Matt Arsenault’s story
Written by Matt Arsenault
2021 Grand Prize Winner, Natural Curiosity’s National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education
I teach in Mi’kma’ki. I share with my students my gratitude for the people who have lived here (for over 13000 years) in balance with nature on the land that now gives us life. At Redcliff Middle School in Valley, Nova Scotia my grade 7 students explore, develop, and strengthen their relationships with the environment and the value of being Treaty People, in all of their courses. After having completed an MEd. in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy with a focus on changing to meet the needs of African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw students, I began working with a colleague to integrate all of our assignments so that the students develop a Two-eyed Seeing approach (Indigenous knowledge in partnership with scientic knowledge) every day, throughout the year. The culture and education I grew up with was far too rooted in colonialism to meet any student needs when it comes to environmental education. We can’t learn that material wealth is success and dominion over nature is progress and then be asked to truly consider sustainability, and we can’t ask students to learn about the immense environmental challenges facing our planet, and then expect them to have hope without helping them to develop their own powerful tools empowering them to take action. My students apply their math, science, writing, and artistic skills all toward taking personal action toward bringing more of themselves and their love of nature into the classroom, and being able to take political action to stand up for the land, water, air, and living things they all have a relationship with. We celebrate the power of science knowledge and Mi’kmaq knowledge in conservation. We accept the invitation to decolonize our own relationships with nature by exploring Mi’kmaq concepts of interconnectedness: 7 Generations, All my Relations, Netukulimk, and Two-eyed Seeing.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire
We begin deliberately decolonizing the classroom so that we can break the cultural mental habits that can keep nature and everything sacred to life out of our learning. We dig into the students’ stories of their own connections to the land. We make sure students and teachers know that their whole selves are welcome in the classroom, and that our science, math, and language learning is welcome on the land. We get outside and begin exploration of what everything is doing for each other, and how everything is in relationship with each other, and how those relationships include us. Mi’kmaw language is sacred to the land it comes from, and when the students have explored and developed questions about everything they find on the land, we learn Mi’kmaw words for insects, and the descriptive meanings, using that to begin to compare and contrast the strengths of scientific ways of knowing and indigenous ways of knowing. The students get to apply and grow their knowledge, creativity, and relationships by renaming everything they’ve found by using verb-based language so that we can see the relationships and interconnectedness through the names in nature. We add in science descriptions using matter cycles, photosynthesis, respiration, food webs, and before long the students are able to match their new names for parts of nature with the pictures they’ve taken and created. Next we explore Two-eyed Seeing, watching videos of elders, and speaking with guests. Our next steps explored examples of different ways of knowing coming together in research, like birch bark medicine chemistry in Unama’ki (Cape Breton), black ash tree conservation through the Mi’kmaw Conservation Group, protection of ecosystems by the Grassroots Grandmothers in Sipekne’katik, and Boat Harbour by Pictou Landing First Nation. We also investigate indigenous knowledge informing geological research through Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre.
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots
Students were able to create their own artwork, choosing an organism that matters to them, to show scientific ways of knowing on one side, and indigenous ways of knowing on the other side. Through this artwork the students acquire tools for decolonizing their own thinking by exploring how Mi’kmaw concepts like spirit in inanimate objects like water and grandfather and grandmother stones, 7 Generations, All My Relations, Netukulimk, verb-based naming, the interconnectedness of all life and matter can shape our relationships with our environment. All people deserve to develop their love of the environment, and that love deserves hope, and hope requires action, so the students must have opportunities to act on every environmental concern they have. Students’ interests, curiosity, and compassion has led them to use online resources to learn more about Environmental Racism in our province, to raise money to adopt koalas, to use the UINR and Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre websites for listening to elders speak about Netukulimk, and for learning about the culturally significant earth materials that have been used by Mi’kmaw peoples, on the beaches a coastal places familiar to the students and their families. Students learn to use the David Suzuki Foundation website to write letters to politicians about protection for ecosystems. We have had online and in-person meetings with politicians, including our member of parliament and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We have studied Two-Eyed Seeing conservation efforts including Apoqnmatulti’k who are working toward habitat conservation for tomcod, lobster, and eels in the Bay of Fundy and Bras d’Or Lake. We are entering their “Helping each other” ocean art contest. At Halloween we filmed fun horror movie trailers to focus on cool adaptations. The students insisted on removing all of the litter and garbage from all of the forest paths next to our school.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge
Students were concerned about pulp mill pollution piped into Boat Harbour (A’se’k) in Pictou Landing First Nation, so the students made cards with messages including “Get well A’se’k” and drawings of a remediated healthy Boat Harbour. Pictou Landing First Nation was so incredibly thoughtful they posted the cards the students made on social media with over a hundred positive comments, and sent the students a letter of thanks, and “A’se’k” shirts. When the students were upset about wildfires in Australia we started raising money. Our whole school joined in, symbolically adopting 20 koalas. One of the Australian animal hospitals put out a virtual school trip video, which we watched in class, and in that video Canada is mentioned for helping through koala adoptions, and the students immediately said “We were able to help. We were part of that.” Our member of parliament, Lenore Zann, who was born in Australia, helped spread the word, and together we inspired koala adoptions in other schools. In a year when guest speakers have not been possible, our member of parliament arranged a virtual meeting between my students and the Prime Minister. He graciously answered student questions for over half an hour, and the last student question was “What are your hopes for Canada dealing with environmental racism in the future?” In support of their classmate and their MP, the students have followed the progress of Private Member’s Bill C-230: An act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism. Last weekend my Member of Parliament sent me a picture of a chance meeting on a beach with one of my students. They had never met in person before, but ended up discussing Lenore Zann’s private member’s bill and the need for more legislation for protecting the land, air, and water.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World
Students have accepted the challenge to use their voices purposefully, and they’ve challenged me to do the same. After a student found inspiration from a poem about learning geology in a building that would eventually crack and return to nature, we contacted the author, and she invited me to go to Millbrook First Nation to see her play about Two-Eyed Seeing in conservation of chimney swift habitat. When the play was performed in a few schools ours was chosen, but a friend and Mi’kmaw grandmother and Water Protector who teaches in Sipekne’katik First Nation wasn’t able to get the play to come to her students, so I invited her to bring her students to my school and we all watched together. In turn, I was then invited to an Earth Day water ceremony. I ended up getting filmed in a documentary about the Maritime Bhangra Group, so now I get to show my students a joyful socially conscious dance group who have made Nova Scotia their home, speaking about their respect for the Grassroots Grandmothers Water Protectors and the Mi’kmaq connection to water. The interconnectedness keeps growing. I’ve been invited to with the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre to give an educator and learner perspective on the development of their new online portal which educators and learners will use to hear from knowledge keepers about the land, communities, and sustainability in the form of Netukulimk. The students actions to develop their relationships with the land, their communities, and other communities and ecosystems within Mi’kma’ki, Canada, and the world, have led to the cards for Pictou Landing First Nation, the David Suzuki Foundation website letters and petitions, students appearing in the newspaper for raising money for koalas, meetings with our MP, and our Prime Minister. The students are making their voices heard.
Putting it Back Together
Decolonizing our learning and discovering what it means to be Treaty People learning in Mi’kma’ki is key to our environmental education. Part of decolonizing has meant he teacher cannot be in an isolated-authoritative-expert-role, but rather I help the students to connect with the people they need to speak to and hear from in order to take action on their feelings toward environmental challenges. With a Two-Eyed Seeing perspective we break down the walls between subject areas, developing persuasive writing for applying science concepts to political letters, and letters to the editor. We use math class to study Mi’kmaw art, collect data outdoors, interpret maps of environmental racism from the ENRICH project, and enjoy playing the Mi’kmaw game of Waltes. We use Health class to draw medicine wheels with goals to strengthen our connections to nature, culture, our emotional selves, and our mental selves. When students see that Nova Scotia is a part of the history of Mi’kma’ki, there is over 13000 years of environmental stewardship to draw upon, and there is truth to build a future upon. When Knowledge Keepers, Water Protectors, artists, politicians, koala hospitals, First Nations communities and conservation groups are interacting with my students, the students experience over and over again the invitation to grow their interconnectedness with the world that gives them life. My students need to overcome a colonial culture of dominion over nature and material wealth celebrated as success and progress. Diversity in culture and in nature is how nature gives us a chance to face adversity. My students need to recognize their love and belonging in nature, which requires courage that can only come from learning that there are adults all around them who are listening, and bringing their compassion, humility, and ways-of-knowing together to strive for a sustainable future.