The many faces of ecological literacy: Quest Alternative’s EcoQuest Fair

Blank pages, on paper or on the screen, can be intimidating. I find this is especially true as I try to describe a high point in applied ecological literacy at the TDSB. That’s why it is only now, two weeks since my visit to Quest Alternative’s bi-annual EcoQuest Fair, that I am able to write anything about it. And even now I cannot begin to capture its essence. I cannot do it justice.

EcoQuest (“3 weeks devoted entirely to ecology”) was once again an exhilarating and almost overwhelming experience for me. The entire gym was packed with 68 smartly designed displays, each hosted by its creator. These grade 7 and 8 students prepared artfully designed display boards and engaging short talks, found ingenious ways to make their topics interactive, designed handsome brochures to be taken away, and often made direct suggestions for action when the topic called for it. And they gave their visitors information about where to go for further exploration.

This is a subject way too big and wonderfully complex for a single blog entry. I have twice sat down with these glorious pamphlets strewn around—really, taken together they make up a year-long course on ways to think, teach, learn, and act with the environment in mind.

EcoQuest’s enormous educational and social benefits

Impossible to absorb it all in a single visit. Impossible, really, to convey all that it represents about the power of inquiry-based, student-driven learning—being fully engaged, practicing taking a balanced view, deepening their knowledge, developing their communication and presentation skills, learning to interact with the public with confidence, grace, and panache, questing for solutions. All because they are in charge of and responsible for their own learning about something they have come to care about. And of course also because their teachers and parents have been preparing the soil for this growth. Yes, it is what the books and articles tell us will happen. Wonderful to see it in action!

I am not giving you the rich and long history of EcoQuest, or any details about the way the students, in 16 different committees, take charge of it all. I can only guess at the very long hours put in by the students, their supportive families, and their teachers. To judge by the quality of the work and the polish of the oral presentations, I imagine and hope it will be long-remembered by each student as a very worthwhile and irreplaceable part of their education.

How transferrable is EcoQuest to other schools? What topics are covered?

I wonder what other schools (who may not be able to suspend all other activity for 3 full weeks) interested in this model can take away? For starters, I have composed a list of the projects I heard or read about as they fell into informal categories in my own mind. Of course many topics fit in more than one place and address many attributes of learning that are assessed, reflecting the way a rich classroom lesson or unit fulfills expectation across many subject areas.

Cradle to grave, we have an impact! Exploration of how baby care can harm the environment to how people continue to harm the environment after death

The way we live now isn’t good enough. Disruptive human impact on the environment received a lot of attention—from global issues such as tar sands, ocean trawling, trashing our ocean, rising sea levels, smog, open pit mining, urban sprawl, the environment and mental health, access to clean water in the developing world, food transportation, space junk and desertification, to more focused topics like airport pollution, disappearance of honey bees, animal testing, frankenfoods, the environmental impact of golf courses, bottled water, the effects of plastic on animals.

Our rate and scale of consumption is a big problem. From wasting water, e-waste disposal, vampire power, and “affluenza” to over-packaging, disposal and re-use of tires, batteries, assessing the eco-footprint of the family (“an average home in the 1950s was the size of today’s 2 and 3 car garages”)

Understand the environmental science behind the issues. Desertification, wetlands, polar ice cap melting, acid rain, ozone layer, old growth forests, challenges of the great barrier reef, forest fires: the climate connection

Learn to make truly informed choices. Green washing, books or ebooks?, eco-friendly clothing

What is harmful to people is also harmful to the environment. Household cleaners, cosmetics, smoking

Human waste can also create new habitat! Toronto’s Leslie Street spit: a true accidental treasure

Nature’s interconnections with human life are amazing and indispensable. Ecosystem services: what we take for granted, bio-indicator animals, wetlands

Solutions The vast majority of topics with a focus on the problem also include possible solutions, usually involving personal actions. However, some students made solutions the centre of their inquiry: corporate responsibility, designing the ecologically perfect city, learning from Canada’s indigenous people, organic farming, hybrid cars, geothermal energy, energy efficient homes, fuel cells, social media, hemp (“If someone were to try using hemp as a drug they would have to smoke a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole.”)

I didn’t get to every display, so this list is incomplete. My apologies to those EcoQuesters whose displays have been inadvertently left out!

The brochures travel with me in case I have a free moment to look at them again. Out of the many messages I’d like to include here, I’ll content myself with just one.

So what?
That’s the question that concludes Parker Melnick’s brochure on “Social media: the answer to environmental reform?”

“We know we need to make a change in our environment, but knowing isn’t enough any more. We are at the point of if we want to progress further and stop this crisis, we need to stop saying, “I know,” and start saying “here’s what I am going to do about it.” And social media can be the catalyst, but it’s up to us to choose to use it in a positive or negative way.” 
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Congratulations to everyone in the Quest Alternative community for a truly amazing flowering of applied ecological literacy. Thank you for one of the educational highlights of my year. I am already looking forward to the next one in the spring of 2014!

