Diving into Water Education Through Muralling

 

 I’m always looking for ways to extend my students’ learning about eco-art education, so in addition to collaboratively creating art installations, we also take this work into schools.  I’ve shared some of these experiences previously, but wanted to write about the most recent one focused on water education at Ryerson Community School.  The teacher-researcher at this TDSB elementary school, Adrienne Rigler, has been immersed in water education over the past 5 years at different grade levels, often having her students share their learning about water with other classes.  We framed this mural project as an arts-based component of the gr. 8s cross-curricular study about water.  They learned about their local watershed, and explored the neighbourhood to ascertain its features, finding evidence of the local (and buried) Russell Creek.   They photographed, analyzed, and sketched these watershed features, working collaboratively with myself, teacher, and teacher candidates to create a composition for the mural.  We used a taping technique to delineate the main images, which proved to be a great way for the whole class (many of whom were hesitant to paint) to engage in the painting process. They saw the realities of their urban watershed on the right (over built, polluted water flowing into the sewers) and their dream for a healthier watershed on the left (lots of plants, animals, even a pond in their schoolyard). The result is above – what a beautiful way to share what they learned!

New Eco-Art Installation in Bloom

It must be spring as a new eco-art installation is blooming at OISE!  This year our art team wanted to raise awareness about the importance of native plant species – their central role in pollination, and their importance in providing healthy habitats for all living things. This was one of the ways we are trying to bring engagement with our Community Learning Garden inside the building to inspire year-round teaching and learning in relation to the power of gardens.  Our Learning Garden is composed of six small gardens that focus on themes important to our institution, from equity and inclusion, to Indigenous Ed, to Environmental learning – it is unique in its attempt to manifest educational theory in plantings.

  Inspired by a great summer of growing in 2017, we asked graduate students to create large scale stencils of the leaves and flowers of the 30+ native plants in this garden as a way to learn more about them. Making each stencil required careful observation and study of a specific plant – for many of these budding artists this will be the start of a special relationship with that species.  Then a small and dedicated team of students spent two days using the stencils to create a large mural about the garden, developing their artistic skills along the way, and learning how to minimize the environmental footprint of mural painting.  By the number of hours they spent, they were fully immersed in the creative process and the camaraderie of working together towards a common artistic goal. The text, in English, French and Anishinaabemowin, was suggested by the collaborating artists to honour their languages, and reflect the deeper meaning that the garden holds for them.  Here’s a photo of the completed mural.

Eco-ARTS Education is on the Rise

I’m really pleased to see that environmental ideas are infiltrating across the arts these days.  When I first started to research into eco-art education, I was hard-pressed to find examples of drama, dance or music educators taking up the challenge of integrating environmental literacy into the work they did.  I’m sure it likely was happening in some pockets, like in visual arts education, but it wasn’t being documented or researched perhaps at the same level.  This wasn’t due simply to a lack of professional exemplars; here in Canada we’ve had many professional musicians, like R. Murray Schafer, Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer using their music to connect to nature-based learning and environmental advocacy.

This is spreading, as artists from all of the arts disciplines are more frequently contributing their unique skills to raising awareness about environmental issues in plays, dance performances, and music videos.  Here in Toronto we have the Broadleaf Theatre company that specializes in plays with environmental themes; their recent show The Chemical Valley Project tracks the deep challenges of environmental racism and colonialism in relation to Canada’s petrochemical industry.  And now there’s lots of evidence that arts educators around the world are taking up the challenge of doing this work at all levels of education.  I was happy to work with colleagues in the US and Australia on a chapter in a terrific book called Urban Environmental Education Review last year on this topic.  And I was honoured this week to address a group of educators on this topic at the NORDPLUS Horizontal Green Actions conference in Finland; they had come together from Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Latvia to discuss, debate, and share promising practices in this area (thanks to David Yoken for the invitation!)  Maybe we have reached a tipping point in the arts – imagine what could happen if we all applied our creativity and innovation to the greatest environmental challenges of our times?

