Interview with Ten Strands’ Karen Cowe and Will Parish

Ten Strands is a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing environmental literacy to all of California’s 6.2 million K–12 students. They have been instrumental in establishing and implementing breakthrough policies that have trained over 20,000 teachers and implemented environmental literacy curriculum in 40% of the schools in California to date.

Teo Grossman, Senior Director of Programs & Research for Bioneers, sat down with the founders, Karen Cowe and Will Parish, to learn more.

Karen Cowe is CEO of Ten Strands and Project Director of their Environmental Literacy Steering Committee. An education-industry executive with 25+ years’ experience, she was formerly President/CEO at Key Curriculum Press.

Will Parish is the Founder and President of Ten Strands. Will is a credentialed public high school science educator with a 30-year record of innovative accomplishments in the environmental and educational fields. He taught Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco, and now serves on the board. He served on the California State Board of Education’s Curriculum Commission and then founded Ten Strands as a nonprofit organization to support California’s efforts to achieve statewide penetration of high-quality environment-based education into schools.

TEO GROSSMAN: What does the name of your organization “Ten Strands” mean?

WILL PARISH : The symbol that we have – which is the intertwining, woven wreath – has blue for the sky, green for growth, yellow for sunlight and brown for soil. What does the ten mean? The number one is the beginning and zero is the end of everything. If you put them together, you get ten, which is the symbol of perfection, and of course which Mother Nature is. It’s also the basis of our numeric system, so it feeds right into education.

KAREN COWE: We knew that we wanted to link education, environment, and community, and we were thinking about the kinds of things that strengthen those ties. Our view from the office is over the Golden Gate bridge, and we were thinking about the cable in the bridge and about the John Muir quote, “If you touch something in the universe, it’s connected to everything else.”

TEO:  How did you both come to this work?

WILL: When I was teaching environmental science at Gateway High School, I was asked to start the program, and did so in 2002. A few years into it, I was asked to teach Civics, which I loved, so I did that. One day, I noticed the students weren’t very energetic, so I tried something. I brought a Twinkie into the classroom, and I said, “Where can you buy one of these?” And everybody said, “Well, any corner store has them.” I said, “That’s right. Corner stores are full of junk food, booze, and cigarettes.” I said, “Where can you buy a head of lettuce or a bunch of carrots?” And they said, “Well, across town; can’t do it easily in Excelsior or Bayview Hunters Point.” And I said, “Well, that’s by design to some degree.” They said, “Really, Mr. Parish?”

So we talked about “food deserts” and the systems that keep them in place, and that incensed the kids enough that it was an incentive to learn more about civics and how citizens operate in a democracy. That experience set off a light bulb in my head, and I thought, wow, if that works well in my class, why couldn’t it work well in all subjects in all classes? So I sought a position within the education state policy arena to see if we could influence introducing that teaching style, and I was appointed to the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission, now called the Instructional Quality Commission.

In that position, I was chair of the science committee just when the Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum came up for review. I found that I wasn’t the only one with this idea. There were over 100 people who had not only thought about this idea, but had spent seven years preparing the most amazing piece of curriculum for science and for history/social science that enhanced the teaching by connecting the students’ to their own environment. That’s really how I got into it.

TEO: So you were a teacher. Was that something you went into early in life?

WILL: Yes, yes. Very early. In college, I was a cross country ski racer, and had been into backpacking and horseback riding, and very much loved to be in nature.

I think the seminal moment happened when I was on a trip around the world in my Jeep with my roommate, and I was exposed to the amount of environmental degradation all around the planet having to do with resource use, primarily fossil fuels, and the pollution associated with that. And I committed myself in my mid to early ‘20s to dedicate my life in some way to address that situation.

My first step was to go to law school, get a law degree and develop a means of combatting the electricity production system that relies on fossil fuel. So I built a company that uses the alternative fuel of agricultural crop waste, and for 14 years I built this company to produce electricity for Southern California Edison. That ran its course, and I took another job having to do with educating people from airplanes about the environment below.

