Making Climate Change Personal

What words do you associate with climate change? Fear, destruction, pollution, degradation? These were some of the words offered by the audience at a keynote I delivered recently at a conference on EE. This might be one of our greatest challenges in EE these days: moving people from being frozen in fear about climate change, to becoming actively involved in climate action. I offered an alternate set of words: love, creativity, and hope.  By connecting the impacts of climate change to all that we love in the world, I aimed to make the threats it poses personal and emotional, igniting our innate desire to protection all that is important to us.  By demonstrating the central role of creativity in architectural, technological, and cultural shifts towards sustainability, I aimed to highlight the critical need for creativity and innovation in 21st learning. And by ending with David Orr’s memorable quote “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”, the audience left feeling empowered in taking climate action in their roles as educators.  So what are your words for climate change?  How do you situate it in your teaching? And how are you making it personal for your learners?

Growing a Garden-Based Approach to Art Education

The gardens around schools, whether found in the schoolyard or a nearby park, can be a great way to inspire and integrate learning across the curriculum.  I was happy to have this recognized recently by the international Art Education journal, which published Growing a Garden-Based Approach to Art Education’ in their July 2018 issue, and put on of the photos of the article on the cover! Co-authored with OISE graduate student (now alumni) Jennifer Sharpe, we aimed to explore the joys of taking art education into the school garden as a way to inform, inspire, and celebrate students’ creativity. Drawing on the tenets of place-based education and nature-based learning, we presented a case study of a vibrant school garden in Toronto that has been the site of children’s artistic exploration for over a decade. We know that when art education is conducted in schoolyards and school gardens, using these spaces as sites of discovery, creativity, meaning-making, and experimentation, children are able to deepen their understanding of the natural and built world, and develop strong connections to the environments in which they live.  If you’d like to read more, access the article at:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00043125.2018.1465318

Nature-based Collages on the Nahanni

How do you make art in pristine natural environments without leaving any negative impact on the land?  This was my challenge as I rafted down the Nahanni River this summer.  Located in NWT in Canada’s north, this immense river flows through 5 spectacular canyons, moose meadows, sparkling creeks, a river delta, even a sulphur hot springs.  It lies on the traditional lands of the Dene people, and inside the Nahanni National Park,  so ensuring as small an ecological footprint as possible when visiting is critical.  I continued to explore a technique I began using in the Arctic last summer, that of making nature-based collages. Using the incredible beauty of the geology along the river as inspiration, I arranged rocks, wood and plants into compositions that captured the beauty of this area.  Once photographed, I returned the components to their original settings to reduce any potential interference with the local ecosystem. This was a type of creative shorthand that allowed me to capture the beauty I was experiencing in a low impact way.  Certainly it exemplifies the saying, ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints,’ and serves as an aesthetic record of my experience in this awe-inspiring part of the world.

Planting Seeds for Eco-Art in China

How is environmental art playing out in other parts of the world?  I was lucky to travel to China this last spring, accompanying OISE interns as they taught in five schools in Hangzhou, a city a few hours southwest of Shanghai.  I was impressed with the strong presence for the arts everywhere we travelled, evident in part in the gardens, architecture, public sculpture, and design of public spaces. As part of my visits to these schools, I was able to visit a few art classes, and pleased to see ‘low impact’ art-making being taught, inspired by traditional Chinese art forms, like paper-cutting, watercolour, and calligraphy. While I would not consider these forms of eco-art – there was no overt attention to environmental learning – they were supportive of similar tenets.  The watercolours we saw students painting were focused on plants and wildlife; the calligraphy uses natural ink made from charcoal.  A few of the OISE interns also put their learning about eco-art into play. They turned students’ attention to learning about the plants and insect life in the school’s butterfly garden.  Drawing on their experiences working on the last few eco-art installations at OISE, they created a beautiful homage to these by combing our butterfly installation from last year with our stencilled plant mural from this year.  I can’t wait to see what these teacher candidates – and our Chinese hosts – accomplish moving  forward!

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!