Collaboration

Albatrosses and Affirmations

He went like one that hath been stunned, 
And is of sense forlorn: 
A sadder and a wiser man, 
He rose the morrow morn.

-
Samuel Colderidge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


The 2017/18 school year came to a close for me on Friday, and as with most endings, I became very reflective about the events that made up the period of time that just concluded. This was a hard 12 months for me - probably the most difficult I have experienced in my nearly half a century on the planet - but mixed in with the challenges, changes, troubles and tears were some amazing moments and learning that I am incredibly grateful for. Many of these happened in May and June.

I have written about the plastic pollution project that I worked on with my students in the last two months, documented in these posts: The Last Straw and Curiosity and the CAN-BAN Connection. Since this project is undoubtedly the most transformational work (for my students and for myself) that I have done in my career, I wanted to write a further update on how we wrapped things up, plans for next year, and why I feel so hopeful about the future as a result of this work. I am very proud of what we have accomplished, the fact that we are addressing important global sustainable development goals, and that we have taken our learning beyond the walls of the classroom, harnessing the power of technology to connect, create and collaborate with friends in different parts of the world.

After our friends in Bangladesh completed their school year on June 10, we no longer had collaboration partners to work on projects with for the remainder of the month, but we still delved into some deep and inspiring learning to round out the project before the end of June. One of the most powerful things we watched was a movie called, “Albatross” by Chris Jordan. Chris and his team visited Midway Island, a wildlife refuge in the North Pacific Ocean, that is inhabited only by birds, including many albatross. As there are no natural predators on the island, the birds were very trusting of the humans there to study and film them, and allowed the crew to get up close and personal in a way that made the finished product feel like a story of heartbreak and hope, a work of Art, and a beautiful piece of social activism and information all in one. These amazing creatures have been unwittingly consuming the plastic that humans have discarded and polluted the ocean with. It is killing them and their babies, their bellies and bodies damaged by the debris they confuse as dietary nourishment.  It is such an important message to watch, receive and ponder. Chris made the film available for free, starting on World Oceans Day at the beginning of June. You can view or download the full film from this webpage.

Albatross was difficult to watch, and there were few dry eyes in the classroom when the movie concluded. We had a rich discussion after the film ended, with some great connections to First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, the way that we treat and respect all living creatures, interconnectedness, and our obligation to clean up the literal and figurative mess that we have made of the planet.  One of my students commented, “I think this movie is going to stay with me for a very long time.” Multiple heads in the room nodded in agreement, mine included.

We moved on to a more joyful project by creating muppet-style puppets. While not without its frustrations (there were a few hot glue gun burns, tears and a classroom covered in strings of hot glue residue), it was definitely a memorable way of combining Art and activism. The intent was to have the students use their puppets to create a green-screened PSA video about plastic pollution and its effects on marine wildlife. The puppets were completed, scripts were written, and scenes rehearsed, but ultimately, no groups were prepared in time to film. This was disappointing for everyone, however, it opened another discussion about real-world issues: this time on meeting deadlines, working toward goals as a team, and how the learning and creation process that we engaged in was ultimately more powerful than a completed video.  You can view a gallery of some of the terrific puppet creations below. In addition to the puppets, we also learned about levels of government in Canada and what their responsibilities are, and then wrote letters to our local, provincial, and country leaders to encourage them to ban single-use plastic. It was a proud moment when the completed messages went in the mail delivery!

On the last day of school, we finished our year together by playing an eco-themed BreakoutEDU game called “Save the Planet”. While not directly related to plastic pollution, it was a terrific final critical-thinking activity to bring everything full circle.

The “prize” when they opened the box at the end was a stainless steel straw for each student. While not precious or expensive, I was gratified by the excitement and enthusiasm the students displayed when they realized what they were receiving (see video below). My friend, Pedro Aparicio, had shared some beautiful words that he wrote on the board for students on their final school day.  I was inspired to do something similar by tying a special message to each straw in the box.

My collaboration partner, Emil, and I have been doing a lot of reflection and discussion on this year’s brief version of the project together, and where we would like to take things next year when we have 10 months to really dive deep. We have invited friends/colleagues from several other countries to join us and are planning some great projects, challenges, and collaborative activities for our students to be involved in. I am excited to start in September and see how it evolves!

As I wrote final report cards for my students, I found the format a difficult medium to use to accurately assess and share what my students had done. What evidence did I have that they were engaged and learning? I received a few affirmations as the year concluded.  A parent of one of my students stopped in to see me. She said, “I know as a teacher you probably don’t often hear that you are making an impact, but I want to tell you about how what you are doing in class has changed my son.” She went on to explain that her child now refuses plastic straws when they go out for fast food or to restaurants, and tries to limit his use of other plastic containers. He is encouraging everyone in the family to do so as well. She also told me that when it was his turn to choose a fun family activity on the weekend, he requested that they all go to a local park and do beach cleanup.  It was a proud moment! Other students in my class have reported doing similar things. Some of them have started clubs outside of school, put up posters, and even created cards to leave at restaurants, either asking management to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics or praising them when they have instituted policies such as asking patrons whether or not they actually want a straw. In our own school, staff have noticed that playground litter, which had been a huge problem earlier in the year, has been greatly reduced, and that more students have been actively picking up garbage that does not belong to them. (We can’t take all the credit for this, as another grade 6/7 class has also been presenting to groups in our school about litterless lunches, etc., but we still feel proud of our part in the change!). Far more relevant and powerful than test scores, letter grades or term comments, these real-world manifestations of the learning that we have been doing make me feel certain that this is good work with a purpose that MUST continue in the fall.