By the time I was 46, I asked myself, what have I really liked in the arc of my career? And it was education. It coincided with Governor Gray Davis saying, “We need more teachers. If you go get a job at a school, you don’t have to have a credential, as long as you sign up for credentials.” So I said great, that’ll be my next step. That’s the full arc of how I wound up in the classroom.

KAREN: As I think about my career, the way that I characterize it is about having an interest in place-based education. Before I even knew what a career was, I was connected to place where I grew in rural Scotland in a village of 1,200 people. My family’s been in that village since at least the 1300s.

My village is on a hill, near a tributary of the River Tweed. My mother worked in a paper mill on the tributary, and she actually had lots of jobs. But when I was a teenager, her job was to test the quality of the water in the river and how the mill was impacting it. I learned early from her the importance of the ways in which things connect in any given place, in any given village around the village, to the rest of the world. Right? So if my mother wasn’t going down to the river on a daily basis and collecting water samples and taking them into the lab, and sending that data up to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, then all of that would be impacting what was happening downstream. I always understood that it was important for us to be stewards, because that little tributary connected to the Tweed, and that floated in the North Sea and connected to the world’s oceans.

So when I went to university, and started to think about what I wanted to do professionally. In the summertime, I started teaching English to young students who came to the UK from other countries. And I was always struck by the instruction materials that I was given, because they were never about the place where these kids were. They were about London, for example, when we were all in York. So I used to just throw away those materials and rewrite them for that place.

Then when I left college, I lived in Greece for six years. I started working for the first publishing company ever in Greece to write instructional materials about Greece, to teach English to Greek children, because those materials were previously coming from the big publishing houses in London. It was such an obvious idea to me to localize instructional materials.

I moved to the States in 1996, and I started to work for a math publishing company. We did math and science and a little bit of engineering, and we were maniacs about creating authentic experiences for children to explore their own view of mathematics, instead of these pseudo contexts that you make up to help them grasp concepts.

In 2012, the shareholders of the publishing company I was working for decided to sell the business, and I took it through a transaction. Around that time I met Will, and he told me that he wanted to start a nonprofit focused on environmental literacy. The penny dropped for me. I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s exactly the thing I’ve been building towards over all these years!

TEO: Can you talk about the work you’re doing now?

WILL: Every fourth-grader in California public schools learns about the gold rush. And there was a particular curriculum that went way beyond what you would normally learn about the Gold Rush, such as about the monetary basis of it, San Francisco growing as a financial center, or the incredible work that it took Chinese immigrants to build the tunnels. This curriculum included information about the environmental impact of the Gold Rush, such as the hydrological mining that liquefied the mountains and ruined the streams below, and the use of mercury to leech out the gold, and how that sits in the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, which is the reason that we can’t eat our shellfish.

There are 500 lesson plans in this curriculum interspersed in the subjects of science and history/social science. The idea was to focus on kids that take those two subjects from kindergarten all the way through the 12th grade, with a slow drip irrigation of environmental impact throughout science, throughout history. We got it approved, and about that same time I met Karen, who knew how to push it into the school system.

KAREN: We worked on that first project – the Education and Environment Initiative Curriculum – in partnership with CalRecycle, which is part of the California EPA. Through that partnership, we have trained over 20,000 teachers and brought the curriculum to over 4,000 schools – about 40% of the 10,000 schools schools in California. At last count, there were 7-8 million lessons in circulation. That was a really nice start for us.

That curriculum came about because of 2003 legislation that was authored by Senator Fran Pavley, and it called for two things: the creation of environmental principles and concepts – big statements that articulate the interdependence of natural systems and human social systems. And it called for the creation of a model curriculum that demonstrated how to translate those statements into standard based instruction.

At first, our eyes were only on the curriculum, because it was the thing that existed. We came to learn that there was probably going to be more mileage in the principles and concepts side of the equation rather than the curriculum, because it was just there as a model for how to do it. Environmental principles and concepts were going to really be the vehicle for fully integrating environmental literacy into existing education infrastructure in California.

In terms of this legislative trajectory that we’re on, through that Pavley legislation we learned these environmental principles and concepts could be integrated into some core education documents, like standards and frameworks and assessments. The timing was perfect because there are new science standards, new history/social science frameworks, new health frameworks. If we’d come along at a different time, slightly earlier or slightly later, there would be nothing to jump on this opportunity. But we were there at the right time.

