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Sybille Parry's Story

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

2020 Runner Up for Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education

Tell us about yourself.

I am basing my application on my developing understanding as an Environmental Educator, and how this impacts students. From an early age, I have been immersed in outdoor experiences from camping in provincial and national parks across the country, to playing outside to walking to school – a natural part of childhood in the 60s and 70s. My love of Nature was seeded in those lived experiences. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to share this love with my students, in the form of field trips, and time spent learning outside, and more recently, sparked by Get Outside (TOES) lessons, and fueled by extensive professional learning in Environmental Education (as a participant and as an instructor), I have come to understand that everything is Environmental Education. We must use it as the lens from which we view the world. What does this look like? It looks like a grade 6 unit on biodiversity, mapping our schoolyard trees, with the help of Dr. Andrew Millward’s (Ryerson U) City Trees program, to create a field guide of existing trees, and to make recommendations for future planting of flood-resistant species to prepare for the effects of Climate Change. It looks like a Design Expo for grades 4 and 5, promoting structures designed to protect plants and animals on the Island in the event of future flooding. It looks like a Climate Change march on the Island to support Fridays for the Future. In sum, our learning lens must be a global lens, in which the interdependence of all things, living and non-living, must be considered. It is an ongoing process, and as such, it is messy and the outcomes are determined by student inquiry, but it is the way we must see our world, and as teachers, we have the remarkable gift of walking alongside young people, and sharing our vision with theirs. That emerging vision is the basis for this application.

Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire:

As we approach a new topic, we begin with a Knowledge-building circle, to share our initial understandings of the topic, and more importantly, to share our questions. These questions provide the framework for student inquiry. Student-generated questions are organized under headings which represent the Big Ideas, as outlined in the curriculum guide. In this way, we have a loose structure that aligns with Ministry expectations. Early in the year, we focus on the skill of asking questions, not with a value assigned to “thick or thin” questions, but with the intention of mining questions that allow us to dig deeper, and to engage us more with the material we are exploring. The Knowledge-building circle becomes a structure we return to frequently throughout our learning process, for different purposes – to support one another as a community of learners, to help clear up misconceptions, to clarify our own thinking, and to test theories. Our summative projects vary considerably. These might include a field guide to butterfly-friendly plants for our pollinator gardens, (grade 3) or a giant map showing the interconnectedness of living things (grade 2/3) or a short video of the Biography of an Object (multi-grade). The intention of the “product of learning” is to be engaging and authentic, to follow student inquiry, and to offer students an opportunity to share the knowledge that they discovered on their own journeys of inquiry and mutual understanding.

Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots:

Toronto Island is a very special place, and has been for thousands of years, dating back to its importance as a meeting place for indigenous peoples. One can only imagine the stories that have been interwoven into its rich and varied history. I chose the Island as the place I wanted to end my teaching career, and, floods and iced-in harbours notwithstanding, it quickly felt like my teaching home. What is it about this place that inspires us, calls us, nurtures us and draws us in? I wondered about that, and it has provided rich material for us to explore together as teachers and students. We begin, regardless of my teaching assignment, by going outside. Through guided inquiry, sit spots, wonder circles and hands-on experiences (measuring tree diameters, exploring quantity on the beach, interviewing Islanders, tagging trees with QR codes and telling “their stories”) we step out into our immediate world, and use it as the basis for deeper inquiry. There are old stories, handed-down stories, and the stories we ourselves create and tell, and all together they weave together into the story of this place, and our connections to it. From this rich base, we build new understandings and use this to explore our wider world.

Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge:

This question is best answered with a story called Take Back the Tap: A Student-led Journey. A colleague and I were exploring the topic of Air and Water in the Environment. The spark for this inquiry was provided by a local cafe, The Island Cafe, which had a message printed on its (reusable) water bottles, saying “Take Back the Tap”. Some of our students were Ecokids, and had visited the cafe to help plant kale (a partnership with the City of Toronto). They were curious. What did that mean? Why was it important enough to print on all of the water bottles? And was that tap water they were offering?! There wasn’t a single-use water bottle in sight, nor was one available. Why? We invited the cafe owners into our classrooms, and they shared their story with us: their concern about plastic waste on the Island, their role as community leaders, and how they wove these elements together to become fierce advocates for the reduction of plastic waste in their Take Back the Tap campaign. This ignited the spark of our student curiosity into a flame for action. They asked more questions, which led them to research the issue more deeply. They decided to educate our entire school about the importance and value of drinking tap water. They wrote a song, and performed it in a Flash Mob, at the ferry docks, and in front of the Island Cafe. They moved beyond our school audience, and participated in OISE’s Pollinating Partnership event, spreading their “blue school” message to other schools across the TDSB. You can imagine the cross-curricular learning that occurred throughout this process: reading, writing, calculating the cost and change for the Ice Cream Sundae event that we hosted to raise money for Me To We to support clean water initiatives.

Why is this story relevant here? It is relevant because it highlights the way in which our teaching, at its best, is inspired by a spark of curiosity in a child, and spreads to positive change in our world.

Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World:

Some of my previous examples speak to this question: the Grade 6 biodiversity unit, focusing on the trees in our schoolyard, the grade 2 and 3 Take Back the Tap campaign, the Grade 4 and 5 Design Expo, focusing on effective design and recommendations for dealing with the effects of Climate Change (flooding). As a committed Environmental Educator, wherever possible I frame the curriculum I am required to teach with an environmental lens. Our current unit of study (limited somewhat by our current remote teaching form) is a Grade 5 Science, titled “What’s the Matter with my Snack?”. The spark is an at-home Science experiment, in which students are asked to eat an apple, and a candy, and then to lay the “wrappers” on the soil of a houseplant (or in an empty container) and to observe changes over the course of a week. I will use this, and their questions and observations to frame an exploration of Matter, and how matter may change form but it will never go away. I hope it will lead to some thinking about the permanence of some of the chemically created matter in our lives (candy wrappers), and lead to some change in personal habits. This is typical of most of the teaching I do. I endeavour to create a wider lens, and to take what we see, hear and experience, and to look at it within this frame. Another example is asking students, in an online conversation in Google Classroom: Are different people impacted differently by this Pandemic? What do you know? What do you want to learn? We use their ideas to frame our online conversation. A final example is my co-leadership of our Ecokids team, which includes 1/4 of our school population. Together, we learn, lead, share and teach our community to become better citizens of the natural world. Each of these examples reflect a core teaching practice: taking what we know, and what we think we know, and through knowledge-building circles, inquiry and ongoing investigation, connect our knowledge to the broader picture of the world around us.

The Four Branches of Natural Curiosity in action…

Learning is a journey, and as a teacher, I am privileged to share this journey with young people. This is reflected in my teaching practice in different ways. Integrated Knowledge and Inquiry and Engagement were my first arenas of exploration. Early on, I noticed that when children were engaged, everything went more smoothly. Next, I discovered that when we took our learning outdoors, for authentic purposes, engagement deepened. I learned to let go of my role as Sage on the Stage (which is how I was taught in school), to Guide on the Side. I learned that the more I let go, while still providing a structure that students can feel safe to ask questions, take risks and go more deeply into their learning, the richer the experience, which in turn motivated me to follow this path more truly, continuing to let go, continuing to trust in the power of student inquiry and student voice. To be honest, this journey continues, and will continue, likely to the end of my teaching career, but that’s Ok. It reflects my own sense of inquiry, questioning and not knowing, and fuels my own curiosity for learning. Integrated Learning and Moving Towards Sustainability have become more of a framework in the second half of my career. Again, guided by my students’ response, I can see how engaging tasks are when they are integrated into lived experiences, wonder, action, their world. It is a very compelling feedback loop. Moving Towards Sustainability has been the “icing on the cake” in my teaching practice. I began by exploring ideas for taking student learning outside, purposefully, but as I moved towards weaving sustainability and the interconnectedness of everything be foundational to everything we do, I discovered, once again, that I have “come home”, initially to the Island, but ultimately, to a beautiful natural space, in which my students and I can step outside, breathe in the beauty of our place, and use our own wonder and joy and curiosity to live, to learn and to act in the bigger world. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

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