November 21, 2011

The River: an alternative context for learning

I want to bring attention to my blog title: A Place to Learn. My vision for this blog is to talk about how learning can be transformed into a fun and engaging process. A lot of my focus is on the classroom and the physical space that we occupy, and how that can be altered to become something new and wonderful. However it goes far beyond the rooms and seats we are designated to fill, because "school" is not a building where we learn; it is who we are and what we do together, and that can happen anywhere. There are some very special places  though, that can offer a fresh perspective on learning.


"My pastel of the Coquitlam River by our school"
There is a beautiful river that flows near our little school. It is only a two minute walk from the school grounds and where most of the students live. At the beginning of the school year I send out a newsletter asking my students' families if they would object to me taking the class on a walking trip there during the school day. No one sneezes at this thank goodness and I can hear what I imagine to be the most common response, "Well, I'm sure it wouldn't hurt!" But I wonder if most of us understand and consider the significance of the natural environment we are in and what it might offer us. Rather than thinking "it wouldn't hurt", what about a more positive orientation towards this place, "what might or could happen if we go there?" Well, no one has ever really asked me yet why exactly we go I will tell you about it's significance to me.


The river is the place where I see anything is possible. The river is both an educational metaphor and a real place that I go to with my students. Martin Buber (2005) wrote a journal article, Educating for Relationship. Ethics, Place and Environment. He identifies that teachers should not try to make things happen, but bring the world to the student, allowing the possibility of encounters with that world, providing support, offering relationships and meeting the students where they are at. I know one thing for sure, I want to give all my students the chance to be more thoughtful, more conscious of themselves as individuals, and more aware of their connection to nature and each other. I see the river as a way to build community and relationship with my students. It is the reason for the river as my focus as a context for learning.


The poem I wrote about the river, began in response to an article by Denton (1972) called, Existential Reflections on Teaching. I really connected to his ideas about how to cultivate and create a space where students can be themselves, and where anything can happen.

A fluid metaphor for education

The river is life
a place to reflect
a time and space to be still
it offers us freedom
from our constraints
the daily demands of 
reports, meetings, schedules and deadlines
the river, the river

Let us walk down by the river
let us rest awhile there
what do you see?
what can you hear?
there really is no emptiness
no voids, no silence
only brief moments of clarity
the river, the river

Screens, billboards,
newspapers and magazines
inundating us with "current" affairs
we are surrounded by 
confusing systems
distractions and debris
where can we see beyond the clutter?
the river, the river

In control of nothing
only part of something
much bigger and more beautiful
than you could ever imagine
where is our sanctuary?
our place to learn
and be ourselves?
the river, the river

Come with me
follow my steps
do you know the way?
where will you lead me?
what can we find together?
just imagine the possibilities
do you feel it?!
the river is calling

In Imaginative Education, we talk a lot about "imagining the possibilities". Combining these two concepts of imagination and spaces, I wanted to find out what could happen if I take my students to the river continually throughout the year. This produced a few more interesting questions for me. 

What will the students notice about the place they live in?

How will this positively affect their ability to be open and connect to what I am bringing them in my instruction?

What will they begin to be aware of about themselves and each other?

Will it engage them sufficiently over time or will it become tiresome and dreaded?

Will I be able to maintain their focus when we are there?

These are fundamental questions for education in general; so it gave even more purpose to our visits to the river.


Denton uses the idea, originally from Heidegger, about "Dasein" - which is paying attention not only to the subject matter or the student, but the whole dialogue which encompasses the student, teacher and the place they are in. He said that:

"All a teacher can ever do, as teacher, is to manipulate space, thereby making possible one's coming to understand." (Denton, 1972)

This idea of space is critical to building a classroom community where all learners have a voice. It also reminds me of an article that Maxine Greene (1988) wrote, Imagination and Education. She said, "Young people are not encouraged to look through the windows of actual on occasion, to regard things as if they could be otherwise." When students are freed to make connections, show reflectiveness and commitment then true transformation takes place. I see this as the act of awareness of being present in the moment (space and time) which leads to positive action. This can happen within the walls of our classrooms, and of course it should; however my thoughts turn back to the coupling of imagination and spaces. What if I took this metaphor of "looking through the windows" literally and actually went out there, outside with my students? What could be the possible outcomes of doing that?


The Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) at SFU has developed an offshoot theory called Imaginative Ecological Education. Two leaders in this are Gillian Judson and Sean Blenkinsop. Sean Blenkinsop promotes this notion of the importance of outdoor spaces for learning, when he writes about the world as co-teacher. You may be familiar with his name, because he is one of the lead researchers behind the environmental school in Maple Ridge, BC. 

I like the idea of actually putting kids into the world as opposed to separating them from it through textbook readings and questions. Blenkinsop (2008) argues in his work, Imaginative Ecological Education: Six necessary components, that what is needed is direct interaction with the world. I agree that we are certainly too divorced from our natural surroundings. Sometimes being at the river might be the only peaceful moment where real listening takes place. I decided to plan these trips into my weekly schedule because I realized what I was aiming for was going to take some time. My thinking about what "school" is really started to be challenged, as well as my role as the teacher. I think we limit what school can be and what it could look like. Blenkinsop cautions that, "simply being outside will not necessarily contribute to learning or to students' sense of connection to nature" (Blenkinsop, 2008). Here are the six main components for ecological understanding that he identifies:

1. get the body involved (to make sense)
2. use stories (about the earth and places you are in)
3. establish a relationship (with places) to truly care
4. tie it to the curriculum
5. start early in life
6. get outside

Judson (2008) argues in her work, Grasping situation: Place-making tools, that the creation of special places is important. She asks how we can look at topics in a way that allows students the opportunity to explore the natural world around them. Judson asks how we can support students' sense of "embeddedness" in the world as part of their learning. She says that teachers will encourage students to stop and pause more often. This is what she refers to as "activeness". She makes the clear distinction between this sense of our own bodies in learning as a sense making tool as opposed to just involving the body kinaesthetically (moving around, but not necessarily in connection to what is being learned). Making sense of place is when, "...we encounter the natural world and where personal relationships with nature take hold in students' hearts and minds" (Judson, 2008). Certainly there is a meaningful inquiry that takes place by going outside with our students.