Inspired by Burning Ice

What a busy fall!  Not as much time to blog as I would have liked following my trip to the Arctic this summer, but the trip has given me lots to think about in relation to climate change and the role that artists can play in addressing it.  This was furthered by listening to a talk by Nigel Roulet in October – he is an eminent Canadian environmental scientist from McGill university who shared his belief in the power of the arts to communicate environmental ideas in moving ways, something that science hasn’t typically done well in the past.  

Perhaps the best way to magnify the communications about climate change is to take a multi-faceted approach.  The Cape Farewell project is one of the best examples of this so far; by bringing environmental scientists together with artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers, aiming to create innovative ways to reach a wider audience about the impacts of climate change.  Their interdisciplinary book, called Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change, serves as travelogue, atlas, art catalogue, and scientific documentation all in one.  Other groups have experimented with this model, including Greenpeace and 350.org, bringing scientific knowledge together with the affective and intuitive ways of knowing from the arts to create memorable and moving messaging about climate change.  The Canada C3 expedition I was on last summer is aiming to do the same.  They have a number of legacy projects on the go to share our collective experiences about climate change, reconciliation, and inclusion in the North; I’ll share these as they come available.

Reflecting on the Adventure of a Lifetime

August 25-26, 2017

Our last full day on Leg 9 of the Canada C3 expedition arrived far too quickly.  In the morning briefing we shared highlights from our two days in Gjoa Haven, and discussed what our last 24 hours on the Polar Prince would entail.  A group of us spent the morning finalizing the group artwork for the hangar; we created two images connected by text (in French, English and Inuktitut) that symbolized the collaborative adventure we had been on together, moving from traditional conceptions of the North for many, to something more personal, evocative and transformative.

We felt lucky to have one final afternoon to learn on the land at Jenny-Lind Island, home to snow geese, owls, lemmings, squirrels, and muskox.  While we only saw the first and the last of this list of animals, there was lots of evidence of all in the form of feathers, bones, holes, and hoofprints strewn across the sand, rocks, peat bogs, and water of this immense, flat island.  Many on the trip used the long hike as a time of reflection, reviewing our experiences, conversations, and rich learning of the previous twelve days.  This continued as we headed back in light rain to the ship, where a final celebratory dinner awaited us, prepared by Chef Matt.  Accompanied by impressive videos of the trip from the Communications Team, poetry readings, and guitar music later in the hangar, we began the process of trying to understand what Leg 9 has meant to each of us.

This continued through our long journey home the next day, talking in pairs and small groups as we travelled from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife, and then onto Edmonton, and for me, finally arriving in Toronto in the wee hours.  A range of emotions hit me as I travelled from the North to home – sadness that this remarkable adventure was over; happiness in seeing my family; but mostly gratitude for the incredible gift of going on this expedition at this moment in my life.  While the immediate challenge of travelling to new places and learning from such interesting people is over, now comes the hardest part of the journey; how I will I share what I have learned with others?  How has this voyage changed me as a person, as an educator, as a mother, wife, sister and daughter?  How will the process of making meaning help me to contribute to Canada’s growth as a nation in her next 150 years?  These are the questions that I’ll continue to work towards answering in the days and months to come.

             

Northern Hospitality

August 24, 2017

A second day in Gjoa Haven proved to be a gift as we got a glimpse into the generous hospitality of the people in this community, as well as some of its challenges.  After a presentation by the Parks Canada staff about the protection of the local sites of the wrecks of the Erasmus and the Terror (Franklin’s ships), we wandered the town to see what we could find.  Many people warmly greeted us and stopped to chat; they were interested in the C3 ship and our journey. I made a point of visiting the local Co-op and Northern stores, both fixtures in many Arctic towns; I had heard about the shocking prices of food in the North, and wanted to see for myself.  A few prices that would make feeding a family a challenge: &11.99 for 4L of milk, a large box of Cornflakes for $9.99, and $16.49 for 12 rolls of toilet paper!  Surprisingly the produce wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, but I learned that it was subsidized to help get families on a healthier diet.  This strategy isn’t working well however; despite alarming rates of diabetes in the North, the Inuit don’t eat a lot of vegetables as their traditional diet is rich in meat and fish. Health and wellness is a huge concern in isolated communities, and this one example demonstrates that there aren’t any easy answers in solving these complex challenges as they are connected to the social/cultural traditions and economic realities of the Inuit.

