Braiding Sweetgrass in the Classroom: Cultivating Ecological Connection

By: Lesley Machon, Humanities Teacher 

(ANNews) – Screens dominate our collective attention at every turn, backlighting a profound need for humans to reconnect with the natural world. Braiding Sweetgrass, a manifesto by Robin Wall Kimmerer, weaves together Indigenous wisdom, scientific insight, and the sweetgrass-scented stories of a shared world. Her work is an attempt to rekindle our bond with the Earth. Transplanting this type of ecological inquiry into our curriculum is essential. There is much at stake—from environmental crises, to the rising rates of anxiety and depression in teens. Our ecosystems and education systems are withering without their roots in deep soil.

A Beacon In the Digital Wilderness

“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbours.”

Teachers are at the forefront of the current youth mental health crisis. We watch the undulations of emotional distress every day, from irritability and mood swings, to social withdrawal, self-harm, disordered eating, lack of confidence and low self-esteem, expressions of suicidal thoughts, bullying behaviours, and various forms of escapism as an attempt to cope with the overwhelm of being a teen in today’s world. We witness students resort to isolating themselves within the tiny, insular worlds inside their pockets: social media, apps and games.

Hallways and classrooms are so often a dense forest of screens: heads bent to form the canopy, teens lost below in the shadows of virtual reality. Braiding Sweetgrass is a sunbeam piercing through the overstory of the digital age. Kimmerer’s work has the power to penetrate through digital distractions, illuminating minds with insights from the natural world we all belong to. Imagine students who knew as many plants and animal species, as the names of brands or TikTok celebrities. Braiding Sweetgrass is an interruption to our preoccupied consciousness, offering a glimpse into what lies beyond the digital underbrush, in nature.

The Language of the Earth

“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.”

In the opening chapters of Kimmerer’s book, she invites us to put our ears to the ground and listen for the whispers of the natural world. She reminds us that the Earth has a language of its own. It speaks in whale songs and cicada chorus, in the northern lights crackling, geysers erupting, sand dunes singing, and mud pots bubbling. Braiding Sweetgrass offers students a chance to become fluent in this ancient language. Through Kimmerer’s mesmerizing prose and reverence for the land, we remember that nature is not simply a backdrop. It is life-force energy itself, from which we ourselves are inextricable. Nature is us: the dirt under our fingernails that houses a thousand species, the millions of microbes in our gut, the way our breath becomes the air around us. This book teaches us to listen with new ears and see with renewed perspective, through the lens of gratitude and reciprocity.

The Healing Power of Nature

“Action on behalf of life transforms…As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

Ecotherapy, a field that engages with the therapeutic potential of the natural world, has gained prominence in recent years. Braiding Sweetgrass becomes an earthy, tactile catalyst for ecotherapy within the classroom. Kimmerer shows us the way that learning from the land becomes a form of healing. As we immerse ourselves in her stories of restoring ecosystems and honouring plant relatives, we discover the profound impact of ecological mindfulness on our mental and emotional well-being. Fresh awareness seeps in to nourish us through the new roots we’re sending down. There is a rich wellspring that lives in the mycelial networks of ancient knowledge, and all we have to do is give students an access point—a place to tap in. By teaching this type of literature, we are acquainting teens with the healing sanctuary of the untamed world, equipping them with a lifelong strategy for coping with life’s challenges.

Cultivating Stewards of the Earth

“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

The Earth faces unprecedented ecological challenges, and it is our responsibility to educate the next generation of her stewards: individuals who are not only aware of environmental issues, but deeply connected to the land they inhabit. Braiding Sweetgrass offers inspiring and practical ways to move forward. Through Kimmerer’s guidance, we learn that ecological connection is about active engagement with the dirt, rocks, sunshine and snow around us, in all seasons. By teaching this book, we plant the seeds of responsibility and kinship, making nature as relevant as games like Fortnite, or Minecraft. By teaching this book, we drive a wedge between our youth and the digital world that, left untended to, might just swallow them whole.

Reimagining Education

“The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness.”

Kimmerer is a botanist and Indigenous scientist, and she is also a professor herself, calling us to reimagine education. Her unique blend of Indigenous wisdom and scientific understanding challenges the conventional boundaries of learning. She teaches us that education can be a reciprocal exchange with the natural world, where we are both students and teachers. This book invites us to see classrooms as the boundless expanse of the natural world itself. By integrating Braiding Sweetgrass into our curriculum, we embark on a transformative journey towards an education that moves us, and towards an education that matters.

In conclusion, this book is an ecological and literary sanctuary. It re-homes us within the intricate web of life, where the wisdom of Indigenous cultures harmonizes with the insights of modern science. As parents and educators, we are responsible for stewarding a kinship with the Earth in our young people. By teaching Braiding Sweetgrass, we equip them with a deep relational resource—a way to imagine themselves back into the web of life. We help them become the scientists and healers our world so desperately needs, and in the spirit of reciprocity, the Earth returns this gift by offering us a deep sense of connection and belonging.

**Coming soon — a compilation of already curated and original resources for Braiding Sweetgrass for both home and school settings at

Lesley Machon is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. 

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