Fast forward,Ten Strands sponsored legislation SB-720 in 2018, authored by Senator Allen and Assembly Member Tony Thurmond. What we were doing with that legislation was to say, we’re going to have a new governor and a new superintendent, and a lot of what we’ve been doing to has been informal. How can we formalize it?

SB-720 basically does four things:

1) It directs the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and district superintendents and their school boards to support environmental literacy;

2) It pulls the core ideas from the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy into education code as the State’s definition of environmental literacy, with these big human-impact, human interdependent statements;

3)  It supports teachers through curriculum instruction, professional development and assessment, and helps them build relationships with science-rich community-based organizations;

4) It articulates a process in the public resources code for revising the environmental principles and concepts based on current scientific and technical knowledge, specifically getting climate change in.

TEO: Practically, what does that mean for a student in the classroom? What changes?

WILL: One of my favorite examples was how to make economics interesting to a high school senior. Right? You don’t do it by starting with, “Well, students, today we’re going to learn about—[YAWNS] excuse me…the theory of economics. We’ll start with Keynesian theory.” Right? You don’t do that.

What worked so well in the EEI curriculum, is you say, “Hey students, raise your hand if you know anybody in the salmon industry.” Everybody raises their hand because they have a fisher parent or a waiter in a restaurant, or they eat salmon. So my next question might be: “Well, where does salmon come from?” Duh, the ocean. And, “How do you get the salmon out of the ocean?” You use nets. “What happens to the other wildlife in the ocean when you’re using these nets?” So the kids begin to think about the by-catch and if you use bottom-trawling nets, the destruction of seabed ecosystems around the world.

Another question is: “Well, if they use nets, how many boats can be out there catching all these fish?” And more conversation. “Well, can anybody come catch? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, Norwegians?” And of course, yes is the answer. So we begin to get them really interested in, Oh gee, I can see what’s going to happen here; there are an awful lot of people who want a limited resource.

Then I talk about, “Well, how many jobs are there?” and “What happens to the resource over the course of a few years if the fishing goes unabated.” And of course it depletes. So now I’ve got ‘em, right? So then we can talk about  regulation,  and drop into: “So what does all this mean? You’ve got the fish. You can think of a supply. You’ve got the fishermen, women, as the demand, and where’s the optimum level, and how do you achieve that?

I haven’t even mentioned the word economic theory, and yet we’re diving right into it, and now the kids are really interested. Yeah. So that was fun.

The lead consultant that we work with who led the EEI development helps us to think about the environmental principles and concepts. If you look at science standards or history/social science standards or health standards, how do you take these big statements of interdependence and connect them to those disciplinary core ideas? So that you’re not just studying the topic absent human impact, human dependence, complexity as a result of governmental decisions and that kind of thing. It’s a way of thinking, and it it is basically systems thinking – grade level appropriate, content specific.

When you’re working with groups of teachers, you help them think about their lesson planning and their unit design by keeping this human impact, humans dependence upon natural systems in mind as they’re doing their planning through the unit against their grade level topic.

TEO: How progressive is this? Where does this legislation being implemented in California rank compared to other states or private institutions?

KAREN: We’ve chosen to work with the State of California rather than, for example, through private schools or through charter management organizations. We’ve chosen to join the California Department of Education, to look at their standards and frameworks, which emphasize a kind of pedagogy that’s interesting to us: inquiry. The Next Generation Science Standards that California adopted in 2013 are very thoughtful, progressive science standards, and so we are just joining that movement.

In terms of environmental literacy, we’re not aware of any other state that’s got anything like that extra layer that California’s got going, which are these Environmental Principles and Concepts. We’ve been told that California is far ahead of most other states. Although many other states have blueprints for environmental literacy, and are implementing the ideas, we don’t think any of them are as funded as well as we’ve been able to fund our effort. Maryland, for example, has an environmental literacy high school graduation requirement. That’s the one other place that we’re aware of that has some education legislation supporting this kind of thing.

