Carmela Marshall's Story
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Submitted on behalf of Carmela by Krista Kilian.
2021 Runner Up, Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education
Carmela has been an exceptional outdoor educator in the TDSB outdoor ed department for nearly 20 years. Her philosophy centres around the children first and foremost- their connection to nature, their interests and wonderings- everything she teaches inspires and awakens curiosity and play in nature. Interwoven in her teaching is a great respect for all living things and Indigenous ways of knowing and being. She teaches relationship with the land, the Seven grandfather teachings, and reciprocity is part of her daily routines. Carmela goes above and beyond with bringing hands on learning, imagination, mystery, excitement, and wonder to the children whether near the stream or in the field surrounded by play kitchens and loose parts. They are so engaged with her it's amazing but no surprise, when you watch her facial expressions and hear the excitement in her voice. She can connect students of all ages with ease- letting the land itself speak to the need for humans to protect and care while understanding our place in the web of life. She is wholeheartedly positive and hopeful, being sure never to teach through fear, but instead to foster that yearning to
connect time and again with the outdoors for even the freshest of our students with little to no nature exposure.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire
Carmela is a great sharer of knowledge, so graciously teaching others through facilitating workshops for Kinder and Primary teachers using the Natural Curiosity approach and resource. She visits classrooms and helps set up loose parts collections both at her place of work Hillside and at other schools. Watching her bring her two large trolleys of nature paraphenalia to schools when her program is on the road is a site to behold- she spares no expense to ensure students have every choice and the best experience ever. Carmela springboards off of her large picture book collection, following the student's wonderings and interests. By connecting with the class before their visit to our school, she discovers what the students want to learn. Every day begins with a big idea or inquiry question, and the activities of the day are loosely structured around the big idea. When exploring trails, the children guide the lesson with their questions, stopping to explore and learn about their curiosities. Carmela connects these ideas back to the home classroom, sharing resources and ideas for continuing the inquiry beyond the day at our centre. Students never want to leave- I have heard "this was the best day ever!" most days while they hug her getting on the bus. Rolling over logs to explore minibeasts, gathering a thousand pinecones... eating snow with maple syrup.... whatever the day holds, you know the children will remember it for a lifetime.
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots
Carmela makes lessons on nature art, maple syrup, Early settlers and First Nations, biodiversity, Plants, Soils, Animals, Land Use and SO MUCH MORE 100 percent experiential. Students engage with all their senses from the time they arrive at our school. She ensures that every student begins on a level equitable playing field, having collected every possible item of clothing to ensure a safe, warm happy day. She feeds each child who needs a snack with joy and such matter of fact giving that all feel included and welcomed, and ensures that all cultures are celebrated and respected in the day's experiences, inviting discussion and sharing about what each child is bringing to the experience. Once that is done- they are outdoors and on the land the whole day. For our youngest learners, outdoor provocations are set up everywhere! These encourage fine motor and large motor exploration with materials such as sand, clay, nature "paints" and brushes, buckets and materials for exploring critters, tree cookies, sticks, bins and stones for loose parts play... it is endless the directions these can lead, and Carmela is a master at tying the learning and curriculum expectations to wherever the students lead- appearing effortless. Her instincts are remarkable, and she has won the respect of colleagues, coop students, teacher candidates and many others that she has mentored and worked beside. Most of all, her humility and grace, her ability to anticipate every need or turn- these are gifts reserved for few special educators.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge
Carmela connects with local groups such as the Friends of the Rouge watershed, and takes part in
planting and invasive species removal projects with the students. She makes connections to First
Nations communities drawing attention to real world problems around water access. In her own time, Carmela fights tirelessly against dumping of contaminated soil in communities, and brings this knowledge to her students. She has also attended many workshops and PD sessions on a range of topics in order to better her knowledge of Indigenous perspectives in order to bring real world issues and ideas to the students. Exploring the Rouge Valley lands and beyond, Carmela draws attention to problems of pollution, erosion, species endangerment, wetland destruction and so much more. With this presented knowledge, she works with the students to brainstorm potential solutions and innovations, and discusses communities and people who are innovating themselves to solve these real world issues. She provides feedback to teachers on how the class can extend their learning back at school, and how TDSB ecoschools programs can get involved. Carmela has a holistic approach to teaching- beyond inquiry, her lessons are cross curricular, incorporating opportunities for math, social studies, language, science, art and more. Here is a link to a video lesson Carmela did for Covid times...https://www.wevideo.com/view/1650026570
This particular lesson does not show community connections, but gives you a sense of who she is and her demeanour with the young students.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World
I'd say the biggest and most remarkable gift that Carmela gives the students is the spark of nature connection. She believes deeply that before a child will care for the earth, they must and that love.
Think of every fun, outdoor memory you have from childhood. Feel viscerally the joy and wonder. That is Carmela. She is the nature fairy incarnate. Creating and holding the space for students to play and feel joy, to touch, smell, taste, listen to and see the world through immersion; to inspire AWE- I am inspired every time I work alongside or watch her with kids- and I fancy myself a pretty good educator myself of 23 years. From students building nests to making seed balls to planting and harvesting vegetables, Carmela makes sure the students are always in relationship with the land. Her language is intentional and respectful, her day is structured such that students leave ruminating on human's impact and responsibility in a way that is both age appropriate and empowering. Remarkably, she can hold the attention and respect of students of all ages, from kindergarten to grade 8. These older students learn in ways that interest them- through nature photography, stream studies leading to water testing and using models to see impacts of water pollution on local ecosystems... leading to discussions on personal water usage and eco footprints. Younger students create bird feeders and window decals to help birds survive the cold winter and reflections in the window. Students of all ages learn to recognise invasive plants for removal, plant local species, pick up litter, play games to internalize the lives and plights of local species and develop empathy and understanding for the natural world and our connection to and place in it. This is Carmela, breathing with the world.
Putting it Back Together: The Four Branches in Action
I myself am not as familiar with the Natural Curiosity resources, other than to have skimmed the
pages... but when I see Carmela in action, I feel she embodies the philosophies. She has studied the
works in depth and has taught other educators, "bringing them into the fold". Her teaching daily is child- centered; so much so, that each class that comes to her (anywhere from 15 -35 students day)- her first order of business is to memorise the name of each child so she can call them by name the rest of the day. In five minutes, she has every student name memorised, and has connected personally with each one. I find this remarkable as she only sees these students for A DAY. Despite this, she manages to inspire each and every one. Students leave with an experience tied to a big idea, wrapped in inquiry and connection. Her provocations spark curiosity, engaging learners to ask questions. After this, the outdoor experience is molded to finding the answers, experimenting, exploring, rediscovering, reflecting, and forming new ideas and questions. While Carmela is chock full of knowledge herself, her method of having students discover this knowledge is more question based- she allows them to theorize, propose multiple answers and solutions, and test things out rather than giving answers. She is a master of directing students by extending questions and ideas and leading them in the right direction without ever
"telling". In this way, the students internalize their learning and the day is that much more enriching and lasting- students are empowered and inspired to make a difference in the world. Carmela treats each child as a special individual, keeping safety and respect always. Her imprint on each student spans from the teachings of our ancestors into our hopeful and green future. Miigwech.