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Mike Kumbhani's Story

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

2020 Honourable Mention for Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education

Elementary School Teacher, Rickson Ridge PS, Upper Grand DSB

As a former elephant handler and zookeeper with a degree in Wildlife Biology, I have woven environmental education into every aspect of my teaching for the last 20+ years. Over the past 5 years I have been part of a team that has developed, and is continuing to develop, a program called LEAP for Grades 7 and 8. Our mission statement is as follows: "At L.E.A.P we strive to create an educational community that fosters personal growth and development, academic excellence, creativity, independence and resilience. Our goal is to nurture critical and creative engagement through experiential learning, while developing a sense of equity, citizenship and environmental responsibility.” My personal contribution to this cross-curricular program is outdoor education, science and technology, as well as history and geography. My approach has always been rooted in hands-on, inquiry-based problem solving that requires students to think critically about issues and come up with practical solutions and designs.

Students are taken off-site to work with high school students enrolled in an environmental leadership course, as well as to local parks and the Arboretum, to explore the opportunities around them. Students are then encouraged to find some aspect of the different experiences they have had and bring those into our school community. For example, after visiting the Arboretum, students have developed signage and trails on school property to create our own mini-arboretum on site.

Weekly, students go off site and visit a park nearby. Students are then asked to explore and map their chosen area within the park and create a story map based on experiences with the class in the area as well as past experiences. As part of this activity, students are instructed on basic survival techniques, orienteering, map-making, as well as collaboration with other groups in the area. We also have local Elders come in to speak with the students and teach them about sense of place and connecting to the land.


A typical school day for my Grade 7 students could look like this:

  • Arboretum Intern leads group in Winter Preparation activities - students use Discovery Journals to reflect on connections,

  • Collaboration with indigenous knowledge keepers to design and build models of structures to conserve heat,

  • Creative story mapping art,

  • Develop signage indicating location and numbers of various native plant species.


The daily experiential outdoor education provides students with integrated project-based inquiry through an arts and equity lens. Students must develop real life application of scientific knowledge and skills to solve real world problems (equal access to clean drinking water, for example). Students are expected to demonstrate a commitment to the local community through collaboration with community artists, environmentalists, and professionals. Students also explore conflict resolution and equity-based interaction through various experiences to apply their learning.

I am continually working to create LEAP curriculum that is cross-curricular in the areas of science, language arts, drama, art, history and geography (21st Century Global Competencies are embedded) with LEAP members that encompasses First Nations Métis Inuit (FNMI), social action and inquiry-based curriculum rooted in experiential outdoor education. I strive to create experiences outside of the classroom for students and then have students use those experiences to make connections and then create their own inquiry-based learning. I believe that teaching students how to self-reflect on their own learning will help them grow to become global citizens. My goal is to nurture critical and creative engagement through experiential learning. As such, I still continue my 10 year tradition of work with Trees for Guelph to plant native trees and wildflowers on school property to create and enhance wildlife habitat and provide outdoor learning opportunities for the school community while developing a sense of equity, citizenship, and environmental responsibility.


Adjustments during COVID-19

My program is grounded in being present in the community and developing a sense of place within our local and global community. The cancellation of all field trips, non-essential visitors, and the restrictions on outdoor spaces (we can only stay within our assigned space whenever we go outside to reduce the spread of COVID) have made it very difficult to give students that experience of finding their own space within a larger space. Supplemental activities (computer simulations, educational videos, and virtual field trips) have become more prominent in my program. It is difficult to get a sense of place when you are shackled to one tiny area.

These challenging times have made it more important to have open discussions and to allow students the time to reflect on their experiences, both during the initial lockdown, and since we have returned to school. Personal reflection and introspection will help students to deal with the mental challenges of these uncertain times and hopefully centre themselves on a productive and fulfilling path. It is my hope that as we blaze the trail to our shared future in the new world, we are all able to empower ourselves and help each other to reach our full potential as world citizens.


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