by Patrick McShea
Seven years after he graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies, Will Tolliver Jr. accepted responsibility for teaching some aspects of that discipline at the 206-year-old liberal arts institution. As an adjunct professor, he presented an overview of environmental education’s foundations and its intersection with anti-bias and anti-racist education for 22 juniors and seniors during a recent semester-long course. As a Pittsburgh native, Will brought a hometown focus to some course work at the Meadville college by leading his students in developing lesson plans for Hilltop Urban Farm, an eight-year-old initiative that is transforming 108 acres of the former St. Clair Village housing complex into a national model of community food production.
“I think the relatively short interval between being a student and being a teacher worked to my advantage.” Will explains. “The course was taught remotely because of the pandemic, and during this time of continued civic and social unrest. l was mindful of the students’ situations, concerned about elements effecting their mental health and well-being that were beyond the bounds of the course.”
Will’s out-of-school experience prepared him well for the challenge. His resume includes current work as a consultant to the Public Broadcasting Service, and various teaching, training, grant-writing, and administrative roles for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Pennsylvania Association for the Education of the Young Child, Grow Pittsburgh, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. During each phase of his career CMNH helped Will to use authentic objects in his public presentations by providing him with a toolbox of touchable objects including feathers, mammal skulls, preserved plants, and fossils.
If there’s a theme to date in Will’s career, it might be expanding the vocabulary of the people he engages. He explains his first professional challenge, as a Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy naturalist, as “closing the word gap” for three- to five-year-old children in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. In a grant-supported program called “Buzzword Pittsburgh,” he used storytelling, play, guided hikes, songs, and museum objects to explore the meanings of individual words and build vocabulary related to science, math, art, and even local plants and wildlife.
Expanding the working environmental education vocabulary of college students in 2021 involved a greater level of sharing. As Will summarizes, “I wanted to be that better teacher, who covered the core principles and ideas, but also honestly shared what it has been like for me as a Black man working in this field.” His students explored the undeniable connections between environmental health and social justice. Their understanding of the history and importance of such collaborative community initiatives as Hilltop Urban Farm, for example was tied to understanding potentially new terms like urban food deserts, and red-lined neighborhoods.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: McShea, Patrick
Publication date: June 7, 2021