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…

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