Embracing Community, Equity, and Experience in the Time of Covid — And Beyond

As we enter our eighth week of class suspension in Manitoba, educators, learners, and families are working extremely hard to fill the democratic, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and nutritional voids that education and schools tend to fill. 

We all know that the Covid19 has made wholey visible the inequities in our society — leaving those with less struggling further. We also are highly aware that if we are not careful as educators, we can often end up overwhelming learners and families, even with the best intentions. 

So how do we approach the project of educating learners in a way that attempts to sustain community, addresses the inequitable distribution of resources and justice, and offers all learners the deep and educative experiences they deserve?

In these strange and disconcerting times, many of us have turned to history and literature, or the humanities, as a means for sense and meaning making. I have observed and been delighted that many learners and educators have turned to the 1918 pandemic as an avenue to think historically about Covid. Thinking historically allows us an opportunity to analyze the human experience, reflect on this collective experience, and develop the imagination and empathy required to navigate present-day complexities. Looking to history also brings us reassurance, that yes, pandemics do end. 

It has also been fascinating to see peers and colleagues turn to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a means to help us navigate the uncertainty of these times. Camus speaks about the dangers of a benal life when one gives up asking the big and meaty philosophical questions. — when we don’t think deeply about the human experience or when we try to explain it through systematic responses. The pandemic is arguably a time when many of us are coming to terms with existential questions and agnst. So are our learners.

I believe that we owe our learners the opportunity to fully think about their experience during this time — supporting pursuits that have meaning and that enable them to make meaning. I have noticed the incredible work by educators in our province who have skillfully designed deep experiences for their learners — keeping in mind the experience of the child while developing the necessary provocations and invitations for inquiry and growth. And I wonder how we sustain this energy when we come back as communities?

Philosopher John Dewey argues that creating mis-educative experiences or simply offering disconnected activities for our learners stunts transformation and democracy, and produces what he refers to as bad habits. Dewey’s theorizing of how we learn is fully centered on community, that is the social, and an experience that “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently  intense to carry a person over dead places in the future….” 

Throughout this time, I have observed a few phenomena that might help us come out of this pandemic event stronger; enabling us to support learners and families with consistency and vigour, while also providing our learners with the knowledge, skills, and ways of being necessary to contemplate the good life.

First, I have witnessed the shrieks of delight when learners are connected with their teachers and friends on phones and screens. I am astounded at the snapping back of the head when a child erupts in laughter and joy when in community. Our learners need us, and they need each other. There is no denying this and no replication. I am brought to tears when I see educators on the sidewalk waving to their kids at the window, watching with glee as this loving adult writes loving messages on the worn cement. 

During and following Covid, nurturing and growing democratic communities need to be at the core of our design. 

Second, I am struck by the anxious desire of educators in Manitoba who struggle with the desire to build foundational skills, steer clear of busy work, offer deep experiences for learners, and provide meaningful feedback to families. The litany of spinning plates is overwhelming when not all families and learners have the means to connect online or have the resources to what we might refer to as “engage.” 

I have witnessed educators who have invited learners to make sense of their experience in this time. Middle Years educators who connect with their learners through developing zines, Kindergarten teachers who invite their learners to talk about how their favourite stuffy makes them feel, and Senior Years educators who tackle a New York Times op ed in community as a means to make sense of ideas such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, and social isolation. In these examples, educators know the experience of the learners, design with this experience and mind, and provide the supports and invitations for learners to reflect on their experience and grow.

During and following Covid, deep and intentional design needs to be at the core of our work.

Last, I am astounded at how quickly and nimbly schools and communities have supported our families in most need. Through hampers, school supplies, laptops, wifi, and respite work, and so much more, our schools have reached out and supported our learners and families. There was no discussion. Folks just got to work that needed to get done.

During and following Covid, equity needs to be at the core of our design and work.

As we live through this experience, there is an opportunity to consolidate our collective energy in Manitoba when it comes to schools and education. Let’s continue to and strive further to build democratic communities that are fully focused on equity and the pursuit of deep questions about the human experience. To do so, is to provide all our learners with the space, knowledge, and skills required to support their growth and transformation. Keeping these at our core will, as Deborah Meier argues, “nurture the two indisepnsable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, as well as a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.”  

