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Jennifer Baron & Towana Brooks' Story

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

2020 Grand Prize Winner, Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education

Integrating Environmental Inquiry with an Indigenous Perspective has been an essential part of my holistic lifelong learning journey. As a non-Indigenous person, my own inquiry into Anishnaabe culture and history began when I was a little girl growing up when my dad would take me back to his home place around Red Lake, Northwestern Ontario, and my mom to her home place, Manitoulin Island. I asked many questions back in the early 1970s, and my mom would take us to pow-wows in Wikwemikong. I learned about Oji-Cree Art, History and Culture. Fortunately, both of my parents had a strong connection to nature and we spent much time outside on the shores of Lake Superior and on Manitoulin Island. When we moved from Terrace Bay to Southern Ontario in 1975, my Environmental Ethic was sparked by the damage I saw to the land from urban sprawl. I went to Trent University to study a double-major Honours Degree in Environmental Studies and Indigenous Studies. Both programs remain highly interdisciplinary, thus integrating a First Nations perspective into education has been a priority for me for a long time. I learned about Bioregionalism (now called place-based education) where I did an Honours thesis with Heidi Campbell (who has done pioneering work greening schoolyards with TDSB and Evergreen Brickworks) on a "Bioregional Approach to Education.” I studied First Nations Education in the Southwestern Yukon via a Northern Research Grant through Trent University. When I went to Nipissing University's Faculty of Education, I took a course on teaching Aboriginal Children and did a placement at Lakeview School in M'Chigeeng First Nation, Manitoulin Island. I've been a Teacher with YRDSB since 1995. From 2000-2004 I taught at Vivian Outdoor Centre. In 2004. I arranged a partnership between YRDSB and Ontario Parks, MNR, to open Sibbald Point Outdoor Education Centre, where I worked from 2004-2008. I've written and taught Environmental Science K-12 for Nipissing University; Outdoor Experiential Education for York University, and Environmental Education K-12 for ETFO. I currently am enrolled in FNMI Teaching Aboriginal Children AQ with ETFO. In 2009, I was seconded to York University’s Faculty of Ed to infuse the York Region Site with an Environmental lens.

My goal as an adult educator is to build capacity for educators to weave Environmental Education throughout their programming. This fall I hope to teach OISE - ESE’s Environmental Ed Part 1. At my current school, Lakeside P.S, I've lead our entire Primary Division in a Water Inquiry with an Indigenous Perspective. We used readings from Natural Curiosity 2 (I went to the book launch this spring) as a mindset for our own professional learning collaborative. We brought in our FNMI Curriculum Advisor and FMNI Youth Advisor to guide us in how to integrate a local Indigenous Perspective with our Water Inquiry. This Inquiry has been locally and culturally responsive with our connection to Lake Simcoe, just down the street from our school. We involved our families at a Community Event on April 23rd, 2018.

Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire

From the beginning of our Water Inquiry with an Indigenous Perspective, I used YRDSB's Inquiry Framework Model and Natural Curiosity 2. I also spoke with our FNMI Advisor, Towana Brooks, through the entire process to ensure I was integrating an Indigenous Perspective into the Inquiry in a good way. At our Primary Division meeting in February , I showed the Primary staff a slideshow to light the "spark" for our engagement in the learning. I showed Primary staff clips from a short video called Waawaase'aagaming (The Shining Lake) Documentary - April 2015 (you can find on youtube) by Georgina Island resident and local Water Walker, Becky Big Canoe. We learned about Water Walkers and water defenders, Indigenous Women from across North America - aka Turtle Island- who are defending the rights of water and peoples' rights to clean drinking water. We also learned about the Upper York Region Sewage Solution, which proposes to emit millions of litres of treated sewage water into Lake Simcoe. The Chippewas of Georgina Island, our closest First Nation partner in education, are leading the advocacy work being done to raise awareness about Lake Simcoe and the possible health effects of ULLSS on the lake. From this collective learning, the Primary staff came up with two very broad inquiry questions that would allow for multi-entry points and perspectives: How is water connected to us? How can we help protect it? Then, on March 22nd, the Primary staff were released for a day. Coincidentally, this day marks the beginning of UN's decade for Action for Water Sustainability, and the day Autumn Peltier spoke at the UN to begin this decade. We spoke about both. As a staff, we walked to Lake Simcoe and looked at pictures that sparked conversations about Lake Simcoe, the health of the lake, our connections to the lake as our source of drinking water, Indigenous perspectives on Lake Simcoe. Our Learning Commons teacher pulled out all the books we had on water. We chose about 10 books to circulate through our Division, one of them being "Water Walker" about Josephine Mandamin. Our FNMI Advisor and FNMI Youth Liaison visited us in the afternoon with stories about their personal journeys, drumming and dancing about water and how to make "Water Walker" necklaces. The necklaces have a small copper pot, inspired by Josephine Mandamin, Water Walker. We learned the Nibi Song in Ojibwe. Staff decided collectively that this was how we could help students to understand and appreciate an Indigenous perspective of water.

