Relationships in a Climate Change Age

Education literature is well-populated with articles on the centrality of relationships in learning but there is very little discussion on how difficult maintaining healthy relationships can be.  

Relationships are always easy when things are going well, when there’s no conflict. They’re really difficult when things are not going well. And if there’s ever a place where relationships can get into trouble, it’s in classrooms and in schools.

In her explanation and background to the principle of holistic learning among First Peoples, Jo Chrono provides lots of examples of what the integration of this principle may look like in a classroom. Teachers who have already incorporated regular field trips, reflective journalling, experiential learning, place-based learning, and project-based learning into their classroom practice will easily be able to connect their teaching to this learning principle. But what I want to focus on here is something else that she mentions: the critical importance of relationships inherent in this learning principle in particular.

A few months ago, three students who were very angry with me waited to talk to me after school. They wanted the four of us to use a process I teach to all my students to help them to work through any conflict they may experience in their relationships. It took some time but at the end of our excavation of the incident we all realized that we had each interpreted what we saw and heard in completely different ways thus resulting in different stories about what had happened in the classroom earlier in the day.  

Over the past decade, students have told me how this process, The Communication Model, has helped them not only to repair but also to sustain relationships amongst friends and family. Emily, a former student, has written about how she used it to de-escalate conflict between an adult and some students in our school. Countless others have talked about how their relationships with siblings and with parents have been strengthened through using the model.

I’m partial to the Communication model because, unlike other models for the resolution of conflict, its experiential method creates the possibility for a relationship to be strengthened through deepening mutual understanding.

communication model picture

The core premise of The Communication Model is that through examining our perceptions and interpretations, we can discover what we may only unconsciously hold dear.

Another premise is that we are never angry about the thing we think we’re angry about. In other words, anger rears its head when we sense an attack on what we deeply value, what is critically important to our sense of self.

The problem is that other people are often completely unaware of what is important to us and so there are multiple instances each day when they may inadvertently trigger this biological self-defense system. Most often we can brush off incidents quite easily by taking a breath and moving on, but sometimes that’s not easy to do.

At this point I want to stress that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. Perhaps because the expression of anger in our society is so often associated with violence, there is little acknowledgement of anger’s value in helping us to understand why we do the things we do. As I tell my students, anger provides a direct pathway to our core beliefs, our deepest sense of self.

It’s also interesting to note the differences in the way children are taught about anger in various cultures and within social classes. From a modern western European cultural perspective, the expression of anger is certainly gendered: it’s okay for men to express violent anger but not okay for women to do the same.

I am curious about Indigenous perspectives on the experience and expression of anger and conflict. I would like to learn about how conflict was resolved before colonization and whether there are other examples of it being resolved through games like slahal.  With consensus being a common decision-making process amongst First Peoples before contact, there’s no doubt that we have much to learn from them about how to work through conflicts to arrive at a common understanding. 

When those three students processed their anger that day, we all learned a lot about each other. We learned what we each deeply valued and we realized that we all wanted the same thing: to have fairness and a sense of community in the classroom.

There is a lot of conflict in a world of systemic racism, gross inequality, and climate change impacts. If our children can learn how to work through anger to discover the values and aspirations they have in common with others with whom they are in conflict, the troubles ahead will be much easier for them to navigate.

First Peoples’ Principles of Learning: Well-being

There’s no way that I can fully comprehend what “well-being” means to Canada’s First Peoples as I am not indigenous and I have had barely any exposure to the cultures of the original inhabitants of this land, I’m ashamed to say.  I also suspect that the original term for which “well-being” is the nearest English equivalent includes a far more expansive worldview than can be captured in translation.

I wonder if the Greek concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated to mean “the highest human good” or sometimes to mean happiness is compatible with what indigenous peoples mean by well-being?  Or is the Japanese concept of ikigai, translated as being “a reason to live” a better fit?

Perhaps the work of Martin Seligman with his concept of PERMA (positive emotion; engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement) comes closest to capturing the main ideas behind this principle of learning? I wonder.

Even though I might not completely understand what First Peoples mean by well-being, I certainly have an acute sense of what it is not.  There is no well-being in a classroom with no laughter, a classroom in which students feel lonely in a crowd. There is no well-being when there is extreme anxiety and overwhelming stress experienced by students who find no meaning or purpose in what they’re doing other than that it’s part of the plot of the story of school.