WILL: Another state, Oregon, has passed legislation that gets kids outside, and it’s not exactly part of the education system, but it is acknowledging that getting kids outside is an important educational goal.

After No Child Left Behind, there was a federal law dating back to 2001 that some lawmakers attempted to pass. This other bill came forward, which was No Child Left Inside. It never became law, but it proposed federal funding for states that incorporated some sort of environmental education into their education system. 22 or 24 states adopted an environmental literacy plan. And those plans exist in Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii, Kentucky, Colorado are just five of those 20-some states. I think it’s safe to say that they’re looking at California to see what can happen at the legislative level to impact the entire system, because nobody else has gotten that far just yet.

TEO: What’s at stake if the work succeeds? In terms of the number of students going through California public schools, what’s the dream outcome? A generation of students who are environmental literate. Do either of you have a sense of what that practically means?

WILL: Let me just give one quick example. Each year, 400,000 kids in California graduate high school and they are all of voting age. So if they would register, and if they have gone through the California system of environmental literacy, my hope is that legislation and supporters in Congress and in the Senate, and down the ballot and across the California state positions of authority would be people who support legislation that is pro-environment, or that is beneficial to reducing the human impact on the environment.

KAREN: There are 6.2 million students in California alone. You know? There’s eight Scotlands in California. It’s a big system. Will mentioned No Child Left Behind and that era of accountability where things just got boiled down to math and english. We have an opportunity here where kids again are learning science with very thoughtful standards. We are encouraging kids to do hands-on work and think critically. You can help stimulate different thinking as kids are exposed to some of these subjects for the very first time.

I remember a friend of mine telling me that when California had a big push for recycling, the kids were the ones going to the parents and saying, “I just learned this in school; this is how it’s done.” That helped bring about a behavior change at a level that you’ve never seen before in California.

So it’s wonderful that there are nearly half a million voters coming out, but also just at a level of a second grader and that level of a fourth grader, the way in which they’re able to think critically about the materials that are being put in front of them is just also really very empowering for them.

TEO: David Orr, the educator and writer, is famous for saying all education is environmental education. In his landmark book, Earth In Mind, he laid out a set of principles that he suggested no student should be able to graduate college without having a basic understanding of.

It sounds like you’re replicating this approach in K-12, suggesting that no student shall graduate high school without a basic understanding of how the world actually works with regard to natural systems – we depend on them, they depend on us.

KAREN: Exactly right. That’s it.

TEO: Talk about the collaborations Ten Strands is involved in. I know you have a strong focus as an organization, as a network, and as movement on equity as a key component of how this is all going to work.

KAREN: We do not do this alone. The most direct group we work with is called the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, which we helped form in collaboration with the Superintendent Torlakson. It’s a 30-person committee that organizes around the state’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy to implement the ideas in there. Will is the co-chair of that committee, and Craig Strang from the Lawrence Hall of Science is the other co-chair. I’m the project director, and the people on the committee are from the formal system, the non-formal system, government agencies.[s2] 

When we looked at all the ideas in the Blueprint, we asked, “Where do you start?” One of the things that we decided as a group at the very beginning was that it was really important for us to take this work to scale, and that it needed to be equitable and culturally relevant to the diverse communities that we work with in California. Looking at the whole system, the best way to get it there was to identify school districts as a unit of change. You’ve got these 6.2 million students who are in 10,000 schools, and a thousand school districts, and 58 county Offices of Education. When we looked at all those numbers, we thought that a thousand school districts was something that we could get ours head around as a number.

Also, because of Governor Brown’s local control policies, the funding for schools flowed most directly to school districts. So in terms of sustainability around this work, environmental literacy – alongside science and other core subjects – would need to be articulated into district goals and priorities. So we have these three sort of big guiding goals – scale, equity, and cultural relevance – and school districts as a unit of change.

In terms of how we’ve organized around that, in addition to the steering committee, we have 18 different partners now working on the different parts of the plan. We’re working with four different statewide networks that specialize in teacher in-service professional development: the California Science Project, the California History/Social Science Project, the Global Education Project, and the California Science Teachers Association, which is the largest professional organization for science teachers in the state.

