Transcription of the episode “Experiential learning: Where human history and nature connect”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M.: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Jackie Broder, director of the Mamakating Environmental Education Center. Welcome, Jackie! 

[00:00:25] Jackie B.: Thank you for having me. 

[00:00:28] Amy H-L: The Mamakating Environmental Education Center describes itself on the website as “where history, adventure, and education meet the great outdoors.” Tell us about the Center. 

[00:00:39] Jackie B.: The Center was opened in 2017 by the Town of Mamakating. We are located on a 3,000- acre wetland, which is managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The town found an opportunity to purchase a piece of land and renovate the home into a nature center. And our goal is to teach about the environment, specifically about our wetland, and to create a connection between the community and nature. 

[00:01:13] Jon M.: Where is Mamakating, for people who don’t know? 

[00:01:15] Jackie B.: Mamakating is in Sullivan County, New York, which is in the southeast corner of New York, where Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey meet. 

[00:01:26] Jon M.: And it’s in the Catskills? 

[00:01:28] Jackie B.: Yes. 

[00:01:30] Amy H-L: So where history meets the great outdoors. How do you teach about history? 

[00:01:36] Jackie B.: So this area is actually steeped in history. Our main roadway, which is State Route 209, has the distinction of being one of the oldest roads in the country. And that’s been a pathway for years and years, including the development of the D and H canal, which borders our wetland on one side. That was a connection between Pennsylvania and the Hudson River, to transport anthracite coal. And then the Basha Kill itself. The wetland has been here since the glaciers came down and carved it out. There have been been Native American settlements since the 1600s. Basha was a Native American medicine woman who was renowned throughout many different tribes. And the reason she settled here was because we’re nestled in between the Shawangunk and the Catskill ridges. Each ridge has a different soil type, so every plant needed medicinally was here for her use, except salt water plants. This area has been significant historically, ecologically speaking, since, since it was created by the glaciers.

[00:02:52] Jon M.: Were the Native Americans the Lenni Lenape?

[00:02:56] Jackie B.: Yes. 

[00:02:57] Jon M.: What do the adventure programs look like? 

[00:03:02] Jackie B.: So all of our programs have an educational element, but we try to make everything hands on. We try and get people outdoors as much as possible, whether it’s a walk or birding or just sitting and connecting with nature. We usually do an indoor and an outdoor component, but we try to get people into nature as much as possible.

[00:03:25] Amy H-L: And you work with schools as well?

[00:03:28] Jackie B.: We do. We just received a grant this year to really amp up our school programs, so we’re going to be doing a big outreach to the local school districts to either come here for a field trip or for us to go to go there and teach in the classroom.

[00:03:47] Jon M.: You’ve mentioned that transportation can be a problem with schools. How does that work? And are there ways that either you or the schools can can ameliorate those issues? 

[00:03:59] Jackie B.: Yeah, usually bussing is an issue because there’s not enough. There are a lot of different programs going on within the school. It’s very difficult for schools to get a bus that that has the capacity to drop them off, and stay or come and pick them up, so it’s been a hindrance for schools to actually come here. We tried to do an after school program, but kids just can’t get here, whether parents are working or parents don’t have a car. Transportation has been a real issue. 

[00:04:31] Amy H-L: And how do these programs promote equity or encourage students to look at history and the great outdoors from a more ethical perspective? 

[00:04:46] Jackie B.: So my personal philosophy, and one that I try to incorporate here as much possible, is that every living being has equal value. And that really hasn’t been taught. That seems to be lost, whether it’s in the home or in schools or whatever. There’s a real separation between humans and every other living thing. And because of that, we’ve lost respect for, or we don’t know to respect, other living beings, whether it’s a plant or an insect or an animal. And so I really try to create an emotional connection when kids are here. I want them to stop and just sit and look at a square foot section of dirt and see how many things are crawling in there and how many different plants are living there. And through exploration. and hands on and touching and smelling and sometimes tasting, you know, depending, that’s what makes the connection. And having a good time and real individual exploration is what makes the connection. And when that connection is made, I think then, then the equity is, is felt and learned. 

[00:06:07] Amy H-L: And are you speaking about equity in terms of respecting the sentience of animals other than humans? I think I would call that moral circle expansion, which is really, I guess, a wonderful way of, you know, getting at that, if you’re saying you’re going to really explore this square foot of soil and all the creatures in it and really have respect for them. 

[00:06:35] Jackie B.: Yes. 

[00:06:36] Amy H-L: I think that’s really wonderful. I’m just wondering if, when you’re looking at history, if you’re going to encounter the touchy questions that the school librarians are dealing with right now and also a lot of teachers? Are you going to talk about, you mentioned there are or were Indigenous peoples there. How do we talk about how we got from those Indigenous peoples to who we are now?

