Some Toronto teachers are going to extraordinary lengths to make sure environmental education is more than just rote learning.
It’s well below zero and the children of Blessed Sacrament elementary are being foxes, slinking gleefully along a frigid trail that coils through half-frozen ponds, pausing to scrutinize a log gnawed by beavers.
“Tomorrow’s the last day of school before winter break,” says Alexandra Adam, their teacher. She smiles expansively.
“This is the perfect thing to be doing.”
The Catholic school’s combined class of second and third graders is in the midst of a field trip at Evergreen Brick Works. Despite the cold, the students are spending a day almost exclusively on the sweeping outdoor grounds of the former industrial site turned community environmental centre.
Evergreen staff members introduce themselves as “Red Wing” and “Great Blue Heron.” They guide the students through wildlife exploration, storytelling, and outdoor shelter construction.
Adam brought her students to the Brick Works to complement work the class had done on animal habitats.
“My family is really interested in environmental stuff. You take your own experiences into the classroom,” she explains.
“What kids remember are the lessons where they’re actually touching things, looking at things, instead of me saying, ‘Turn to page 32 in the textbook.’”
Evergreen, a national charity that seeks to connect people and nature, also offers teachers online lesson plans that suggest ways of facilitating outdoor education.
The organization is one among a growing arsenal of resources available to Toronto teachers looking to become “eco-literate.”
And while environmental education isn’t new, in recent years there has been increasing interest—both from aspiring and existing teachers—in learning how to integrate eco-literacy into general class curricula.
Shannon Arnold, Evergreen’s children’s program manager, describes eco-literacy as something that goes beyond lessons about recycling, or any sort of “doomsday message.”
“It’s about curiosity,” she says. “The more we understand where something comes from, how its life cycle works, how energy changes and shifts, the more motivated we are.”
“We want to get kids interested in nature as young as possible, so they’ll want to take care of the planet—not because bad things will happen, but because it’s amazing, inspiring, beautiful.”
At the teacher’s college level, Hilary Inwood, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education program, is leading the charge to integrate environmental education into mainstream teacher training.
Three years ago, she introduced an environmental and sustainability elective to the program’s Bachelor of Education stream. She’s also part of an effort to lobby Ontario’s Ministry of Education to make the course mandatory.
She helped co-ordinate a voluntary Environmental Leadership Certificate, which OISE students can earn by spending a total of 35 hours engaging in an environmental education project.
“This year we had about 75 students do it,” she says. “It’s pretty impressive they were willing to sign up for extra work to deepen their knowledge of environmental education.”
In addition to her work at U of T, Inwood does community outreach, develops workshops, and helps run a summer institute for teachers, which was designed by Evergreen and the Toronto District School Board.
At that institute, Inwood says, “Teachers learn concepts of ‘ecosystems thinking’—the idea that every action we take as humans affects some other form of life on the planet. Then we demonstrate how this can play out in their classrooms.”
Rather than talking to Grade 1 students about climate change, teachers are encouraged to get them excited about picking up litter, or vermicomposting.
Teachers’ growing appetite for eco-education can be partially attributed to policy. In 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Education mandated that environmental education be delivered at every grade, in every subject—not just science.
“Theoretically, whether it’s a Grade 7 history class or Grade 3 science class, teachers should deliver some component of environmental and sustainability education,” Inwood says.
This might mean creating murals on biodiversity in art class, or writing stories about sustainability in English.
“But,” she notes, “teachers need help figuring out how to do this…I’d like to see more ministry support and more money behind this.”
On the environmental front generally, the Toronto District School Board has been something of a trailblazer. In 2003, they created EcoSchools, a multi-level certification program whose success inspired other Ontario boards to emulate it.
To qualify as a TDSB EcoSchool, a school has to create a “green team” and meet a host of criteria, from minimizing waste, to planting a food garden, to weaving environmental content into classroom subject matter.
The program is rigorous—schools must undergo regular audits—yet popular: the number of certified TDSB schools has grown from 13 at inception to 425 (out of 558 in the district), with nearly half qualifying at the program’s gold or platinum levels.
Richard Christie, the TDSB’s senior manager of sustainability, attributes this to the fact that EcoSchool satisfies a long unmet need.
“By the time kids get to high school, the cynicism and despair among so many teenagers is shocking,” he says. “They’re not strangers to all the troubles in the world, including environmental. Instead of being passive and helpless, EcoSchools lets them do things to make a difference in their school, their world.”
Christie adds that the beauty of the program is that it takes the onus off teachers, and individuals generally. It necessitates a collaborative, school-wide effort, including students, caretakers, and administrators.
“A big thing we’ve done here is remove institutional barriers and flip the culture, so that the keen teacher or keen parent who wants to do tree planting or recycling are no longer ‘pains in the neck.’ Now we celebrate them, and put supports in place for them.”
Christie acknowledges that for teachers to change the way they do things isn’t without challenges, and that ongoing investment in professional development is key.
Inwood, the OISE lecturer, puts it differently.
“Teaching is an occupation that requires being a life-long learner,” she says. “We need supports in place for them to be life-long learners when it comes to environmental education. The more that’s offered to teachers, the more they’ll jump on the bandwagon.”