2021 Runner Up, Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education
My name is Amanda Paakkunainen and I would like to introduce my co-educator, Lana Desjardins.
Together we live and teach on the traditional Anishinabe lands of the Robinson Superior Treaty Area. I could not summarize my interests and life-long education without honoring the rugged lands of Northern Ontario in which I grew up. The beauty and vast resources of Lake Superior, Lake Nipigon and the surrounding areas have permanently influenced every facet of my life, like many of the students within our school community. As such, it is our deep rooted belief that as educators we hold the responsibility for helping our youngest students learn, play and grow holistically in order to be successful. This includes fostering an appreciation for the natural world in which they live. By creating a land based pedagogy, it is our hope that children will concern themselves with the environment and find their place within it. In this philosophy we move our pedagogical approaches away from building a sense of stewardship to fostering a life-long love for the land that encompases our home. Utilizing an inquiry based stance founded in critical thinking approaches, our youngest students will be able to make informed decisions about how to care, love and respect the lands they reside on. In doing this, we acknowledge the first nation peoples and its counterparts who inhabit our traditional territories (the Robinson Superior Treaty Area) and teach the longstanding history, and the current relations impacting its place.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire
As in any classroom our Kindergarten consists of many moving parts. As such our pedagogical
approaches need to incorporate the needs and interests of all students in order to captivate and extend the learning. In all of our planning, whether it be centers or a class inquiry, student voice is at the heart of it all, driving our planning and instruction. The wonderings of our students become the decision makers of our program and their way into the centers we co-construct, the books we read, the sharing we do and the trails we explore. The pedagogical documentation Lana and I collect drives the planning of the precise and well thought out questions we use in order to provoke learning and create critical thinking challenges. If we fail to have “good questions” we fail to take the learning to its highest potential! This is key in every frame we plan for! In our inquiry stance, thinking tools are embedded from the beginning and are familiar pieces in our year-long journey! These tools give our students the capacity to make well informed decisions even at the early age of 4! A true inquiry classroom believes that all students have the capacity to to learn and participate and we are accepting that inquiry is personal and may look different for every student. We give students the opportunity to take risks and test out their theories where there are no wrong answers, just challenges to be celebrated.
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots
We are fortunate to have an abundance of outdoor spaces that surround our school. These spaces
have become an extension of our classroom. Using the moons to ground our inquiry, our learning is cyclical in nature. Students are given the opportunity to work through authentic problems that they find as we explore a variety of outdoor spaces. The teachings of the freezing moon of November taught us about the long winters fast that falls upon the creatures in our area. As animals scramble to find food we are asked to help nurture them and share positive energy with those around us. Intentionally we presented this in a question “what are the best ways to help?” The students quickly decided that they wanted to come up with ways to feed the birds. Upon returning to the classroom students worked on the challenge of designing a bird feeder to specs. They tested various materials, planned their designs and built their feeders to completion. Other groups of students worked to make the best bird food, researching and adapting the recipes to fit what they knew about the birds in our areas. Feeders were set up on our “magical trail” and we anxiously waited to see if we had done our jobs well. Upon returning to the area we quickly realized that our bird feeders did not withstand the harsh weather conditions. They were “soggy and falling apart!” We came to the conclusion that we needed to add one more piece to our criteria..they needed to be “waterproof”! We returned to the class and “reworked” our designs, once again engaging in the scientific process of testing, designing and building. By intentionally planning questions we were able to elicit experiential learning skills and could assess our learners in a more fulsome way.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge
Through environmental inquiry our student goal was to increase their capacity to make observations and to effectively communicate thinking. It was an inquiry rooted in student voice and explored the various frames through a land based approach. At the core, we wanted our students “to fall in love with the land and live a life to protect it.” Every new moon brought us new questions to explore which naturally encompassed all frames of the K program. The more time we spent on the land and observing our students the more evident it became to us how we could authentically integrate literacy, specially reading behaviours and the importance of nurturing competencies. Indigenous knowledge systems, value the many ways in which we “read.” Together we spent an afternoon reading a tree so to speak. We decoded the holes that encompassed its body, discussed the details of it and made connections to prior learning as we realized it was a home for various animals. Arriving eventually to the big idea that “even the dead trees are important.” Through our pedagogical documentation we came to the conclusion that in this one land based teaching students were building inference skills, synthesizing information, making connections and finally coming to an informed conclusion! In addition there were more individual pieces of learning occurring simultaneously. Students worked on self regulation goals as we hiked 5 km in one afternoon, we learned about measuring distances and depths as we found
holes made by animals in the ground and used our literacy skills to write about things we were grateful for. We made maps that focused on early coding and built our oral language skills as we discussed our learning with others. Our learning was cyclical as we moved through the phases of the moon and new opportunities were presented.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World
Throughout my ten plus years teaching I always held a strong belief in the critical inquiry process. I appreciated the lens it offered and how it placed students at the core of their learning. Every year we worked to answer questions related to our environment and the world around us which always led to action items in consolidation. Reflecting on my practice, I always wondered about the stewardship piece and if it truly impacted my students thinking and decision making. This reflection forced some critical changes in my practice in which I took out the stop, start approach and embarked on our year long environmental inquiry. In doing so my teaching partner and I watched our children embed a deeper appreciation for our community and the land as a whole. There was no major initiative that we took part in officially however what we created was something more meaningful for our students and families. Our kids took away a sense of appreciation and consideration for living things other than themselves. When we venture out, they ask to pick up litter without being prompted, they lay tobacco for the things they want to bring back to the class and discuss the concepts of taking only what one needs. Parents have contacted us with stories of being asked to go for walks to our special places and send us pictures of our students feeding the birds with their families. On one occasion a student of ours told her brother not to pick the branches from the trees as they “are for the animals that live there” and asked him to consider what he needed the stick for! These types of stories let us know that students are going through metacognitive processes as they live in their inquiry all year long!
Putting it Back Together
It all came together at the end....every time we returned we placed a piece of our learning on our land acknowledgement wall. Here we collected documentation of our journey. What this looks like in the classroom is a learning wall framed by the medicine wheel. In the center we have our opening statement which we wrote together that states “Before we learn and play on the land let us not forget”. From here our students share the items they have placed on the four corners which represent the emotional aspects (things that connect us to the land), the mental teachings which represent our content knowledge, the spiritual frame where we place our traditional teachings and last our physical frame that embodies the land, water, air and animals we learn from. This land acknowledgement helps ground us in our work and students have time to reflect on what is important to them and what they have individually placed on the wall. It is our way to honor all that the world has given to us. It has also reminded us throughout the process to bring back the learning to the classroom. Within our classroom walls, our land acknowledgement gives us focus in our planning and helps students physically see what it means to make “good observations.” The student artifacts and documentation is a daily reminder of how the use of intellectual tools helps our children communicate their thinking to others with a greater degree of effectiveness. This translated into our students being able to tell their parents about what they were learning and the importance of their work! These pedagogical approaches have greatly supported our students as they move towards being protectors of the land because they have the skills to think and communicate.