From K-12 and beyond, Israeli children learn they can help the rainforests to heal

Education program based on study and action engages students by having them campaign for one of three endangered ‘biodiversity hotspots’ — and helping to save the winner

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Children at the Bi'ne B elementary school near Deir el-Asad in northern Israel crowd around an iguana, November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Children at the Bi'ne B elementary school near Deir el-Asad in northern Israel crowd around an iguana, November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Bisan Basri, 11, is campaigning to save part of the Choco Forest in Ecuador and has memorized her spiel in English.

The forest is home to “many endemics,” she tells one group of children after another, and it is one of the world’s 10 most important “biodiversity hotspots.” Among its 696 species, 91 of which are endangered, is the brown-headed spider monkey — one of the 25 most threatened species worldwide. Furthermore, she adds, the forest has more plants than any other region in the Americas.

Bisan is competing with Huda Abed, 10, and Aseel Halil, 11.

For Huda, it’s more important to buy and protect part of the Tapichalaca Reserve, also in Ecuador. That has 402 species, 42 of which are listed as threatened. It includes the endemic bomarea longpipe plant, the threatened mountain tapir, and the rare black and chestnut eagle.

Aseel is too nervous to deliver her pitch in English by heart, so she reads from a prepared text. She wants funds to be raised for Colombia’s Magnolios Reserve, which is considered an important ecological corridor. It has seven endangered plant species, two endangered species of mammal and five species of endangered frog, she says.

To bring the three reserves to life, the Bi’ne B elementary school near Deir el-Asad in northern Israel has brought in an iguana and a macaw, around which the children gather with much chatter, curiosity and enthusiasm. In line with a policy of giving every child responsibility for something, Ali Miari, 10, who is attached to the school’s petting corner, holds a gerbil and talks about the importance of empathy for animals.

All 430 children at the school will have to vote for the reserve they most want to save.

They have each donated NIS 15 (just under $4.5) for the cause, within the framework of a broader Arab culture day, to which parents have been invited and for which grandmas are busily preparing food.

Aseel Halil prepares to pitch, in English, for the Los Magnolios reserve in Columbia, at the Bi’ne B elementary school near to Deir el-Asad in northern Israel, November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Which reserve is the most in danger?” asks one child. “Will our money be enough to save all the animals?” asks another.

The essential terms have already been explained to the whole school. “Endemic” means a life form that can only be found in a particular place. “Endangered” refers to a species in danger of extinction, as opposed to “threatened,” which means the species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

So do you try to save the most species possible? Or the most endangered? Is it more important to save a plant, a frog or a bird?

In the end, the Choco Forest wins.

‘The adults will understand too’

In Israel, Jews and Arabs mostly live separately and send their children to separate schools.

The Bi’ne B elementary school is the first in the Arab sector to run the program designed by TIME — This Is My Earth. The school won an Education Ministry award last month, after apparently undergoing a small revolution when principal Karama Titi took up her post in 2020.

TIME is an international organization founded by Uri Shanas, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Haifa – Oranim.

It identifies privately owned parts of tropical nature reserves facing development and destruction that are particularly rich in species and crowdsources funds to buy them for conservation.

Each year, it presents three options for its members to vote on.

This year’s reserves are the ones the Bi’ne B elementary school pupils were voting for late last month. The polls will close for all of TIME’s 6,000 members on December 31.

English teacher Shorouq Hijazi, 27 — who coordinated the program at Bi’ne B elementary school and decided to have two pupils presenting each reserve, one in English and the other in Arabic — heard about TIME while taking a course that Shanas taught.

English teacher Shorouq Hijazi at the school November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The organization provides free study programs for pupils of all ages, in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

While the degree of sophistication varies according to the age group, the model is always the same — dividing a class into three groups and getting each group to learn about one reserve so that it can try to convince the others to vote for it.

“What you are doing at the school is exactly what’s needed,” Shanas told Talin Badran and Hassan Bakri, two sixth-graders from the Bi’ne B school tasked with interviewing him in the school’s impressive recording studio.

“The moment that children understand that this is our world, that (it belongs to) all of us, the adults will understand too,” he said.

Prof Uri Shanas (left) is interviewed by Hsssan Bakri (center) and Talin Badran at the Bi’ne B elementary school near to Deir el-Asad in northern Israel, November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“It’s exactly how I hoped that TIME would develop,” Shanas told the Times of Israel after watching the children campaign.

“To save the world, to link the cultures, to encourage interdisciplinary learning… It’s biology, civics, and geography, and it crosses languages and cultures,” he said.

Shanas doesn’t know how many other schools have taken up the program, although he says he “keeps hearing” about new ones.

The initiative is run entirely by volunteers and nobody has gotten around to collating the information. But he knows it is being implemented from kindergarten to university level. He himself uses it in courses he teaches at Oranim.

Pupils at the Bi’ne B elementary school near to Deir el-Asad in northern Israel vote for one of three nature reserves, sections of which TIME – This Is My Earth is interested in buying, November 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“It’s very meaningful,” Shanas went on. “This year, for example, every dollar buys 20 square meters of forest. We show kids as young as kindergarten age what a huge area we can buy with the proceeds, for example, of a challah sale. It might include a tree that sequesters (absorbs) carbon dioxide and provides a home for butterflies and other animals.”

Since 2016, TIME has purchased tracts of land totaling 1,275 hectares (12.75 square kilometers, or just under five square miles).

TIME volunteers introduce the program to other teachers, and provide teacher training, which is recognized by the Education Ministry for the purpose of salary credits. This year, the ministry will pay for the training.

The organization is currently working on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) to train teachers in Europe in the method.

Maya Mayrose, from a school in the central city of Holon, who last year taught the TIME course to 17-year-olds studying biology for their matriculation exams, said the youngsters spent three months studying the three reserves and arguing over which was more important.

“I never saw them so interested,” she said.

“Children don’t always connect to climate change. They feel they have no influence, that stopping disposables (singe use plastic) won’t help. This really excited them. They understood the race against time, that if this animal disappears, it’s extinct,” she said.

She went on, “They gave lessons to others in the year group. T they went to a mall with posters to recruit people. At Hanukkah (the Jewish festival of lights), they brought 100 people to an event and sold potato cakes and chocolate coins (traditional festival foods) and raised NIS 1,000 (just under $300). Even the school inspectors noted the amazing knowledge they had acquired.”

Netta Perry, who also teaches biology to matriculation students — in her case at a school in the coastal city of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv — said she had found ecology difficult to teach in an exciting way until the “Eureka moment” when she heard about TIME.

“With TIME, they suddenly have a reason to learn,” she said, adding that through the program, pupils acquire skills that are essential for citizens in a healthy democracy.

“You’re teaching ecology from a real place, and they have to be active, to do something, not just sit in the classroom,” continued Perry, who is this year using the program as a bridge to connect her pupils to those from a Bedouin school in the southern Israel city of Rahat.”You have to vote in a balanced, informed way, and to do so you have to study the issues, to understand why what you’re campaigning for is special, why we make the choices we make.”

“Today,” she said, “ecology is the thing I love teaching most.”

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