Report on the 2019 Environmental Literature Institute

by Stephen Siperstein, Choate Rosemary Hall

The fourth annual Environmental Literature Institute at Philips Exeter Academy (NH) prepared secondary and higher education teachers to incorporate the environmental humanities into their classes, programs, and institutions. Twenty educators from twelve states and British Columbia and from a range of institutions and educational contexts attended this year’s institute. During a week of workshops, presentations, field-trips, and community-building events, participants explored, among other topics: climate change education, environmental justice, place-based learning, and the confluence of environmental poetry and science.

Poetic fieldwork at the Exeter River with Alison Hawthorne Deming

ELI was honored to welcome as its keynote speaker Alison Hawthorne Deming, whose inspiring public talk, “Art and Science at the Crossroads,” explored new relationships between art and science that are emerging in response to the joint challenge of climate change and species loss. Alison highlighted the importance of combining the transformational power of art and literature with the documentary force of science as spur to imagining better, and more hopeful, futures. In this context, we were excited that this year participants attending ELI hailed from both the humanities and the sciences. Having such a mix of perspectives created a more vibrant community and more interdisciplinary collaboration. In conjunction with her keynote, Allison also led a discussion and a field-based workshop on scientifically-informed poetic practice.

This year, we were thrilled to have Rochelle Johnson of the College of Idaho join Jason BreMiller and Stephen Siperstein on the leadership team. Rochelle led workshops on topics such as Thoreau for the Anthropocene and material cultural studies, and she provided mentorship and direction throughout the week. Also joining ELI again this year was Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, co-editor of Emergence Magazine, who led a workshop on nature writing and the outdoor classroom.

Participants also benefited from a presentation and workshop by Siobhan Senier, of the University of New Hampshire, on using new digital tools to create online environmental humanities exhibits where students and teachers can curate, share and preserve knowledges. Siobhan also led a discussion on teaching indigenous literature and culture, with a focus on native approaches to environmental justice. Later in the week, Mindi Messmer, environmental scientist, legislative activist, and former Democratic member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, shared her environmental justice work on water quality in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, which suffers from the highest pediatric cancer rate in the country due to industrial pollution and superfund sites. After Siobhan’s and Mindi’s workshops, participants worked to situate their own teaching within an environmental justice framework and to explore local environmental justice issues they could incorporate into their classes.

Participants imagining better futures at Stephen Siperstein’s Playing with Climate Change workshop

Ultimately, and as in years past, one of the greatest benefits of ELI is the opportunity to collaborate with amazing and inspiring educators. In this time of climate chaos, violence, and political corruption, it is a privilege to experience such a supportive community in the environmental humanities. During the Institute’s culminating gathering at The Word Barn, a local community-arts space, ELI participants shared poetry, music, and reflections about their lives and teaching. It was a magical evening filled with laughter, tears, hugs, and the emotional nourishment so important for sustaining the work that we do. Here is what a few participants had to say about their experience:

In my 7 or so years of teaching, ELI does for me what no other professional development has been able to accomplish. It spurs my creativity and re-ignites my passion. It makes me a better teacher, relationship builder, and community member. It helps me create curriculum and bounce ideas off of others. But, the most important thing is that ELI is really a community committed to doing hard and difficult work, wicked work with huge, seemingly unsolvable problems. We do it together, and it is invigorating and full of hope. This is what I seek as an educator, and ELI immerses me in it.

—Kristin Saba Fisher, Swiss Semester; UM New England Literature Program

When I was a kid I loved going to sports camps, where everyone around me was focused on enjoying a sport, and helping me grow in the sport as I did my little part to help them grow, too. This is that for teachers interested in the environment and, more specifically, in teaching climate change. It is a place to share, to borrow, to brainstorm, to grow. I feel like I will return to my school knowing this community—here at ELI—has my back.

—Adam Ruderman, Chadwick School, Los Angeles

As a science teacher, I found this experience to be really enriching. It offers a different perspective when talking about climate change and environmental justice that I hadn’t been able to reach yet. The conference speaks to the human aspects of what it means to be dealing with these issues and gave me a fantastic insight into how I can bring these approaches into my science classroom. The abundance of insight and knowledge in the room was energizing and gave me the spark to build a great philosophy for my class next year.

—Mike DiPietro, Southridge School, Surrey, British Columbia

ELI 2019 Participants

Though we were disappointed that the Institute had to be scheduled during the same week as the ASLE biennial conference, we see the work of ELI as operating in tandem with ASLE, and we look forward to even more overlap between the two communities. We are grateful that ASLE is able to provide memberships to ELI participants.

Registration for ELI 2020 will open later this fall. If you’re interested in learning more or want to contribute to this growing community of educators, check out the ELI website or email Jason at or Stephen at