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Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 41 – Using Nature to Help Set Classroom Norms


Nature is the ultimate teacher of how to overcome all obstacles. ~ Tao te Ching 

The beginning of another year. And to myself it reminds me of the perfect EcoTourism adventure. It’s not a cruise with every hour of every day planned – instead I’m given the destination and can choose my own path. I can stop and reflect or take a new path as long as it is heading into the right direction.

However, any good trip does need some guidance and some expectations and in our class that leads the teacher to setting up goals and guidelines for classrooms norms.

When I go into classes I will often see a list upon the wall of norms that the teacher set up with the students in the first days of school. The rules are more often than not written collaboratively and listed prominently on a numbered list. For example:

  1. Listen carefully
  2. Raise your hand
  3. Be respectful
  4. Be responsible
  5. Be safe & consider others
  6. Take turns & share

Many the school board, like my own will have their own Character Attributes. And by its very definition, an ecological community, like a classroom or school community is bound together by the network of influences that individuals have on one another. A few years ago I created a program entitled Darwinian Thinking to Teamwork which is full of activities showing what business students in high school can learn from the natural world as well.

So, my challenge to you this week is to take those classroom norms and expectation and make them visual. Use the natural world to show your students and parents alike what is in store for them this year in an environmental education themed class space.

What can you and your students come up with? What examples, images or connections can you find? As always, I’d love for you to share!

When the Portage Seems to Weary You, You Need the Strength of Kids


panorama pinetree lake

I just came back from a few days in Algonquin Provincial Park with my daughters for our annual interior canoe trip.

While there were many pivotal and certain long to be cherished moments I found myself upon return needing to write about portaging in particular.

Knowing there are readers of this post around the world and not everyone is necessarily familiar with portaging, it is the act of carrying your canoe and gear from one lake to another or around a set of rapids in a river. Very few people enjoy portaging. In my case, being a long distance runner I must admit I do get a sense of accomplishment and an almost giddy feeling when I have finished carrying my 70 lbs fiberglass canoe nicknamed Prairie Smoke over a height of land. There are other reasons why portaging is grand too – some of which can be found in the article 5 Reasons Portaging is Better Than Canoeing via  I do recognize I am in the minority though and as I get older, I will quietly admit that the thrill, while still there is slightly less pronounced.

Carrying a canoe upon your shoulders over 1.8 kilometres (the longest portage this time around) along a rocky unmaintained trail can lead to all sorts of thoughts. Typically, there is little view other than the trail five or six feet in front of you as the bow of the canoe blocks the wondrous view of the canopy of the forest and any wildlife you may be passing. The effort of carrying the extra weight tends to cause one to breathe harder and the mosquitoes and blackflies are drawn to the underside of the canoe with your face. One’s exposed face and hands upon the gunnels of the canoe are open season at such a time since balancing the canoe is the main priority. If raining the insects quickly recognize that it’s dry under the canoe as well and the number of biting insects grows logarithmically it seems.

Yes, as I get older I notice these things more than I did in the past.

But portaging with my daughters has taught me other things as well. We did one portage in complete darkness. Walking without a flash light and letting our eyes adjust to the world around us. While at first nervous about not being able to see far, the girls soon become enthralled by the Barred Owl calls and the site of the Supermoon when the canopy allowed.

Algonquin 008


We planned this trip at this time purposely for the Perseids meteor shower and it did not let us down either. We saw numerous shooting stars – certainly more upon the lake but it kept us excited on the trek as well.

While portaging during the day I learned a heck of a lot while carrying the canoe and trying to keep an eye on my girls as well. Watching and listening to them as we trod the trail

  1. I learned that the mud splatters higher on one’s legs when jumping into a puddle on a portage if you are carrying a load.
  2. I learned that chipmunks “fart” when startled (in an 8 year old amateur naturalist’s scientific opinion)
  3. I learned that you can tell whether a tree is newly felled by which way the shelf fungus is growing upon it (vertical vs horizontal)
  4. I learned that Yellow Birch which loves to grow upon the rotting remains of older stumps are just young trees holding onto the “roots” their forefather’s provided.
  5. I learned singing silly campsongs while portaging causes the giant hemlocks to blow in the breeze.

