CS17 Rewrites the Wilderness Act
Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher

“Hail to the Chief”: CS17 Rewrites the Wilderness Act

Wander near the English classroom late in the first week of classes in the Lowenwood Academic Building (LAB) and you are likely to hear the strains of "Hail to the Chief" wafting through the air. You might notice two staff members (Michael Salat, the Environmental Citizenship teacher and Jeff Rennicke, English teacher, in dark glasses) pretending to be a Secret Service detail. And then, watch as in steps the President of the United States, the Vice President, Secretary of Interior, and the Director of the National Park Service. The President steps to the podium to speak before signing into law the world's very first wilderness protection legislation giving the very same speech that President Lyndon B. Johnson gave on September 3, 1964 as he signed into law “The Wilderness Act.”

It is a light-hearted moment after a complex and engaging four hour-long afternoon of learning. In the first week of classes for CS17, both our English class (Wilderness Voices) and our History class (Environmental Citizenship) are seeking to lay a foundation of knowledge for the students about what is meant by the term “wilderness." We begin by journaling about the question “What is Wilderness” on a log actually inside of the federally-designated Sylvania Wilderness. Then, in this interdisciplinary class, we begin a formal inquiry into the meaning of Wilderness by looking closely at the political definition of the term. Howard Zahniser, considered the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wrote 66 drafts of the legislation before it was passed. In a combined class of History and English, CS17 students are asked to break up into groups (committees) and write the "67th Draft" of the bill, a process that requires contemplation of the rules, regulations, and language that led to this historic piece of legislation.

We begin with an overview of both the political and social climate of the 1960’s and an essay by Lauret Savoy comparing the shared roots of both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act. Then students rewrite the Act section by section in their groups, discussing and debating among themselves to find the perfect language. Each group then reads their final version to the group at-large before we read and discuss the actual wording of the bill itself as written by Howard Zahniser. The process is repeated for each section of this monumental piece of legislation. It is a four-hour class period full of deep thought, passionate discussion, learning, sharing, public speaking, and hard work. 

Finally, when the final versions are ready, a mock vote is held requiring students to read each committee’s work and listen to their presentation of the work from the podium. From the group whose bill receives the most votes, one student is elected "President" and a light-hearted signing ceremony is held to finalize the day of hard work. To end the unit, students pour over maps of the National Wilderness Preservation System to learn about the wild places their hard work (with a little bit of fun) helped create.

It is an activity that sets the stage for the Conserve experience in English and History stressing our emphasis on collaboration, interdisciplinary learning, group discussion, debate, active listening, and all of it with a bit of humor all in the name of learning.

Photos Courtesy of: Jeff Rennicke