What Can History Educators Learn From Environmental Education? – Part 2

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This is the second of two posts in which we share our experiences teaching environmental education (EE) courses in the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) program at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. As with our first post, we hope that our reflections on the content, pedagogies, and assessments in our courses may be useful for others teaching environmental topics, including environmental history. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we taught the first part of the winter semester online, and then transitioned back to in-person learning to finish off our course in the spring. For our final week together, we combined our classes into one 4-hour class and visited Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. Teacher candidates had the opportunity to engage with nature while reflecting in a “sit spot,” eat snacks around a bonfire, share their final assignments, and take part in a scavenger hunt. It was a fun way to end our time together and celebrate all the learning and growth throughout the year, while also celebrating Earth Month.

environmental education course celebration at Elbow Lake, students gather around bonfire
Our EE celebration at Elbow Lake.

As we mentioned previously, the courses hinge on formative assessments and recursive scaffolding for summative assessments. In the second semester, students complete a series of journal responses (discussed in Part 1), an EE portfolio and presentation, a climate story video, and an action plan.

Environmental education course celebration at Elbow Lake
Our EE celebration at Elbow Lake.

For the Pod Portfolios and Presentations assignment, teacher candidates formed small pods (groups) to create an EE portfolio. They began by developing their ideas through an in-class presentation, which focused on their pod’s in-progress work and was aimed at gathering constructive feedback on particular aspects of their portfolio. Teacher candidates were responsible for providing feedback to each pod, which was later incorporated into their final portfolios along with feedback from the instructor. The rationale for this assignment is that teacher candidates investigate topics and approaches to teaching and learning that they are passionate about and collaborate with each other to facilitate their own professional development. This year’s portfolios included Indigenous storytelling, children’s literature, forest fires, outdoor learning, school and community projects, and Earth Day. By sharing their portfolios, teacher candidates go away with multiple packages of workshopped resources.

The final assignment in each of our courses complemented one another and aimed to leave students feeling a sense of hope for the future while considering specific actions they might take as environmental educators to create a better world.

Sara developed a Climate Story Videos assignment in which teacher candidates create short 2-3 minute videos about their own experience of climate change (within their communities), how they imagine a better world, and what role they will play in making it a reality as environmental educators. These stories are meant to be personal and make emotional connections to climate change. This type of authentic assessment could be adapted for history classes because it considers environmental changes over time and has students draw connections between the past, present, and future. To learn more about climate stories and to view/listen to examples, visit Climate Generation, the source of inspiration for this assignment.

Heather’s final assignment invites teacher candidates to continue their learning journey beyond the course by submitting an Action Plan. The Action Plan assignment asks them to design at least two SMART goals for themselves as environmental educators, and to provide a detailed list of actions to achieve those goals. In past years, students have identified additional EE qualifications they would like to pursue, planned to plant a food garden as practice for engaging their future students in gardening, or designed after-school clubs related to climate activism. The rationale for this is derived from the work of climate change educators who advocate for hope-building activities, such as Sarah Jaquette Ray and Elin Kelsey.1 By engaging in action planning through considering spheres of influence, identifying leverage points, and taking small actions consistent with their strengths and passions, teacher candidates may develop the competencies to help their future students engage in similar change-oriented and hope-generating activities.

There are three main themes that characterize the content of our EE coursework in the second semester: environmental justice, outdoor and experiential learning, and hope and action. We acknowledge that those who teach environmental history are likely already engaging with similar topics and approaches, and we hope you will find these ideas to be useful extensions and, in some cases, new possibilities for your own classes.  

Environmental Justice

Our courses consider diverse experiences surrounding climate change and interacting with nature, and we emphasize the importance of environmental justice within EE. In one class this semester, teacher candidates learned about nature, race, and environmental education in relation to both the past and the present. Prior to class, teacher candidates were required to watch at least one of the three stories presented in the documentary There’s Something in the Water. During class, teacher candidates learned about environmental racism and discussed examples within the documentary as well as their local communities. Teacher candidates also learned about ways that teachers can address racism and reviewed resources for engaging racialized students in exploring the outdoors.2

For students who are particularly interested in climate justice or equity topics, the Action Plan assignment becomes a vehicle for shaping their activism and commitments. For example, some students plan to intentionally use social media on a weekly or monthly basis to disseminate important news or inspire change in their communities.

Outdoor and Experiential Learning

The themes of outdoor learning, nature connectedness, and “wild” pedagogies—that is, approaches to teaching that foster an appreciation for the more-than-human and decentre anthropocentrism—are predominant in second semester conversations. Teacher candidates are encouraged to consider how curiosity and open-mindedness can be fostered in relation to land, water, and other species. The work of David Sobel helps immensely with picturing how learning can happen by suturing curriculum content with experiential activities featuring: adventure, fantasy and imagination, animal allies, maps and paths, special places, small worlds, and hunting and gathering.3 Further exploration of such ways of being in the world occurs through engagement with the text Wild Pedagogies.4 This framework pushes hard against our normative boundaries of how learning should happen, who should be viewed as the “teacher,” and what outcomes we can expect from an education of value. As a result, students are encouraged to rethink their task as educators in the midst of environmental precarity.

