Snail angel

The other evening I had dinner with a friend at a favorite pub in Kelburn village.  It was raining when we left, and the steep steps back down into Aro Valley were dark and slippery.  I could just discern the form of a woman wearing a white raincoat in front of me as she carefully made her way along the path.  Just as I was about to pass her, she bent over and picked up something from the pavement, placed it in the grass, then took a few steps and picked up something else.  snailSomething round and shiny. “Snails,” she said, seeing that I had paused. “I squished one the other night and felt so terrible.” I joined her, spotted another snail shape and tried to move it.  It took some effort to pry it off the moist surface and after releasing it in the grass, left my fingers slightly gluey. When I got home, I looked up what we had been rescuing: the common garden snail, Cantareus aspersus.

Doing this reminded me of a fellow Antioch doctoral student whose research focused on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  While walking this ancient pilgrimage route, she encountered dozens of snails crossing the path. Rather than let them be crushed under the feet of other travelers, she spent hours carefully moving them to the side – part of her mission of humane service.

The wild creatures that I meet along Wellington’s various pathways are often unable to move out of the way quickly.  They may be naturally slow-moving, like snails, or they may be incapacitated in some other way.  I often find bees on the sidewalk, sometimes attracted by squished fruit, or maybe just too old or cold to fly any more, trying to absorb some heat from the pavement. They crawl willingly onto my finger or a leaf and are airlifted to a safer spot.

Sometimes the encounters are closer to home. The first morning that I took a good look around my new apartment, I found a web stretched across  the  frosted glass of the bathroom window.  Tucked into a crevice by the window frame was a small, still spider.  Sometimes I inadvertently disturb its web when I open or close the window.  It always rebuilds and, based on the evidence that has fallen onto the windowsill, has found an ideal location for trapping prey that is attracted to the light inside. Having a spider web in lieu of a window screen would seem antithetical to most people, I realize – but I see it as a partnership for the greater good.

spider 2

There are any number of invertebrates I’ve met here whose lives have intersected with mine for the briefest of moments, yet left a lasting impression.  I think about the human tendency to recoil from such encounters, or to want to destroy them, and I recall a student at one of the schools that I visited.  She refused to follow the direction to squish the caterpillars feasting on the brassica plants and instead collected all she could find and released them on the other side of the school fence. One of her classmates teased her about rescuing pests, and she retorted, “Well, YOU are a pest – wouldn’t you want me to rescue you?”

This urge to look out for the smallest, most fragile, and often most reviled creatures sometimes feels like one of the missing links in our understanding of biodiversity. From our earliest days we receive both implicit and explicit instruction on which species are good and bad, beautiful and ugly, worth conserving and deserving of death. These small, cold-blooded creatures are usually consigned to all of the latter categories, often for no reason beyond an instinctive fear or revulsion. One of the goals of teaching younger children about biodiversity is to help them encounter the rich diversity of invertebrate life with curiosity, and to engage what I believe is an inherently humane attitude.


As one student at Zealandia put it, guarding a tree weta that had been stepped on in a path, “You don’t know if it has feelings.  But I do.”


Still wondering

When I first left Maryland in December and arrived in Tasmania, I opened a gift from my youngest students in JE Missy/Kalli.  It was a set of “I wonder…” sticks, each with a question that I tried to answer based on the observations I had made and things I had learned so far.  Here are some answers to these questions again, this time from a New Zealand perspective.

Noah wondered if I was seeing any trash. Since we’re talking about New Zealand, I’ll first have to change the word “trash” to “rubbish,” which is what they call it here. In Tasmania, I rarely saw trash along the roads or the beach, but I was living in a very remote place far from any town. Here in New Zealand, I live in a city where there are many more people to create more rubbish.  They do have free recycling and rubbish pickup (it’s spelled “kerbside” instead of “curbside” here), but if you want to take things to the landfill, or “tip,” you have to pay a fee.  Most people are very responsible about not littering.  Rubbish does often wash up on beaches, though. One of my favorite experiences picking up rubbish in New Zealand was when I was on a horse-riding trek on the South Island.  We were riding along a deserted beach, and we kept finding plastic items, like bags and bottles, that had been washed up by the waves.  We didn’t have any rubbish bags with us, so we just tied the things onto our saddles and carried them back to the farm with us. The horses didn’t seem to mind. That was a fun Tuesday Rubbishday!

