Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ancient Forest

A couple Fridays ago I took my Language & Landscape group out on a bus to the Ancient Forest, a local hiking trail about 110 km east of Prince George. The paths lead through a unique ecosystem found almost nowhere else on earth -- an inland temperate rainforest. This particular patch is the most northern expression of this wetbelt ecosystem, part old-growth cedar forest but also part of the great boreal forest that stretches across most of Canada. Adding to the ecological story is the fact that the forest has "antique" qualities; very old trees with snags, openings, and diverse structure. Some of the enormous Western Redcedars (Thuja Plicata) are as old as 2000 years and may be one of the first to inhabit the region -- pollen samples from local lake bottoms reveal that Thuja only comes on the scene about 2500 years ago. There are also species of lichens in the canopy that are found in only a few locations in the world, none of which are even close to the northern interior of British Columbia. The Ancient Forest is a biodiversity capsule that holds stories from the time of Alexander the Great.

With a few students absent, it was a merry gang of 20 that climbed out of the bus into a dense fog that filled the entire valley of the Upper Fraser. I had a few questions in my head, learning intentions that I hoped could be fulfilled in the 2 or 3 hours we had in this place, but I also had enough experience to know that whatever happened would probably be fine, for there were 19 others that had their own ideas about fun and field trips. Here is what I wondered, and here is how it turned out:

1. What is the nature of this place? What themes or thoughts or actions make sense in this place?
  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge - the cedars are foundational to Aboriginal culture in BC (building material, ceremonial purposes etc.); the dominant understory shrub here is Devil's Club (Oplopanax horribilis), also an important plant for First Peoples, primarily  for powerful medicine as I understand it. There is a lot of potential for both the study and, with some respectful protocol, the practice of ethobotany.  We saw wild ginger on our walk (delicacy), but we also saw a highly poisonous hellabore.
  • Ecosystem Relationships - as mentioned above this place is unique and it is possible to see variety of biogeoclimatic processes at work.  For example, understanding soil moisture on this slope position anf within the local subclimate is key to understanding why these forests contain giant redcedars instead of the usual spruce, pine, and fir.  This forest offers many opportunities to examine the nurtrient cycle and the stages of forest renewal.  Beneath the rootwheels thrown up by trees blown over in winter storms there are natural soil pits that allowed us to see and touch the "till" (parent material) and clay loam (surface soil). We also happened across Dave King, a famous hiker and trail-maker in our region who was repairing a section of board walk.  He gave our group short talk and lent me his shovel and pulaski so I could did a little soil pit to show why these soils were part of the reason why the redcedars thrived. Digging through the first bit of humus was the opening to talk about biodiversity. Boreal and sub-boreal forests (like this rainforest) owe much of their vitality to biological action in the soil, whereas in tropical rainforests most of the action is in the canopy.
2. How much can or should I wrangle students; is it important for me to convey what I find valuable about this forest?
  • In the end, I think it is important to throw out some "teacher wisdom" when the scene is right, but there is only so much control that can be expected when you have teens running around in a forest. 
  • Maybe the key is to have a few places to stop with something specific in mind, rather than trying to create running commentary. This feels much more like being "present" which in the case of the Ancient Forest is not hard. Lots of "presence" in there to attend to.
3. What does nature/place-based learning look like? What can we learn about ourselves from this specific place?
  • For me this came down to senses. The sweet forest debris, the wash of scented needles born down on the mist, the noise of water (trickles here and there, a substantial waterfall at the top), the sounds of twigs breaking and students calling out and laughing. There was a warm and cool about the day, a chance to get dirt on one's hands and to feel something sharp in the form of a rock or branch stub. This simply does not happen in a classroom.
  • I tried to do two things to get students out of their urban armour. First, I led about half of them off the path into some blowdown and brush -- by led I mean I simply ran off towards a fallen tree and half of them followed me. Second, I egged almost all of them to climb up to the base of Treebeard Falls and play around in the rocks and water for a while. In the closed-in space (rock walls on three sides, clothed in moss and ferns, glittering stones about our feet), I asked them to close their eyes and listen for 30 seconds, just breath and listen. I have no idea what they got out of that but I sense it was a little magic moment. I felt that way, anyways.
  • Some students stuck in a big pack, others wandered around in 2s or 3s, and some were anxious to move on (e.g. pitstops to talk about lichens did not appeal) or did not want to catch up (having fund taking photos or looking at stuff). Learning in nature takes on intense differentiation -- I'm realizing that unusual settings can amplify the identity-rich markers that are often difficult to see when the kids are stuck in the melting pot of a high school. For example, it was easier to see who was a leader, who was a helper, who needed affirmation, who wanted to share stories, and who wanted to experience the perceived learning intentions on their own terms.  This concept was pointed out to me many times by an early mentor, Norm Booth -- we never really know what students learn. We assess student output using our up-to-date tools, and they sometimes tell us what they've learned, but the actual stuff that takes place in their brains is not easily defined; it is abstract and profound, perhaps even sacred.
4. What should I do next time, next semester when I take a group of Grade 12s out here?
  • I think a bit more pre-reading is in order, so that the forest denizens (the trees, the devil's club, the valley itself) have more a of backstory for the students.
  • I loved that we brought sandwich fixings and made our own lunch. Repeat that.
Thanks to my student DB for the pics... here's three more:

