Friday, 22 March 2013

Inside the outdoor classroom installation

Flax window at installation, November 2012
On November 20, 2012, a cohort of the teacher education program joined me for a collaborative learning workshop and research day. Since the class has been exploring themes of indigenous education and the relationship between land and education, it was exciting to share my research journey with the students and create a generative space to explore our overlapping questions, concerns, and hopes.

The workshop started with a brief brainstorm and discussion: “Think of schoolyards you know: If these landscapes were ‘teachers.’ what & how were they teaching you?”

Immediately, a rich conversation ensued in which the binaries between inside/outside, student/teacher, learning/playing and other forms of segregation and categorization became very apparent. Students repeatedly underscored how fences and adult supervision were intended to communicate a “safe place” for children.

“During school hours, within the boundaries of the fence we were safe from harm and the rest of the world. School was a distinct place, and this landscape seemed to enforce it.” – Student Teacher

Sound familiar? Following this “warm-up” we went down to see the installation, “Threads Sown, Grown & Given.” 

Discussing with Debra Sparrow at indoor installation
Echoing the outdoor installation, the layout of the indoor installation was yet another framed enclosure (classrooms and gardens are both enclosures): 4 weathered canvas windows depicting historical school gardens; a new black “window” with four panes of vibrant flax photographs from the summer; a “blackboard” of project pictures, quotes, and spun linen materials; and, at the centre, a round table surrounded by chairs and covered in flax plants, fibres, and the tools required for spinning flax to linen.
BEd Students and flax fibres 

I was really unsure how students would respond to this somewhat abstract and awkwardly small space. In the summer, the student teachers largely fixated on the incredible and unfamiliar living flax plants arranged in the rigid grid of desks in rows. Indoors, the historical images, summer installation remnants, and student quotes drew students’ attention and led to intent conversations and reflections. Many students were drawn to the vivid beauty of the images and plants and expressed a desire to connect children with nature; however, many also simultaneously struggled with the colonial implications of a complicated history of school gardening:

“This made me think about how school gardens have changed over time. The images of what we thought was a residential school meant students were actually working on the farm rather than getting an academic education. The images of the German school garden is reminiscent of Nazi youth training children under a Nazi philosophy. With this interpretation of a school garden it is a fairly negative thing” – Student Teacher

Window of school gardening/farming at residential schools
 “I also found the pictures to be very beautiful – the colours were vibrant and create a desirable place to be. I noticed a large contrast between the images on the windows which almost appear prisonlike, and the photographs of Julia’s project which were colourful, included people, and had images of people connecting with the landscape” – Student Teacher

Students also learned the ancient and worldwide practice of using a drop spindle to spin flax fibres into linen thread. While the task was difficult, each group managed to spin a length of linen thread. Some even found the work relaxing! Anik, a local fibre artist (see Fibre Sauvage), helped us with our hand-made spindles constructed of chop sticks & erasers.

“I enjoyed feeling and working with the flax fibres. I found I was able to connect more with the project by actually seeing and feeling the materials. Trying to spin the fibres was challenging, but a good learning experience. I found it meaniningful that it’s a practice that adults and children around the world do. I like that it connected me to people in other countries and cultures” – Student Teacher

Spindles and flax fibres for spinning flax to linen
Debra Sparrow, a Musqueam artist, then shared with the group her experiences of becoming an artist and the connections between art and academics, growing up at Musqueam, the significance of history and Indigenous ways of knowing, her connections to her culture and the land, and stories about schooling and the learning that she experienced with her family and community. She showed us her weaving (which you can see at the Museum of Anthropology), her medicinal plant remedies, and talked about working as a First Nations artist with the 2010 Olympics and in museum education.

There were many different “threads” that we explored during the workshop, some of them beautiful and inspiring, others cautionary and difficult. Each of us will continue weaving these threads into our practices as we learn to become teachers.

Thank you to the students, the course instructor, Anik, and Debra Sparrow for making this workshop/research day such a rich learning experience. Please feel free to submit comments on this blog or to Julia Ostertag at:

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