 

Projects! Projects! Projects!

Over the winter break, I spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and hanging out with my kids doing projects. I also spent a great deal of time speaking with people throughout the world as to what they think a project is. What is a project?

Based on this line of inquiry, I started to comb various media outlets to get a sense of what people were doing in the world in terms of projects that might inspire Maples Met School learners. There is a huge difference between a project and an activity or hobby. Projects come from a place of questioning, of curiosity, and of purpose.

While we all know that great projects begin with a powerful essential question that questions our role within the universe, here are links to potential final products, resources, platforms, and other supports for our inquiry:

Preserving the History of a City

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Why is it important to preserve the history of a city? 

 

Create a Student-run Newspaper

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Newspapers are critical to any democracy, as they hold governments to account. Why not connect with other writers, artists, and thinkers to create your own press!

Create Your own Solar Panel

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Create a Bike Generator!

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Images of Winnipeg

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The Winnipeg Free Press recently published a photo essay of aerial views of the Winnipeg. What parts of the city are missing? Why? What would you include? How could you use GIS to create maps of areas of Winnipeg that are ignored? What are important areas for youth?

 

50 Book Pledge

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The 50 Book Pledge is an amazing way to motivate yourself and also share your research with people throughout the world. No matter what essential question you’re attacking, this is a greta way of creating a digital library.

 

Radical History Poster Project

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The Graphic History Collective has launched a project called the Radical History Poster Project. This is a fantastic way for learners to use their artistic talents to think historically (The Big 6!) about Canada, Treaty 1, and what it means to live in Red River.

 

Manitoba Robot Games 2018

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Take a crack at the Manitoba Robot Games!

 

Northern Hydroponic Project

 

Can Flying Machines Help Save Lives?

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Create Work Benches for your School’s Fabrication Lab

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Hint: We need these at the Met for great projects!

 

Lego Crane (Why not?)

 

Create an interactive Periodic Table!

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CBC Nonfiction Prize

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What a perfect final product for a project! (And you could take home some loot!)

 

Mennonite Central Committee Hygiene Kits

 

Design a New Arlington Bridge

Banning Plastic Bags

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There is some recent support for banning plastic bags in Winnipeg. This might be a really cool, authentic, and impactful project to investigate!

 

Imagine Portage & Main

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What should Portage and Main look like? Design it!

 

Create Your Own Zine!

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Go underground and create a zine that reflects your manifesto!

 

Make your own Wind Turbine!

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Aquaponics System

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Lots of essential questions and tangents with this project!

Assessing Ecological Literacy: Dispelling the Hunch

June is often a stressful time at public schools throughout the world. Educators can be seen scrambling to finish their assessment of student growth, development, and transformation following ten months of intense and rigorous study. Coupled with this, learners are often placed in highly stressful situations whereby they are asked to empty their brains onto a piece of foolscap paper, sitting in cold gymnasiums.

More often now, learners are madly trying to finish up project work, hurriedly putting the final touches on public exhibitions, and/or wrapping up their intense internship experiences.

However a particular school is designed, June can be intense and chaotic. And all of this frantic activity has one goal in mind: to summatively assess the growth and development of learners in a meaningful and authentic way.

What is often not assessed, however, is the one skill that may be most important skill of our time — the ecological literacy of our learners.

While we place heavy emphasis on numeracy, language literacy, we seem unable to assess one’s ecological literacy — that is one’s ability to see the Earth as the very thing which sustains life combined with one’s desire and ability to take meaningful action. (See attached infographic.)

Matt Henderson

Assessing for an ecological literacy is a perplexingly difficult endeavour, and it’s one that I have struggled with for my entire career. But it is also an opportunity as a community of educators to think deeply about the skills and attitudes required to compete against  those who are hell-bent on destroying the planet.

Given our our seemingly insurmountable task of overcoming these destructive forces and to some degree a general societal malaise, how do we teach and assess for an ecological literacy? What are these skills and values we are attempting to impart, and when do we know when someone has indeed become ecologically literate?