I plan on mindfully relaxing and actively enjoying each moment of my summer, so the blog will likely get a bit quiet over the next two months.  That being said, please expect new posts to start flowing in the fall, brimming with excitement about the new ideas and learning activities that have been planned and engaged in. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey! Thank you for being a part of the adventure so far!

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Curiosity and the CAN-BAN Connection

“I’ve never met an interesting person who is not also an interested person.”  Curiosity and inquisitiveness are virtues.

- Elizabeth Gilbert (on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett)

It is unusual to hear a teacher say that they are sad that they are running out of instructional days with their students near the end of the year, but I honestly wish we had a little bit more time. Don’t get me wrong: just like most teachers, I am absolutely exhausted, the full moon last week seemed to mysteriously make even the best students act out with unexpected behaviours, and I would rather be enjoying time on my deck in the sunshine, kayaking, or travelling rather than be cooped up in a classroom. That being said, because we are doing some AMAZING learning and collaborating, I am almost disappointed to see the end of June arrive.

Since launching our inquiry into plastic pollution in the ocean and its effect on marine animals (and the world), my students and I have really taken our learning to another level. Finding a topic that they were genuinely curious about got them really fired up and excited. The activities and collaboration that we have been participating in during the last couple weeks have added fuel to the flame. Very little of it would have been possible without the use of technology. We have been exploring young innovators like Boyan Slat from the Netherlands, who has come up with a unique way to start reclaiming plastic pollution from large, ocean garbage patches. We were extremely lucky to meet with the Florida Oceanographic Society for an excellent Skype in the Classroom program about Sea Turtle conservation. We have been brainstorming ideas for how we can promote more awareness of plastic recycling in our community. But the very best part of our learning? Our collaboration with new friends from another part of the world!

A mutual friend from the Netherlands suggested that I might find a good collaboration partner in Emil Waldhauser. Emil is a creative and talented teacher from the Czech Republic, who is currently working at the Australian International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This was such a timely connection, as, in our class, we had recently been looking at articles from the digital “Planet or Plastic” June edition of National Geographic, and a photo that we were particularly curious about was one from Dhaka. Emil was immediately onboard with the collaboration idea, and quickly set up some SMART Amp workspaces for us to use as an asynchronous collaboration forum - a great way of making things work despite the fact that a 13 hour time difference meant we would never be able to have our students meet in real time.  In the workspaces they have posted photos of and Google Maps links to nearby neighbourhood scenes, waterways, and plastic pollution on the beach. They even shared a terrific video about pasta straws that had my students wanting to learn more! We have been doing our best to post links in the collaborative workspaces about our city, river, garbage pick-up and recycling system, and other information that we have been learning. We shared a link to the Flipgrid videos we created to share our questions and wonders about Dhaka and plastic pollution in Bangladesh, and are waiting for our partners to comment back.  It has been extremely motivating for my students (and I think for Emil’s as well) to have an authentic peer audience for their work, and to be feeling like we are making friends in another country, while representing our own.

One thing that has really stood out to me about this collaboration is the extreme curiosity that my students have been displaying about learning more about this issue and the other countries we have been investigating as a result of our learning. While our Dutch friends were unable to fit us into their busy year-end schedule to collaborate, we still made a fun Adobe Spark video to share with them, and the process of researching and then creating it was a wonderful inquiry and learning experience. We learned some words in Dutch, and also got to have a little fun and show off our great Canadian sense of humour! ;-)

The CAN-BAN (Canada-Bangladesh) connection, however, has been the most powerful by far! Our countries and cultures are very different, and yet, we still have so many similarities. We have had some really terrific discussions in class about how the way we do things in Canada are not necessarily “right” - just normal for us, but that there are multiple ways of doing things “right” in the world. “Our” way is just one of many. We can learn a lot from how others do things. They can learn from us. We can be courageous, curious and caring. We can ask questions in respectful ways to find out more, like starting our sentences with, “I am interested to learn more about…” or “I am curious about…” or “I noticed this. Can you tell me your thoughts about it?”. We are also learning a lot about ourselves in the process, thinking about the systems and structures in place in Canada that make our country a wonderful place to live in, but that we often take for granted. This is powerful learning! 

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I have very few instructional days left with my students. We are currently trying to work on a culminating project where we make sea creature muppet-style puppets similar to these (but made from craft foam) that we’ll use to make green-screened PSA-style videos about the plastic pollution problem. We want to write letters to different levels of government and local restaurants to encourage them to reduce the amount of single-use plastic drinking straws we are using. We will make it a priority to keep sharing with our friends in Bangladesh about what we are learning and doing until they are finished their school year in mid-June.  Will we get it all done? I don’t know - and I’m not worried. The fact that my students are becoming more interesting people because they are interested and curious is more than enough for me! Better humans for the win!

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