Okay, while there not be a heck of a lot of science in the discoveries they made, there were observations they made that made me proud as a naturalist and father.

And, I learned that a heavy load on one’s shoulders on an uphill trail in the pouring rain is made so much easier by having your kids break the trail ahead sometimes.

But most parents and educators already know that don’t they?

Nature Time Before the Age of … As Determined by My Own Kids


There are boundless examples of children and adults alike with an obvious and seemingly almost insurmountable disconnect with the out of doors.  The days of playing outside until the street lights come on or dancing in the puddles during a rainstorm seem to be fables or make believe to some children today.

Municipal parks should not be begging for attention nor should the beaten path be seen as a way to take a short cut to the mall or school alone.Now my own children are lucky enough to be outdoors kids.  They have climbed trees and they have played outdoors without their parents for the length of one meal to another without the aid of a Smartphone or FRS radio.

My 13 year old girls have told me that while other girls their age are dying for to have that phone (and my girls do have them) they see going for a bike ride on the nature trails near our home without their phone as a sign of trust from their parents. A line of thought I find mature and refreshing.

So, as “experts” in outdoor play, I sat down with my kids and asked them to come up with a list of activities that they feel all kids should do before they reach certain age milestones. They put this into a Haiku Deck entitled Nature Time Before the Age of …

I recognize that depending on where you live, resources at hand and other factors your list may change but I think they did a fairly good job. And by going beyond their own current ages, they have also given me a wish list which we will start upon before this summer is over. It’s my niche as their father to encourage that outdoor time and do my darnedest to support their  nature experiences.

Go ahead, ask your kids – what do they feel every kid should experience outdoors by a certain age? Let me know!

High School Study of Local Species At Risk – a Global Collaboration


Put up your hand if you can name an endangered species?

Now keep your hand in the air if that species is found in the wild just a short distance from your school grounds?

Chances are most hands in the classroom will go down.

The World Wildlife Fund and other agencies have done a bang up job at ensuring that the plight of the Giant Panda or Siberian Tiger is known. However, while classes in say Australia, Europe or North America may be raising money to help these species at risk, I doubt very much that there are as many classes aware of the plight of the Spiny Soft-shelled Turtle found in south-western Ontario. In my neck of the woods species at risk can be found here. More than one was a creature or plant I saw on a regular basis when I was a child and have little doubt that the majority of my classmates from back then know of the plight of those species today.

Species are at risk around the world though. Amphibian and reptiles cannot adapt to human develop and changes, insects such as the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators are disappearing,

I tell my students often that the most important thing they can do for the environment is not pick up litter, it’s not plant a tree … no, it’s learn more about the issues.

So, in an effort to make students more aware, which honestly is the first step towards active engagement, a few high school teachers that partake in our weekly #EnviroEd chats are banding together to have our students collaborate and discuss our own local species at risk.

Perhaps it will lead to some local Citizen Science as well such as the great work being done by the Canadian Wildlife Federation on bat populations.

When I first broached this subject with some passionate High School educators that are part of my #EnviroEd PLN such as Britt Gow, Beth Lisser and Bonnie Anderson they jumped at the idea. Britt took it upon herself to create a Google Doc to allow us to begin the planning process. So far in setting this up we have some species to be discussed from different continents, some video collaboration planned, marketing ideas and of course discussion and inquiry based questioning from each and every participating class to the other classes to discuss the similarities and potential actions we can work towards to help our own local ecosystems at risk.

If interested in participating come September – send me a note!

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, How Many Lessons is That?

racoon pup

Summer is upon us and I know I have seen some great images and comments from fellow educators from cottages, beaches, canoes and trails.

It is a time to relax and to to unwind and I certainly do not begrudge anyone for wanting that time with family, friends, flora or fauna.

But if it is so stress relieving to you – I wonder – can you bring a small piece of it back to the classroom in September? Can your morning bell work be done as students await for the morning announcements with the sounds of the cottage birds playing in the background using a recording or a Vine such as this one of the Wood Trushes?

