Not Your Mother's English Class

"Green Punks, Eco-Warriors, Bio-Ninjas, and Nature Nerds" brings environmental activism to first-year composition.

English student participate in the Extreme Stream Makeover

English students participate in the "Extreme Stream Makeover".

At first glance, the class description sounds more like a video game than an introductory English course. But for Laura-Gray Street and her students, “Green Punks, Eco-Warriors, Bio- Ninjas, and Nature Nerds” is a unique twist on what has traditionally been one of the most dreaded courses for college students across the nation— first-year composition and grammar.

“We try to liven things up by having each professor shape the class around a theme of his or her own choosing,” said Street, assistant professor of English. “Doing so allows for an element of creativity and provides a topic for the writing assignments.”

Street’s course is one example of how Randolph College often takes a unique approach to instruction. Street has used an environmental theme—her personal passion—for many years now. While the main purpose is to introduce first-year students to the expectations and demands of writing at the college level and beyond, incorporating a theme allows professors to give the course new relevance to students.

The environmental science aspect also allows Street to integrate her curriculum with courses taught by science faculty. In previous years, Street’s students have worked with geographic information system technology, participated in local stream monitoring projects, and visited local nature centers.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to improve my writing through a topic,” said Sarah Maki ’13. “A plain writing class based only on grammar does not appeal to me at all. I am concerned about the environment, and this seemed like the most interesting and beneficial class to me.”

The current course uses diverse thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Mahatma Gandhi, and David Suzuki to help students explore questions and issues related to environmental issues—and to hone their writing skills in the process.

“When students are interested and engaged in their writing, their writing improves and tends to be stronger to begin with,” Street said.

This year, Street incorporated a local stream restoration project into her class. She and the students went to a nearby park to learn about a community effort to improve the Blackwater Creek watershed. During the trip, students met with the director of the James River Association, a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to being the “voice of the James” for more than 30 years. They learned about the Extreme Stream Makeover (ESM), a special, week-long initiative to reduce runoff and improve water quality through a series of low-impact design projects. This year’s ESM brought hundreds of people together in several locations around Lynchburg and the surrounding area to plant rain gardens and streamside buffers along Ivy and Blackwater creeks.