Water Pedagogies Confluence in the Great Lakes

On November 29, 2016, 12 educators from around the Great Lakes started a conversation on the tools and methods to integrate a 'water curriculum' in shared classrooms and communities. This confluence was organized and hosted by Bonnie McElhinny (University of Toronto) and Paul Baines (Great Lakes Commons).

Each participant was asked to talk about their experiences and background in water education and to consider the following questions:

  • How do you engage students?

  • What is one problem, question, or resource that remains unaddressed or unavailable for you?

  • What opportunities do you see for educators and students connecting across the Great Lakes?

Listen to the audio of that conversation and leave your comments and questions in the comments section.


Below is a summary of each presenter’s main points


Paul Baines from Great Lakes Commons opened with the general shift from teaching about water to teaching with water and making the rules that currently govern water more clear. He highlighted one new resource called a Compass Of Care to help learners unpack their water ethic and support a deeper relationship with water. While teaching about and directing our efforts to improve water quality are key, doing the same about the quality of our relationship to water was offered as need too. GLC will be sharing a set of resources on these themes this winter.

Paul Baines is GLC's Outreach and Education coordinator. Paul leaped into the GLC work after reading ‘Our Great Lakes Commons: a peoples plan to protect the Great Lakes forever’ and then founded the Great Lakes Commons Map in 2012 to crowdsource people’s worry and wisdom for water protection through place-based data, discussion and story. His educational background is in environmental and cultural studies and critical pedagogy.

Deborah McGregor teaches at York University in Toronto. She teaches students how to learn and how to embody knowledge. Central to this is knowing a sense of place – ie, making land and water acknowledgements as starting place and then finding and exploring a relationship with place and understanding responsibilities. Important not to just take knowledge but take responsibility for that knowledge. She does this by taking students outside and helping them pay attention to what they hear and see and to look for any signs of Indigenous presence. This is learning through the senses  rather than just through their intellect, so more wholistic. Knowing only really happens when it’s embodied, tied to these responsibilities and lasting beyond the school term. One example of a learning tool is the First Story app acting as a guide to understand place. Deb would also ask students what did you learn from water, from trees, and from wind, but these need a build-up first. She sees how communities facing water challenges don’t have the same resources as universities and would like to build equity by making this relationship more reciprocal. She sees the need for connecting across the Great Lakes and engaging in and supporting grassroots initiatives that increase student learning and build more linkages between groups.

Deborah McGregor is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair Indigenous Environmental Justice. Her research has focused on Indigenous knowledge systems and their various applications in diverse contexts including water and environmental governance, environmental justice, forest policy and management, and sustainable development.

Alexandra Thomspon is in Orillia just north of Lake Simcoe using experiential education, mediation, games, the Thanksgiving Address, cooperative learning, and discussion-based pedagogies. She uses The Work that Reconnects in the classroom to unpack how we feel about climate change and environmental issues. Her question here is looking for ideas on how to bring water issues more into the classroom. She also uses the Coyotes Guide to Connecting Kids With Nature book. She supports the use of both a land and water acknowledgment and trying out the First Story app.

Alexandra Thompson is a Lecturer at Lakehead University. Alex Thomson was born in Toronto and has spent much of her formative years in north central Ontario, including the coniferous forests on Anishnaabe territory near Sudbury and Temagami, Ontario.

Kristyn Tully works with Swim Drink Fish Canada to spread and support tools for student learning about their sense of place. One tool is the Watermark story mapping initiative that creates an archive of people’s water experiences and creats more knowledge on how to protect water. Watermark helps tell the story of people’s connection with water and how water has shaped them. Learning here goes beyond just relying on facts, but relevant knowledge from the past and present. She is working with a variety of classrooms (including ESL ones) by sharing water experiences about water in Toronto. Water Literacy is another element of their engagement, since we value water but our activities don’t reflect that care. People need better knowledge about water systems (knowing where your water comes from, knowing where it’s safe to swim). People are water experts for where they live and she helps facilitate and share that knowledge.

Krystyn Tully is vice president and co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Krystyn Tully has been organizing community events and organizations since her days as a high school student in Oshawa, Ontario. Since co-founding Lake Ontario Waterkeeper with Mark Mattson in 2001, Tully has written or edited more than 400 articles about water and environmental policy.

Stephen Gasteyer is in East Lansing Michigan teaching students who predominantly have a scientific lens when learning about water and policy, but he’s been bringing in Indigenous and environmental justice leaders/scholars to encourage a broader perspective. He knows his work is ‘complicating’ the more cartesian minds of his students but sees many new opportunities for connecting with the current crises in Flint and Standing Rock and the Line 5 pipeline. Students are resistant to getting more outside the classroom, but are entering the classroom with an existing understanding of these current crises and a starting place for learning how to heal our relationship with water.