It’s the story that says if you go all the way through school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, and then go to university, and then graduate, you’ll get a good job and then you’ll be happy. The ridiculousness of this story is perfectly illustrated in Alan Watts’ Music and Life analogy in which he exposes the false promise of education’s holy grail.

This myth about what school is for continues to be perpetuated even though we know that there is absolutely no guarantee that having a job that is well-paid leads to happiness as evidenced by rates of depression and suicide amongst highly-qualified professionals. To put it another way, there is no guarantee that if our children do everything right to get a good job, that the job will do much for their well-being beyond allowing for the provision of material wealth, which our modern western European culture positions as the pinnacle of happiness.

In our society, high purchasing power is equated with high levels of happiness, a necessary myth when our economy depends on increasing consumption of all kinds of stuff from cars to clothing. We are taught to fear a lack of growth in “consumer confidence” as though the worst thing that can happen is for us to stop shopping.

But what is the logical outcome of an unlimited extraction of the earth’s resources in order to manufacture the stuff that we are expected to keep purchasing so that we’ll be happy?

On 2 August this year, we used up the amount of resources that it takes the planet a year to replenish. We used up in 7 months what it will take 12 months to replace. That’s the denouement at the end of the Story of Stuff.

Can we really afford to perpetuate the myth that cancerous consumption leads to happiness?

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 9.41.10 AM

If ever there was a time to replace the current stories of school and of stuff with stories that the First Peoples developed over thousands of years while they sustained a regenerative relationship with their lands, that time would be now.

Well-being for our children and for our planet should be the ultimate goal of learning. We can’t afford for it not to be.

But what would that look like in the classrooms that our children will be in next month?

In her blog explaining the background of First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Jo Chrono explains that it’s important that the learning principles operate in a “robust and healthy learning environment”.  Now that’s something I do know about! Creating an environment that is engaging along with building a sense of community in my classroom have been my guiding pedagogical principles ever since I began teaching almost 30 years ago.

It’s not always been easy. Focusing on children’s well-being means being willing to get into trouble for allowing students to break school rules that disregard their physiological needs. It also means apologizing to students when there are things you know are not good for their well-being but about which you can do nothing.

But the task is not impossible. It’s not difficult to encourage laughter while learning. It just takes a little bit more planning to ensure that students are not forced to work when they’re fatigued. And it’s not too difficult to always keep in mind that the child sitting in front of you is more than just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with facts. That child is one node in a network of connections that include her family, her community, her ancestors, and, perhaps most importantly, the land around her.  

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the most amazing fact is that we are connected to the earth chemically, to each other biologically, and to the the universe atomically.

But then First Peoples have always known that.  They’ve always known that our individual well-being is directly connected to the well-being of everything around us.

As the impacts of climate change increasingly affect the world around us, let’s help our children to see that in everything they learn at school.

Curriculum for the Age of Climate Change?

Have you heard of First Peoples Principles of Learning, a list of approaches to learning common amongst Indigenous Peoples for the multiple millennia before colonization brought the scourge of Residential Schools? The publication of the principles is a result of a collaboration between the BC Ministry of Education and groups of “Indigenous Elder[s], scholars, and knowledge keepers” and meant to provide an overview of Indigenous pedagogy, a philosophy of learning grounded in relationships and responsibilities. The principles are:

Learning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.

Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).

Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one‘s actions.

Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.

Learning recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge.

Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.

Learning involves patience and time.

Learning requires exploration of one‘s identity.

Learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.

What if the Class of 2030 was completely immersed in experiences that upheld First Peoples Principles of Learning? Would they be better prepared to face the challenges brought by climate change when they graduate?

The next series of posts will explore these questions.

But before  continuing with my thoughts about what First Peoples Principles of Learning could look like in classrooms, I need to write about an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career in Canada. It’s a memory that makes me feel quite ashamed when I recall it. 

I remember that I was in the middle of one of those crazynutsbusy days that are the norm for teachers when I was told that a parent was wanting to speak to me. I remember wondering why she hadn’t come to the classroom as I walked to where she was. This part of the memory is so vivid I can see it as though it was happening right now.

I am standing at the top of a short flight of stairs at the entrance of our portable building. At the bottom of the stairs is a woman whom I’m told is the mother of one of my students. We greet each other while I’m wondering about why she’d come.

