2020 Burtynsky Award Grand Prize Winner: Velvet Lacasse
Tell us about yourself:
My name is Velvet Lacasse. I live and teach on the land of the Mississaugas of the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Wendat. As a non-Indigenous ally, I am committed to working collaboratively, and honouring my responsibilities within the One Dish One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant.
I am one of the founding teachers at The Grove Community School, which is a public, alternative school in downtown Toronto. Every year, I collaborate with my colleagues to create “Seeds of Change” curriculum, which is an interdisciplinary approach that uses inquiry and the arts to teach environmental justice and community activism. In 2019-2020, Shannon Greene, Joey Mandel and I decided that our “Seeds of Change” curriculum would be a year-long water justice inquiry with the Grade 2/3 students. As a school community, we are deepening our own knowledge about land education, and we believe that teaching young children about water justice is a powerful way to do this.
Together, we supported the Grade 2/3 students to explore the following guiding questions: What is our relationship to water? Why do we need to protect water? Is water alive? Does everyone have access to clean water? How can we take action? As an early primary educator who is committed to unsettling colonial pedagogies, I was curious about the following questions: What does water justice curriculum look like in a privileged and predominantly White school community? How might White educators centre the experiences of Indigenous and racialized communities without reproducing inequities, “othering” and/or reinforcing “us-versus-them” perspectives?
This school year was challenging and unique because it included several disruptions and collective responses, including labour negotiations and job action, rail blockades, COVID-19, and Global Climate Strikes. These events impacted our learning together at school, but I am still extremely proud of our “Water is Life” inquiry.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire:
Our “Water Is Life” inquiry began with a provocation that I discovered in the first edition of “Natural Curiosity: Building Children’s Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry” on page 15. During the summer, Joey and I emailed the Grade 2/3 families and invited them to collect a small sample of water from a place where they had visited. We encouraged the students to think about their relationship to water with a few guiding questions. In order to strengthen the home-school connection, and create an inclusive classroom community, it is critical to engage families as co-learners in the collaborative learning process.
In the first weeks of September, as we shared our water samples and stories with each other, we were actively building relationships and making connections with ourselves, with each other, and with the land. Every day, in my Grade 2 class, one student shared what they love about water, and told stories about the water they had collected. We asked questions, drew pictures, and wrote about every experience. This act of storytelling helped to connect us as a community, honoured our diverse lived experiences, and created a shared intention for learning with and from water. Through Knowledge Building Circles, students shared what they knew about water and generated questions for future inquiry. We sorted these questions and posted them in our classroom as documentation of our inquiry process. We used pictures and words to collaboratively create an on-going Word Wall.
The first book that we read together was called, “The Water Walker” by Joanne Robertson, which tells the story of Anishinaabe Water Protector Josephine Mandamin. We created a Venn Diagram and wrote about how we were similar and different from Nokomis, and we generated ideas about how we might become Water Protectors. We also learned about Autumn Peltier and other environmental youth activists, as we prepared to participate in the Global Climate Strike at the end of September. A few weeks later, I attended a Webinar and learned about how we might become Junior Water Walkers in the Spring. Our inquiry was flowing….
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots:
At the end of September, we planned a field trip to the Humber River with both classes. One of the parents shared a Land Acknowledgement with us that was specific to the area, as well as information about animals we might observe. When we arrived, we sat by the water and invited all of the adults to read the Land Acknowledgment together. We learned about Indigenous history and protocol when we encountered a Three Sisters Garden, shared our theories, knowledge and questions with each other. We played an active game called “Water Spirit”, made offerings of gratitude to water and floated them on boats made out of natural materials. We collected stones, drew in our Nature Journals, and practiced being still through meditation. This outdoor learning experience sparked additional inquiry and brought us together as a community of co-learners.
It is important for children who live in urban settings to recognize and celebrate that nature is all around us. At The Grove, we have an outdoor learning space called the Rainbow Garden, which includes a Traditional Medicine Garden that was planted in consultation with First Nations families and elders. In early October, we invited Joce Two Crows Tremblay to work with our Kindergarten-Grade 6 students and teach with the plants in the garden. Their workshop was called “Ojiibikens Little Roots: Connecting our youngest to the Land”. Joce shared many important teachings with us, including some of the protocols involved in harvesting sacred plants. We learned that it is important to introduce ourselves to the plants, to learn their names and to ask permission before touching them. We were encouraged to listen deeply, respect our relatives, and offer "sema" or tobacco in gratitude.
I am learning that one of the most powerful ways educators can transform colonial relationships to land and to each other is by cultivating a practice of gratitude, and to recognize land, (which includes animals, plants, air and water) as our relatives. When young children see themselves in relationships with land that are rooted in reciprocity and respect, they will care for all humans and more-than-humans as family.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge:
Our “Water is Life” inquiry generated many possibilities for integration across the curriculum. We explored Data Management, Social Studies, Science, and The Arts through a variety of hands-on learning activities and student-led inquiry. In the fall, four of our initial questions were about the endless movement of water. Reidan wondered, “Why does water never stop?” Io and Winter wondered, “How does water move?” We began investigating the answers to these questions as we learned about the Water Cycle. We read a variety of fiction and non-fiction books, watched videos, sang songs, created art, and explored movement to find out.
