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MEd graduate ready to reinvent her approach to teaching

September 26, 2019
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By Diane Luckow

Coquitlam teacher Nicole McKenzie has 22 years of teaching behind her. But after spending the past two years as a student in a unique SFU master of education (MEd) program focused on nature-based and place-conscious learning, she has transformed her conventional approach to teaching—and her approach to life.

“My thinking has shifted entirely,” says McKenzie, who works with home-schooled students in Coquitlam’s Encompass program. “Before I took this program I saw learning in the natural world more as a backdrop. Now I see the natural world as a co-teacher.”

She and 24 other educators in the MEd cohort spent only one day in the classroom during the two-year program. The rest of their classes were held in natural settings off-campus that included q̓íc̓əy̓ (Katzie) and q̓ʷa:n̓ƛ̓ən̓ (Kwantlen) First Nations lands where they learned from Indigenous elders and experts about the land and land stewardship. They also learned about the long-term impacts of colonial practices such as overfishing.

Coquitlam teacher Nicole McKenzie, left, during an outdoor class with some of her students. She plans to incorporate much more outdoor activity and learning in her curriculum.

Professor Cher Hill established the MEd program with colleagues Laura Piersol and Sean Blenkinsop, and former Maple Ridge school principal Clayton Maitland. She says the program grew from a request for SFU to develop a master’s program that would prepare teachers to work at the popular Maple Ridge Environmental School, Canada’s first outdoor public school.

To create the program, Hill and her colleagues partnered with the Environmental School, as well as the q̓íc̓əy̓ and q̓ʷa:n̓ƛ̓ən̓ communities, to develop an MEd curriculum that uses inquiry-oriented experiential learning. The curriculum helps students examine and deepen their relationships with the natural world, and enhances their capacity to teach those lessons to their own pupils.

The first cohort graduates this October and Hill says the students have experienced the most transformative change she’s seen in more than 10 years of offering graduate education for practicing teachers.

“The extent of change that we have witnessed in the teachers over the two-year program has been astounding,” she says. “Some teachers who were dabbling in outdoor education are now supporting their students to develop deeply ethical and reciprocal relationships with the natural world. Others are working to decolonize their pedagogical practice and build relationships with local Indigenous communities. Many have come into their own as leaders of this movement, and you can see that they are carrying themselves in a different way.”

The students’ enthusiasm for their lessons on the land led to community action after they learned about how the warming Fraser River threatens salmon. They initiated a creek restoration project that attracted more than 500 community participants who cleared local creeks of invasive species and planted 1,000 shade trees and plants along creek banks to cool the Fraser and improve the salmon’s habitat.

McKenzie says she now sees herself as a changemaker. She has transformed how she teaches to incorporate more outdoor lessons about land and land stewardship. And this fall she held a teachers’ workshop in Mission to tell other teachers about what she is doing, and why.

“The MEd program has really helped me be bolder, and act on making change,” says McKenzie, who plans to take more community action in her personal life as well.

“It’s very important that kids learn in and from nature. If they have a connection with the natural world, then they’re going to want to care for it.”