2020 Edward Burtynsky Award Runner Ups: Miriam Snell
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
This story was submitted by Miriam’s colleague, Anna Silverstein.
Tell us about Miriam.
From the roots to the branches of Miriam’s continuing career in education which began in 1994, she displays a deep commitment to environmental education and the well being of children. Her engagement is both personal, where her desire to have her own 2 children grow up feeling connected, grounded and content was nurtured by a love of the outdoors through outdoor play and camping, and professional. While her children were going to school, Miriam was actively involved in green initiatives. She started a Green Team at their school so it could become an EcoSchool, bringing together students, parents, teachers, principal and support staff to unite and within 3 years they achieved Gold status; the school has since continued the initiative. She volunteered with Green Thumbs Growing Kids to better understand how connection to land through food growing and sustainability practices could be incorporated into her teaching; she has volunteered at the p.i.n.e. project to learn more survival skills and the Coyote Mentoring model (see Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature). It was at the p.i.n.e. project that Miriam met Jay Field, the founder and principal of Tamarack West Outdoor School. Inspired by his desire to open a school that combined best practices of indoor and outdoor education, Miriam entered into the planning discussions where she offered her educator’s expertise. The school opened in 2015 and she has been employed at Tamarack West since its inception. Tamarack West Outdoor School would not be what it is today – an independent school located in High Park – without the guiding principles that Miriam has laid at it’s foundation. Miriam is a core teacher at Tamarack and continues to deepen her own commitment to environmental education through workshops and educator conferences focusing on how to bring Indigenous knowledge ways into the school. Miriam’s most poignant professional commitment and development, while supported by all of her previous experiences, is expressed through her moment to moment responsiveness to her environment, and of course, the children themselves. This application is primarily based on Miriam’s current position at Tamarack West.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire:
The heart of Miriam’s approach as an educator begins with the joy and privilege in seeing the world through a child’s eyes, to feel their excitement and share in their emotions. Miriam has the unique ability to immerse herself in their world of curiosity, newness and wonder. She is able to translate her appreciation and respect of children’s perspectives (both emotionally and intellectually) into tangible pedagogy. Miriam is able to foster the growth of curiosity and wonder though her direct communication with children as well as through modelling. An example of how Miriam supports children’s curiosity can be seen through outdoor tracking; whether as an explicit activity or an encounter along the trail it provides opportunities for group observation and collaboration. The details of a track (or tracks) is examined and guesses formulated as to who made them. All guesses are welcome and knowledge, questions, and observations are held through Miriam’s facilitation of the conversation/exploration. Miriam celebrates a student’s knowledge while guiding them away from “this is definitely” statements to “at the top of my top 3 guesses” or “from my perspective” statements. Language which embodies an open-minded perspective is modelled and explicitly taught by Miriam and can be over-heard among students when talking with each other. For example, as students are examining something together, you may overhear a student say to another “ok, before we jump to any conclusions…”
The notion of a community of learners is paramount to Tamarack West as a school, and Miriam is the spear head of such endeavours. This occurs in numerous ways – for example, after (or during) a game, a debrief is held so that students can share what they feel worked/didn’t work, strategy, and do-differently ideas. Games will be revisited and revised given what the student’s have expressed, and such adaptations are made explicit amongst everyone allowing the student’s to experience the impact of their ideas and feelings. The open dialogue that Miriam promotes is also where lessons will emerge from, as individual and group interest will translate into lessons.
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots:
The half day outdoor/half day indoor structure built into Tamarack West inherently promotes integrated learning, as well as developing a sense and connection to place, as the experiences inside and outside work to inform the type of inquiries, experiments and reflections that can take place. Miriam believes that children are born connected to Nature, and therefore sees it as her job – and mission – to support, and reignite, this natural connection. High Park is large, and whenever the class travels to a given spot, Miriam invites students to settle into a location; to find a place they want to sit and have snack, climb a tree, play a free-time game. This is a subtle and powerful gesture to connect to place, and one that has impact for students come to a lesson in situ grounded and ready to focus. Returning to familiar places helps to create a relationship with it – memories layered in, names given to aspects of the landscape, certain games that are evoked form being there. Students learn this. Miriam leads numerous activities to promote connectedness, through sit spots and journaling, bird sits and drawing, and meet-a-tree (where students are led to a tree blindfolded and then upon seeing retrace their felt steps). Miriam models behaviour of what connection can look like through the practice of ongoing gratitude, daily.
