Amanda Humphreys & Jessie Sawyers
Junior school educators and current Grade 1 teachers at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, ON, Amanda & Jessie share their pedagogies and journeys in building relationships and connections with their students, their local ravine, and their community.
Amanda and Jessie’s journeys in environmental education have been influenced by many factors and by many layers of support. These supports include teachers, colleagues and mentors, authors, their personal lives, and their school’s philosophy that aims to provide students with intentional opportunities to engage with the world. Situated in Toronto, ON near the Cedarvale Ravine, they began taking their students into the ravine for learning and exploration, a practice which eventually became the Outdoor Nature Connection program that extends across grades and ensures that all students spend a half day outside every 8 days.
A pivotal shift in their work came through a collaboration with Alan Colley - educator and founder of Toronto Aboriginal Eco Tours - which helped them see the need to move away from extractive educational practices like “what can we gain?” to building a consistent, reciprocity-focused connection with the ravine. This shift and their relationship with Alan encouraged Amanda and Jessie to think about knowledge in non-commodifying ways, and to deepen the complexity of their outdoor practices. A central part of their pedagogy is being attuned to and connected with the experiences of the children, and they have seen how Alan’s teachings have also been pivotal for the students. Setting up intentional time to learn from and be in relationship with nature in the ravine has had meaningful impacts on the classroom and informs all of their practices from engaging with farming and connecting with food to thinking about honoring the interwoven rights and relationships of all living beings. Time is also important to them in their journey as educators and, as Jessie shares, it is necessary to give themselves time to come into relationship with their own learnings.
Amanda & Jessie highlight that their teaching approach is a way of being that prioritizes relationships and community-building and goes beyond lessons or units as it encompasses the whole year, builds on previous years, and extends beyond the classroom. For example, in learning about farming and food, students engage with the plants throughout the year, learn the importance of growing food, and honoring and respecting their lives, and learn about the Honorable Harvest, an Indigenous practice of harvesting food through reciprocity. This practice requires community and connections inside and outside of their school – as a part of the OISE-TDSB Action Research Team in collaboration with OISE’s Sustainability & Climate Action Network and TDSB EcoSchools, Amanda and Jessie share how this has been an opportunity for reflection, to have a research question, and document their practice, and highlight the importance of community in their practice .
When asked what she would like to share with new educators or those starting their work in environmental education, Amanda recommends focusing on reattuning with the students after our experiences of the pandemic and seeking out relationships to deepen community. Both Jessie and Amanda also share that while the curriculum has the potential to feel like a checklist that limits time for deeper or more meaningful experiences, seeing it as a place to begin and build from can support students in expansive, community-based learning. In Jessie’s words, “if you really listen to the children and you provide really rich opportunities for connection-building, and question-asking and dialogue amongst [them], they are going to far surpass the expectations of curriculum”. According to Jessie and Amanda, one of our roles as educators is to support them in drawing connections and experiencing the world inside and beyond the classroom.