Assistant curriculum leader and teacher of the Emerging Green Technologies and Environmental Stewardship program at Don Mills Collegiate Institute in Toronto, ON, Dan shares his journey as a teacher in co-learning with his students through urban farming, outdoor experiential learning, Indigenous land-based knowledges, and building a network of collaborators rooted in care and reciprocity.
Dan has been teaching at Don Mills Collegiate Institute for 23 years during which he has worked to build and grow their outdoor and experiential learning program. But Dan describes his journey in teaching as atypical. Growing up in east Scarborough to Ukrainian-immigrant parents, he describes his family’s self-reliance and love of the land as informing his approach and values in his current practice, but he was not always a fan of being in the classroom. As a student, he often felt a lack of excitement and frustration in his classes and following high school he began his career in design. But, with the advice and recommendations of friends and family, he eventually returned to school at OISE where he fell in love with experiential learning during his practicum placement. Since starting at Don Mills, Dan has brought learnings from his entrepreneurship and design background and brings curiosity, thoughtfulness, and collaboration to his day-to-day practice in the classroom both inside and outside.
In Dan’s classes, students engage with experiential and hands-on learning experiences in the school’s urban farm and outdoor kitchen, orchard, vineyard, and greenhouse facilities. A vital part of Dan’s pedagogy comes from being a part of and building a network of knowledge keepers to support collective learning, and he shares that collaboration has been essential to creating and engaging with their learning spaces. Dan sees it as a deep privilege and responsibility to learn from and build relationships with Indigenous knowledge keepers. He highlights the work of Alan Colley, educator and founder of Toronto Aboriginal Eco Tours, Kim Wheatley, author, speaker, and educator, Philip Cote, artist and knowledge keeper, Amos Key Jr., professor and advocate, and Isaac Crosby, urban agriculturist and educator who has led numerous Indigenous gardening projects at Evergreen Brick Works and the University of Toronto. He also shares that relationship building takes time, is heart, connection, and people-focused, and requires thoughtfulness. During their courses, students learn from and alongside each other about different farming practices, from aquaponics to mushroom farming to Indigenous growing practices. In collaboration with Alan Colley, the program built a Haundenosaunee mound garden that grows the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. Dan shares that it is powerful to model and share with students that as educators we are also learning and to approach new learnings with openness and curiosity. He tries to seek out projects that he is curious about and shares with the students that they are co-learning and share responsibility in receiving knowledge from those that collaborate with their class.
Since returning to in-person learning, Dan wants to get the students away from their screens as much as possible and their days are often responsive to the weather and season. Don Mills Collegiate Institute has students from a large range of backgrounds with diverse experiences. Dan and his class aim to recognize the commonalities and shared experiences, which often center around food and ancestral practices around food. He wants to “get [them] up off the chair, get outside. Let’s go build something, let's get our hands in the dirt, let’s plant something. Let's smell it. Feel the sun on our faces”.
When asked what advice he would share with educators starting their work in environmental education, he advised prioritizing connection with other educators to listen to their stories and approaches, and he encouraged all to check out Facing History and Ourselves for continued learning. He shared some encouraging words: “if you are thinking it, it’s doable. If you want to do something awesome with your students, you can do it”. He also shared that it’s important to prioritize teaching to and advocating for your students who are not engaged and do not feel comfortable in the school system. Lastly, he shared that it’s essential to remember that it’s “a privilege to be with the next generation of brilliant minds” and that responsibility requires prioritizing our own learning and listening to students and knowledge keepers with thoughtfulness and patience.