As soon as she begins to speak she starts crying and I don’t understand what she’s saying. It takes me a few minutes to hear her tell me that she’s so happy that her son, my student, was going to pass Grade 11. That he was the first person in the family to do so. And that she was so grateful that my classroom was the kind of space that helped him to succeed.  I don’t know what I said in response but it must have been something quite inadequate like “You’re welcome” or “I’m so glad that he’s enjoyed being with us”.

Here’s why this memory fills me with shame. I didn’t know her son was Indigenous. I didn’t know at the time that graduation rates for Indigenous students were abysmally low. And, most important of all, I really didn’t know what I had done to deserve her thanks.  I didn’t think I deserved it at all since I had not consciously set out to make her son’s learning experiences any different to the learning experiences of all my students.  It took me many years to figure out what possibly could have made the difference to her son. 

Because of my own experiences of alienation while being educated in South Africa during the apartheid era, as a teacher I am biased toward collaboration and cooperation. One of the first tasks that my students have to fulfill at the start of each semester is to learn each other’s names because they spend a lot of time working together. Building community is the focus of the first part of my planning schedule before it becomes the background to much of what we do in my classroom for the rest of the school year. I do it not only for my own sense of comfort but also because I believe that if we can’t learn to be together in public school classrooms, we’re not going to be able to be together in the world beyond the classroom where we need to “live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” as Martin Luther King Jr. said.

It was just serendipity that what I needed to be able to teach in my classroom was what her son had needed to succeed.  It’s also what we’re all going to need as we face the impacts of climate change, together.





Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth

Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth,

We have to talk. It’s about a topic you really don’t want to think about. When it comes up you flip into fear and then slip into denial while you silently hope that someone is going to save the day.

But there’s no one here but us. We’re all we’ve got on this tiny blue planet spinning in a dark void.

I know the data is overwhelming. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the facts, the statistics, the predictions. I get that. So don’t think about all that.

Think about the children. The ones who just got here. The ones who arrived on a warming planet of rising seas, devastating droughts, monster wildfires.

At some point they’re going to know that we knew what we were doing. That we knew we were putting too much carbon into the air. We knew that we were using up in 7 months what it took the planet 12 months to replenish.

They’ll also know that we knew what we needed to do to mitigate the impacts of the changes. We knew that we needed to stop burning fossil fuels, that we needed to stop shopping for pleasure so that we could stop wasting precious resources. We knew that an economy based on unlimited growth was unsustainable on a planet of limited capacity.

What will we tell them when they ask us why we didn’t act?

What story will we tell?


See, that’s what I want to talk about. The story that’ll be told to the generations to come about this time when we were too afraid to think about how our children will cope in a world of 45 degree summers and dried-up rivers. A world of drowned cities and growing deserts.

It’s true that stories like that already exist. Stories that are apocalyptic. Dystopian. Frightening. The kinds of stories that would give children nightmares.

But what if we could tell a different story?

What if we could tell our great-grandchildren about that time when we stopped being frozen in fear, the time when we realized that if we didn’t change our present, there would be no future?

Is that time now?

It seems to be a good time right now because we’re into Back to School season, a time that’s always felt like a second New Year, a time for beginnings and future dreams.  What collective dream do we have for the children, those returning to school, those just starting their schooling journey, and those who just recently arrived on our planet home?

If we’re ready, there’s no shortage of topics and themes for new dreams, new stories.  In the decades to come we could tell stories of the time we all leaped into a new relationship with our environment or the time a thousand towns transitioned. There’s already unfolding stories within the new economy and plenty of fascinating plots in the pursuit of a zero waste lifestyle.

Now, while we’re living in the future’s prologue, can we think about creating a new plot?

What say you?

Passenger # 5 354 309 834


Creativity in the Class of 2030

Near the end of this second decade of the 21st century, there is ample evidence that earth’s life supporting systems are slipping into crisis. We are in urgent need of all the creative solutions we can get to help us to transition away from the destructive path we’re on.  The last thing schools should be doing is constraining creativity but that’s likely what is happening to many of the children who began their schooling journey a few months ago, the ones who will graduate in 2030.

Ken Robinson’s Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk should not be seen as just an interesting thought exercise. With humanity facing the devastating consequences of climate change, his words should sound like a five-alarm fire.  

Our students are going to need new ways of coping with the realities of the world they’ll inherit: increasingly hotter summers, more frequent droughts, abnormal floods, regular wildfires, scarce resources and a teetering global economy that will likely mean that they’ll be “hard at work in a jobless future”.  