Playing a bit more with this metaphor of the river will lead us to a more literal and tangible understanding of the implications this has for teaching and building a classroom community of learners. The river goes where it wants, it carves through rock and remains throughout many generations. How do our lessons flow? Do they have the same kind of lasting impression and impact? What about how we shape the river through our intrusions such as building dams, bridges, etc... How does the river shape us? We touch it, but do we let it touch us? Or are we too afraid to get a little dirty or wet? We might be lead to believe that school can't happen outside because we don't have the resources that are necessary. How ironic? Rather than thinking about what might be lacking at the river, I wonder what we are "missing" in school (the place). Can't we bring the idea of "school" to the river and vice-versa? This is my aim.

It is my growing belief that we trivialize nature by building around it and making it a tourist, postcard attraction. Consequently, we lose a sense of what the places around us might teach us or contribute to our work, especially when are work is with students. We visit places occasionally, but how much do we feel them or know them? Have we considered what kind of impact nature might have on us if we spent more time directly in it? There is so much that can happen by spending time at the river. So I don't see it as idle or wasted time, or a break from learning. Certainly it is peaceful at times, but does that equate with no learning, certainly not! The river offers multiple perspectives, space and freedom to explore and for students to be themselves and reflect.

There is this idea of learning beyond the classroom walls by people such as Gruenewald (2003) in his writing, The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. He argues that, "Place-based pedagogies are needed so that the education of citizens might have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit." (Gruenewald, 2003). He also says that, "the study of places can help increase student engagement and understanding through multidisciplinary, experiential and intergenerational learning that is not only relevant but potentially contributes to the well-being of community life." I am trying to get a sense of what I can teach at the river, but I am also trying to be sensitive to what kinds of lessons might arise out of that place. This is a true part of "possibilities". The unknown, unplanned and unpredictable. We'll never know if we don't go!

"my students reflecting at the river"

The classroom and river sit in juxtaposition, yet they influence each other. What are the sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts that are fostered in the classroom? What sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts can be developed outside through a consistent interaction with a specific place? Buber gave me the notion that it can be a place that we get this true sense of belonging from. I have come to believe that, 

Sometimes building relationships
 doesn't involve an actual building

Some students  come from particularly traumatic backgrounds and are difficult to reach through tradition teaching methods. Buber talks about, "the good, that of God within, in everyone and even if the spark is encased in a thick shell, our challenge, is to break through and release it." I think of some of my students over the years who have come from extreme circumstances, and this typically limits their ability to function and participate properly in classroom activities or discussions; yet I have found that some of these same students open up and are more willing to be vulnerable in front of their peers when we are sharing at the river. What can be understood from this? The river is not just a place separate from us anymore at that moment. It becomes an important place and a part of the fabric of our class. It is a place to be desired, there are no constraints, no walls, bells, desks which hinder movement and expression. This is why I have started looking at the physical space of my classroom and started to alter it to become something other than a sterile box. All learning requires supportive relationships and the places we are in that can offer this nurturing.


"My winning banner for the City of the Arts - Port Moody BC"
My prediction is that there will be a tangible and long lasting change in the attitudes, connections, thoughts and emotions of my students to the places they inhabit. I still have a strong connection to my childhood home on the waterfront in Port Moody, BC where I use to walk, run, rollerblade, bike, and just spend a lot of time alone on the shoreline trail. I was so drawn to this place that even long after I left, I entered an artists' street banner competition - which I won. The theme I chose was inspired by the images in my mind and heart from all those years connected to the place I loved! 

I have moved many times since then (as my colleagues will confirm), but I have always managed to live near water, trails or mountains. I desire to share this connection of mine to the natural world with my students. I imagine that wherever I teach and live, I will continue to look for and find this connection. It is important for my students to see me in my "element" outside of the classroom. If I value nature, but my students never see me engaged with it, then I am teaching them falsely about what I believe to be important. Buber comments that, "the ability to see the other, understand and embrace the other without giving up the self", that this is true connection and inclusion.

The river by our school has come to be a place where I can really feel this community building happening, and it is spreading throughout the school. There have been many classes going on walks and taking small trips to the footbridge across the river to see the salmon spawning. Recently I took my class again and we went down to the river bed and my students were "awed" and commented on the dead, rotting salmon with missing eyes. You can't smell that in a book! This lead to a rich discussion about habitats and prey - predator interactions, along with scavengers (a type of consumer). This complimented what we have been studying in Science, but the true "teachable moment" happened right there at the river. When I ask my students what they want to find out about, they ask me if we can explore further and in different directions along the river. Last year one of my students asked about going to see the beaver dam. I didn't know there even was one along this river!! Looks like I have some further investigation to do!

The river is calling.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating work, Jonathan. Puts me to mind of that great old R.E.M. song: I Have Got to Find the River... Bergamot and Vetiver... run through my head and far away... Give it a listen if you haven't heard it in a while. It's on the Automatic for the People album. Anyways, it is good to be inspired by your teaching experiences, and it is great that you've decided to share them with us in a Blog. Do you see Doctoral work in your future?