Environmental Justice

Dear Friends,  
This past week I spoke to our eighth graders about Environmental Justice. In our city and county and country, certain communities find themselves surrounded by toxic industry, with polluted air and polluted soils and water. These communities suffer from higher rates of asthma, cancer and other health issues. And these communities tend to be poor, working class, African American and LatinX. As one 8th Grader commented “It’s just not fair.”
At issue at this moment is the relocation of the General Iron Recycling smelter from  Lincoln Park, to the far Southeast corner of Chicago, a community surrounded by garbage dumps, sludge drying pads, industrial fumes and chemical dusts. This community is engaging in a courageous struggle to deny an operating permit to General Iron. A group of local residents has been engaged in a Hunger Strike for the past week to try to force the City to commit to denying the permit.  Waters Ecology interviewed one of the strikers, Yesenia Chavez, a college student majoring in Biology, to share with our 8th graders.
On Monday people from around the city, including our community,  will join the hunger strike for one day. I,  along  with others in our ward, including

As of Sunday, noon, our list from our neighborhood organizations includes:

Solidarity can tip the scales away from injustice. 

Learn more and consider signing up here for our local neighborhood effort to support the city wide event.

Here is the link Chicago Audubon and activist Judy Pollack, who initiated this support action, to sign a petition and join the Hunger Strike:

Mr. Leki

Pandemic Gallery

During the Pandemic school shutdown, I have received many photos from school families and friends from the field: many birds (alive and dead), gardens and prepared dishes, landscapes, moons, suns, river and lake. I’ve put them together in a gallery showing. Our children are here, but you won’t see any crowds. More than anything that defines the Pandemic is our inability to gather together. Hoping for the day, soon, when that will be remedied.

Valentines to Mother Earth

Dear Friends,
This past week we spent part of my time in the primary grades writing Valentine’s cards to Mother Nature (Except for Kindergarten. They made cards for their other moms) I asked the kids do a beautiful drawing, and write a message to Mother Nature. I asked them to punch a hole on the card and attach a string or ribbon. I asked them to ask their folks to take them to the riverbank, or Waters Gardens, or even to a tree or bush in their own yard, and attach that card. In this small way we could thank Nature for her gifts, and maybe others would see the cards, read them and be reminded.

The Kindergarten cards are mostly renderings of the unlikely pairing of a spider with a palm tree. They saw something in each other, these two, and love blossomed. May that be Mother Nature’s gift to us, the ability to see in another being, something that connects, that creates something new. Cloud and tree, bacteria and Blue whale, we are truly One family, One being, on this beloved Earth.

Thank you, friends, for sharing your children’s messages.

Mr. Leki


Hello Ecofriends,

At this time of year we traditionally, with the Kindergardeners, begin a little project on growing spider plants, Chlorophytum comosum. These tropical plants have long, narrow,  arching leaves. When they are ready, they develop long arching stems dotted with delicate white flowers. When the flowers are finished,  they leave behind the primordial beginnings of a new plants, clinging to the stem,  miniatures of their mother, complete with leaves and a straggle of roots hanging down. The leaves and the roots vaguely resemble spiders. The babies can be clipped from this umbillicus, and set in a jar of water where they will steadily increase in size, both leaves and roots. After a few months they are ready for planting in soil, and beginning the cycle again.


That is what we normally do with the kinder kids, and if you have a spider plant, and a kindergartener, you might try it at home. A very low risk experiment.  When I showed the kinder-kids a spiderplant this week, one child burst out: “We have that! You gave one to my sister and now it is HUGE!”
The project comes with a slightly absurd and a-scientific song and story about a spider that falls in love with a palm tree, gets married and has kids. It is on the watersecology.org website under Kindergarden, and is linked here. The song, I wrote, and the recording is of my grandaughter Nicole and I. The artwork was done by my grandson Salim.

(BTW, the weird crusty, crackling part in the middle is when I ask the kids to make the sound of a spider walking up a palm tree) Some years ago I asked my son Jamal to translate the song into Spanish, and what he produced far exceeded the original. Apparently, in Latin America, the name for Chlorophytum comosum is Lazo de amor, a ribbon of love. In Jamal’s version,  a ribbon is vaulted aloft in the air by a wind, and is tangled in the leaves of a palm tree. So wonderful was this experience that the ribbon and palm married, and the children that resulted were “lazo de amor”, spider plants. This wonderful song ends with a chorus that says: 

Between the ribbon and palm tree There is a lazo de amor

Between a tree and the earth, There is a lazo de amor

Between the clouds and the treesThere is a lazo de amor

Between me and my mother There is a lazo de amor…..

