Berkeley science teacher wins Time magazine innovative teaching award

Neelam Patil is one of 10 teachers chosen by Time for her work using “pocket forests” to help students see they can make a difference in climate change.

Science teacher Neelam Patil embraces the saplings ready for planting at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Science teacher Neelam Patil was selected by Time magazine as one of 10 innovative teachers changing the country’s education landscape for her work bringing micro-forests to three Berkeley schools and showing students they can “do something about climate change.”

Read Time magazine’s profile of Patil

The award honors teachers who went above and beyond to create unique and meaningful learning experiences for students.

Last year, Patil led an effort to bring Miyawaki forests — super-dense, biodiverse, fast-growing forests — to small pockets of schoolyards at Cragmont, Malcolm X, and King schools. Students put the 3,300 seedlings into the ground this November.

“Climate change is such an overwhelming issue. And often times my students feel, and I feel, very hopeless,” Patil told Berkeleyside. “This is just a very, very targeted solution that people can get extremely excited about.”

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Science teacher Neelam Patil sits for a photo with a young plant ready for transplantation to the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Patil teaches science at Cragmont and Oxford elementaries.

The award honors Patil’s efforts to inspire action over pessimism in the face of a growing climate crisis.

“There is something we can do about climate change as kids and part of that is planting trees,” Indy Stone, a fifth-grader at Cragmont, told Berkeleyside.

Compared with a monoculture forest typical of reforestation projects, Miyawaki forests grow 10 times faster, store 40 times more carbon and are 100 times more biodiverse. To get them in the ground, Patil partnered with SuGi, a nonprofit specializing in pocket forests.

This is the first year Time has honored teachers with this award, which focuses on teachers who use creativity or technology to engage their students. The 10 teachers selected “despite all the challenges of this 2021/22 school year, are changing the landscape of education.”

Among the other recipients of the award are teachers who helped students with disabilities get placed in STEM careers, made unaccompanied immigrant children feel welcome in the U.S. and designed video game lessons to teach anti-racism.

“The fact that students can learn about deforestation, which is a primary contributor to climate change, and actually do something tangible as part of their learning experience to address this issue is pretty empowering,” School Board Director Ana Vasudeo, whose sons, Kavi and Sebastian, are in Patil’s class, told Time.

Patil said planting the forests “activated a whole new generation of children,” who are motivated and educated about the steps they can take to address climate change.

At Oxford and Cragmont, Patil leads the schools’ Green Team, a student club that educates others about climate change. This year, Oxford Green Team students wrote and directed a short play on the topic and, at Cragmont, created a documentary.

Kanav Deorah, a fourth grader at Oxford, is one of the founding members of the club, which meets during recess. “I don’t want to go to recess; I want to save the planet,” he said.

Since the planting, Patil has been working to get the micro forests planted on green spaces elsewhere. She formed an organization, Green Pocket Forests, to help others and she has been working with local and state legislators to fund more plantings in California. Recently, Berkeley Unified vowed to plant three more micro-forests.

“I want a Miyawaki forest in every schoolyard in every city and every park,” Patil said, adding that her students say they want a micro-forest at every school “in the universe.”

“My goal was to teach my students that, just because you’re 5 years old, 6 years old, you don’t have to watch as our planet goes up in flames,” Patil said.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.