[00:07:00] Jackie B.: Yeah, I’m a true believer that if we don’t learn history, and then it’s repeated. And I have a lot of respect for the people who did cross this land and live here from the beginning of time up till now, and there is some ugly history in there. And I think it’s time that we learn that history and grow from it and be better people for it. A couple of months ago, we had a speaker, a local author. He is a retired detective who now writes books on crimes that have happened in the area, historic crime in the area. And he spoke on a lynching that happened in our local town here in the late 1800s. And, you know, this is the North, and it was post Civil War era, and there was an actual lynching. And I think these things are important to note and learn from and grow from. 

[00:07:59] Jon M.: I want to follow up a little bit on some of the work with the schools in a couple of ways. One is when we were talking before, I think you mentioned that you had done a project at a Montessori school . Could you talk a little bit about what that was like? 

[00:08:14] Jackie B.: Sure. So, we packed up a bunch of stuff and we went to the school and it was a beautiful campus and we had the capacity to just lay out skulls and skeletons and pelts and everything that it was all related to species that live at the Basha Kill and so kids were actually able to see and touch parts of animals that that actually they don’t normally get to see. Everything was collected legally. it was roadkill and that kind of stuff, but it’s really interesting to watch kids. You know, a lot of kids didn’t want to touch it at first, but then they did and to really see that barrier crossed when they’re told how many trees a beaver can go through and how diligent they are about keeping their homes and their dams intact, and how they were the first engineers and man learned engineering from beavers and then took those lessons and built the Brooklyn Bridge. And it’s really fun to watch kids’ eyes brighten when they make connections and learn something new.

[00:09:19] Jon M.: What kinds of impressions and misimpressions do you find children having about nature when you first start working with them? 

[00:09:27] Jackie B.: A lot of the misimpressions are insect-related. People are killing bugs in their houses left and right and given bad karma. Bats, possums. And then when they learn just how important each of these is for our ecosystem, it’s great. The biggest kick I get out of it is when these kids turn around and and talk to their parents about it, share that information with their parents. Kids locally, it seems like they’re more and more aware of their environment and the importance of different species in their environment. It seems like when kids come from the city, they, they don’t have the exposure. to anything. When I was a park ranger in the Bronx, all I had to do was show kids a worm and they were horrified and surprised, but, but completely in awe of it and wanting to learn more. And yeah, teaching the kids is the best and watching how their minds shift is really amazing.

[00:10:31] Jon M.: What is it important for children to learn about wetlands? 

[00:10:36] Jackie B.: My biggest goal in teaching kids about wetlands is teaching them that they are one of the most important ecosystems on this planet. Some say the most important, not only because they clean and protect our water, which we obviously cannot live without, but they are nurseries for birds and mammals and insects and fish. And, and there’s so many microcosms going on in a wetland that people just don’t realize. And they’re just magical. And that’s what I want. I want kids to learn that they are just a wealth of life. So many people look at wetlands and think, oh, it’s a swamp, it’s just a breeding ground for mosquitoes. And they don’t take that one step further and think how many animals are feeding off those mosquitoes. And then everything going up the food chain, every single thing, is dependent on that marshy, mosquito-ridden place. 

[00:11:40] Amy H-L: Aside from that understanding, you’ve talked about wanting children to develop an emotional connection to nature. I’m wondering what that looks like and whether that’s something they carry with them.

[00:11:57] Jackie B.: Yeah, the emotional connection comes from being immersed in the ecosystem. We scoop some water out of the wetland and look at just how many different organisms are living in that water and looking under a microscope and seeing this whole new world.

And that makes the connection. Walking through and finding different birds and being able to figure out what kind of bird is this? And how do we figure out what it is? And it empowers them because they’re figuring things out. And empowerment also is big in making an emotional connection. So I feel immersion is the best is the best way in whatever capacity that is. 

[00:12:42] Jon M.: You mentioned that it’s often hard for schools to arrange transportation and then you talked about what you did at the Montessori school. When you go to both regular public schools that aren’t necessarily already focused on hands on in the way that maybe Montessori is, how are you able to help kids make these connections in a classroom?

[00:13:06] Jackie B.: Well, our programming is centered around what the teacher’s curriculum is for that year. So we like to come in as a supplement to those lessons. And we bring in hands on stuff. Sometimes it’s where possible, we do a PowerPoint so they can see pictures of the Bashak Kill. We try to do a combination of both of those things, visual and tactile lessons.

[00:13:33] Jon M.: How do you work with teachers? Do you meet with them ahead of time to talk about how it fits in with their lessons? Do you encourage them to do follow up work? What does it generally look like? 

[00:13:44] Jackie B.: So yeah, I like to talk to each teacher individually and find out what they’ve covered in the classroom already. We have a set program, but we try to just change it, adapt it a little bit to meet their needs. And we’re pretty flexible in that way. And then we usually come with some kind of activity. We have a beautiful mural in in our children’s room and I have activity booklets that go along with that mural. So I bring things like that where the teacher can just hand out to the students and give them some more coloring or word or word searches and that kind of thing. 

