Environmental Education

Making It Cool to Care

Two Schools That Are Getting There

by Bronwyn Chester

Integrating values associated with respecting the earth’s needs and limits into every course at all grade levels might seem a little daunting.

Yet linking education and the environment is not new. Teachers have developed a range of integrated and multidisciplinary programs that place environmental concerns front and centre in Ontario schools. This issue of Professionally Speaking introduces two ambitious examples.

Imagine a city school where graduating students canoe from the headwaters of the watershed that assures food, water and transportation for the community to the city itself, to celebrate the assimilation of all they have learned from the bioregion they call home.

Imagine a suburban school with its own wind- and solar-generated electricity, where students design and build the school’s recycling units for paper, metal and glass and realize their own renewable-energy inventions, and where no disposible eating implement can be found and where students and teachers accept a challenge to get to school without a car.

Such imaginings are already realities as teachers have led the way in recent years, integrating the values and vision of Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow, Ontario’s newly announced education and environment policy.

In Guelph, at Centennial Collegiate and Vocational Institute, the Headwaters Program and the Community Environmental Leadership Program (CELP) serve Grade 10 and 12 students from four area high schools, using an integrated curriculum framework and a multidisciplinary, experiential outdoor-education approach.

In Orléans, east of Ottawa, l’école secondaire publique Gisèle-Lalond offers a Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) in the environment, taking a career-oriented approach that explores the impact of human work and actions on local communities and the wider world.

Integrated learning

“Planting trees and picking up garbage is not enough,” says Michael Elrick, physical and outdoor education teacher at Centennial. “We need to look deeper, at our use of materials and energy – particularly liquid fossil fuels – and at our values as a society, which encourage buying things that are thrown away two years later.”

Elrick has 14 years experience integrating environmental education with such subjects as geography, civics careers and outdoor education. He has thought deeply about educating students on the deeper issues of environmental degradation and sustainability.

On a sunny Friday in late March, Elrick is keeping a close watch as maple sap slowly thickens in the boiler. “Once the bubbles hold their shape, we know the consistency is right,” he says through the maple vapour. Beside him, Grade 12 student Evan removes the ice from the top of the next bucket and prepares to filter the sap.

“I’ve learned that the frozen stuff is just water, not sap, so I can just toss it into the woods,” he says.

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Centennial CVI’s Edgewood Camp: Michael Elrick and a student make maple syrup.

Students prepare a locavore pancake lunch.

Students perform at the unplugged open-stage concert.

Beyond the open-sided shelter, out in the maple and white-cedar forest, other Grade 12 students on the Chores Team collect the sap buckets they installed two weeks earlier. They are assigned to physical labour – splitting logs, building fires, tending the buckets and syrup making. The Locovore Team – referring to those who eat locally grown food – is frying onions on the grill over the open fire, and a meal of crepes is in the works. Nearby, inside the Trillium Building, the Voices Team prepares its current-affairs commentary, which it will present during the morning break.

For Elrick, teaching about the environment is best combined with physical and emotionally resonant experiences, “whether celebrating the natural world during wilderness trips or exploring our communities by bicycle or learning where our water comes from and where our waste goes.”

Elrick developed the four-credit, semester-long programs to provide a context for what he calls “education on one’s dwelling place.”

For much of the Headwaters (Grade 12) and Community Environmental Leadership (Grade 10) programs, students and three teachers take a 20-minute bus ride each day from Guelph to a rented summer camp at Eden Mills. Credited subjects are delivered here. English, interdisciplinary studies and outdoor activities are covered in both programs. In addition, for Headwaters, there is a full-credit geography course in environment and resource management and, for CELP, two half-credit courses in careers and civics.

“Planting trees and picking up garbage is not enough.”

The program helps students uncover much of what is invisible and taken for granted: that water comes from the ground, meat comes from a living animal and sewage flows back into the river. Many learn for the first time that the natural gas that heats their homes comes mostly from Alberta.

“They marvel at this initially,” says Elrick. “ ‘All the way from Alberta?’ they ask.

“But with knowledge and emotional engagement, students can make informed decisions as they get older, and this will have an impact on our environment.”