Eleanor Dudar
TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

P.S. It was hard to leave
The students had given morning and afternoon presentations to 900 students and to another gym full of people at night. Tired, perhaps, but many were still brimming with enthusiasm for their subject matter. The evening show was to end at 8:30. But even the announcement saying “time to go” didn’t budge some of us, so enthralled were we by the student presenters. At 8:45 two other adults and I tore ourselves away from a wonderfully clear demonstration of how a hydrogen fuel cell works, urged by the presenter, Matthew Frame, to give him just a day to upload all his material before visiting his website! The teaching and learning never stops…

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Ecological literacy, ecology, and the mysteries of life

The science of ecology is at the heart of ecological literacy as a new way of thinking about life. The study of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focussed on the substance of Nature’s parts: what is matter made of? What are its parts and how can we classify them to understand their characteristics? Ecology began to emerge as a new branch of science in the 1920s when scientists began studying the feeding relations among the parts—seeing them first as food chains, then food webs, then food cycles. It was here, Fritjof Capra reminds us in his seminal essay “Ecology and Community,” that biologists began to uncover the networks that these relationships consist of. This marked a shift in some quarters of scientific thinking: the focus turns to the form and pattern of life, where the subject of study becomes the dynamic network of interactions in an ecosystem. 

Capra’s essay is central to our pursuit of a deeper understanding of ecological literacy and why it matters. He reminds his readers that one of the reasons we study ecosystems is to learn how to build sustainable human communities. In nature there is no waste. “Nature is our teacher” is the first principle of schooling for sustainability, the subject of Smart by Nature (2009), case studies from the Center for Ecological Literacy compiled by Michael K. Stone.

Looking for ecological literacy connections in the curriculum
How does this work help busy classroom teachers wanting to interpret curriculum expectations through an ecological lens? Where do we ground this lovely theory in our day-to-day work? Some teachers see through this lens more readily than others. Words from ecosystem science that appear in curriculum expectations—words like relationships, interdependence, chains, webs, cycles, patterns, webs, networks –invite us to design a lesson thinking interconnectedly, thinking ecologically. Most of these words occur in many subject areas, not just science and geography. But that is something to pursue another day. Does anyone reading this have time to weigh in with your thoughts, great lesson ideas?

Teaching and learning about the mysteries of life
When I started this meditation, I was thinking about how and where our schools introduce students to the mysteries of life. The life sciences, of which ecology is an offshoot, are a source of endless mystery and wonder (recall Dayna Baumeister’s video “Life’s Operating Manual” where we wonder at nature’s innovations and adaptations). Places through the grades where the curriculum talks about soil, water, air, or food may allow a sideways mention of nature’s ecosystem pattern of networks. (Yes, these are “parts” also to be seen embedded in the large ecosystem whole. As my colleague Pam Miller puts it, “don’t just study one thing; tug on its connections to make it real!”)

Our February e-newsletter has become the school food garden issue partly because we’ve all been so seduced by our (til now) abnormally mild winter. I happened upon the curriculum resource Patterns through the Seasons: A Year of School Food Garden Activities while browsing the overwhelmingly rich Evergreen website and was instantly smitten by the sheer commonsensical links the writers make between an ecological way of thinking (one clue is in the title itself, isn’t it?) and what the curriculum asks us to teach. I stole a glance at “Planning the Garden” (Winter, Unit 2, page 47), and then leapt forward to “Mysteries of Life” (Spring, Unit 3, page 61). That lesson describes a beautifully simple activity (K-3 but easy to adapt) involving three opaque containers with lids, soil, and water. Perhaps many of you already use it. I will share it with my sister who is a kindergarten teacher; she’ll love it for its hands-on nature, its fragment of story that ends with a question, and the charming chant that will embed her students’ new knowledge about what plants need to grow. I was utterly charmed; I may even try it with my colleagues (not the chant part though)!

So growing things allows students to see nature at work in a very vivid way. Any curriculum that asks us to look at life itself—plants, animals, ecosystems, human body systems—seems to inspire some of the best curriculum writing I’ve seen. It is powered by the sense of wonder and the deep-down knowledge that life—what it is, and how it is organized—is something very important to teach and to learn about.

Nature’s design provides lessons for human communities who are learning how to live sustainably. That’s the pragmatic reason for nurturing ecological literacy. The other is the sheer joy of marvelling at the mysteries of the planet that we need to learn to live on more lightly. If it can enage us, won’t it engage our students?

                                                                                     – Eleanor Dudar
                                                                                     TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

Paying attention: how important is it for learning? How can education in the environment help?

“Attention is the holy grail…everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” says Professor David Strayer, a psychology prof at the University of Utah.  Strayer took four neuroscientist colleagues on a trip into the wilderness to talk about and feel the differences between the digitally-connected and -disconnected world. A central debate was about the value of uninterrupted time in nature as a way to rest and restore the information-overloaded brain. This debate is not new to environmental educators. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods  has had a large influence on the movement to reconnect children and nature (like Evergreen in Toronto!). 