Parker wondered if I would see a new animal. Just as it was in Tasmania, almost every animal I see here in New Zealand is new to me.  There are a few, like sparrows and monarch butterflies, that are the same species that we have in Maryland, but New Zealand has many kinds of animals that are found nowhere else in the world. The tuatara is one of my favorites.  It is a reptile that looks like a lizard, but it isn’t a lizard.  It is in its very own ancient group.  Tuatara nearly became extinct after humans arrived in New Zealand and brought animals like rats and cats here, which hunted them.  After working very hard to save them and raise new tuatara on protected islands, they are being brought back to the mainland and released in sanctuaries.  There is one place – Zealandia –  where I can see tuatara regularly, hanging out by their burrows.  Some of them are marked with colored beads to identify them. There are now lots of baby tuatara that have hatched and are setting up their own territories.  This is great news for a very cool reptile!

wondered if I would see a new snake.  Do gummies count? If I saw a live snake in New Zealand, I would probably become famous, because no snakes are allowed in New Zealand – ever.  Not even in a zoo.  Snakes have never lived here, so if they somehow were brought here and got loose, they would hunt small reptiles (like the tuatara) and birds that have no protection from them.  So snakes are banned from New Zealand, and every time I see an S-shaped stick and excitedly think, “Snake!” I remind myself that I will just have to wait until I get back to the United States.

baby animal stick

Maggie wondered if I would see a baby animal. Now that it is the middle of autumn here, most wild baby animals in New Zealand are pretty well grown up.  The baby animals that I’ve most enjoyed watching grow in New Zealand are called shags (or cormorants).  There is a colony of shags nesting in the Zealandia sanctuary, and I have been able to watch them raise babies from hatching out of their eggs until they fledge, or leave the nest.  Watching the parents feed the babies is lots of fun!  The parents go out and dive for fish, come back to the nest, and the babies beg for them to open their mouths and then dive right in! Here are some videos: a newly hatched chick playing with a stick, and some older chicks getting fed.

Missy wondered if I would try a new food.  From Tasmania, I shared some wild foods that were new to me, and I have found several here in New Zealand as well.  One is horopito, a very spicy, peppery leaf that is used in traditional cooking.  Another is kawakawa – both its leaf and fruit are edible, and have been used as medicine.

Jack wondered if I would get hurt.  Since I have just mentioned eating wild plants here, this is a good time to say that some plants in New Zealand are VERY poisonous to eat!  I was taught about the kawakawa by an expert, so I felt safe trying it, but there are other plants that would indeed hurt me if I ate them.  One of them is a plant called tutu.  Tutu’s poison is so strong that it once killed an elephant that was accidentally fed some leaves.

Nick wanted to know if I would see a koala bear, and Cailin wondered if I would see a tiger. Unlike Australia, there are no native mammals in New Zealand except for bats.  There are plenty of mammals that have been brought here and either released into the wild, like rabbits, hedgehogs and possums, or are kept as livestock or pets, like cattle or cats. But no koalas or tigers, except for the ones at the zoo!

Let me know if you have any new questions!

Here is one for you:

What is that creature at the top?







Signs and messages

Auckland Zoo, Te Papa, Franz Josef Glacier, Nelson

Environmental messaging comes in many forms.  Often it is factual information providing the identification of something we see, but it also frequently includes a psychological component intended to shape our behavior.  This is especially true in conservation settings, such as zoos and sanctuaries. Illustrating the connection between palm oil products and the destruction of orangutan habitat, or off-leash dogs with shorebird declines, more effectively invites a positive action rather than simply saying “Don’t!”