It is a wonderful thing to think about how many things can be paired in this way ,things held together by un lazo de amor, extending the song to infinity. I stopped singing this song several years back because the fast clip of the spanish verse is daunting for kindergarten kids. But the choro  (the response) at the end is easy:  “Hay un lazo de amor”. I hope they, and you, will try it, and that you will invent new pairings, things held together by “un lazo de amor”.

lazo de amor, written and performed by Jamal
érase-un fino listón que llevado por el viento-
-en las bellas ramas de-una palmera se-enlazó
tan a gusto se sentían que-al rato se casaron
y tenemos como resultado-este lazo de-amor
entre el listón y la palmera
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre el agua y la tierra
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre el árbol y las nubes
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre yo y mi mamá
hay un lazo de amo o or

Be well, stay well, Mr. Leki

Snake and Turtle

Dear Friends, Normally at this time of year we would be rehearsing with our 1st grade actors to put on the play: The Legend of Snake and Turtle.We found a version of the play performed and filmed and edited by Waters Media Lab students supervised by Julie Peterson and Vicky Mendoza from more than ten years ago.  It was their first time using the technique of “green screen”. These students have now graduated high school! The second clip is the accompanying song with some great stills showing Waters School history. I have been sharing these with the primary grades classes and they are all linked at watersecology.org

Old Waters Media Lab-Two Friends and the Legend of Snake and Turtle

Old Waters Media Lab- Two Friends Song


Mr. Leki

One Month Into Winter

Dear Friends,
I do love the intersection of science and art. I try to lock the two together in my life and teaching. A friend recently introduced me to a remarkable film about the life of a little known, ground breaking artist:  Hilma Af Klindt.  Not only is her art striking and revolutionary for the period, but it reflects the ongoing revelations that were occurring in the natural sciences. Please find time to view this wonderful  film :Beyond the Visible https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGw9sAxhXXw

K-5 Ecology Activities!
On line, full time ecology teaching has forced and allowed me to cover new subject areas, to go deeper and further afield. Remember that all past and current lesson plans and links can be accessed at watersecology.org.Here’s a little sampling of what I am doing :In Kindergarten…. we’re mostly singing and story telling. I wish the whole curriculum could be taught in song and story. I’m beginning to tell the story of Snake and Turtle, the history of our school and river. Children this age love visits from animals (stuffed or live!). We learned about cottontail rabbits this past week in the context of winter survival of animals. The visiting rabbit had long conversations with the kids. They came up with names for the 10 bunnies she’s expecting this spring. I told the kids to look for bunny prints in the snow that was predicted that evening. The next day, Ms. Frieswyk told me the kids were shocked that the snow didn’t appear. “Mr. Leki said it would snow!”
In First grade, we continued with our ninth out of eleven trees. Ash. I taught them the song about the 11 neighborhood trees. One mom recognized it as a corrido, a traditional mexican song form that often includes very emotional crying: “So many ash trees are dying!!! Because of a small emerald beetle.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1_yGeLgQa6X-KXDLNzDpgoYsIzU8yjHDFRylO7kJgH8Y/edit?usp=sharingThe kids are doing very well, and take the subject very seriously. I recently posted  a gallery of the trees we’ve covered so far. I spent alot of time on the drawings because 1) I have a lot of time to spend, and 2) I want to model the fact that the drawings can be both science AND art, if we work on it. Check them out.
Second grade is learning our take on the Yoko Ono song “We’re All Water!”https://docs.google.com/document/d/12b683W8UvfCipiLAXcWiIXekRX8u78GTv2j6dHqvPoI/edit?usp=sharing  
We are focusing right now on the almost magical properties of water, a result of its interesting atomic / molecular configuration.  We did demonstrations of water’s ability to :diffract white light into a rainbow;diffuse dyes and act as a solvent, witnessing Brownian motion;cohesion ~ we floated a paper clip on water showing surface tension;and adhesion ~ water flowing uphill, against gravity, because of its attraction to the tiny fibers in a paper towel, or the microtubule walls (xylem and phloem) in a tree. Here’s Miles running the experiments at home, on his own!