After a canoe trip, students assess the energy demands and material used on the trip – gasoline, firewood, water and land to absorb wastes. They compare this to their daily lives in Guelph.

During another week, students investigate various aspects of Guelph’s life-support systems – water, food and governance – exploring the city by bicycle. Before heading out each morning, they undertake library and computer research with English teacher Janet Dalziel – formulating questions for the afternoon excursion.

They learn about local agriculture (organic and conventional), urban planning and city politics. One afternoon they explore Guelph’s water system, from source to tap and from toilet to treatment plant. Teacher Katie Gad says that one highlight is when the city worker lifts the lid on the culvert at Arkell Springs outside Guelph and they see the source from which the city draws it water.

They’ve passed this field every day on the bus ride to Eden Mills and have planted trees there – at the initiative of their bus driver Darryl Nichol, who wanted to offset the carbon the bus puts into the air.

High Skills

Such moments of discovery have also been significant to a Grade 12 environment and resource management course taught by Caroline Côté, in Orléans.

On the class’s walk along St-Joseph Boulevard, the once thriving main street of Orléans, “We came upon a creek none of us knew was there,” recalls Côté, a geography teacher at 1’école sécondaire publique Gisèle-Lalonde and a new resident of Orléans.

“We all knew this street by car, but had never noticed the bridge.

“When the kids saw the creek and the beautiful street lamps, they were in awe. ‘Even though the city has tried to revitalize the spot,’ they said, ‘no one even notices.’ ”

Côté also took the class on an excursion to Bank Street in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, where she lived prior to her move to Orléans.

“They were surprised to see Bank Street full of people, even during the day, and impressed by the number of cafés, the benches on the street and the density of the housing nearby,” says Côté.

The students examined various aspects of their own town’s four-lane thoroughfare – transportation, type of stores, green space, architecture and population density. They photographed and noted positives and negatives, then prepared several recommendations for reviving the street as a walkable commercial area and for creating a central farmers’ market for the sale of locally produced food.

They presented their recommendations, complete with a maquette, to city councillors and a school commissioner.

“It is important that the city hears this from young people,” says Côté. “It has more impact than hearing from the usual groups and active citizens.”

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ÉSP Gisèle Lalonde: building a solar car in technology and design class.

Members of the Club environnement plant seeds.

Grade 12 students make plans for the revival of St-Joseph Boulevard.

Many of the students in Côté’s class are enrolled in the Majeure haute spécialisée en environnement (SHSM) that she co-ordinates, which requires nine specialized credits that may include biology, chemistry, outdoor activities, law, tourism, and food and nutrition.

In the food and nutrition course, Lise Duford teaches the importance of locally grown vegetables and how to cook seasonally. “It’s not hard to find foods that require low energy input in terms of processing, packaging and transportation,” she says. “But you must know how to cook them.”

Turnip might not seem like a top-10 food for a teenager, but Duford’s students spice it up – dousing julienned turnip in beet marinade and serving it in pita sandwiches.

Duford also makes a point of making familiar meals, like spaghetti, using locally grown ingredients. The tomatoes are local ones that students blanched and froze during the fall semester, when they learned how to blanche, purée, freeze and dry the harvest from the school garden – squash, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and herbs.

Students do the energy count on each food item and soon learn that the more processed and packaged the food, the bigger the carbon footprint. They also learn that meat requires a lot of energy, and so one in every two meals cooked is vegetarian.

“What pleases me is that not only are students learning about the environmental impact of their food choices, they are also learning the skills that allow them to both reduce that impact and to eat well and more economically,” says Duford, noting that recipes posted on the school web site mean that parents can also benefit from what their children are learning.

“There’s lots of opportunity for improving things ecologically.”

Serge Poirier, a technology and design teacher, sees similar environmental and education payoffs. “When students know how to make their own bookshelves, they are consuming less and gaining pride at the same time.”

Poirier is a strong advocate of the school’s environmental ethic.

“In the construction industry, there’s lots of waste of materials and energy,” he says. “So there’s lots of opportunity for improving things ecologically.”

The elegant wood recycling units found on every floor of the school were built by students under the guidance of Poirier and design teacher Patrick Villard.