My school visit today focused on a more benign, but still persuasive form of messaging: students deciding how to create effective garden planting guides for display around the school. They had been tasked with selecting a variety of New Zealand-friendly fruits and vegetables, researching variables such as best locations, times, and conditions for planting, and creating posters to display their findings. The class began with a review of motivating design principles: What would catch someone’s attention? What would make them want to take a closer look? What would make them want to plant these particular items? A review of efforts from the previous class became a critique. Which of these designs works? What about word choice and emphasis? What about how the information is organized?

sign discussion

As the kids broke into their teams and resumed work, some on computers and some doing pencil drafts, I watched and asked questions. What do you want people to get from this? Why are they written in different languages? What is your plan to get people’s attention? How will you know if your poster works?

It turned out that in their planning sessions, they had come up with a number of strategies that they thought would be effective, and had created a menu of required and optional content. Because this school represents a large number of nationalities, they agreed that each poster had to display multiple languages, to ensure that everyone would be able to understand. To get and keep people’s attention, the posters should be bold, clearly organized, and attractive. To make them even more appealing, artwork would depict the plants at their most enticing stage, growing, being harvested, or as food. While the members of one group debated the merits of using purple versus pink markers, another group conducted a peer survey around the room: “Which do like better – these drawings of veggies in the garden beds, or in a chart?”

These posters lead me to wonder what other roles signs play as guides in teaching about sustainability and biodiversity. Environmental messages delivered through signage have been actively on my mind throughout my time in New Zealand. In the US, I often ignore signs, words being less compelling than the living things around me. Here, though, there is a powerful incentive to learn both exactly what I am seeing and why it is culturally and ecologically significant. This goes for both individually and officially created messages. Many signs are blunt.  They often reflect New Zealand’s cultural heritage. They use visual evidence of change over time. They challenge. They tell stories. They invite action. They make me think.


The last 30 years have seen a major shift in environmental messaging from a focus on dire circumstances to one that is more future-oriented and positive.   As I work to identify effective and practical ways to teach biodiversity and sustainability , the garden planting guides that I saw being developed remind me that kids have an innate talent for seeing endless possibilities. Institutions such as the Auckland Zoo acknowledge this through their signs and celebrate their role as kaitiaka, or active environmental guardians who belong to both their immediate community and a global conservation network.

The view from here

This week marks the halfway point for my Fulbright project in New Zealand. The Fulbright teachers will gather with advisors and Fulbright staff on Monday to review our progress so far and look toward the culmination of our projects.  For those who have asked, “Now, what is it you’re doing again?” here is a brief overview.


  • Discern global best practices for teaching sustainability at work in NZ primary schools.
  • Create a toolkit for sustainability and biodiversity education

Guiding questions

  • How can we help schools focusing on 21st century skills to incorporate sustainability and place-based awareness into their culture?
  • What practical tools can we give schools, administrators, and teachers to make effective use of their resources?
  • How do we translate the concept of sustainability into terms that different communities can embrace, and that empower them to change and grow in healthy ways?


  • Visit and observe schools
    • interview students, teachers, parents, and administrators.
  • Visit and observe school programmes at the Wellington Zoo and Zealandia
    • interview staff

Current location

As Wellington has taught me, every downhill has its uphill.  A great deal of navigation was required at the beginning, trying to locate schools/teachers/administrators willing to participate in my project , and then negotiating the official approvals that would give me access.   At this midway point, I’m glad to report that I have observed 11 schools, and am aiming to complete focused interviews in the second term (through May).

