How to Flow Upstream: Eco-Art Connecting Students with their Learning
Thirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.
Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.
I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.
This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.
In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.
Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”.  This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.
So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.
It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.
As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”,  meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”.  Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.
In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.
Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”.  Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.
With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”. 
The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.
In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”.  The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In in her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”.  This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.
The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.
Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real'”.  In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from. If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.
Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”.  These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.
My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.
We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.
One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.
She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school. However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here. That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right. This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.
Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.
Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.
How to Flow Upstream: Eco Art Connecting Students With Their Learning
Shimshon Obadia (author), Denise Kenney (supervisor), Nancy Holmes (advisor)