I confess to being impatient with those who believe that children are “too young” to learn about the realities of life. All across the world, there are millions of children who are taking care of younger siblings, because they’ve lost parents to war or disease. There are an estimated 100 000 unaccompanied child refugees trying to survive in Europe after crossing continents in their flight from war zones. Every year thousands of unaccompanied children flee Central and South America to travel to the United States. An estimated 300 000 children  are being used as soldiers around the world.  For millions of children, facing difficult realities can’t wait until they graduate.

So, when should we let the Class of 2030 know about the challenges they’ll face?  

What should they learn beyond reading, writing and arithmetic?

Because education systems the world over have been in constant state of “reform” for decades, there’s a bazillion possible responses to that question but, despite all attempts at change, schools the world over still look quite similar to the way schools looked in 1917.  And, as much as I like to dream of having trillions of dollars to turn all public schools into the kind of creative schools that Ken Robinson has written about, I have reluctantly realized that just wishing and hoping is an indulgent waste of time.

We have to think about what can be done with what we have right now, right where we are.  We have to engage the kind of creative thinking that people everywhere are capable of whenever they’re faced with a disaster or a crisis.

Something like the kind of thinking that William Kwamkambe engaged when he solved his family’s need for electricity by gathering scraps from a dump heap and reading about how to build a windmill from an old textbook.

Or perhaps the out-of-the-box kind of thinking of Kelvin Doe who scavenged through trash to find parts to build generators and batteries for his own radio station.

There is no shortage of examples of young people finding creative solutions to intractable problems all across the world, making do with what they have and what they know to make a difference in the world around them.

Children enter school as natural scientists, artists, makers, doers. They’re inquisitive about the world around them, excited to explore its nooks and crannies. But how will they leave after 13 years of being told a thousand times not to stray, to stay within the lines that separate curriculum from curiosity? How much of their childhood creativity will still be alive when they graduate in 2030?

Imagine what could be possible if their capacity for solving problems was nurtured and encouraged in schools everywhere for their entire 13 year journey.

Imagine a world with more Jaylas, Boyans  Haileys,  Victorias,  Ashtons,  Ridhimas and Marleys.


The Last Summer we saw the Sun

The last summer we saw the sun

we didn’t camp

since it would have been no fun

without the fire



while marshmallows

carefully were


burned orange sun


The last summer we saw the sun

we watched trees become



flinging flames

onto roofs,

racing unrelentingly

across fields and forests.


The last time we saw the sun

bright in a blue sky,

casting shade,

growing shadows,

was before this time

of the burnt-orange disc

that sheds faint light

through a smoky dome.


The last summer we saw the sun

we recognized 

that Beijing’s skies

had become our own.

Musings under Smoky Skies

It was good to see sunlight and shadows today after too many days under a smoky dome. Days when I developed a soon-to-be-the-new-normal routine: check air quality readings before my first sip of morning tea.  A reading of 7 on the 10 point scale meant being inside all day; a reading of 2, some time outside, but not too much. Asthmatic lungs don’t breathe well in air filled with too much particulate.  

I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been where readings reached 49.  On a 10 point scale.

But I suppose people who live in Beijing would know what that’s like since they’ve been living under a dome of smoke for quite a while now.  There are even stores there that only sell products to help people, including infants, breathe.

Beijing’s smoky skies ‘inspired’ a Chinese mother to create a documentary, Under The Dome, after she became convinced that the tumour her child developed in utero was caused by the smoky air. 150 million people saw it before it was banned in China.

My few days of living under a smoky dome here in ‘supernatural, beautiful British Columbia’ has led me to wondering about the kind of world the Class of 2030 will inherit. They’ll be starting school in a few weeks, beginning a thirteen-year journey of preparation for a world that will hopefully soon be in full transition to a new economy, one that does not cost the earth.  

But how do we prepare them for that transition?

Should they learn about firescience so that they can protect their homes and families when wildfires are common? Perhaps they could learn what Indigenous people have known about wildfires for millennia, what they know about ensuring that fire doesn’t devour entire communities?

Should we tell them to think of about becoming a wind turbine mechanic, the fastest growing career in North America today? We should certainly tell them that jobs in 2030 will look nothing like jobs today because by then, if we are to survive, we’ll have to be well on our way to containing our cancerous consumption of our planet’s resources.

