Although Ana Leirner was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil—with a population of about 12.4 million people, it’s the world’s fourth largest city—her parents and teachers instilled in her a love of nature. She vividly remembers them taking her to Brazil’s national parks and other natural areas.
“Some of my most precious memories as a kid were the times I spent out-of-doors, seeing some of the beautiful nature that Brazil has, or simply enjoying the sound of stepping on dry leaves under the shade of the trees,” she said. These days she enjoys building similar memories with her son and husband in Northern Virginia, where they live.
“For a long time, I have focused on creating learning that sticks, learning that is meaningful and that people will remember and be able to apply in their day-to-day lives. That’s the goal, right? It’s not only about what you know; more often than not, it’s about what you do with what you know. It’s about actions and how your knowledge influences your actions.”
At SFI, Leirner has led PLT education projects such as advising on best practices for adult learning and in-person professional development. She has developed online courses for formal and nonformal educators interested in taking students outdoors to learn, and incorporated nature education into their teaching. She also worked with Paul Robitaille, SFI’s Senior Advisor, Indigenous Relations, to develop a series of online courses about Indigenous Rights and Relationship Building in the Forest Sector. SFI staff members have taken the courses to help SFI accomplish one of its key goals: building and promoting forest-focused collaborations rooted in recognition and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge.
“I’m incredibly proud of those courses, because there simply aren’t many such courses available. I had the opportunity to work with Paul, who is an amazing communicator and extremely knowledgeable on the topic. In addition to creating the courses, we also support others in integrating the trainings into their organizations,” she said. “What we try to do with these courses —as with all of our courses and workshops—is to focus on the actions rather than knowledge, not focusing just on the theoretical, but helping organizations in the forest sector see its relevance for their work, to understand the next steps they have to take to make the forest sector more inclusive and respectful of Indigenous Nations and Tribes.”
“[The Indigenous Relations Online Courses] have been extremely helpful and I’ve referenced it many times as a useful framework for engaging with Indigenous communities in my state,” said Tony Pascall, Oklahoma’s State PLT Coordinator.
PLT offers a wide range of educational materials that educators can use in classrooms and outdoor settings, along with online resources to supplement lessons. PLT resources span all ages, providing a lifetime of learning for the youngest of learners with the Trees & Me activities guide all the way to the Green Jobs: Exploring Forest Careers and Journeys of Black Professionals in Green Careers guides for young adults.
Along with education materials, PLT also offers training courses and other resources that help educators use the materials effectively. Some of the courses have recently been updated.
“We’ve produced a lot of PLT curriculum resources in recent years and, along with that, developed online courses to help educators make the most of those materials and feel confident and comfortable leading students through activities outdoors,” said Leirner. “In revamping the training courses, we made them more applicable to today’s issues, made them more hands-on.”
Leirner and her PLT colleagues designed the online educator training courses so that they can be used as standalone courses or in hybrid workshops hosted by PLT state coordinators.
“That allows workshop participants to view some of the material ahead of time at their own pace and then have more time for in-person portions of the workshops to experience activities that bolster what they’ve already read and learned. Having that in-person experience is so important to educators, so that they feel confident and better prepared to do those activities with their students,” she said.
PLT’s free Forest Literacy Framework is designed to help educators translate the language of forests and sustainable forest management into concepts for everyone at any age. The framework offers 100 forest concepts and additional resources organized into four themes: What is a forest? Why do forests matter? How do we sustain our forests? and What is our responsibility to forests?
Leirner noted that the term educators includes K-12 classroom teachers, as well as pre-kindergarten faculty, but also educators who work in nonformal settings, such as nature centers, summer camps, Scouting and 4-H activities, afterschool programs, museum staffs, and so on.
“Natural-resource professionals also use our materials and resources when students visit them or when they go into classes as guest speakers to talk about their work. PLT resources help explain the importance of trees and forests and the importance of managing forests sustainably. We have a number of activities designed to help them explain key forestry principles,” Leirner said.
“Most educators have some basic knowledge about forests, but what we see is that most of them don’t have enough knowledge to feel confident in talking about it with students. That’s why many of them come to us—they are interested in incorporating more information about the environment, about trees and forests, into their teaching, but don’t feel confident about doing so. All of our materials for educators include background information, but educators often feel that they need more than that. Attending one or more of our in-person, hybrid, or online training workshops gives them the information and learning techniques they need so that they feel confident.”
Leirner and her colleagues are in the midst of producing online Forest Literacy courses for young professionals interested in the forest and conservation sector, and “forestry adjacent professionals” who work in the sector—communications specialists, accountants, and human resources professionals, for example—but who don’t have backgrounds in forestry. The courses will cover the key concepts of sustainable forest management and its relevance for addressing climate change, biodiversity, and conserving the quality of our air and water.
“Forest-focused collaborations are in our DNA as an organization and are key to our collective success,” said Leirner. “We’re working with the USDA Forest Service on a Forest to Faucet Activity Collection that focuses on water resources using some of the GIS, or geographic information systems technology, the agency has created, along with some of our most popular PLT activities for high-school students.”
The PLT team also produced and launched the Climate Change and Forests: From Seed to Carbon Sink e-unit in Canada this year. This digital curriculum resource includes eight activities for high-school educators and is designed to empower educators to engage learners in inquiry and place-based learning about climate change and its connections to trees and forests.
“We’re adding content about forests and natural resources in Canada, connections to Canadian curriculum standards, and Indigenous communities and their traditional forest-related knowledge,” Leirner said. “It’s very exciting.”
Leirner is proud to be a part of the PLT team. “I love the work that I do. As I see it, education is a key climate action, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work for educators and students to nurture the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards,” she said. “We also have a fantastic team, people who are extremely competent, intelligent, passionate, fun, and collaborative. None of the educational materials and workshops I’ve mentioned could have been created without them.”