It’s been 25 years since Jonah Maidoff joined the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in its inaugural year. The Charter School has always promoted experiential learning, but Maidoff has been instrumental in making sure environmental education and nature appreciation were a part of that experience. With Maidoff’s zeal, and a little help from the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, Charter School students have paddled the West Branch Penobscot River, hiked the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains, monitored permafrost in Alaska, and studied sustainable farming in Cuba. That’s not even to mention the impactful work they’ve done right here on the Island.
As an environmentalist and an educator, Maidoff followed in the footsteps of his mother, who studied the relationship between environmental education and children’s cognitive development. Maidoff’s own childhood escapes from Manhattan gave him the freedom to wander the creeks of Pennsylvania, then the woods of Maine. It was there in the shadow of the White Mountains that Maidoff came to understand the places he loved were also threatened. “That’s become part of my mission in my life,” Maidoff says, “helping young people grow to love the natural world around them.”
In the Charter School’s early years, Maidoff instituted the tradition of a “walkabout,” in which students spend a week hiking, camping, and exploring the outdoors. Maidoff also leads trips during the school’s spring project period. “I think if we’re going to maintain the health of the planet, we need to learn to love it,” Maidoff says. “I don’t think we can learn to love it if we’re not experiencing it.”
Maidoff has received two commendations from the Massachusetts State House for environmental curriculum-writing. Alongside fellow teachers, Maidoff designed a multidisciplinary middle/high school curriculum centered around human impact on the environment. In 2015, that class raised funds to travel to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, but the trip was canceled following the terrorist attacks on Paris. The next year, with the help of Island Grown Initiative, the class co-opted an Oregon bill creating a farm-to-school program. The now-beloved “Farm to School Month” was promptly signed into action by the Baker-Polito administration.
In partnership with environmental educators at Felix Neck, Maidoff also helped launch Martha’s Vineyard’s first Youth Climate Summit, which brought together more than 200 students from across the Island to discuss climate issues. Those conversations have now spiraled-off into monthly “Climate Cafes,” where students lead discussions on local environmental issues.
Of course, teaching about the environment has its challenges. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a harbinger of life in a changed climate. “Even that is just a little taste of what living in a degraded environment is like,” Maidoff says. “There are places on the planet where you have to wear your mask every day, all the time, because of the level of pollution in the air. We don’t want to get used to that.”
“It’s daunting to consider the gravity of the situation,” Maidoff says. But as the effects of climate change become more apparent on Martha’s Vineyard, he feels hopeful “that we’re actually going to have a closer knit, healthier, and more engaged community.”
Sure, the news about the environment can be discouraging. But Maidoff says, “that’s a place of fear. I don’t think that’s a place to work from for success. Possibility and connection are far more important.”
For Maidoff, those opportunities for connection present themselves every day. Sometimes it’s at the grocery store, running into former students who recount meaningful walkabout experiences. But most of the time, the opportunities unfold right in Maidoff’s classroom. When the Charter School returned to in-person learning, Maidoff was met with a refreshing cohort of young people who “seem even more motivated to be engaged.”
If the past few years have taught us anything at all, Maidoff says, it’s that “being together is a lot more important now.”