2021!!! For many, the anticipated New Year has been as momentous as the Y2k turnover. Some of you reading this may be far too young to remember the hype around the possible crash of civilization as we know it. Those of us who were old enough, sat by our clocks watching the seconds tick by with bated breath. The final 10-second countdown was as anxiety-inducing as it was exciting and the moment the clock struck 12:00am, I’m quite certain a collective release of breath happened as the power remained on, our computers booted up without a hitch, and the world as we knew it…well, it stayed exactly as we knew it! A dear colleague observed that “it seems like time, [similar to] nature, moves in cycles that we [rarely] take notice of because we tend to focus on the little things”. Our focus is on the immediate, the pressing event that will directly impact us and our little bubbles in the world.
I think we all shouted out “Happy New Year” for 2021 with the same bated breath but we’re still kind of holding it as we trudge our way through the January blues. Many of us are still, quietly going about our days as routine as they can be during these pandemic times. Our little ones do not understand the significance of the times they are living, while our older ones recognize that they will one day grace the pages of history and share with their children how 2020–2021 were years unlike any other. The social isolation amidst the most socially connected period in history seems incredibly ironic. As an educator, I have been challenged to shift my practise. I have been pushed to the limit of flexibility and back again and I continue to see the resilience that is possible for humanity. I am daily reminded of the privilege that it is to teach during these times. I have the distinct honour to watch, learn and teach as history unfolds, making every effort to take my classrooms into this new era with an enthusiasm for being agents of change.
To that end, we are eagerly resuming our outdoor learning experiences as we return to our school routines. In a number of recent seminars I have attended there has been discussion about the power of story, both personally lived and through picture books. In my years as a parent and teacher, the powerful connection that children make to story is undeniable. With such little lived experience children need a story they can relate to in order to find the empathy and compassion that develops through personal experiences later in life. I’m not a psychologist, but I took a few courses in my early university days and I remember one professor talking about how experiences that happen over and over create pathways in our brain that become like well-traveled roads. The more these pathways are traveled the harder it is to create new ones. This has stuck with me often and in the case of our students, I believe picture books with deep meaning are like street signs that guide them to the creation of their own pathways. They come back to the images and are reminded of what they felt as they listened to the words. My goal as an educator is to help facilitate empathetic, compassionate, curious, bold pathways in the young minds of my students, to help them see their ability to be agents of change in the great, big world they live in. With that in mind, I choose books that will partner with me in that endeavor.
BECOMING AGENTS OF CHANGE
As we are returning to our beautiful outdoor space, our study is focused on living things, specifically those that are indigenous to our area. We started by reading The Last Tree by Maria Quintana Silva. The pictures are beautifully illustrated and the story is of a young boy who leaves his home one morning, to attend school in his village, only to find that all the trees have pulled up their roots and moved away. Along with them, the animals that need the trees for their homes are close behind and all that’s left are gaping holes where the trees once stood. Young Goran ponders this new reality and then wonders if even his most favourite tree has left. He returns home to find the tree pulling up its roots and getting ready to head to a new home where it will be able to stay for 100 years without the worry of being “burned to ash or chopped into hundreds of little pieces”. Goran, choking on the stagnant air, unfiltered by the usual forest of trees, attempts to convince his old friend to stay behind and he will give the tree a reason to stay. The rest of the story gives voice to a child who has boldly taken up the task of change agent and embraced the responsibility of replanting and rebuilding the ecosystem that once was, in order to keep his old friend close by.
After our reading, the kindergarten class was tasked with finding a tree in the park, sitting under it, and drawing what they saw. On this stunning winter day, sun streaming through the branches, children spread themselves out and eagerly sketched out their chosen tree. Smiles, laughter, muddy boots, muddy bottoms, and joy ensued as we wove ourselves back into the fabric of nature. I was thrilled as I watched these little bodies soak in all that was around them. Not one of them looked toward the playground structure with longing, but every, single one of them engaged with the sticks, leaves, branches, flowers, grass, mud, pinecones, rocks, and even the thorns making pathways of empathy for the living beings that are an integral part of our survival.
UNDERSTANDING OUR INTERCONNECTNESS
My experience of the grade 2/3 class was no different. Their attention was captivated by their observations of the changing landscape. Regardless of the weather, I found them with smiles on their faces, heads bent low to the ground with bodies huddled together under the protective canopy of their favourite trees. Over the next few months, we will make observations of the grass, the bark on the trees, the thorns of the blackberry bushes, the worms in the dirt and acknowledge that even they are an important part of this little ecosystem in our backyard. Their study of diversity in people is enlarging to the study of biodiversity in trees, bushes, insects, and other living things. Their eyes are opening to the simple pleasures of the outdoors even if they can’t actually articulate it quite yet. I can feel it in their eager steps as we leave the school, I can hear it in the laughter and chattiness as they walk, I see it in the waves through the window to our friends at the local Punjabi school as we pass them once a week on our way to and from the park.
In the book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about being a good citizen and what that looks like alongside nature. In an interview with workers at her local sugar house (a place they make maple syrup), she asks them what makes a good citizen in the “Maple Nation”. They respond with beautiful, simple words; “‘You take care of the trees and they’ll take care of you.’” (171) She goes on to talk about allegiances and oaths in various nations but states her desire to choose “democracy of species…natural law, the law of reciprocity, of regeneration, of mutual flourishing” (173). As I watch our students become deeply connected with this space at our park, I see these allegiances forming. We are caring for each other, nature, and humanity in a reciprocal relationship. It is a joy to see and it gives me a sense of humility that I get to journey alongside this flourishing alliance. My hope is bolstered as I consider that in this time of social isolation, uncertainty, and crisis, we can be brought into a flourishing relationship that has always been there for us. Time passes and change occurs but we have the opportunity to build into our own resilience, reframe our mindset and find peace in the natural world in a way that has actually never changed.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2020.
Quintana Silva, Maria. The Last Tree. Cuento De Luz, 2019.