Sparking Students’ Curiosity in the Wild
Wind-swept, bug-bitten and sun-kissed we returned to Nym Lake by retracing our steps from our first day into Quetico Park back through the well-travelled Batchewaung portage. On the return trip, rather than looking sheepishly at the ground when decisions were being made about who would carry the canoe and how many trips one might make across the 840 metre trail, the students had already deliberated a full day ahead over who would challenge themselves with portaging the canoe, or try ‘double-packing’ the whole distance. Their drive for one last personal challenge was not surprising – the same conversation occurred last year on our first run of the W.I.L.D. course.
Our Wilderness-based Interdisciplinary Leadership Development course (W.I.L.D.) centres around students planning and implementing a seven-day canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park. Set far from the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), Quetico is a wilderness park two hours west of Thunder Bay. This unique learning opportunity allows students to develop an intimate connection and exploration of a wilderness location that is still within their province, but far beyond their local realm of comforts and environmental understanding. We aim to meet the Ministry of Education’s objective, as described in Achieving Excellence, of “creating more relevant, applied and innovative learning experiences that spark students’ curiosity and inspire them to follow their passions”; and to provide students with “more flexibility and ownership in their learning, allowing them, for example, to determine whether they want to spend more time on e-learning or on learning outside of the classroom.”
Students from any secondary school in the TVDSB are invited to apply to take part in leading the learning through a blend of online, in-class, and on-trip experiences beyond their regular school schedule. Collaborating online to map suggested routes, creatively plan meals from our provided list of ingredients and think critically about roles and responsibilities and how these could be evaluated. Students then apply the course theories of leadership and planning in an authentic and experiential manner on the culminating seven-day canoe trip. We intentionally choose 18 students who represent the wonderful diversity of the TVDSB and then further mix the students to provide them with an immersive experience with others often very unlike themselves. Our groups over the past two years have included students who both struggle and excel in typical classrooms paddling alongside very new Canadians and Indigenous students.
“This doesn’t feel like school, it’s just important work that we need to do”.
Before leaving London, we are fortunate to work with several community partners to help students prepare. Students meet ‘in-class’ for the first time at one of our local secondary schools for their swim test followed by an evening of course planning and discussions about risk management. After our first evening, one student commented: “This doesn’t feel like school, it’s just important work that we need to do”. Later in June, we complete two days of ORCKA canoe certification followed by a third day of meal preparation and community-building at Growing Chefs. Students quickly learn on-trip that ‘food changes the mood’.
Upon arrival in Thunder Bay, we visited Lakehead University to get our bearings regarding Canadian parks and protected places to set the context for the special place we are about to visit, have a last slice of pizza, share some Persians (a Thunder Bay treat), and develop a social contract and common language for expedition behaviours facilitated by their School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism professors. Our community partners eagerly lend their expertise to maximize the learning while on our culminating trip.
Our course, as described in Shaping Our Schools, Shaping Our Future, holds at its core the notion that environmental education “is the responsibility of the entire education community. It is an approach to critical thinking, citizenship, and personal responsibility, and can be modelled. It is a context that can enrich and enliven education in all subject areas, and offer students the opportunity to develop a deeper connection with themselves, their role in society, and their interdependence on one another and the Earth’s natural systems.”
During the trip, students must teach one lesson and also lead their group for a day. Students prepare for this by taking ownership of the planning, using some tools from Google Classroom in the months prior to the trip. Upon learning about a ‘Sense of Place’, students are asked to produce a one-minute video to practice describing the culture, history, geography, ecology, and emotion evoked by the specialness of a particular place. When asked while paddling one wind-less and overcast afternoon ‘How will you describe this experience to your families’ I was met with silence until one student, responded wide-eyed ‘Oh, ….there are no words’. As a final course project, we do ask the students to find the words to describe their learning experience using any format of their choice. Some have created narrated videos, songs, poetry, and essays about disconnection from technology, group dynamics or photojournalism pieces.
Connection due to complete disconnection
The blended time together in person and online allows for additional opportunities for discussion, collaboration, building of trust, and student investment in their learning. The use of technology also permits the structure and timing of the course to operate in an unconventional manner, beyond the parameters of regular school timelines, and for students from across the Valley to collaborate on the creation of elements of the course that would not otherwise be possible.
While on the trip, students are completely disconnected from both time and technology. Watches and cellphones remain at our outfitter Voyageur Wilderness Program on Nym Lake. We eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired, or when the mosquitoes come out at 9:23 p.m. Surprisingly to many adults, and even to the students themselves, they are not very eager to get their phones back upon arrival to Voyageur Island. Last year, students requested that we delay their ‘reconnection’ until the bus leaves to take us to the airport. Students identified that as soon as their phones are given back, the magic of their real connection is dampened and that the relationships built over the past week are far deeper than they could have imagined.
“In a school classroom, we deal with stereotypes, cliques, and social pressures that limit how we can communicate and collaborate as a group. Once we were in the canoes, none of these seemed to matter, which, for me, begged the question of how much I’ve misread the people in my life thus far — the amiability, humour, charm, and relatability found in others can be so surprising,” said Quin.
On our layover morning, we had planned for a sleep-in, then an exploration of some waterfalls and short afternoon paddle to our next campsite. Looking across the lake shortly after sunrise I could see one of our groups with students up and about. When asked what they were doing up at 6 a.m., Zavier responded: “We only get to do this for seven days, I don’t want to waste it by sleeping.” As with any outdoor expedition, we had our share of character-building battles paddling into the wind, dripping wet tents with the occasional twig in the side, and the interesting work of getting along with relative strangers for nine days. However, we returned exhausted and happier, a few shades darker, stronger in many ways, and lighter in spirit and body. As Goran said after our first two long days of paddling and portaging when asked how he was doing: “Oh, it’s hard but totally worth it.”
Beyond the desire to protect natural spaces, the understanding of how their bodies and minds feel better when outdoors, and the appreciation for time spent with people who may be different than themselves, if nothing else, what I hope for these students is that they can transfer their self-efficacy and the learning of ‘I can do hard things’ into other realms of their lives.
Erin Mutch is the Learning Coordinator for Environmental Education at the Thames Valley District School Board where she works to connect students with their local landscape. Each morning she feels fortunate to be able to share her passion for outdoor learning and environmental education with the students and teachers of the TVDSB. Erin holds a degree in Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Natural Sciences from Lakehead University, a Bachelor of Education from Western University, and a Professional Master of Education from Queen’s University. As a former wilderness guide in Quetico Park, she designed this course as a Master’s project with full intention of implementation. Upon approval from their Senior Admin team, the course was developed with one of the TVDSB’s Environmental Educators Dan Arppe and they have excitedly shared the experience with their board’s Guidance Coordinator Angie Roth and the Health and Physical Education Coordinator Andrea Hansen, as well as, two groups of wonderful students thus far.