Perhaps you can give students a visual and have them use an App like ScreenChomper to point out various identification features of the American Toad.

Be it an insect study …

Ctenucha forester moth

Or studies in light with some great sunsets from your summer …

Island Lake Sunset

By bringing a bit of your summer back with you for the classroom you can make use of some great summer memories for building your own library of every day environmental education sensory tools.

Schoolyard Habitat Scavenger Hunt



Students love to be outdoors and love to make use of 21st Century tools. Combining them allows for a very engaging activity sometimes. Here is a short Haiku Deck created for an Inquiry Based PD session. This Schoolyard Habitat Scavenger Hunt, downloaded onto devices such as a mini iPad can be used to have students explore what makes a habitat, (Food, Water, Shelter & Space) and look for examples within their own Schoolyard. Materials:

  • A few BYOD devices for small group work and potentially note taking.
  • One hula hoop per small group.


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 40 – No Long Hibernation this Summer as a Teacher


I have a wish …

This week coming is the last week of school in my area. This means this is our last Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd and that means it is a time to summarize and reflect a bit at the year that has passed.

Having said that I do not believe it is a wrap. It’s not the end – in fact just as the seasons end and turn into another season – so does our roles.

Each Challenge this year has been purposely simple in nature. We wanted something that could be done whether you were in the Bronx, or at a school more than an hour from the nearest paved road. We wanted something that could be done with kindergarten or with high school students.

Maybe the week did not work for all – but more than once I was told that although folks may not be able to participate that week – they’d try it at another time. The idea behind the Challenges was to show that environmental education can be done no matter where you are and that they is the most amazing Personal Learning Network (PLN) there to support you. In this way I think the challenges were a success.

And that leads us into another milestone. This coming Wednesday, June 25, 2014 will be the first birthday of the #EnviroEd chats from 9-10 pm EST each week on Twitter. When Paul Kelba, Sarah Lowes and myself first discussed the concept I am uncertain any of us saw it as a foundation to something beyond discussing environmental education with like minded people.

As anyone who reads this blog or takes part in our weekly chats knows – it has become so much more. In biological terms a Community is an area where everything depends upon everything else. Our online PLN is exactly that.

And I do not wish to lose this momentum. I think one of the things that makes the #EnviroEd PLN unique is that it is more than just an hour each Wednesday night.

Some animals may hibernate or migrate in the winter months and I fully understand the need for educators to do either of these as well this summer. But this is also our opportunity to evolve ourselves.

This summer #EnviroEd will continue to run, bi-weekly. In July that means the 9th and the 23rd. In August, the 6th, and 20th before we go back to weekly chats on Sept 3rd.

So, it is time to look back on this year’s successes in environmental education. Have a look at those graduating slide shows or yearbooks and make note of the fact that the largest smiles and greatest memories tend not to be of tests or sitting in desks.

This summer your Challenge is to continue to develop your environmental education prowess. Take a course, learn from others, read a book and share it with others.

As such, I am throwing our my own plans for this Challenge to have my #EnviroEd PLN help keep me true.

1. I will be taking a workshop on developing my skills as an outdoor educator in the realm of inquiry based education practices this will be in early July.

2. I will be getting together with 4-6 classroom teachers one at a time over the summer to discuss how they use environmental education in the classroom and will be sharing it through our PLN. To help entice them into the discussions I’m inviting them to come canoeing for an hour with me.

3. I plan on reading Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action by Herbert W Broda.


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 39 – Summer Investigations

Algonquin '13 004

A huge part of being an educator in the 21st Century is striving to engage students in learning opportunities that are passionate to them.

Each of our students is different. Some are passionate about being outdoors, or perhaps they are passionate about animals, species at risk, learning what is in their backyard or growing vegetables.

Whatever their passion for environmental literacy is, summer is a great time to nurture that learning.

Just because our students may not be our students in the next couple of weeks does not mean our connection to them changes. We are their teachers, we can help them learn and develop. We can help them investigate and perhaps create a summer of Environment Friendly Genius Hour discoveries.

