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What is ecopedagogy?
Lisa Pendergast
Students learning about Newfoundland culture outdoors

This spring, two Faculty of Education professors offered a first-time institute that got students out of the classroom and into the community to experience and learn about arts, sciences and humanities first-hand.

Ms. Jennifer Anderson and Ms. Sharon Pelech co-designed and co-taught Experiential Education and Ecopedagogy, a two-part spring institute aimed at getting students into the nature of Newfoundland for an authentic learning experience. The term ‘ecopedagogy’ means connecting curriculum back into the world. In this case it means connecting to the people and place of Newfoundland, Labrador and beyond.

Both the outdoor and the in-class portions of the institute offered creative ways for students to explore key issues in the community and allowed them to make natural connections between their teaching disciplines. A deep question in which students could develop an interdisciplinary study for a secondary classroom was then explored.

“The purpose of the course was to help students experience the interrelationships that are systemically found in rich topics that are relevant to authentic questions that are being taken up through multiple disciplines that emerge from the unique place and people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Ms. Pelech. “For example, by brainstorming the question ‘how has capelin impacted Newfoundland?’ students quickly saw how capelin is tied to the biological ecosystems, the history of the First Nations people, the arrival of the Europeans and the impact this had on the province. Further the impact on where people settled, culture, traditions and today on fishing and tourism.”

This institute was created as a result of the natural connection between each of the professor’s backgrounds. Ms. Anderson has been involved in outdoor education throughout her career teaching in British Columbia as an elementary school generalist, in a rural intermediate school in New Zealand, high schools in Vancouver and London, and a middle school for gifted students in Calgary. Ms. Pelech was interested in the theory of ecopedagogy and she had taught biology and science for over twenty years at the junior and senior high school level in the Northwest Territories, Northern Alberta, and Calgary. The structure of institutes allowed them the flexibility to combine their ideas and build a new experience for students.

The original itinerary for the “outdoor” portion of this institute included a three-day outdoor hike of the East Coast Trail and camping overlooking the bay. On this hike, students would encounter biologists who would discuss the land and wildlife; historians who would tell the stories of past Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who stood in the same place they are standing; folk musicians who would play live music; and local chefs who would prepare traditional provincial cuisine. The goal was to not have the students learn in silos, but to take students from various disciplines and show them how interconnected we all are with this place and how to bring our province into their own future classrooms.

The spring weather in Newfoundland wreaked havoc on their plan. “In Newfoundland in particular, you have to roll with the weather,” said Ms. Anderson. “That is the whole point of the course – to see what you have in your community and engage and explore.”

Already well-accustomed to the challenges of Newfoundland weather, the professors quickly put together a “Plan B” and scheduled an equally cultural urban experience for the students. This included a tour of Newfoundland artwork in The Rooms; a talk on Fort Pepperell and St. John’s in WWII by author and historian, Mr. Gary Browne; a walk through “the gut” in Quidi Vidi with St. John’s storyteller Mr. Gary Green; a walking tour of downtown St. John’s; and traditional meals including fish and chips and a baked bean breakfast.

The in-class portion of the institute focused on developing cross-curricular inquiry-based projects that made connections between the experiences from the outdoor experience and the classroom. Students learned about the framework of the present educational setting and disrupting that traditional model to reconnect with nature. This expanded the students’ understanding of teaching and learning in relation to their community and the wider world.

The institute will also be offered in the spring of 2015, with a tried and tested backup plan should the weather interfere once again. 

Aug 7th, 2014

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