This spring, Sara engaged teacher candidates in experiential learning, or “learning by doing,” on a walking tour of Kingston’s penitentiary history.5 Using a graphic organizer that outlines six historical thinking concepts and associated questions, teacher candidates were guided to think critically about connections between local history and the environment. As they visited sites near campus, including the Prison for Women, Kingston Penitentiary, and the Penitentiary Stone Quarry, teacher candidates considered histories involving each of these sites and the lands on which they’re situated. History educators are encouraged to explore their own communities with their students and shift away from an exclusive focus on people and buildings to also consider the histories of more-than-human beings and the land/water surrounding us.

Teacher candidates observing the former Prison for Women.
Teacher candidates observing the former Prison for Women.

Hope and Action

As we wrapped up our courses, we wanted to leave teacher candidates with a sense of hope and a commitment to action. Learning about how people in the past have overcome the challenges of their time can contribute to a sense of comfort, suggest ways forward, and inspire hope for a better future (though we recognize that the past is not a blueprint). In class, teacher candidates considered parallels between a wartime emergency in the past (the Second World War) and the present-day climate emergency, as outlined by Seth Klein in A Good War.6 They examined Second World War propaganda posters and used them as inspiration for creating their own posters that rally the public to do our bit in response to the climate emergency.

Propaganda posters for the climate emergency.

Teacher candidates also learned how thrifty postwar Canadians reduced, reused, and upcycled the remnants of war (e.g., airplanes, jeeps, uniforms) in creative ways, turning what Alex Souchen refers to as “War Junk” into valuable items to improve their everyday lives.7 Today, reducing our consumption is one way to “do our bit” and make a difference. In a related activity, teacher candidates identified their carbon footprint—their choices and behaviours that negatively impact the environment—and carbon handprint—actions they can take to make positive change.

An activity sheet that has an outline of a foot labeled "my carbon footprint" on the left and an outline of a hand with the label "my carbon handprint" on the right
Carbon footprint & handprint activity handout.

While individual behavioural and consumption changes can make a difference—and it is important to discuss which ones make the most difference—we also encourage teacher candidates to help youth see their potential impact in the realms of politics, policy, activism, and organizing for change. Teacher candidates investigate lesson plans available on the internet from a variety of sources that focus on climate policy to counteract the idea that policy is too complex for children and youth to learn about. They also hear about youth groups, such as Climate Education Reform BC, that are taking leadership in the movement to revise curriculum, programming, and educational infrastructure in response to the climate emergency. The message we hope teacher candidates—and their future students—will take from these resources is that many people are taking action, and that they can become part of these solutions and communities, rather than feeling isolated or paralyzed.

Overall, we have both enjoyed teaching EE this year and collaborating to design new lessons and assignments that highlight connections between history and the environment. We would be happy to hear your thoughts on the reflections we’ve shared in both posts, whether you’ve adapted aspects of our lessons and assignments for your own classes, and any ideas you have that we could incorporate into our future teaching!

You can connect with the authors on Twitter @sara_karn and @heather_e_mcg.


1 Sarah Jaquette Ray, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, (University of California Press, 2020); Elin Kelsey, Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis, (Greystone Books, 2020).

2 Jacqueline L. Scott & Ambika Tenneti, “Race and Nature in the City: Engaging Youth of Colour in Nature-based Activities,” https://naturecanada.ca/race-and-nature-in-the-city/. See also social media pages Colour the Trails and Brown Girl Outdoor World.

3 David Sobel, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, (Stenhouse Publishers, 2008).

4 Bob Jickling, Sean Blenkinsop, Nora Timmerman, & Michael De Danann Sitka-Sage, Wild Pedagogies: Touchstones for Re-negotiating Education and the Environment in the Anthropocene, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

5 Stones Kingston, “Penitentiary City,” http://www.stoneskingston.ca/penitentiary-city/

6 Seth Klein, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, (ECW Press, 2020).

7 Alex Souchen, War Junk: Munitions Disposal and Postwar Reconstruction in Canada, (UBC Press, 2020).

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Sara Karn and Heather E. McGregor

Sara Karn is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her research explores historical empathy in Canadian history education. Sara is also a K-12 teacher in Ontario and has led experiential learning programs to the battlefields in Europe. You can connect with her on Twitter: @sara_karn | Dr. Heather E. McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum Theory in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her interest in environmental history began during her undergraduate degree at Acadia University and has taken many paths and forms since then. Now she teaches History Methods, History and Philosophy of Education, First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies, and Environmental Education in teacher education programs. You can connect with her on Twitter: @heather_e_mcg

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