Jim LeCuyer

The Power of Our Youth

Recorded: August 23, 2012

Poet and environmental educator Jim LeCuyer talks about how he created a contest for environmental education programs in San Francisco, and why the creation of a lesson plan for environmental education in schools can have a profound effect on students interested in the environment.

Jim LeCuyer has long merged his twin passions for the environment and the English language. An English teacher by trade, Mr. LeCuyer has brought nature into the classroom by exposing students to the outdoors and working with the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival and Poetry Flash. A former commercial fisherman, Mr. LeCuyer is an expert angler and can often be found off the coast of California sharing the art of fishing with novices and seasoned anglers alike.

Huey Johnson: You and I are long time fishing partners.

James LaCuyer: That’s right.

Huey: And …

James LaCuyer: He’s not as good as I.

Huey Johnson: You can see – the viewer will see that Jim would be a very interesting guy to go fishing with. He is up the world in literature and whatever.

James LaCuyer: I have to quote a poem for him every time, what can I do?

Huey Johnson: That’s right. You have had a career as a teacher and a very beloved and effective teacher and tell me something about your views of education and environment.

James LaCuyer: Well, I didn’t know anything about the environment until maybe about 1968 when a bunch of my students asked me to be the ecology advisor, the ecology club advisor. It turned out what they really wanted was get their photographs in the yearbook and they had to have an advisor. I suppose the other thing that got me in those days was Rachel Carson, not Silent Spring but Under the Sea Wind and The Sea Around Us, which are two great and beautifully written books. For me, thinking back on the ocean and the way everything was, how it used to be with all the fish around, stories of great yellowtail and barracuda under the ocean park amusement pier in the old days and how it had changed. It got me really excited about trying to do something about the way the ocean was.

James LeCuyer: I started teaching in San Francisco at the School of the Arts and I was looking around and I was asking people “well is there any environmental education going on?” And they’d say “Oh yes, of course. There’s lots of environmental education.” Well it turned out the entire amount of environmental education in San Francisco Unified School District amounted to one class at Galileo High School which affected about 90 kids. So I thought why not establish some environmental program? And I met for like two or three years with Mark Linenthal, Peter Berg of Planet Drum, John Knox of Earth Island and for a while I even touched in with David Brower and Judy Diamond. So we just began to narrow it down and narrow it down and narrow it down and pretty soon it turned out to be a cheap contest, anywhere’s from 5 to 10 thousand dollars per school district would run it. You might take one part time volunteer and you might take say 5,000 dollars and offer it to the teachers who within their own subject matter and in any class at any level did something environmental. And it could be judged in a competitive way and so 2 or 3 thousand dollars would be enough to intrigue some classes and some teachers and the idea behind it was once a teacher, even if they don’t win, once a teacher establishes an environmental lesson plan they’re going to use it. It’s going to be successful. In every case where I saw it used, the kids loved it. Finally, one of the classes won and the kids wrote essays and I picked one of the essays and a little girl presented her essay to the school board and they were astonished I think. We were all astonished by the intensity by this one girl who presented this one essay representing all of the essay’s that had been written.

James LeCuyer: What I hoped for and what I still dream of is that this little contest could be applied to any school district in the United States. It could change the public school system. It would make them – it would be producing kids who would be interested in the environment. Young people are, you know they’re very idealistic and if they go off with that environmental stuff in them, they will prove to be a force. I’ve heard it said from some people that there’s no time to do this, that the issues are too immediate, but it seems to me it has to be done.

  • Environmental Futures

    Environmental Futures is an idea that San Francisco Public Schools picked up, but lost. It was/is basically a contest that would award cash prizes to secondary school teachers and/or students who participated in environmental activities, such as research, essays, classroom discussions within the framework of a given subject. For example, English Literature might be taught using short stories or novels or essays that are environmental in nature, or that might be discussed from an environmental slant. Since the prizes would come from outside the school system and cause no disruption of normal classroom activities, they would require no approval from district administrators, even were district administrators personally opposed to environmental issues. Math, History, even foreign languages might well be taught using environmental materials. Teachers could present their work for judging in any way they deemed effective. The prizes could be offered in many ways, but the basic prize might be as low as $2000 for a winning effort. Judging could be done by environmental groups or judges not by the district, and so would take no extra effort or money from educators or administrators. At a minimum, the prizes could be a total of $6000, and one or two volunteers from environmental groups could run it. This contest might come to fruition with a minimum of say, 50 to 100 hours effort on the part of one organizer, or it could be expanded into a grand contest with media assistance.
    The intent of the contest would be to educate as many young, pre-college students and teachers as possible in environmental issues such as the effects of population growth, technological threats to the environment, desertification, acidification of oceans, carbon capping, and all aspects of climate change.