Back in our classrooms, our Teachers and DECEs set up a learning boards. We posted our questions for the Water Inquiry. Our initial learning with the students involved getting the students to ask more questions about water. They quickly saw their deep personal connection to water, as they learned about their own thirst, need to drink water to survive, and the fact that they are over 60% water. Each class did read alouds with many books about water from many different perspectives, such as "Water Walker", "The Water Princess", "Why Should I Save Water?", "A Cool Drink of Water". The children asked many, many questions, such as: "What would happen if all the water got dirty?" "How can we clean the water?" They went to Lake Simcoe to collect water. They knew that this is their source of drinking water. The water they collected was quite dirty. The students tested their theories by making simple water filters. They questioned about what is better to drink: tap or bottled water by doing taste tests and learning about bottled water. They questioned why garbage, such as floating plastics, is sometimes in the water. Many classes had water tables set up with various forms of materials that sparked even more inquiry about water. The students wrote poetry simply to appreciate water. Students in all classes participated in creating artworks that showed the appreciation of various forms of water in our lives, and the connection of animals to water. Our Learning Commons teachers had all students create a mural in the Learning Commons in the style of Woodlands Oji-Cree artist Norval Morrisseau, which showed the connections to the water and the spirit of the animals in the artistic style of Morrisseau. This inquiry project involved over twenty staff and 200 students, leaders in our Board, as well as the family community. We had the full support of our Administrative Team, as well as the Environmental Literacy/Outdoor Ed and FNMI Curriculum teams in YRDSB.

Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots

At Lakeside Public School, we are situated within easy walking distance to Lake Simcoe. For our Water Inquiry, most classes walked to the shore of Lake Simcoe, where there is a small grassy "park" with a picnic table, from which we can see the lake. Our students are very connected to the lake. They drink it, swim in it, boat on it, and many of our families go ice fishing on it in the winter time, and eat the fish from the lake. Many of our students can name many species of fish from Lake Simcoe that they would either catch and release or eat when they go fishing with their families. There is always a lot of action to see on the lake, from water birds to kite boarders to people ice fishing. When we went this spring, there were still a lot of ice huts out on the lake. There was a bit of open water at the shore line for students to collect water. All students read "Water Walker" prior to walking to the lake. They learned about some issues facing the lake, such as emitting treated sewage water, oil and gas from boats and cars, pollution from run-off. They demonstrated a deep relationship to the lake that is one of deep caring and need for it to stay clean. Students were greatly inspired by the work of Josephine Mandamin to walk around the Great Lakes. Inspired by her choices, the students carried a copper pot to the lake, and a walking stick, and they carried back water from the lake in the copper pot back to school. Then, the students studied the water, asked questions about the water and figured out ways to filter the water to try to make it cleaner. The students recorded patterns in Math prior to creating the beadwork on their copper pot necklaces. It is important to note that I applied for and received a grant from Learning For a Sustainable Future’s Action Project, and that the money from this grant was put towards our Water Inquiry project, particularly in purchasing the supplies for all students to make a copper pot necklace. Again, the necklace is inspired by Josephine Mandamin, Water Walker. YRDSBs FNMI Curriculum Advisor demonstrated how to make the beaded necklaces using patterns in math, and with a miniature copper pot. The students were very engaged in their work, and they all wore their necklaces to our Community Event that celebrated our Water Inquiry with an Indigenous Perspective, and for many days at school after that as well. The students made artwork about the lake, including ice fishing hut dioramas and multi-media work about fishing on Lake Simcoe, a culturally responsive task that was highly engaging for them. To reflect, the students kept journals about Water in their Environment. They learned about ways to conserve water and keep it clean. They wrote poetry, sang songs and did paintings that simply showed an appreciation of water in their lives.

Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge

At the beginning of our Professional Learning Inquiry, Primary Staff read the passages in Natural Curiosity 2 about the importance of integrating subjects and skills in order to help students develop a systems view of the connections to water. In the work we did with students, we integrated Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education, Health and The Arts. The Kindergarten Teachers and DECEs in three full Kindergarten Year 1 and Year 2 combined classes also integrated the Four Frames of Learning through a fully inquiry based program in their classes. We integrated Literacy by reading books, writing in journals, storytelling about the life of a water droplet, writing poetry. We integrated Math by exploring measurement with capacity, doing patterning in beading for our copper pot necklaces. The students sang songs on the Water Cycle and the Nibi Water song in Ojibwe. They created a vast diversity of art works, such as: diorama of all life that needs water inspired by the artwork of Norval Morrisseau, paintings about water. All Grade 2 students participated in "The Water Game" at Sibbald Point Outdoor Education Centre, YRDSB, a highly physical interactive game about the many water forms and issues related to water. All students went outside to connect with our source of local drinking water, Lake Simcoe, which is about a 1.5 km round walking trip. This integrated approach allowed students to think about water integrally and apply this learning to their lives. This allowed the students to understand the implications of water not only in their lives, but in the lives of others as well. The students learned about how not everyone has access to fresh and clean drinking water in their homes. They learned that the Chippewas of Georgina Island are on the Boil Water Advisory, as are many other First Nations communities in Canada. They learned about how children, mostly girls, have to walk to water sources far from their homes to collect water for drinking, bathing and cooking. This sparked the children to ask: How can we help? They learned about ways to conserve water at home. They took water pledges to conserve water in a variety of ways. Both staff and students wanted to move forward with water action initiatives.

Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with The World

At the beginning of our Water Inquiry, we all asked: "How is water connected to us?" and "How can we help protect it?" The students had an intuitive and visceral understanding of their deep connection to water. They KNOW it's in all of us, including all plants and animals. They deeply understood that all living things needs water to survive. Rather than scaring the children about water issues, we took a stance of curiosity, wonder and deep appreciation. The students learned about ways that they could conserve water at home. They reflected upon how to conserve water in conversations and through a variety of educational products, such as posters, that they created to demonstrate their knowledge. We invited in their families for a Water Inquiry Community Event afternoon. There, the children sang the Nibi Water Song in Ojibwe to the families. The families visited classrooms to see the hands-on water inquiry at water tables set up outside. They parents took part in taste tests between bottled water and tap water, and learned about issues related to bottled water. The families and their children took created water pledges with simple habits to form at home in their everyday lives that would conserve water. They learned about how these small actions can amount to conserving a lot of water collectively over time. These actions demonstrate a life of active participation, coupled with a deep respect for not only water, but all life on the planet, Mother Earth. Our hope, with this Inquiry, was that the children would see themselves as water protectors for life.

The Four Branches in Action

At the initial Primary Staff Professional Learning Collaborative, our FNMI Advisor, Towana Brooks, spoke with us about Aboriginal Perspective of relating to water as a person, as it being imbued with spirit, and being a relation. Our FNMI Youth Advisor from Georgina Island played her drum for us, and sang songs while she lead us in a dance that honoured water. We learned about women's deep connection to water. We learned the Nibi Water Song in Ojibwe. Towana taught us how to make Copper Pot bead necklaces. She showed us how to integrate Math with the patterning in the beading. In this way, we integrated Indigenous Perspectives of holistic ways of knowing through teaching to the whole child: spirit, mind, body, emotions. We acknowledged our deep connection to water by learning about Water Walkers, the movement started by Josephine Mandamin. We learned about her niece, Autumn Peltier, taking up the cause to the International stage at the UN and asking world leaders to "warrior up" for protecting water and the rights of water. We learned that every humans relationship to water is reciprocal: we are over 60% water...water gives to us and all living things, so we have a strong sense of responsibility to protect water and keep it clean. This starts with daily habits that move towards sustainability of water. We are deeply moved by the relationship we've gained to water, particularly through an Aboriginal Perspective. At our Community Event on April 23rd, each child wore his or her copper pot necklace inspired by Josephine Mandamin's Water Walker Movement. The children -about 200 children- beautifully sang the lullaby Nibi Song in Ojibwe to the families that attended our Community Event. We also shared our Community Partner in Education, Clearwater Farm/Ontario Water Centre's, planned event to honour Lake Simcoe and do a water walk on June 23rd. In this way, the learning will continue and grow in our community.

On May 14th, our Primary staff will come together to reflect upon and consolidate our learning within our Water Inquiry with an Indigenous Perspective at Lakeside P.S. We look forward to our next steps and continuing on this path of Inquiry. I am deeply grateful for Natural Curiosity 2: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children's Environmental Inquiry. Although my mindset, academic path and educational career have spanned many decades with this perspective, it was brilliant to have a professional "guidebook" to journey through this process collaboratively with other educators at my school. Migweetch! Thank you for the opportunity to use this book and learn with you!


Jennifer Baron

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