At The Grove, our curriculum is grounded in learning how to recognize inequity and confront injustice in our lives. We provide students with strategies and tools that they can use to take action and begin to feel empowered as activists and allies. In October, we read a book called, “Nibi’s Water Song” by Sunshine Tenasco, which encouraged us to take action, and ask questions about the ongoing injustice experienced by several Indigenous communities in Ontario, who still do not have access to clean water. When I learned that Amnesty International’s "Write for Rights" campaign was highlighting the First Nations community of Grassy Narrows, we decided that our students would learn about the issues, create art inspired by Walleye fish, and write letters to advocate for justice. Everyone was very surprised when Premier Doug Ford wrote us back!
As the students engaged in acts of solidarity with Indigenous resistance, we were also learning that Water Protectors will often sing to the water. This call to action inspired us to write our own songs of gratitude for water in our local community. In March, the Grade 2 students wrote a variety of poems, and we explored the sounds and shapes that water makes through soundscapes and movement. Students expressed their appreciation and love for water in creative ways. We wrote letters to Water and created poem paintings. In the Spring, I was hoping we would transform our poems into water songs to sing, just like the Water Protectors we were learning about.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World:
As an environmental justice educator, I am committed to building relationships with First Nations and Indigenous families, and critically reflecting on what land education looks like in the context of colonial settlement. I understand that decolonizing our schools means actively disrupting settler pedagogies and supporting Indigenous sovereignty. One of the ways that I am trying to do this is by holding all of us accountable to our responsibilities as allies and treaty people.
Every morning, we gather in a large circle outside in the school yard as a community of parents, students, teachers and administration. “Welcoming Circle” is an intentional space where we offer the Land Acknowledgement, sing, share announcements and our learning with each other. We use this time to deepen our understanding of Indigenous-Settler relationships, including our treaty responsibilities as part of the One Dish One Spoon Wampum Belt, and issues related to environmental justice, (e.g., solidarity with Wet’suwet’en and Grassy Narrows First Nations). Together, we are learning that we must share responsibility for caring for the life that sustains us.
In December, I worked with my Grade 2 students to re-write the lyrics of O’Canada. We spent a few weeks thinking critically about the lyrics of the anthem and working collaboratively to create new lyrics that are more inclusive, and that reflect what we love about living on this land and what we hope for.
When the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs called for international actions in solidarity, I emailed resources about Settler Allyship to our families, and I invited our community to learn a song and sing it together at Welcoming Circle. "We Stand" is a song by One Tribe (Kelli Love, Jordan Walker, and MC Preach). It was inspired by the Standing Rock (Oceti Sakowin) Youth Runners, a group of Indigenous youth who ran from Standing Rock in North Dakota to Washington D.C in 2016 to deliver a message of peace. In solidarity with Indigenous and First Nations communities, in recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and in celebration of World Water Day, we joined our voices in song.
Putting It Back Together:
Our “Seeds of Change” curriculum was inspired by a picture book about Dr. Wangari Maathai, and The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. We share her story at the beginning of every year to acknowledge the impact of environmental racism on our local and global community, and to celebrate the possibilities and critical importance of planting our own seeds of change.
Throughout our “Water is Life” inquiry, we were able to follow the curiosity and questions of our Grade 2/3 students, support and engage students in meaningful learning activities, deepen our understanding of Indigenous perspectives, amplify the voices of Indigenous activists and writers, and explore the “big ideas” of relationships, reciprocity, responsibility and gratitude.
When teaching decolonial water pedagogies, I am learning that it is critical to include the lived experiences of all students, and to recognize the complex and multiple meanings of water that are cultural, emotional, sociopolitical, spiritual and experiential. I believe that sharing our water stories was a powerful way to honour our diverse experiences of family, community and land. Writing our own water poems was a learning activity that was rooted in love, appreciation and gratitude, which is so important when teaching young children about environmental justice.
My approach to land education is to honour, celebrate and strengthen the relationships that children have with their natural environment, which includes the urban setting. Inquiry-based learning that is grounded in love and wonder can support children to be curious and critical thinkers. If children feel a strong connection to the land, they might also feel responsible for taking care of the land, and each other.
I am deeply grateful for the learning that I did with Dr. Fikile Nxumalo at OISE this winter. Her course, “Anti-Racist and Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Education” was very powerful, and has transformed my pedagogy. I am also grateful for the professional collaboration of my colleagues, Shannon Greene and Joey Mandel, and their unconditional support. Finally, I am endlessly grateful for my Grade 2 students and their families for trusting me and for always singing with me.