Later in the day we went back ashore for a special event put on by the community just for us.  The community centre was packed with families, with children of all ages playing and enjoying each other’s company.  We were treated to a meal of ‘country food’, which means traditional Inuit delicacies such as caribou stew, seal, dried caribou, and air-dried char. There were many speeches (simultaneously translated into English and Inuktituk), throat-singing, drum-dancing, and presentations on Amundsen.  The highlight was a group of children performing a square dance, a favourite past-time in many Inuit communities; as they got a number of our group up dancing for the crowd, this proved highly entertaining as the children were far superior dancers. This was a heart-warming event, where we were introduced to the warm hospitality and focus on family in Gjoa Haven.  What a wonderful end to our time in this community!


Warm Welcome in Gjoa Haven

August 23, 2017

Having arrived in Gjoa Haven the night before, we transferred to shore and were greeted by youth from the community – grade 11 students Barbara and Alvin proved to be warm and knowledgeable guides over the next two days.  They gave us a guided tour of the town, encouraging us to stop to photograph the muskox hide drying in front of one house, and introducing us to Wayne Puqiqnak, a local sculptor, at another.  A small group of us ended up at the local highschool, where both elementary and secondary students had gathered to learn more about the C3 journey.  I was fortunate to work with a grade 6 class after this, using the C3 giant floor map of Canada (made in collaboration with the Canadian Geographical Society and the Canadian Museum of Nature) as the basis for our discussion.  It was a hoot to crawl from coast to coast to coast as the children found places they had travelled to in the past, or dreamed of going to in the future.  The children and their teacher were lovely – curious, kind, and enthusiastic – and a highlight of my trip to Gjoa Haven.

After a short visit to Gjoa Haven’s beautiful new hamlet offices, we visited the Heritage Centre, which has a great exhibit on the history of the area, and a wonderful gallery where many in our group bought the work of local artists.  We joined the Canadian Rangers for a long hike out to Swan Lake, and were delighted to see our Captain out for a run (he did 17km around the lake and back – what a way to stay in shape at sea!)  On the way back to town we visited the monument to Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first European to make it through the Northwest Passage.  Gjoa Haven is named after his ship, which spent two winters in the beautiful harbour in which our ship was now anchored.  Moments like this resonated with me as the history of these places came alive, juxtaposed by the contemporary realities of the community.  The residents of Gjoa are rightfully proud of their connection to Amundsen’s travels, as their ancestors were the ones to teach him how to survive and travel in the North. There is an important learning that can be connected to reconciliation here – all cultures have expertise and ways of knowing that can help us accomplish our hopes and goals in life, if only we are open to learning from them.

 

 

From Reconciliation to ReconciliACTION

August 22, 2017

By Tuesday of the Leg 9 C3 journey, we had gotten used to the disconcertingly loud boom-crunch as the ice hit the bow of the Polar Prince, and the sway of the ship that accompanied it, and then just like that, the ice was gone.  As we sailed down the west side of the Boothia Peninsula to King William Island, we found ourselves in calm water devoid of ice, and few views to see. So we shifted into on-board programming mode to continue our learning into the C3 themes.  Charlene Bearhead presented her work as the Education Coordinator for the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls – I can’t imagine a tougher assignment as an educator. She spoke eloquently of the many themes that have been featured in the education guide, entitled Their Voices Will Guide Us, which has been created with the spirit of these women in mind.  Over 107 reports and inquiries have been conducted on missing and murdered Indigenous women, with over 1000 recommendations, and to date few have been implemented.  Charlene spoke movingly about women she has known who have been murdered or gone missing, and described how in some cases, little has been done to investigate their disappearance. The educational materials, due out in early September, will help all of us better understand this national tragedy, and help us move from reconciliation to reconciliACTION – taking concrete actions towards reconciliation with indigenous people in our families, schools and communities.