I did this myself with my own daughters last summer, asking them to keep journals of our canoe trips and asking them to frame some questions ahead of time of those interior trips. When the car was left behind and the canoe was in the water – they had questions that they designed and actively searched for answers on their queries.

So this week I encourage you to discuss with your students their environmental passions. Discuss books to read, encourage places to visit, and what they should explore to create even more of a connection to the outdoors and the natural world moving forward.

Join Earth Rangers, or support a local walk or tree planting. The opportunities are endless.

Without the shadow of assessment or time tables I wonder just how strong that spark of curiosity can burn.

Feel free to ask me for ideas this week as well. I’d love to hear what your students are hoping to learn this summer! I may not have all the answers (Note: I don’t really – I don’t) but I do have a pretty dang fine Personal Learning Network as do you for #EnviroEd

Weekly Challenge for EnviroEd # 38: A Forest of Reading

The nice weather is upon us in this hemisphere. Winter has given up its grip and no one is even fearful of those occasional may frosts at this time any longer.

So many classes are spending more time out doors and it is a beautiful time to be doing this.

With the school year winding down the opportunity for less formal lessons and time outdoors is just begging for attention.

A few weeks ago the weekly challenge was focussed on having a picnic as a class and if the weather did not lend itself to the challenge then, this just may be the week to do that now.

As well this week I suggest you take the time as a class to read outdoors. Step beyond the desks and let the students sit upon their favourite reflective spot log, or by the creek, or spread their legs out upon the cool grass beneath a tree and dive within the pages of a book.

Read as a class, read by themselves, or when working with their reading buddies have them both sit with their backs against that favourite tree to enjoy the story within.

This is not only a challenge for younger grades but also for older grades as well. Recently, at one of our nature centres we had a number of Gr 10 English classes out to partake in our Bushcraft program where they build shelters, work in small groups to “survive” in the wild and eat around a campfire. While in itself this is an excellent opportunity not enough kids get these days, the students had a great discussion about “Lord of the Flies” as they sat around the fire. What better place is there is debrief the decisions and the impact of those decisions of Ralph and the others?

And, knowing that final tests and even exams are only days away for some, I might suggest even review of chapters within the pages of a textbook or peer reports have the ability to not only be seen in a new (and perhaps tree canopy filtered) light.

It seems like an excellent way to encourage summer literacy by ending the year with the practice of reading in the great outdoors. Perhaps even a suggested reading list as a class.

Give it a try and let me know the results!

Weekly Challenge # 37 – #KindergartenBioBlitz is One Year Old


It’s hard to believe it, but this week is the one year anniversary of the #KindergartenBioBlitz. Over the last year with the help of this blog’s readers, we’ve inspired hundreds if not thousands of Kindergarten students (and teachers!) to get outside and explore their own schoolyard and local communities.

Children, are by design inquisitive and love to learn about the world around them. And, they love emerging technology almost as much as they love the out of doors. By having students explore their school yards looking for invertebrates (insects, spiders, worms, etc) and then having them share their findings both online through Twitter using the hashtag, students are encouraged to explore even more.

At first students would send a photo to me proudly and then answer my own questions (as I have said before this is not Ranger Wikipedia – my desire to to encourage inquiry and therefore I do not give a simple identification, I tend to ask students questions leading them to their own answers or even more questions).

Then, we did a second version of the #KindergartenBioBlitz in the autumn during the second week of school. At this point it grew well beyond what I could do myself and so I brought in a few naturalist friends like @MarkWhitcombe . With this version we created a Pinterest page to share some of the stunning photography students were sharing.

With the cold and unrelenting winter we had in my region we were all looking for signs of spring by the end of February and so we once more did a version with a “Signs of Spring” theme. This post by Ellisa Iagallo’s class in Toronto gives a wonderful summary of that week.

Now, with that one year anniversary upon us I’d like to encourage all that have participated in the past to participate again this week. Let’s explore and discover the invertebrates in our school yards. Let’s share what we find. Let’s collaborate, respond, question and marvel at what is being discovered!



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