Life in New Zealand is all about successful adaptation, and my project here is no exception. The initial effort to find participating schools led me in an unanticipated but ultimately fulfilling direction, partnering with Wellington institutions whose central mission is teaching about sustaining biodiversity.

bt skink
blue-tongued skink, Wellington Zoo

The Wellington Zoo invited me to join not only the Bush Builders programme, which specifically targets and supports conservation in local schools, but also their other primary level programs. I was able to talk extensively with zoo education staff, who provided insight into their efforts to work with the local community.  The same was true for Zealandia, which issued me a research permit and let me observe and accompany school groups of varying ages in preliminary lessons and through the sanctuary.

tuatara point.jpg
spotting and sharing a tuatara at Zealandia

It was this unexpected and delightful route to learning about sustainability and biodiversity education that has added an important dimension to my project.  Rather than focusing on NZ schools as teaching in isolation, I have come to view them as participants in a community that is rich in potential resources.  The Enviroschools program is a great example of the educational power of community networks.  These schools receive support and guidance from regional facilitators and are encouraged to connect with and support fellow schools that are working on similar initiatives.  Their success does not rely, as so often happens, on one highly motivated teacher to initiate and sustain involvement.

enviroschool poster
Seatoun’s Enviroschool Journey

I have seen this emphasis on team effort extend throughout primary curricula in NZ. There is no single script for what must be taught; instead, there is a collaborative effort among teachers and administrators to develop themes that can incorporate many key learning elements.  Schools feel like true learning communities.

My emphasis of potential resources indicates one of the key issues that has become apparent in my observations thus far.  The Zoo, Zealandia, Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Island Bay Marine Centre, and other venues are all available to enhance the sustainability and biodiversity education of regional schools.  These are places and people with expert knowledge and natural history interpretation skills. However, they are not financially accessible learning options for many, if not most schools.  There are some corporate sponsorships available to low-decile schools to have Zoo and Zealandia experiences, and for some these have had lasting positive outcomes.  However, schools face the problem of affording travel costs and justifying time spent out of the classroom.  The same is true for US schools.  How can we ensure that these incredible resources are available to all? How can all teachers receive mentoring and support to use them?


I had also hoped to see field trips generate follow-up lessons in school classrooms, but so far this hasn’t happened.  For some schools, it appeared these were just one-off field trips to a lovely place, with interesting animals. Which brings me to another key issue: how do you sustain sustainability education? As with any other subject, sustainability has to be embedded in a school’s mission in order to survive.  If it is treated as an occasional or supplementary topic, then it relies on the enthusiasm of one or a few to maintain its momentum. In several schools, I saw sustainability interwoven through the curriculum in such a way that it felt utterly natural, a given, integrated with math, science, literacy, and social studies lessons.  In others, it was defined as environmental education, receiving its own space and time, but not apparently integrated into other areas.

I’ve been shown sustainability in the form of a school garden, an outdoor play area, a recycling program, a community rubbish clean-up. I’ve accompanied groups through Zealandia who had deep interest in conservation, but were unable to identify common native species; likewise, I’ve seen five year olds at Otari-Wilton’s Bush approach complex ethical questions with uncommon and articulate wisdom.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that there is no “one size fits all” standard of competence when it comes to achieving sustainability goals. Every school will define these differently, based on its own culture and mission.

Since starting this blog 8 months ago, I have used it to explore daily encounters with different aspects of sustainability and biodiversity, each of which contributes to my understanding of how best to teach them.  Whether contemplating the role of introduced mammals, like Wellington’s cats, or the beauty of sharing knowledge between different age groups (tuakana/teina), I hope to incorporate this expression of my own learning process into my final project design.  A further goal is to illustrate my use of resources such as NatureWatch NZ in citizen science efforts aimed at documenting biodiversity. This is one of the most valuable tools that I have encountered in New Zealand, one that is actively incorporated into Zealandia programmes.

Nature Watch NZ

Where I’m headed

Here at the mid-point of my Fulbright project, as I try to conceive of tools that I have come across – best practices – that would enhance sustainability education globally, I remain guided by my initial questions, and inspired by several models that I’ve seen. With the benefit of these past months in the field, I would add:

  • What does sustainability education mean in this school?  What would you like it to mean?
  • What resources (would) help you achieve and sustain this?
  • What community connections support you in teaching sustainability?
  • Where goals do you have for sustainability education in and beyond your school?

I see these questions as helping to inform my own teaching practice upon my return, as well as to share the insights that I gain with my Jemicy school community.