Saturday, October 12, 2013


For educators and others: this post is intended as a beginning, a draft for a Gr. 11 student project design. Your feedback is welcome, particularly about communicating these lofty ideas to students so they can understand it, managing steps in the project so they don't get lost, assessment suggestions, and weblinks to examples of similar projects appreciated. I'll also be seeking "critical friends" feedback at Mumbleypeg 2013, an annual meeting of the Pacific Slope Consortium. Virtually all of the students at my school have conducted Heritage Projects or Echo Projects of one flavour or another in Social Studies 9, 10, or 11. This means that they have spent considerable time gathering evidence and stories about past cultures and locations, mainly ones within their own family. For my current group taking Geography 12 and English 11 together in the Language and Landscape Program, I want to provoke them to examine the role that geography played in those stories, and to engage in writing and other creative expression to deconstruct these narratives. We will be assigning a significant number of our learning outcomes to this project, and working through it off and on for about two months.

Enough preamble; here it is:

GeoNarratives: Cross-curricular Project-based Learning about People and Places

Each of us has rich stories in our past, stories that woven together with places. For some, it is the tale of our ancestors as they endured challenges that we can only imagine. For others, the people, places and stories are more immediate, still present within our lives. In all cases there is direct and indirect evidence hiding in language, food, and song, and written into physical and cultural landscapes. 

This project will require building a “geography” and creating a “narrative” -- specifically:
  • heritage inquiry: taking the stories from your personal and cultural background and examining patterns, geographic relationships, and significance -- applying critical geographic thinking to an authentic context 
  • creative non-fiction: writing and creating narratives based on research -- perhaps there is some short cross-over into historical fiction and personal myth-making, but at its heart is the telling of a story that connects to your heritage 
  • embodiment: putting your senses, your artistic side, your physical presence into your research and presentation -- creative expressions of the parts of your research that you find most compelling 
 Aside from the critical thinking and creativity involved, some specific skills will be developed:
  • careful use of technology: placing a digital stamp on this project -- use of an online portfolio, use of technology for research and/or expression, experimenting with something new 
  • literature review and wordtake: surveying the reading and media that relates to your inquiry and using some of it to explore Self and Other, or global issues that impacted your own backstory
This is a broad framework created by your teacher, but it is important that you design the questions that will allow this to be meaningful to you. As your teacher, I can provide as much structure as you think you need to be successful with this project, including narrowing down your topics, suggesting courses of action, and helping you embed “benchmarks of geographic inquiry.” With all this in mind you are free to take this project in new directions, as long as we consider certain learning outcomes that are basic to English Language Arts and Geography, including a high standard for writing.

GeoNarratives at a glance -- considering the impact of geography on the stories from one’s past

The final presentation of your GeoNarrative will take in four parts:
  1. sharing the part of your portfolio that shows your heritage research, literature review, and critical analysis (the conclusions you have made about both the topic and your learning)
  2. sharing some or all of the creative non-fiction (or historical fiction) that you have built around your research 
  3. sharing a performative piece that you made to express or symbolize the deep part of your learning during this project 
  4. use of at least one effective of digital technology in the process of project creation or presentation 
Project Steps (not always in this sequence):
  1. look at and assess example of creative non-fiction, heritage inquiry, and “geographies” 
  2. develop questions and designs for your project 
  3. accumulate primary and secondary evidence and conduct a variety of research 
  4. co-develop aspects of your project and evaluation criteria with student groups and the teacher 
  5. create the pieces that make up your project 
  6. prepare the pieces for sharing, including presentation 
  7. share and present your project 
  8. reflection, celebration, and evaluation 
Examples of stories that would work well as GeoNarratives:
  • immigration experiences, so different depending on location and time period 
  • wartime from civilian or a soldier’s perspective 
  • grandma’s garden, grandpa’s workshop; practicing bygone skills and trades 
  • working on the land; pioneering and homesteading 
  • outdoor lifestyles, a tradition of hunting or fishing 
  • managing a farm and family, homemaking in the past 
Examples of global issues that could be examined within your project:
  • a study of racism/tolerance, language acquisition, or labour market among new immigrants 
  • evolving role and treatment of women in various places, cultures, and time periods 
  • aboriginal ways of knowing and relationship between First Nations and the broader society 
  • the power of wealth: studies of “class” and differences between rich and poor 
  • citizenship, rights and democracy: how much freedom or “agency” did historic groups really have 
  • the idea of sustainability and the relationship that different peoples have with the environment 
  • grief and hope: how did historic groups cope with challenges (could tie in to religious studies) 
Examples of evidence that would support a GeoNarrative:
  • non-fiction, documentaries, history books and websites, academic studies 
  • novels, short stories, works of fiction and poetry from the time period and place that you are examining 
  • artwork or crafts such as paintings, architecture, sketches, sculptures, carvings, jewelry, tools, heirlooms 
  • primary evidence, journals, memoirs, recollections, artifacts, photographs, recipes, travelogues, interviews 
  • genealogical websites, graveyards, government records, family history books 
  • existing “human geography” connected to your topics (studies that parallel your inquiry), historical atlases
Examples of a performative piece:
  • musical creation (e.g. write a song), interpretive dance, historical re-enactment, water colour painting, original poetry, food creation, a model or diorama, puppet show, simulation, class activity, video reflection, narrated slideshow, interactive display, build something
Examples of a digital stamp:
  • use of QR codes to link to key evidence, like a reader’s guide for someone to understand your work 
  • creating an attractive space in your digital portfolio to display some of your work (lots of applications to try for this one) 
  • using video or computer animation for part of your project 
  • conducting interviews via Skype and archiving part of it as portfolio evidence 
  • use of social media for “curating” (assessing and organizing) research or telling/sharing a story
Examples of a projects that put together many strands of inquiry:
Note on the image at the top: this is a map of the Molotchna colony -- home to Mennonites who left Prussia to settle in this part of South Russia from the 1780s onwards.  After WWI and the Russian Revolution, many of these Mennonites fled to North America, including all four of my grandparents. One of my own GeoNarratives is very much connected to this time, place, and people.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Professional Development has changed