In the construction workshop, Poirier says, “Nothing is put in the garbage. The shavings end up as kitty litter, small scraps go into wood stoves, and bigger scraps are used for small shelves or decorative items.”

The construction workshop itself is put to full use – it is open during lunch and even on Saturdays for students who want to undertake projects.

Poirier encourages students to research their designs, materials and, if necessary, government permits. One Grade 12 student, Robert, is building his own wind turbine from recycled bicycle parts.

“He found the design on the Internet,” says Poirier.

Robert, who is president of the Club environnement that Côté started seven years ago in her first year at the school, is also working with teachers Poirier and Duford on an irrigation system for the school garden.

It’s all part of learning to live responsibly within one’s community.

Community support is a two-way street at école Gisèle-Lalonde. Mary Lou Maisonneuve, a parent and co-ordinator of Projet Karyne, is a prime example of the support for the school’s ecological programs. Maisonneuve, along with her husband and three children, established a fund to promote renewable-energy projects in memory of Karyne, the youngest member of the family, who died three years ago of cancer. The project funded a wind turbine and solar panels.

The Maisonneuves and an ad hoc collection of students and teachers are now planning a greenhouse, complete with an on-site classroom, as the next undertaking.

“Teenagers need to feel that they belong at their school, while having an eye toward the future,” says Maisonneuve.

Opening options, building community

An environmental ethic and community involvement are strong at l’école Gisèle-Lalonde, but Côté admits that she still has to put effort into recruiting for the High Skills program, now in its third year.

Some students, it seems, have an image of environmental activists as granola types – and don’t see it as practical.

“They’re not aware that engineers, farmers and teachers can also be working for the environment,” says Côté, who spends time every year doing presentations on career options that students can investigate through the program, which includes co-op placements of 220 volunteer hours in a related field.

Robert, she points out, is doing his placement with the Sierra Club, teaching elementary school children how to make solar boats. Next year, he will study energy systems engineering technology at St. Lawrence College.

Back at Eden Mills, the CELP students are preparing the outdoor stage for the “unplugged” concert to take place during lunch – an advance gesture for Earth Hour, when people all over the world will turn off their lights for one hour.

After lunch, as some students collect sticky plates and others sing and play guitars, Katie Gad, a CELP teacher for the past four years, savours the scene:

“This is the beauty of this program. Here we have taken a group of teenagers, most of whom didn’t know each other at the beginning of term, and they have created a community where it’s cool to care – for each other and the environment.”

Integrated curriculum programs

Integrated curriculum programs (ICPs) grew markedly in the mid-1990s as a means of incorporating the environment into curriculum in an experiential way, usually off campus and out of doors. Off-campus components of these initiatives can mean extra-budgetary demands, and the programs must cover these expenses through fundraising and/or fees. Where fees are involved, provisions must be made for families who cannot afford them.

Currently, there are about 30 such programs in Ontario. Most focus on environmental sciences. Many, like the Community Environmental Leadership and the Headwaters programs, incorporate social sciences and literature. Others, like the DaVinci Arts and Science Environmental Leadership Program for Grade 11 (based at John F. Ross CVI in Guelph), may incorporate arts, science and fine arts. Many ICPs have a community service and leadership element, such as Earthkeepers for elementary school children (see Resources and Links, page 45).

While there is no single up-to-date listing of all ICPs in Ontario, information and publications are available through the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario web site at www.coeo.org/integrat_progm.htm.

Specialist High Skills Majors

SHSMs are available in the environment or environmental science, with either an arts and social science or a pure science approach. Students may be planning to enter the job market directly or to continue with postsecondary education. At école secondaire publique Gisèle-Lalonde, for instance, students’ interests include agriculture and engineering as well as fashion design using recycled materials.

Aside from nine credits in major subjects – like geography, biology, technology, food and nutrition – that are approached from an environmental perspective, learning activities and content for math, English and French also centre on the environment.

Students enrolled in SHSMs may also earn co-op credits in workplace settings and may qualify for any of seven sector-recognized certifications. They spend a day in the workplace of their choice, observing and interviewing a professional or tradesperson. This year students from école Gisèle-Lalonde spent a day with a University of Ottawa graduate student who was studying changes in the sexual characteristics of frogs in waters near the city’s outtake pipes.