The second highlight of the day was doing a Facebook Live session with our three youth ambassadors to highlight their special contributions to the journey.  With a beautiful sun set in the harbor of Gjoa Haven behind us, these young women told us more about themselves, and what they were learning on Leg 9.  It did give me pause to consider how many Indigenous girls and young women might still be with us to make their own important contributions if only our nation had taken action on the recommendations of these previous reports and inquiries generations earlier.  Working towards implementing the recommendations of the National Inquiry, when they are ready, will be critical work that all Canadians need to take on.

Magic in the Northwest Passage

August 21, 2017

 It was an early start to the day today; up at 6am as we were anxious not to miss our passage through the Bellot Strait.  As has been the norm, we woke up to full sun; for most of the journey so far, the sun has gotten low on the horizon at night, but hasn’t fully set, so even in the wee hours there has been daylight of varying intensity outside.  We gathered on the bow in the sunshine, waiting to see how the currents and the slack water would guide (or impede) our journey.  At only about 800 m. wide, the Strait forms a critical connection to the waters of Prince Regent Sound, and saves us going north around Somerset Island, which is still full of sea ice.  We formed an impromptu choir to sing Stan Roger’s epic song Northwest Passage on a Facebook Live Session as Bellot is considered the heart of this incredible journey.

I also spent some time in the bridge; under the expert leadership of Captain Steffan Guy, it was a quiet and tense atmosphere as the crew focused on the logistics of sailing us safely through the strait.  Little did we know how hard the crew would work this day.  As we arrived at the west end of Bellot, the sea ice began to appear, sporadically at first, and then thick enough to form a sea of white as we entered Franklin Strait. Who knew that watching an icebreaker do its work could be so fascinating? We spent hours on deck, listening to the bow crash through large chunks of sea ice, often as much as five or six feet thick. At one point, we came to the rescue of two sailboats surrounded by ice; hopping into our wake, they were relieved to have such an easy passage. To celebrate our trip through the Northwest Passage, Chef Matt prepared ‘country food’ appetizers: air-dried char (from Jaypooti’s wife), narwhal (caught by Jena’s brother), cod’s tongues, scallops/bacon, and smoked char on cucumbers. The narwhal was surprisingly tasty – not unlike sushi.  The evening ended with a giant sing-along in the Knot, thanks to four talented guitar players (who do double-duty as scientists, zodiac drivers and expedition leaders) – a magical way to end a remarkable day!

 

 

 

 

Tracking Climate Change in the North

August 20, 2017

We left Resolute last night after dinner, and headed due east and then south to continue our journey on the Northwest Passage to Gjoa Haven.  Our first (and only) stop of the day was at Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a stunning set of cliffs that is the summer home to a few hundred thousand birds.  We were fortunate to have Paul Smith, a bird biologist with Environment Canada, as one of our experts, who gave us an excellent introduction to the broad-winged murres, kittiwakes, gulls, and northern fulmars that build their nests and raise their young on these steep cliff faces. Paul shared his stories of rappelling down cliffs to band these birds, and counting the birds by the thousands to assess the strength of their populations.  These birds are indicator species for climate change, and we learned of their challenges having to fish farther afield (sometimes up to 200km away) as fish stocks change (due to warming waters) or disappear altogether (from over-fishing.)  The effects of our huge eco-footprints are far-reaching, and are having negative effects on every species in the world, even north of the Arctic Circle. We’re struggling with this on this expedition – we recognize that as travelers we are having an impact on the land and eco-systems around us.  We’re aiming to keep these impacts small, but I worry that we’re not doing as much as we can; true of this journey and of my life back in Toronto.

Our group was happy to have a quieter afternoon on board – time to do some laundry, get some exercise (interval training in the hangar), do some writing or reading.  Aviaq Johnston, one of youth ambassadors, gave us an excellent overview of Inuit history, culture and governance that helped us to connect our learning throughout the trip. After dinner, Captain Stefan Guy gave a great presentation on how he would navigate through the waters of Bellot Strait and Franklin Strait the following day, given changing ice and wind conditions. We are taking the less-travelled route through Prince Regent Strait, heading south to Bellot Strait, a kilometre-wide passage that separates Boothia Peninsula from Somerset Island. We have been told to expect lots of ice – we’ll finally see what the Polar Prince can do as an icebreaker!