Miriam has promoted Honourable Harvesting (see Robin Wall Kimmerer) to the school and students. This model is multifold in how Miriam uses it to support a student’s own experience with what may be at hand. For example, in harvesting burdock from the park to then make fries back at school, students involve themselves in relating to the plant, observing the surroundings and learning about where this plant likes to grow, where it is safe to harvest, the true hard work of harvesting, and the celebration and work of preparing it, as a collaborative effort, to eat together. The students have multiple opportunities to literally ingest their learning, together.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge:
Since the beginning of Tamarack West, Miriam has introduced a Big Ideas concept to the start of each school year. This gets layered and woven in not only to the given year, but to the school itself, in that every year incorporates all concepts with one Big Ideas concept spotlighted to deepen knowledge and engagement. This year is Language. Miriam continually revisits the importance of how one speaks to students and to talk explicitly about the environments and the diversity of stories that are shared. This was inspired by Robert MacFarlane, who writes “words are wold-makers – and language is one of the great geological forces…” Miriam’s own passion for learning is transmuted to her students through diverse ways of learning, while drawing on a myriad of resources and tools. For example, to develop student’s appreciation and present engagement on the importance and continual evolution of language, her Language unit focused on Greek and Latin roots where students, for example, learned how to decode words such as ‘reconciliation’ through their understanding, and thus bringing life to it. In a math/history unit connected to language as well, Miriam developed a series of lessons on Quipi, a pre-language system of knots on cordage used as an accounting method, which also leads back to exploring our multifaceted history in communication. Every year, Miriam invites the student’s grandparents to visit and tell stories; recipes that students bring in from their family are cooked and added to The Tamarack Cookbook. Families are invited to share their knowledge and passions with the students as well. For example, a Metis family taught Miriam and the students how to use tobacco for gratitude and then grew some for the school, which has since been used for offerings. To explore the Carrying Place and Trail, Miriam invited Will O’Hara who wrote Enemy Arrows (which she first read to the students) who took them on an historical walk teaching about the places in the story and the Indigenous heritage of Toronto. He showed students the burial mounds in Magwood Park and the class picture was taken there.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World:
Respect is the foundation of teaching at Tamarack West, where there are agreements instead of rules. They are known as the 3R’s, as Miriam called them and the name has stuck – respect yourself, each other and your surroundings. To demonstrate how well the students understand the importance of their responsibilities and interconnectedness, here are a few things students have said when asked to help explain what the 3R’s mean: “They all go together. You can’t do one without the others;” “Actually Miriam, WE are nature. Like I mean we are the same thing as our surroundings;” and “We should make our Tamarack Agreement: RESPECT.” Miriam takes her Tamarack students to climate marches and engages her students to find ways to act on a local small scale level to make a difference. Miriam, for example, leads students on regular garbage pickup stewardship activities in High Park. Recently Miriam ran a multi-week activity called Invention Convention. This arose out of her observation of students voicing concern that because they were kids they didn’t feel they had the power to change things that they wanted to, like pollution and climate change. From this came the project, for students to create something useful, using Lego as a means to express their ideas, to engage the students in a process oriented toward change. A few years back before the ban on single use plastics, one of her students created a picture book illustrating the seven generation sustainability perspective. Miriam asked her to teach the concept to the school and then collaboratively designed an entire unit exploring plastics in the environment. Another student, for example, researched biofuel for an alternative energy research project, and ended up designing their own biofuel machinery and gave the class an extensive presentation. Miriam also initiated plant and food growing practices within the school by growing herbs, sprouts, and vegetables indoors, and continues to encourage students to do so at home, of which this time of covid-19 is proving to be quite successful!
The Four Branches of Natural Curiosity in action…
Miriam’s guiding principle is integrity. Miriam sees her job as an educator-mentor to help them continue their growth with minds and hearts never losing sight of what is right for the health of the planet of which they are an integral part. Miriam always recognizes where the inspirations for the daily lessons come from, which is often from student interest. Miriam does not tell people what to do, but suggests ways of encouraging one to be moved by their own motivation or interest, their own integrity. This can be seen in a simple dialogue where a math worksheet is assigned and a student may ask “Do I have to do all of this?” Miriam will say: “You don’t have to do any but do as many as you can. Push yourself. Know a good amount to challenge yourself.” Through Miriam’s guidance and her own sense of responsibility to others, students have shown a deep understanding to what being honest means, and how sharing strategies and understanding is good for everyone; for example, “you would never cheat” one student said to another, “games just don’t work then. None of the parts work together properly. And of course, it’s no fun and there is no point.”
Each year Miriam introduces a Big Ideas concept to the staff, which provides a focus to the year, but over the years, has laid the tapestry of environmental and personal connection. They have thus far have been Community, Food and Sustainability, Balance, Place and this year, Language. Miriam is dedicated to learning and sharing the authentic voices of many. The voice of the forest, for example, is respected through the practice of Honorable Harvesting that she brought into the school. Miriam is a deep listener – she has continued her own learning of the Indigenous Lens in attending COEO workshops and talks given by Elders to learn stories and practices to respectfully put them into place, and recently completed a course on explaining the Treaties. Miriam is a deeply dedicated educator committed to well-being and ongoing learning for all.