The Ministry encourages SHSMs in a variety of disciplines and provides support for setting them up. Information is available at www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/studentsuccess/pathways/shsm/environment.pdf.

Les EcoAmbassadeurs

Resources for environmental education, written in French, can sometimes be hard to find.

When Yves Francis Danteu arrived in Toronto in 2005 from Switzerland, he worked as a volunteer in environmental education but could see there was a need for resource materials. With funding from the Trillium Foundation, Danteu established the non-profit organization Les EcoAmbassadeurs du monde. Since last summer, he has been training volunteers – secondary students and adults – to inspire elementary school students while teaching the basics of ecology and energy conservation in Toronto’s French-language system.

One day this spring, Aleksa, Justine and Clark from the Collège français spent several hours at the after-school daycare of école elémentaire Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They played theatrical games like Histoire de Magalie with children from Grades 3 to 5. The teenagers acted out Magalie’s day and had the children identify which of Magalie’s actions were respectful of the environment and which were not.

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Students from Collège français play games like Histoire de Magalie with students from école primaire Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

A young student at an after-school daycare plays the part of a flower in Le juge.

The teens then donned costumes and prepared to be judged or to testify in Le juge. In this game, a car driver is on trial and witnesses include a cyclist, a flower and an insect. The younger children are asked to consider: Did the driver cause harm?

“The children definitely thought so and they also laughed a lot,” said Aleksa, “especially during  the drama exercises.”

Aleksa committed to 20 hours of training and 20 hours of community work through Les EcoAmbassadeurs because she wants to learn more about the environment and get some teaching experience. “I’m considering becoming a science teacher,” she said.

Justine and Clark are members of their school’s Club environnement and are committed to action on the environment and education.

“I just think the environment is so full of problems, and it’s up to us – we’re young. Otherwise, what will things be like when we’re old?” said Justine.

For more information, visit www.ecoambassadeurs.org.

Resources and links

Perhaps the only web site one needs on environmental education as it links to 5,800 others organized in 300 categories, including sections designed for teachers as well as for students. It is sponsored by the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Green Teacher is a quarterly magazine that helps educators enhance environmental education.

Environmental Education Ontario promotes environmental literacy and a sustainable environment.

Learn how to become an EcoSchool and help students develop ecological literacy.

Now run by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Green Street was established by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation to encourage the development of environmental education programs. The site is organized by subject area, inviting queries to direct you to appropriate organizations.

Green Street also offers grants of $250 for school based projects. And a free activity kit is available for Engaging in Our Communities as Global Citizens, a program developed by the Centrale des syndicats du Québec and based on the four elements of the Brundtland Green Schools program – environment, democracy, peace, solidarity – as advocated at the Rio Summit, 1992.

Evergreen offers funding for schoolyard greening and garden projects. The site provides examples of innovative school projects as well as educational and funding resources.

Curriculum resources for ecological literacy, waste minimalization, energy conservation and schoolyard greening. The program also offers Ontario EcoSchools certification.

Earth Education oversees Earthkeepers, an international program for Grade 4 to 6 students to learn the four keys to understanding the earth’s ecology – energy flow, cycles, interrelationships and change – while spending three days in a natural setting.

LSF was founded in 1991 to integrate education for sustainable development in the curriculum of all grade levels in Canadian schools. Its web site offers a wide variety of discussion papers on the how and why of education for a sustainable future, as well as a critical review of the resources.

A three-month project of the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure for 16- to 18-year-olds interested in understanding and critically evaluating their town or city. Young adults meet with municipal officials to understand how urban development decisions are made and are encouraged to propose solutions for more sustainable cities.

The Earth Charter initiative is a diverse, global network promoting a just, sustainable and peaceful global society.

This British site features innovative approaches schools and other organizations have taken to promote a sustainable way of living, while ensuring the preservation of the environment.

The UN Environment Program focuses on climate change, resource efficiency, harmful substances, environmental governance and ecosystem management, as well as disasters and conflicts.

Plus sites devoted to climate change, including:





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