Professional Development (PD) has changed in the last 15 years. For those of you who taught in the 80s and 90s, think back to a time before pervasive email, a comprehensive internet, and widespread social media. PD happened in trickles throughout the year and with singular emphasis on designated days — these were one of the few times when teachers “received” PD in the form of a workshop, presentation, or group conversation. They tended to be high-stakes in the sense that there were few other formal opportunities for teachers to orient themselves to the new ideas that circulated in the education world. My first few years of teaching was like this: hit-and-miss presenters, and random professional conversations around shared subject areas. The boundary between that and the outside world was pretty narrow and virtually unexplored. Other colleagues tell me this was a "golden age" --lots of organized PD (in the form of guest presenters) and he rest was quiet and unassuming. Now, for better or worse, we are saturated in educational ideas, competing paradigms, "must-read" professional articles, layers of jargon (each one "scaffolding" the next), intriguing links, and cures for what ails us in education — professional learning materials, ideas, and networks are available 24/7. In short, we are connected.

Much of the "ubiquitous PD" buzz has been facilitated by technology and the mobile devices that few of us are far from. For example, a brief foray into educational hashtags on Twitter reveals a river of PD that teachers can draw from sparingly or jump into with both feet. More than one teacher-tweeter has referred to twitter as a "firehose of PD." Thousands of BC educators contribute daily; it is hard not to be humbled by the sheer volume of earnest inquiry.

The buzz extends past social media. In many of our schools we have built in collaborative time or similar structures and release grants to continue the learning that used to take place in hallways between class. The last few years has also seen the rise of EdCamps, Open Space, and Unconferencing — all of which are recognition that teachers want to compare notes and challenge or support each other far more than they want to be passive recipients of expert conclusions, no matter how brilliant. These trends also speak to the power of informal learning. This is accompanied by a growing reluctance to spend our PD time alone — we get enough isolation from adults in our daily teaching, and social media leaves us craving something more embodied.

As we adjust to the ubiquitous nature of PD, it becomes more important that official PD days offer these opportunities to unpack or take stock of recent learning, to mull over and reflect on what this means for coming months, and to fuse or synthesize the ideas in the room into something useful or inspirational for ourselves and our students. For many, professional learning is a life-long habit, particularly for those who have made the digital PD leap and are rarely unconnected from other educators. Among the "connected" there is an awareness that formal PD time isn't about taking in new information or having PD “done to you.” Whether our handful of PD days each school year are spent as individual teacher inquiry or a co-creative process among colleagues, the customs are undergoing a significant shift and our administrative leaders, teacher leaders and associations need to change the way we frame, organize, and seek accountability for our PD time. Meetings of any kind — PD, staff, committee, boards — need to realize that assembling simply to hear information is no longer necessary (even offensive in some ways). Just as we're learning to shift our classrooms from content delivery to more dynamic, interactive practice, so to our meetings need to shift to acknowledge that solid communication is more than just passing on information; it requires conversation.

I have been very fortunate to have spent much of my PD time in the last few years with members of my personal learning network — they have challenged me to examine the ultimate implications of my actions on the social and intellectual development of my students, and we have kept each other accountable for high standards as educators. Most of this is done face-to-face, but we've left some space in our collective inquiry for social media — subtle, ongoing infusion of new ideas into our own conversations, all of us richer for the experience. We have come as close as we can to a common understanding that PD days are the teachers' assessment time for the professional learning that happens all year — a chance to unpack, to mull, and to fuse.

How do you spend your PD time?