[00:14:24] Amy H-L: Can you get actual buy-in from the teachers so that they they view this as integral to the students’ daily lives as you do?

[00:14:38] Jackie B.: That’s something that we’re looking to develop. We don’t have that yet, but we have a couple of teachers who come every year. It’s like, they understand it. But we are working on a way to get most teachers feeling that way. 

[00:14:53] Amy H-L: Yeah, there was a movement, as I recall, a couple of years ago, there must have been a book, and there was a lot of talk about being a good ancestor. And I guess that framing really worked for me in terms of what the students are going to take from this. So, for one thing, I think they should have some awareness of the importance of animals other than human. I hate to lump animals and nature because some of these creatures are sentient, right? They can suffer. They can thrive. And so how they’ve been treated, how we, as a species, have treated nature over the years. And how we should, moving forward, especially seeing as we’re in a climate crisis, a planetary crisis, how can we be good ancestors? And I’m wondering if that’s any part of what you’re teaching.

[00:15:53] Jackie B.: I really like that, being good ancestors. I hadn’t heard that before, but I think that ties in really well with our history and environment, the two different paths that we take, because historically speaking, Native Americans were good ancestors and then we came in and corrupted that. And I think people are going towards that where they’re like, Oh, look at how they lived and never had a climate crisis. So I think it’s really good for us to reset that groundwork and be the new good ancestors. And I think kids are looking for that, too. Like, when you listen to all the information about climate change, it’s just so overwhelming. And I think it kind of freezes people. But if we’re becoming the new good ancestors, it gives kids a place to look and say, oh, I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. And I think that’s so important. 

[00:16:55] Jon M.: That’s a really powerful way of looking at it because it makes it individual and is empowering, as you’re saying, rather than feeling it’s just this huge existential crisis that is just going to happen to us, sort of, regardless of anything we might do.

[00:17:11] Jackie B.: I really take offense when people are like, Oh, well, turning off all your lights isn’t going to help, or just doing this isn’t going to help. But if everybody does, it will help and we need to take those tiny steps. And even if I sometimes beat myself up, because I’m not doing enough globally, but then I have to really focus myself and say, like, I’m doing stuff locally, and somebody else is doing stuff locally. And that’s another thing I would love to see in the future where all of our local little local entities come check in with each other or, or just spread the good news that they’re doing. So that we remember that it’s not just me turning off my lights. Other people are making an effort and making a difference, and we need to turn off the news.

[00:18:00] Jon M.: Speaking of making the connections, do you find that the Center has a lot of connections in local communities? Are a lot of people and organizations coming and saying we want to join in with the kind of work that you’re doing? 

[00:18:15] Jackie B.: Yeah, especially in the past year, we’ve done some programming with our local library. And our local library’s great, and they do a lot of environmental and history programs. We’re reaching out. We’re working more with the local Audubon societies in both Sullivan and Orange Counties.. Yeah, the connections are, are being made. And that’s also very empowering. 

[00:18:39] Amy H-L: Are there other centers like yours around the country?

[00:18:43] Jackie B.: Around the country, yes, but locally, we’re really the only one, the only one in Sullivan County. So I’m very proud of that, that we started this here. Yeah, there are some great nature centers around the country. And I really encourage people to do a search and find one that’s local to them because they’re all unique, you know, they’re all have their own different geography. So I love going to different nature centers because there’s always something new. There’s always a different way things are presented. And it’s a real educational and fun experience. They’re just great places to be. And the people who gravitate towards them are just great people. They’re just happy, warm, inviting places to be. So I encourage people to visit their local. 

[00:19:33] Jon M.: How did the town come to set up the Center or to sponsor the Center? You mentioned that you’re actually part of the town. 

[00:19:40] Jackie B.: Yeah. So a previous town supervisor saw an opportunity to buy this property and it was his brainchild. And yeah, he just grabbed it, pushed it through. And there was there’s some backlash with the next administration that came in because it’s not a service. It’s not a physical service. So it was considered a waste of money, but the community really has, seized the value and has rallied around it, around us and kept us open and coming to programs. Our numbers are there, so any naysayers are hopefully slowly quieting down and hopefully changing their minds.

[00:20:22] Jon M.: Are there programs for families at the Center? 

[00:20:25] Jackie B.: Yeah, we usually have a program almost every weekend, every two weeks. Some are geared towards children, some are geared towards adults. Most are for people of all ages. We have a Nature Tots program for toddlers on Fridays, toddlers and their caregivers. And yeah, we usually have some kind of program going on every weekend.

[00:20:48] Jon M.: Thank you, Jackie Broder of the Mamakating Environmental Education Center. Thank you very much. 

[00:20:53] Jackie B.: Thank you. It’s been an honor. I really appreciate you inviting me. 

[00:20:57] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would YOU Do?, a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click video. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints. 

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