We’ve raised money and made direct investments in those networks so they can integrate the environmental principles and concepts, and environmental literacy in the workshops they do with teachers. So that’s one of the ways in which we’re going about trying to take the work to scale.

We see school districts as a unit of change and as a strategy to attend to equity, because as we get into planning with school district leaders, like the district superintendent, the district curriculum instruction person, the district professional development person. We’re saying let’s plan together for all schools in your district. So it doesn’t matter really which zip code a school is in.

TEO: Unlike the Las Vegas’s claim to fame, what happens with California often doesn’t stay in California. This has been the case most notably with air quality standards but there are many other ways California serves as a leader, sometimes simply due to the scale of the state. Do you have a sense of the larger national or global potential for the project? Is it the same as the automotive industry, in that curriculum developers figure they might as well use California Standards as the baseline elsewhere, given the production scale?

WILL: There is an international organization called the North American Association of Environmental Educators, and they are focusing more and more on what’s working in California. The hope is that other states will be able to learn from the approach that we’ve taken in California with multiple stakeholders, and working within the system, and finding the key lever points to develop the relationships and move the system toward embracing environmental literacy. Is it exportable to other states? There are a lot of looking at what we’re doing.

There have been two different organizations that have asked for participation from California. I was invited to put on a workshop at UC Berkeley on the College of Natural Resources where each summer they bring 30 environmental leaders from 30 different countries. And because of the success that we’ve experienced in California with environmental literacy, I was asked to give a workshop about what it looks like, what’s the landscape. It was very well received. All of those countries were super interested to take nuggets of what they learned and see if they could apply them back in their home country.

The other organization was the World Future Council, which also asked that California be represented, and that was 15 different countries.

We haven’t sought an audience internationally. We don’t feel like the work we have to do in California is complete. This is a huge state, and if we can get it to work here, it will be more easily exportable.

KAREN: I do feel, though, we’ve been pulled out of California to participate in conversations, like you said, through NAAEE, but also when we participated in the Global Climate Action Summit. There was definitely some international participation there, especially on a cross-sector panel that we ran at the end. So it’s starting to happen, even though we haven’t been looking for it.

TEO:  Where does Ten Strands go from here? You said that your work is by no means done. Where does California go from here, what’s next on the agenda?

KAREN: One of the things we’re considering is building out a state network that would offer regional support to school districts to create environmental literacy plans tied to district goals and priorities, and using these pilots that we’re using right now to build tools and resources for the field.

Another thing that we’ve barely touched on is thinking about future teachers. So if you’re in the Cal State system or the UC system, and you’re going to teach science, history/social science or English or mathematics, that as part of your credential you know how to integrate environmental literacy into your science instruction. So looking at the teacher pipeline and then building out some kind of network to help districts to do this kind of planning.

At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that we’re happy with the work we’re doing and happy with the partnerships that we’re forming. You know?

TEO: It’s been hard work but it sounds like through some combination of determination and talent and luck and timing, things have unfolded in the right way. How are you feeling? You’re a small organization working a gigantic system.  

WILL: The analogy that I like to use is that Ten Strands is the tug boat pushing against the super tanker of the education system. I like the analogy because as the leaders of the tug boat, we have to be in agreement with the leaders of the supertanker where it wants to go. So we’ve been able to have that communication and say, “Hey, a little bit more toward those productive environmental literacy waters. There you go.” And it’s been a collaborative working relationship in that way.

KAREN: It’s just incredible to sit with teachers and their kids, and have the kids share with you what they’re learning as a result of taking this approach. We’ve been so lucky that, as we’ve built these relationships, obviously at the level of the state agencies, but also at the level of like a kindergarten teacher who has taught in the same school for the last 17 years. To go into her classroom and sit with her kids, and watch her teach the kids about structure and function as it relates to birds, and connecting that to litter reduction on the campus. These little kids, they’re little kindergarteners, and her job is to teach them to read. Here they are at the end of the year with her, they know how to read, and they know how to articulate themselves against a very complex topic. This is the thing that really keeps me going, all of the ways in which we meet these fine, fine educators working with these wonderful kids who have so much potential.

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