Hongliang Hu's Story
Honourable Mention for Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education
Hongliang has been working in the Full-Day Kindergarten Program at the TDSB for over 10 years. Her teaching experiences in China, America, and Canada has equipped her with empirical knowledge, skills, and insights to support young learners in environmental education. As an active member of the OISE and TDSB EcoSchools action research collaboration team, and through her continued experimentation with nature pedagogy and project-based approaches, Hongliang has been developing an environmental learning program for Kindergarten that focuses on the importance and interconnectedness of all life on Earth.
Hongliang's work focuses on supporting the way children's environmental inquiry naturally occurs during play. She always begins the inquiry process by simply asking children to share about a particular loose parts design. “I notice that you are working hard on designing something here. Can you tell me about it?” These open-ended prompts often lead to astonishing conversations that reveal students' wealth of prior knowledge, and information they bring from different cultural backgrounds. Hongliang ensures that this learning is nurtured in community by engaging her students in a knowledge building circle (KBC). In one KBC, Hongliang asked, “what does nature look like to you?” As children offer their ideas, a new range of vocabulary connected with nature emerges, through which children are able to deepen their understanding while learning from each other's ideas, experiences, and cultural backgrounds.
Hongliang often take her class outside to observe and explore nature through their senses. Children are always excited to touch, smell, and hear the trees, rocks, soils, and worms, and how they feel when they engage all their senses! Each child is also encouraged to draw and/or write what they experience in our nature observation sheet. Back in the classroom, children revisit their nature observations and come up with more vocabularies related to the natural world. By connecting real learning opportunities to the schoolyard and beyond, children come to believe that learning happens outdoors as well as indoors. Taking kids outside—whatever environment our school is in—provides a new path to engagement in learning.
For many of our young learners, the foundation for developing a sense of place and stewardship often begins at school. As children experience the nature in their schoolyard, through the seasons, they come to care deeply about their local environment. Hongliang incorporates various Project Learning Tree activities to engage children in place-based learning about the trees and animals in their schoolyard, including making bird feeders out of recycled materials, and simply connecting to the trees surrounding the school as a way of learning about their role in the ecosystem. Over time, children recognize the interdependence of trees, birds, and many more small species such as spiders and ladybugs that also coexist in the local natural world. The students eventually come to take action by making signs for the community to help take care of the trees and creatures in the schoolyard.
Releasing butterflies is another great activity for Kindergarten children to begin to move towards sustainable attitudes and actions. By allowing the children to choose a meaningful place and a sunny day to release them (and learning that butterflies can't fly in the rain and should be released where there are plants!), children are able to see that their actions are a part of the environment, and see themselves as agents in a thriving web of connections.
Being outside ignites a unique excitement and curiosity in young learners that cannot be replicated in the classroom. This recognition has been a driving motivator in Hongliang's journey to shift her philosophy and approach to support her students' learning through the lens of environmental inquiry. The second edition of Natural Curiosity has also been inspiring her to see the natural world through an Indigenous lens, deepening her understanding of the natural world and environmental education cross-culturally; it is crucial to ensure that students learn about Indigenous people’s ways of knowing, connectedness and relationships, engagement with land, and respect for all aspects of the environment. Most importantly, by helping our whole learning community of children, colleagues, and parents, recognize the dynamic and reciprocal relationships with everything around them, we can begin to cultivate environmentally and socially conscious world citizens with a love of learning.
"I consciously acknowledge that the natural world is our classroom, and that student learning can happen beyond the classroom walls."
— Hongliang Hu, Early Childhood Educator, Eglinton Jr. Public School, TDSB