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WATER DOCS @ SCHOOL: WATER ISSUES THROUGH THE LENS OF STUDENTS
By Suzanne Forcese
Ecologos, a non-profit organization, founded by Stan and Miriam Gibson in 1998 is perhaps best known for their Water Docs Film Festival, an event spanning several days of high-impact films, animated discussions and community learning with opportunities to take action in the protection of water. By focusing on documentary story-telling and experiential learning as the best ways to encourage people to shape attitudes and action in water issues, the Ecologos environmental passion has been channelled into a learning and action program for Grade 8 students. In partnership with Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF), a unique program has been implemented in over 200 classes over the past 6 years with a reach of 5,000 students.
“Stan Gibson approached us,” Pam Schwartzberg, President and CEO of Learning for a Sustainable Future, told WaterToday. “He wanted to know how we can get young people engaged in water issues and taking water stewardship action.” Following the same mission statement of using documentary films as a means to teach, learn, engage and take action, Water Docs @ School was born.
WaterToday spoke with Ecologos Founder, Stan Gibson. “For every school day from October to April our Water Docs @ School is part of the Grade 8 Science Program,” Gibson said. “By the end of the year these kids can’t help but be water stewards for the rest of their lives.” The Ontario curriculum for Grade 8 is a good fit since the Department of Education focuses on the topic of Water for the school year. “We dedicate ourselves to protecting water, using documentary storytelling and experiential learning to revive a sense of reverence, address threats, and stir action.” After learning about the issues of the local watershed, students switch into taking control of an interactive inquiry based learning approach with teacher mentorship. Students create a community environment project and then a documentary film of the project. There are prizes for the best project and the best film.
Nizam Hussein, one of the first teachers to implement the program when it was first introduced as a pilot project spoke with WaterToday about her ‘amazing’ experiences. “I cannot say enough good things about the program.” It was for Hussein a valuable learning for her students, parents, community and for herself.
“Students get a real understanding of their place in the environment, their home and that actions do matter and have an effect. As a teacher, I developed a real understanding of how learning works. Grade 8 students sitting in a classroom are not connected to the environment. This project got them out and thinking. They developed empathy and caring. Being in their own neighborhood and being able to take control of water issues that are real to the community are the drivers of the project for the students.”
Samantha Gawron, who leads the Water Docs @ School from the LSF end told WT that the program comes with prepared lesson plans. “Teachers are really finding it is a lot less work than they thought because the program is so well designed.” LSF also offers professional development days for teachers. “This year, on October 29, we are offering a youth forum to 25 different schools (1 teacher and 5 students per school) where keynote speakers will introduce the group to local water issues and the skills they will need in developing their own water doc project and film.” Hussein added that students were really inspired by previous forums. From a teacher’s perspective there is also an incredible amount of support and teaching guidance to ease into a novel approach to water communication.
“It’s all about the kids taking ownership,” Hussein said. It is not always clear sailing. There are the usual storms to navigate as in any learning experience. The difference however is that the students look to the teachers as guides and mentors. “We can help them to sort through the rough spots and steer them in the direction of necessary research. They are also learning a very important skill in the collaborative process and understanding feedback in a positive way.”
WaterToday also spoke with Melanie Howe, Lead Programmer, Ecologos.“This will be the 7th year of the program that allows kids to take control of their own learning. The first part of the program beginning in October deals with lessons about the local watershed. We have also partnered with The Water Brothers. They show their episode on Carpageddon, the changing ecosystem in the Great Lakes brought about by the invasion of Asian Carp.”
The experience not only provides the excitement of working with actual film-makers but also educates students on their own watershed. “In late October and November, students and teachers participate in a video webinar with the Water Brothers where they can call in and ask questions about film-making.” Schwartzberg also said, “Film-making is so familiar to students – perhaps even more than teachers. The webinars are a valuable resource for teachers as well.”
From there, students form their groups –usually their own choice—and decide what local issue they want to tackle. It can be any topic from plastic pollution to road salt as long as it belongs to the watershed. Once that is settled the real work begins -- research, gathering statistics, before and after surveys, giving talks to students in the lower grades – and the constant scripting.
The Water Brothers are on tap with tips on proper film-making and links to webinars and the students must also be visible in social media to bring their message to the world.
“Students are learning a lot if independence and the skills involved in meeting deadlines,” Hussein said. There is much to be accomplished by January when the films are to be edited. Guidance is there again as the student/teacher team is
provided with editing tips from the professionals. “It’s really a time for them to learn perseverance and the ability to reflect as they understand the importance of feedback. It is also immense work. Something like sound quality for instance could derail the entire project. That’s a huge editing challenge that will involve re-filming.”
The final step is a 4 minute film that is submitted for adjudication.
At a Student Recognition Event all students are lauded for their Water Doc @ School participation. One film is chosen as best project and one film is chosen as best video. “The projects are always amazing,” Schwartzberg said. “These kids are amazing. I am always blown away by their work. Some years it is very difficult to choose a winner—they are all that good.”
And from the teacher, Miss Nizam Hussein, who has been involved in Water Docs @School since its inception – “This has really made me think about the environmental issues our Earth is facing. The fact that this project is placed somewhere that is near, dear, and relevant to the school and community makes it so real to all of us. This is an experience that none of us will forget because it connects us all to the environment. Every year I think, these are the kids that will make a difference.”
Learning for A Sustainable Future, President and CEO, Pamela Schwartzberg, summarized the sentiments of students, parents, and teachers in the simplest and clearest way. “This is the way all learning should be.”
Please enjoy the film “Beet the Salt”, last year’s winner of the WaterDocs@School. Courtesy of Stan Gibson, Ecologos Founder.
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