By Nichelle Penney (she/her), social studies teacher, Kamloops; and Susan Hall (she/her), arts educator, Vancouver
Two students stand in front of a tree and speak passionately as if delivering an oratory. Their topic: what makes this neighbourhood tree a good “story tree”? Some of the audience, a Grade 4 class, nod approvingly, while others lean back with arms crossed in a stance indicating they are less convinced. A lively debate ensues as the circle of dialogue grows. The protocol of listening to understand and asking questions for the purpose of adding clarity helps this democratic practice come to life. It is uncertain how the difference of opinion will be resolved until each of the nominated trees has been visited and a vote has taken place.
Guiding the search for a story tree was a short list of criteria established during an aesthetic inquiry questioning if old-growth trees need our protection. An aesthetic inquiry challenges students to engage in deep observation and share new discoveries, primarily through an arts-focused process. Included on the list of criteria for a story tree are two critical points:
- Evidence that the tree is old and has witnessed a lot of life.
- The tree possesses some “magical qualities” that will draw people in, to look more carefully creating a sense of wonder and awe.
The students point out the tree’s towering height, large girth, deep lines, and rough texture, as evidence of a long life. The second point is less easily explained. Art composition terms aid in helping the viewers shift between the realism that comes with being a witness and elements of composition commonly used by illustrators in the realm of storytelling.
The group rushes toward the next tree nominated and another pair take the lead, describing how something as ordinary as a tree, something we walk past every day, holds the potential to draw people in, to induce wonder, and lead us to feel a deeper connection. “I’d like you to notice the cool shape of the leaves, and if you look up, the way the light comes through at the top is magical,” begins the speaker.
The tree selected will be decorated with a string of painted leaves and thoughtful messages creating awareness in the community of the important role trees play in a sustainable future. If people passing by linger long enough to consider this tree as a vital part of the ecosystem, the action taken by students will have made an impact.
This lesson is one of many that has recently occurred in a classroom that is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Schools Network. When I first transferred to a UNESCO school, I had no idea what the title entailed, so I had some learning to do at a quick pace. I started with the history of the UNESCO Schools Network.
The organization began in 1953 when a small collection of schools across 15 countries signed a commitment to create a learning culture focused on a global educational foundation. Canada joined the program in 2002, encompassing a vision of welcoming new member schools in all provinces. With 117 schools across Canada (5 of those in BC), it has been a great opportunity to exchange ideas, work with themes across grade levels, and connect my students with others across the country.
As an active union member, and a passionate social justice advocate, I constantly find rewarding challenges and new discoveries in teaching social justice and genocide studies. Now, in the volunteer role I share with Susan Hall as provincial co-ordinator of BC UNESCO schools, I have a strengthened commitment to engaging in social justice topics in all of my classes and have encountered new opportunities to challenge myself and my students through our learning.
So, what does it mean to be a part of the UNESCO Schools Network?
An UNESCO schools framework supports an individual’s journey toward becoming a good global citizen. Practically speaking, in classrooms, this means using school-wide themes to prompt inquiry, exploration, and dialogue encouraging learners to reimagine the world through a lens of empathy. Students are encouraged to take on small action projects to create awareness at the community level.
As a social studies teacher in this network, I am constantly editing my lessons to ensure that relevant current issues are included and supported. Connecting the past, present, and future helps students locate themselves in the ongoing dialogue.
One of my Grade 9 students, after exploring the ongoing impact of treaties and colonization, reflected in their final report, “We obviously do not pay enough respect to Indigenous people, and we need to do better.” The use of the present tense in a reflective writing entry highlights the kind of shift that happens when participants link historical actions to the work ahead.
Discussion about difficult topics such as poverty, discrimination, and oppression are interwoven into many of the lessons. These discussions can be challenging for many students. It takes time to build the kind of trust that is necessary to share personal thoughts and ideas. One strategy I have used to build that trust is to become vulnerable; I put out aspects of my history that connect to the lesson, such as my experience with intergenerational trauma.
This vulnerability has made it easier for students to find their voice and share with a small group before bravely speaking to the class. Furthermore, individual or group projects are a time to do a deep dive into a topic that matters most to each learner. The wide range of topics and method of delivery models the kind of self-directed learning that offers a thoughtful reflection about being a change-maker.
One of the strengths of the UNESCO Schools Network is the open collection of resources related to a wide range of social justice topics to support this learning in classrooms. Experts in fields such as reconciliation, anti-racism education, environmentalism, peace, inclusion, and sustainability, just to name a few, offer materials relevant to K–12 classrooms.
Equally important to teachers in the UNESCO network is the opportunity to participate in an exchange of ideas with other educators. In BC, meetings take place each fall, winter, and spring based on the availability of teachers. Similar to the BCTF zone meetings, they are meant to engage and connect schools to build a lasting relationship that will bring teachers and students together to work toward a more equitable and just society. Pairings with UNESCO schools in other provinces and internationally may also be possible.
My journey learning about and joining the UNESCO network has informed and guided my practices in ways that bring students into the curriculum in a meaningful manner. Students interact with the material, connect with the concepts, and immerse themselves in a first-person learning environment. They not only see why change is important, but how they can be part of that change.
The UNESCO network is constantly growing and connecting with other schools. Please contact Nichelle Penney or Susan Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in opportunities with the BC UNESCO Schools Network.