Third grade Mighty Acorns learned about winter survival strategies of plants, bids and other animals (humans!) We looked at track sheets showing many of the animals that are active in the forest in winter.  Animal tracks in winter are also magical in the sense that they open for us a window into the past. We can see where an animal had been and where it was going to, who or what it met up with and what it did! I asked the students to ask their parents to take them to a wild place, after a fresh snowfall, and to find animal tracks that tell a story:Rabbit tracks in the prairie (hop, hop). Coyotes track on intercept course. Rabbit takes evasive course. Both increase their stride. Rabbit tracks disappear! Sprinkles of blood, rabbit fur!. Coyote walks away!I’m happy to share that Oliver and family visited Sauganash and went skating on the slough!

Fourth Grade Mighty Acorns learned how to ID the invasive species European Buckthorn. Ask them about the 6 ways to know Buckthorn. Sadly we won’t be cutting with our students this winter. But, they would still benefit from a visit to Sauganash to seek out this invader and testing your knowledge. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FBh-7kHyOkJffPvqNFrBb5DNmqNx3j-9ze3vNJKJr7E/edit?usp=sharing  

Fifth Grade has used the power of graphing to illustrate an example of Population Dynamics, the effect of interactions of species on population counts. In this case we have compared populations of deer, mountain lions and humans, 1800 – 2000. The graph reveals more than numbers. The data set represent correlations, causal relationships between the species, anddisjuncts, moments when normal patterns are disrupted. They beg explanation. Please ask your fifth grader to explain!https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1PKy_GsIUqOl9rI5EOxyY8Xg13-OqMbXZoGIdmTGkjOM/edit?usp=sharing  

Long nights, music and thanks Dec 13, 2020

Dear Friends,
The seasons are turning. It’s no longer Fall and not yet winter. A week yet to the Winter Solstice. This last week of ecology classes I am going to emphasize song, since song brings us together, even virtually. I hope to plant many earworms that will stay with our students through the break. We have studied so many things these past weeks, on line. The kids are so smart and so dear. I was teaching 2nd grade about  watersheds and how the Chicago river was disconnected from the lake and instead attached to the Desplaines River and Mississippi watershed. We were also talking about the water cycle and how lucky we are that rain water that flows from Chicago to the ocean, picking up a lot of sediment and pollutants, is eventually distilled by solar energy, and returned to us by the clouds. A girl in the class asked, “If the Sun cleans the water by evaporation and distilling, why didn’t it do that when the Chicago River went into Lake Michigan?” Dang! She was listening! Another child asked if a baby skunk could spray their nasty smell. Maybe he was hoping for a baby skunk holiday present. There were a lot of great drawings of our native Turkey, and our endangered native Piping Plover. Remember you can see all lesson plans and  links for each grade level at watersecology.org Thanks to all who contributed to the Waters Today fund raiser and Waters Ecology Program.  One Last way that you could help during this season is to purchase my book: The Fight Between Quiet and Noise. It’s a picture book for people between 3-90+. I had hoped to sell it at the craft fair.  It sells for $10 and all proceeds will go to Waters Ecology Program. Email me to arrange payment and pick up of book. 

Fighting for their Future Dec 1, 2020

Dear Friends, Our students in the 7th and 8th Grade have been engaged in an effort to expand the Montrose Point Dunes Natural Area to provide a safe haven for the endangered Piping Plovers that have nested there for the past two years. We have studied the plovers, watched a documentary, worked at the dune, and remembered our ecology lessons about natural areas being like “islands”. And our students have taken action. Under the guidance of their teachers they have written and sent scores and scores of letters to the Chicago Park District Board, who are deliberating on this proposal.
Tomorrow morning at 11:30 the CPD Board meets on Zoom to take public comment. I will try my best to represent our school, community, and students: their urgency and passion, in my testimony. You can join the meeting at:


Here are my comments:

