By Brendan Chan, teacher, Vancouver
This is a story about environmental education, but it’s really a story about people, place, discovery, community, connectedness, culture, and love. It is about our relationship with the natural world and how we might learn to approach this relationship with far more love and curiosity.
It’s important that schools offer opportunities for students to learn about and practise using the tools needed to address the climate crisis. Environmental Science 11 and 12 are courses within the BC Ministry of Education curriculum that are designed to do just that. I wanted my students to see that science and learning aren’t just processes that take place in the classroom or textbook, but happen all the time, all around us. From conversations, to shows, activities, friends, strangers, nature, and self-reflection—learning is everywhere. We just need to shift from seeing (passive) to observing (active).
Climate education is often relegated to the science courses in high school; however, I feel it is important to have a multidisciplinary approach to the complex crisis that is climate change and sustainability. Climate education must go beyond individual actions, like composting and recycling, and look at examining and prototyping solutions that address some of the deeper issues around climate change, including access to wealth and resources, race, health, and access to decision-making.
Climate Education Reform BC is a student-led organization that advocates for climate change education in BC schools. Their vision for climate change education includes creating opportunities for students to “understand how environmental well-being intersects with our society, health, economy, and security, and how climate change—and our own inaction—impacts our population, particularly the most vulnerable.”1
Guided by this vision, together, the Grade 11 and 12 students learned about the importance of biodiversity, and how our values and intersecting identities influence the way we see and act on sustainability issues; they explored system mapping as a way to identify patterns and relationships between issues; made their own land acknowledgments; created iceberg models to help identify the root causes of various sustainability issues; practised storytelling and reflecting; and learned how to write grants.
As April neared, I let my classes know that I wanted them to work together to create an Earth Day installation that would showcase their learning and bring the school community together to re-examine their relationships with themselves, each other, and the school. I filled them in on the general idea I had for a hallway installation: handmade lanterns lining the ceiling and the hallway split into themes of environment, community, and personal. The goal was to take community members on a journey that would have them connect on a deeper level with the natural world, and reflect on their own values and how that might relate to sustainability.
This amazing group of students not only made personalized lanterns that reflected their own experiences with nature, but also worked on projects around storytelling, moss art, ecosystem services, community sound mapping, vulnerability mapping, iceberg models, a class land acknowledgment, and a “river of jars” that concluded with origami boats floating in aquariums with people’s wishes for a more sustainable community and world. Each project had a write-up explaining the purpose, procedure, discussions/reflections, and conclusions, and each project demonstrated how amazing students can be when given the opportunity to contribute to something beyond the classroom. This was not just a showcase of student work, but an art exhibit meant to provide an experience for all that walked through. It was a way of saying, “Hey, we can do something about the state of the world we live in.”
“We wish to light the way for your journey to find yourself…” This was written by students as part of the description to the final art installation and it captures exactly what the hallway installation was meant to be; to take everyone on a walking journey to explore their relationship with the natural world, their own communities, and then finally themselves. It was magical to see it all come together as their teacher. I was also so happy to see other students, staff, and teachers telling these students how impressive and creative their work was. I am grateful to be one of the many facilitators on their learning journeys. When we can become an observer of the world, the world becomes our school, and everything becomes our teacher. So, let’s continue to explore the connections and complexity. Let’s rethink what sustainability can be. Let’s rethink how we engage with sustainability issues.