One of the signs that the transition has already started is the rapid growth in forest schools in Europe and North America. More and more parents want their children to have a different relationship with the earth, one based on reverence and respect. They know that children will protect what they have learned to love.

If I could plan the curriculum for the Class of 2030 it would certainly contain a course on ecological literacy because our children will need to learn to read the skies the way they read a book.

What do you think the Class of 2030 should learn?

What shall I tell my students?

If Christy Clark wins the provincial election on Tuesday, what shall I tell my students? When corruption and callous disregard for the marginalized can be so richly rewarded, what incentive do my students have for being good? When cheating does not preclude you from occupying the highest office in the province, why should they listen to my warnings about plagiarism?

What happens to our society when what we teach about ethics and citizenship inside our schools is not reflected in the reality outside our classrooms?

We’re all familiar with the adage that children learn what they live, that they don’t pay as much attention to what we say but they’re always watching what we do.

What are we doing, British Columbia?

Are we really going to reward 16 years of malgovernance on Tuesday?

My students will be graduating soon in a province that has the “worst-performing economy” for young people and some of the highest tuition fees in Canada. They’re more than likely to join the increasing numbers of post-secondary students using food banks. They’re also unlikely to be able to afford a home and will have to seriously consider whether they can afford to have a family, daycare costs being what they are.

And while they’re dealing with all that, they’ll also soon be responsible for the massive debt that the BC Liberals have accrued over the past 16 years to say nothing about the huge contractual obligations they’ll be saddled with, courtesy of Christy Clark’s pay-for-play politics.

Are we collectively going to say that that’s all okay on Tuesday 9th May?

The BC Liberals inherited a surplus when they won the election in 2001. A surplus. This may be shocking to learn given the massive amount of disinformation about the NDP’s governance last century.

When the NDP were last in power, we did not have young people leaving the province in mass numbers for a better life somewhere else. We did not wait 6 hours in emergency rooms. We did not pay tolls to cross bridges. And we did not have 3-year waits for psychometric assessments for students with special needs.

Schools had libraries and librarians. People with disabilities had bus passes. Frail seniors in nursing homes did not wait hours to go to the toilet. No one died after waiting for help in a hospital emergency room.

This does not have to be so. We can be so much better.

For the sake of my students, please vote for a future they can believe in, one that gives them hope for a better B.C.

Let’s uninstall the malgovernance of Christy Clark

Parsimonious. That’s the word John Horgan used to describe the pattern of education funding over the past 16 years during a two hour discussion he had with a group of teachers yesterday.

If he had not already impressed us with his passion and genuine concern, his intellect and ability to articulate complex ideas would have sealed the deal.

It was so refreshing to have a conversation with a political leader who speaks in sentences that make sense, not in sound bites filled with lies and obfuscations.

It was enlightening to watch him be self-deprecating and witty while at the same time serious about the huge task he would have to turn around 16 years of malgovernance.

Like the malware that renders computers inoperable, Christy Clark’s governance is like a virus that has afflicted this province for too long.

John Horgan is the antidote we’ve been waiting for.

Portable Classrooms Catch 22

Imagine you and your family of 12 live in a home meant for a family of 5.

Imagine that you win a government grant that will allow you to build a bigger home.

But you can only get the money under certain conditions.

You will have to provide documented proof that your house is over-crowded by showing that every room, including the bathroom, the kitchen, and all the closets, are always in use, 24/7.

You will have to guarantee that none of the 12 family members will move out in the next 5 years.

And you will also have to guarantee that the new house will be ready for occupancy within 3 months despite the builders telling you that they need 9 months to build the home.

Given these conditions, would you believe that the government had any intention of actually providing the grant in the first place?

Well, imagine how teachers feel because this analogy describes how the Ministry of Education is going about implementing the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in at least two districts with overcrowded schools.

The Ministry says they’ll provide more classroom space in the form of portables but only if the District can prove the overcrowding by 28 April and also if the District can guarantee that the portables will be ready on 1 September.

They demand that all these conditions be met despite knowing full well that in order for portables to be ready by September, they should have been ordered by February this year.

Yes, the Ministry is complying with the Supreme Court ruling.

Just not in a way that will actually work for students in overcrowded classrooms.

For more details about this travesty, please read this piece by Laura Barker, First Vice President of the Surrey Teachers Association.