  Hello. My name is Pete Leki and I am the Director of Ecology programs at Waters Elementary School in Chicago. I want first to commend the CPD and the Natural Areas management groups for the fabulous work you have been doing over the past decade.  I will try to convey to you the sentiments of the 7th and 8th grade classes that have been engaged in advocating for the expansion of the Montrose Point Dune natural Area to accommodate  nesting for Piping Plovers.We have been visiting, working and studying at Montrose Point for more than 20 years. We are greatly invested in securing its health and survival. Our students, in their many messages to the CPD Board express great anxiety that the small enclaves of natural areas that support species like the Piping Plovers  (and many other threatened species) may not be there in the future. Their future. Their future planet may be bereft of the treasures of evolution and biodiversity because we have failed to protect habitat, and halt climate catastrophe. A basic concept of ecology that I teach is that natural areas in our highly developed region act like islands. And we know that islands that are bigger and closer to each other are more likely to sustain biodiversity than islands that are small and farther apart. So we support every effort to expand the “islands”, the natural areas, to improve the odds that diverse life will find refuge there. Montrose Point is a great example of a natural area that is open to the public, and manages to thrive alongside multiple uses. It is a great  bonus for beach goers, cafe diners, and volleyball players to encounter rare wonders of nature on every visit. We ask that you work with the Montrose Point stewards and birding community to guarantee a safe and secure welcome place for the Plovers, and add another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of natural areas that will be needed to sustain biodiversity in our land, into the future.  We will be ready to help.
Below is a link to a video of our students working at Montrose Point


Be well, stay well, Mr. Leki

Read more at this link about how Waters Students and local environmentalists are working together to convince the Park District to protect the Piping Plover.

Oct 28, 2020- Update on Ecology from Pete Leki

Hello Dear School Community and Ecology volunteers,
This year has seen a fundamental shift in the way our ecology program works.
In previous years I organized field experiences for every class at every grade level. Together we ventured forth into the wild places. I did classes before the trip to prep them, and often after the trip to debrief.  I sent out weekly messages telling my schedule and asking for parent volunteers to help lead the explorations. Those messages were sent to my EcologyVolunteers email list, and often re-printed in Green Notes as Mr. Leki’s Blog, and in the Waters Elementary School website. 
This year all that has changed. I have taken on a full class load (17 classes per week), virtually. All the lesson plans have been posted on the watersecology.org website. These are updated daily, and it is a working document, a work in progress, open to our community.  For the past ten weeks Jules Peterson-Green and I have been producing video segments to use in the virtual ecology program. This means that songs, field excursions, science shorts,  invitations, interviews are all posted and available for our families to view, and re-view.  It has been a big shift for us. Very different and difficult. Our videos make it possible for us to show things, rather than just talk about them, and to introduce our students to places and concepts with a familiar figure guiding them. Because all the clips are available to our school families, we hope that our students are sharing them with you. Each lesson has special messages aimed at parents and families.
We cannot bring your child out to the wild places. But you can. 

This is how the program has emerged. Imagine each segment as part of a cycle that repeats:

Waters Virtual Ecology Program

*Waters Ecology produces lessons and video and present to classes;
  *watersecology.org posts all the lesson plans, resources and messages on website;
     *parents, students, families check out the website and the suggestions for outings;
       *families venture forth to the wild places to explore content provided by the lesson and website;
         *families self document their outings with video, journal work, and/or photos;
           *families and students share their documentation and adventures during classroom meet ups;
              *watersecology adds the new content to the website;
                 *new lessons are created and shared during the next meeting; 
Repeat! Until the end of pandemic!

So, you can see that this year every family has become essential to the student’s experience of field ecology. 
We know that every family cannot go on all the field offerings, but many can, and have. Many have, and will, share with their classmates. 
This puts a special load on parents, but it also opens up a unique role and experience. It is an avenue for families
 to have reason to get out into our wild and special places more often, with a task and a goal in mind, but also with an open-ended invitation to experience
the serendipity of exploration, the surprise of discovery. 

We welcome you to this mutual adventure and welcome your feedback. Remember that the watersecology.org website is a working document and archive of the entire ecology program. Please visit, and re-visit. Learn the songs and sing along. Offer up your own art, poetry and music for us to add.

Our most recent video posting was the story that I normally tell around the campfire at Waters garden, with baked potatoes and hot cider. 
This year it is on video, and we have included a written version for you to use and share.  We hope you enjoy it.

We’re Okay! How are you?

written copy

Blessing of the season to all, the first snow on colored leaves, first frost coming, 
 Pete Leki and  the Team Waters Ecology