Latrece Johnson on how environmental education is all about communityEducator Highlights
Q & A with educator and author Latrece Johnson
In our Educator Highlights, we go behind-the-scenes with educators who inspire us. This summer, we’re excited to feature Latrece Johnson, also known as the “Peninsula Lady” in Mobile County, Alabama.
Latrece is an elementary teacher, environmental educator, and author of several science books. We’ll add ways you can connect with Latrece, her books, and all her environmental work at the end of this article too!
Acorn Naturalists: Latrece, you have a Virtual Peninsula Camp coming up this July, so let’s start there. What’s that going to look like and what activities do you have in mind?
Latrece Johnson: It’s my first year trying this, so we will see how it goes. Basically, our goal with the Virtual Peninsula Camp is to offer “everyone’s a scientist” inspiration for anyone who joins. It’s all rooted in Citizen Science. We’re providing 30 minutes a day online, with ways to continue those lessons offline too. We don’t want to overwhelm anyone, but instead, provide activities, mainly for kids around ages 4-10. I’ve wanted to offer this camp for a while, and with Covid, it seemed like a good time to give it a go, virtually, and encourage exploration.
Acorn Naturalists: Can anyone sign up for Virtual Peninsula Camp or is it a local endeavor? It’s the week of July 20th– July 24th?
Latrece Johnson: Yes, and the flow is super open! It starts the week of July 20th at 9:30 AM CDT, with 30 minutes of online lessons and activities.
We want people to engage and have sensory-based activities, write in their nature journals—even a small patch of grass in a yard will work great as a place for these activities.
Acorn Naturalists: We can’t wait to hear how it goes! Can you tell us about your nickname “the Peninsula Lady?”
Latrece Johnson: Well, I’ve always wanted to live near the water, for one, and here in the peninsula of Mobile County, Alabama, there weren’t a lot of people referring to where we live as a peninsula. But if you look at any map, it is a peninsula. I thought that it would be so helpful to have a book, and when a saw a flyer for a local watershed day, I wanted to learn more. Eventually, I wrote this children’s book about peninsulas in general, but also specifically about this peninsula.
Acorn Naturalists: And did your book about peninsulas help make the nickname stick?
Latrece Johnson: It was part of the process, but really what happened was I got more and more involved with the local watershed. I wrote this book What is a Peninsula?, and next thing you know I’m getting a call from Debbie Foster, the Executive Director of the Peninsula Nonprofit here in Mobile. The Peninsula of Mobile is basically a nonprofit whose focus is around low-impact redevelopment around the peninsula, like nature trails, infrastructure for flood reduction, sidewalks, etc. Next thing you know, I’m helped out with that nonprofit too. By the time it was Art and Paddle Day, I was known as “the Peninsula Lady.”
Acorn Naturalists: What’s one unique fact about the peninsula in Mobile County?
Latrece Johnson: It’s shaped like New Jersey! It is also a really important habitat for all of our local biodiversity, though we have plenty of invasive species too.
Acorn Naturalists: What are some of your early memories of being outside and connecting to nature?
Latrece Johnson: Growing up in North Carolina, my Mom was big on all the kids playing outside. We were always climbing trees as kids, and she fostered a love of nature for us. By age 10, we took bigger trips to State Parks for birthdays, picnics, hikes. My Mom never presented nature as this thing you “have to love.” We just loved it naturally, especially because she helped create such good memories outside.
Acorn Naturalists: Are there any educators in particular who have inspired you?
Latrece Johnson: Well my Facebook page is @InTheSpiritoFrizzle—when it comes to science, we all want to be Mrs. Frizzle. I was so enamored by her magic school bus. My 3rd-grade teacher growing up was also amazing, and I also had a 5th-grade teacher who inspired my love for social studies. I also had this chemistry and physics teacher in high school who made everything come alive. He was this man who looked like Albert Einstein—without the glasses—and he pushed us in our science classes—really pushed us. We were doing labs all the time too. By the time I graduated in 1992, we all passed the science end-of-year testing with flying colors.
Acorn Naturalists: Did you always want to be a teacher?
Latrece Johnson: No, I would never have seen myself here, as an educator, at first. I wanted to be a contract lawyer, then medical sociologist, then I considered nursing. Eventually, I went to school to become a teacher, starting with preschoolers. Working at that first preschool in North Carolina, the “teacher me” really came out. Now I have an Associate’s degree in early childhood credentials, a bachelor of science degree, and two masters—one in curriculum and instruction, and one in early childhood science for teaching with diversity.
Acorn Naturalists: Now you’ve been teaching for… how many years now?
Latrece Johnson: Well I started in 2000 and now it’s 2020 so that’s 20 years that have flown by, but when you’re doing something you love, you feel like you haven’t worked a day in your life. I ask myself, how did those 20 years pass?
Environmental education is a community thing for me. I tell my students all the time, “if you put litter on the ground, it’s more than just the litter now.” This is our community to take care of, this river, this peninsula.-Latrece Johnson, author & educator
Acorn Naturalists: And this schoolyear added Covid and online learning into the mix too?
Latrece Johnson: Yes, there was a lot happening this spring. I found a note from a parent, just now before the call, thanking me for everything, Covid and all. And I just feel gratitude back for the parents, for working with teaching at home since March 18th. The thanks are also to the parents, for sticking with me, as we figured it out together.
Acorn Naturalists: You teach third-graders throughout the year, and environmental education is a key part of your curriculum, including a unit around the Osprey Initiative. Overall, what is environmental education, in your own words?
Latrece Johnson: Environmental education is a community thing for me. I tell my students all the time, “if you put litter on the ground, it’s more than just the litter now.” This is our community to take care of, this river, this peninsula. And everything is connected, so that litter doesn’t stay on the ground unmoving. Heavy rains come. Where does trash go when it rains? Our waterways. We already have invasive species too, like alligator grass, we don’t need litter too! We’re also a global society, so when we visit places, we need to know how to engage with the land there, and with the community.
Acorn Naturalists: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us, Latrece. As we wrap up, are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Latrece Johnson: I’m all about Citizen Science, so in my work and communities, I really like to share those opportunities, like Biodiversity Day, with others. I’ll also add that you need to be engaged with the environment you call home. And that’s the message I feel with Citizen Science.
If you’re inspired to learn more about Latrece’s books, Citizen Science opportunities, and the upcoming Virtual Summer Camp, check out the information and resources below!
Huge thank you to Latrece, for all the amazing work and dedication to place-based environmental education.
- Follow Latrece’s latest books and environmental programs on her Facebook page @InTheSpiritoFrizzle.
- Considering Virtual Summer Camp? Sign up for Virtual Peninsula Camp happening the week of July 20th-July 24th. $15 per camper, featuring daily giveaways and activities!
- Purchase Latrece’s books and stay tuned for upcoming ones! So far there is What is a Peninsula and What is a Lionfish, available for purchase on Amazon. Check out her website here, for more information too.