For educators, whether teachers, parents, older siblings, homeschoolers, etc., these are exciting times!

David Orr, the American academic who coined the term Ecological Literacy, suggests that someone who is indeed ecologically literate needs to have an understanding of basic concepts such as the laws of thermodynamics, energetics, carrying capacities, environmental ethics, etc.

At a content level, we are able to assess whether someone has developed at least some sense of an ecological literacy. For instance, we can determine to what extent a student is aware that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed. This has huge implications, as those who are aware of the first law of thermodynamics understand why burning fossil fuels has its limit and they begin to understand the notion of externalities. We can assess as to one’s understanding of carrying capacity and systems thinking. We can assess as to whether one can determine what is right and wrong when making decisions about our environment.

The change in behaviour comes with creating educative experiences which cause disequilibrium within the learner. The more learners are able to question their role within the universe, the greater questions can be elicited about human existence on this planet. This is a different type of assessment – one which involves a dialectic and democratic conversation between educator and learner and one that is authentic. We don’t have to look into a crystal ball to see if a learner has been impacted by a deep educative experience and a meaningful relationship within a learning community if the design is sound.

A few years ago, my friends Pauline Gerrard and Dean McLeod and I had the idea of creating an educative experience for young people at the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area. This intense whole ecosystem field course for High School students has most certainly impacted the learners who have engaged with the ecosystem, the world-class scientists, and the quiet conversations around campfires or in the middle of a lake.

But the experiences don’t have to be as intense, so long as we are equipping learners with the tools they will need in order ask deep and powerful existential questions and as long as the experiences are designed with purpose. This type of learning arguably occurs outside of the confines of a traditional classroom and leads to curiosity, inquiry, and praxis.

To assess this questioning and praxis, we then need to create learning environments which allow for a horizontal conversation about our role on this rock hurtling through space. This is the heart of assessment and a pathway towards an ecological literacy and a better future for all species and systems.

Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy

Over the paMatt Hendersonst few years, I have been in the process of creating a Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy to help guide my design process. I have borrowed from the Centre for Ecoliteracy, Dewey, and Freire to help me reflect on how I design educative experiences for learners. Please feel free to share, modify, or disregard altogether.

As educators, how do we equip our learners with the skills, abilities, and literacy necessary to close these two gaps? My inquiry has led me to two hypotheses. First, learners need to be immersed in educative experiences which reveal how they are interconnected and interrelated with all systems on Earth. Second, These experiences need to lead towards learner-driven action, transformation, and a new ecological literacy. 

By ecological literacy, I offer this definition: To understand one’s connectedness to all systems, to appreciate the finite carrying capacity of the Earth, to predict consequences of human activity, and to ultimately create sustainable communities through action. Literacy refers to the skills and abilities to create new knowledge and ecological literacy relies on not only knowledge of the natural world, but also the drive to take meaningful and informed action — namely the notion of praxis.

Given the need to foster this ecological literacy in order to close the knowledge and the knowledge-action gaps, I set out on a journey to try and design experiences which might lead to this goal. With my hypothesis in mind about closing these gaps, I needed to seek out other people, schools, and programmes which had already traveled down this path. Some of the schools I visited, some people I have connected with on Twitter, and others I have simply known about through the literature. Some of the schools are public, some are independent, and some are charter schools. But all have a commitment to learning and fostering this sense of ecological literacy through the design of educative experiences. Here is a sampling of some of the schools I explored:

The Met

Eagle Rock

Soundings

Forest Schools

Hobsonville Point

Riverpoint Academy

High Tech High

Northwest Passage School

Punahou School

 

Ecological Literacy: Reflections

In January, our Global Issues class looked heavily at the concept of ecological literacy. Here are some refections from our collective and individual experiences. These reflections consisted of “mini” PechaKucha presentations, whereby learners created 10 slides which moved every 20 seconds (10×20) in order to present their arguments.

Ecological Literacy from nic calen on Vimeo.

Eco Lit from Riley Chard on Vimeo.

MIni PechaKucha from Adeyemi Fatoye on Vimeo.

Ecological Literacy R from Riley Chard on Vimeo.

Eco Lit (C) from Riley Chard on Vimeo.