What are the elements that make up ecological literacy in the classroom? Through the year I will be on the lookout for answers to this beguiling question. This past week I observed a lesson on writing a Tanka poem.  What is the connection with the neuroscientists debate about nature’s ability to influence our brains?

The grade 6 students in Anne’s class had spent time the previous day in their school’s Nature Garden immersed in the plant world, with each student taking a picture of one tree or shrub. The picture was then pasted into their poetry books and became the focus for writing a Tanka poem (5 lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables). But first came the class co-creation of an example. Line 1 was a “Unicorn prancing.” When line 2 popped up as “Sasquatch dancing in the night,” the class was on the road to having fun with writing poetry. As the poem was completed and the hilarity subsided, the focus came back to the task, with the teacher having students remember the words they’d found to describe their experience in the Nature Garden’s grove of trees. The explosive imaginative power of the Sasquatch never disappeared, but it was gradually displaced by the photograph in each person’s poetry journal. For a while the room grew very quiet, with some students silently tapping out the rhythm of each trial line to see if it met the requirement of the form.

What are the ingredients of this lesson? First, it exists in the context of the child’s other personal experiences in nature and with words. Its rich classroom context is not only other lessons in language, writing, poetry, but likely some science classes as well—all somehow nestled within earlier experiences outdoors.  Another valuable addition was the students’ tapping, anchoring their learning in their own bodies. Who knows how much that one small integrated act can help the developing brain pay better attention?

And this brings me back to “attention” as the holy grail of learning, and to wander sideways to the debate about the role of nature vs technology in aiding or distracting the attention of the developing brain that was being debated by those five neuroscientists in the wilderness.

For almost all the students I observed, their attention was grabbed by the well-laid out task, and by their own photo. Would the quality of attention have been as high if instead they were gazing at their own photo of, let’s say, the CN Tower? Is it possible to argue, credibly, that the memory of that short time observing “their” chosen tree in their own school ground, and recollecting that quiet moment through the photo, helped these students’ brains to focus? And hence to better “hold on” to that complex piece of learning (as well as completing the task)?

Elements of ecological literacy in the classroom—a rich design!

Every classroom lesson has a “history” for the child and for the teacher. The pursuit of ecological literacy is one strand in the classroom web of teaching and learning. The teacher’s job is in part to make that history as richly woven with ideas and accompanying feelings as she can, to encourage ongoing connections that happen both consciously and unconsciously. This one has layers in abundance—the recent outdoor experience, the classroom mini-lesson on the form and function of the Tanka poem and the high-spirited fun with the Sasquatch model poem, the tree photograph as a prompt to memory, and the photo itself—a piece of ‘nature’ chosen by the child.

Tanka poemThis poetry lesson was superb in its interweaving of the students’ contact with the natural world and the classroom experience that artlessly blended teacher-direction and student-focussed learning. The Sasquatch is an important reminder that we have to honour the other interests that our students have, that engagement and enthusiasm are preconditions for paying attention. Just like adults, students’ strong engagement is likely related to their having some choice in what they learn and even, sometimes, how a lesson proceeds.  Often, the richer the lesson in both content and pedagogical style, the richer the learning.

This is a much longer discussion, isn’t it? I haven’t even touched on the role of the school’s culture, influenced by the nature that is “right there,” and seen as part of the whole learning environment. Or the teacher’s long-standing practice of including the environment as part of students’ discovery of the world.

“Education in, about, and for the environment”

Education in, about, and for the environment is our short form for talking about different entry points into building ecological literacy. Writing a Tanka tree poem is clearly the fruit of education that has happened in the environment, but has blossomed into so much more within this classroom. Such a lesson may become a stepping stone to a science lesson about the environment—habitats in grade 4, diversity in grade 6, ecosystems in grade 7, and beyond! Or it might some day lead to an exploration and campaign—locally, education for looking after school ground trees by better mulching and watering, or on a bigger scale, for investigating how to become a protector of Ontario’s boreal forest.
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What the five neuroscientists on the Utah wilderness trip agreed on is that becoming disconnected from the digital world did change their experience—and functioning—of their own minds. It seems possible that something similar can happen with small doses of nature, even right on the school grounds, or in a nearby park, or at an Outdoor Education Centre. Like a tonic, we need that contact with nature regularly. It is the accumulation of such experiences that can settle the mind and lead to paying better attention.

Thank you to Anne and her students for sharing their Nature Garden Tanka Poems
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Additional resources: Instructional Leaders Pam Miller and Annelies Groen highly recommend two books for teaching and learning outdoors,  Outdoor Inquiries by Patricia McGlashan, Kristen Gasser, and Peter Dow and Herbert W. Broda’s Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning.

– ED