginners. Not to be deterred, Walter is moving ahead on the project and also plans to write curricula for Illinois and Iowa.
Walter has copyrighted his work, which means that users can’t change slide content or profit from the resource. However, teachers are free to remove slides to suit their classes. It’s not just for children, either; Walter envisions the chapters of TPE using this curriculum for outreach events.
For a copy of the PowerPoint, email Walter at [email protected].
Walter is also looking for TPE photographers to feature in the slides. If you have a collection of prairie-related photos, first email [email protected] for a list of needed images. Submit your photos by December 31.
Walter at a burn training. Photo by Rob Baller