Stephen P. Gasteyer is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University. Dr. Gasteyer’s research focuses on the nexus between water, land, community development. 

Sheila Boudreau is a Toronto-based landscape architect doing outreach to schools and community groups creating eco-cities that live lightly on the land and are part of the water solution.  Through design, she works to enrich people’s lives through more public awareness and projects that transform behaviours with a majority of private property owners. Cities are struggling with stormwater costs and flow where solutions need greater public awareness and support.  She works with eco-schools and Conservation Authorities and knows that Grade 8 students and many of her colleagues don’t understand what a watershed is with less than half understanding urban hydrology. She supports pilot projects that engage students and adults since there isn’t enough time to wait for the next generation to address current water issues. She pursues creative partnerships to share knowledge and not duplicate efforts. More public pressure is needed on governments for green design and there’s a lot of inertia in the field of landscaping.

Sheila is a landscape architect and urban designer at the City of Toronto, with over twenty years professional experience in both the public and private sectors. 

Marcie Cunningham has 20 years of experience working with children and has noticed most teachers don’t have local or adequate resources for teaching about water. She ran a project engaging 50 grade 8 students and mentors for a water challenges event where participants pitched innovate solutions to water problems. ‘One Water’ is a program with the Ontario Clean Water Agency to show the science and activities for cleaning a city’s water. She noticed how when learners are connected to what’s happening locally, their respect for water increases (ie, conserving water, strengthening their personal connection with water, thinking through their choices and the water impacts). These local water challenges support more realistic and more emotional connections to water with students assuming more responsibility. ‘The Changing Great Lakes’ is another pilot project to a) connect with the context of climate change b) create a portrait of a shoreline with geography/media skills all connected to the curriculum c) design how they adapt to changes and d) create stories about people’s perspectives on water.

Marcie Cunningham is a partner in CGC Educational Communications. She and her partner John Gregory are working on several water literacy projects, two of which were created for the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) and are rolling out across the province. 

Elizabeth Miller uses films in her classroom to prompt student learning. Her documentary The Waterfront looks at water through lens of environmental justice. Her new project The Shoreline is a way to cross borders and issues by looking at the changing environments of 9 communities. She works best in collaborative media projects. Her ‘Hands On’ project, asked 5 film makers to document change makers in their community. She teaches in an urban context in Montreal so connecting learners to nature and place through media helps build engagement. The Shoreline project acts as a prompt to gather responses in a variety of ways. She is curious about how to tell a collective story with clear common parameters that one person would be unable to tell. She adds layers with the request for data and poetry. She runs a Water Journalism course in Iran to build more transborder water ethics and storytelling techniques. Students sense being part of something bigger in her projects and this creates more student pride in their work. She believes water works well for this collaborative approach for use in multiple classrooms and water bodies.

Elizabeth Miller is an independent documentary maker, trans-media artist, and professor at Concordia University. She is interested in new approaches to community collaborations and the documentary format and my work connects personal stories to larger social concerns. 

Andrea Most teaches a course called ‘The Environmental Imagination’ and comes to water pedagogies through her food activism and experiential learning – such as her ‘Cook the Books’ course of embodied knowledge. She struggles within the limits of a university context and a rigid English department curriculum. The Bela Farm project is a 100 acre farm 1 hour west of Toronto where a team turns farming into an advocacy and art project. Bottled water giant Nestle has a well close to the farm and takes a million litres a day. She’s working with a local group Wellington Water Watchers to address dropping water levels. This year she plans to have a greater emphasis on water issues and is looking to host meetings for more ideas on water advocacy for the classroom and the farm.

Andrea Most is Professor of American Literature and Jewish Studies in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. She teaches and conducts research in the areas of modern American literature and culture, Jewish cultural studies, the environmental humanities, food studies, theatre and performance. 

Rachel Havrelock joins today after bringing her students to panel hosted by the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago. She runs Freshwater Lab to get students from planning, social science and humanities programs to examine the Great Lakes basin on issues of gender, race, and class. Her university is racially diverse and an exciting place to engage students with a variety of critical lenses. She brings leaders/projects into the classroom for students to work on current issues and solutions (ie, envisioning a public water company to replace Nestle). She is still trying to find the best language to draw in different disciplines to the lab’s work. She announced a May water summit called Untrouble the Waters connecting non profits, mayors, communities and researchers in order to get projects started/supported. A second project is a website for bringing together the best of teaching in various disciplines for the Great Lakes – ie water literacy, the power of stories, and landscapes for education.

Rachel Havrelock is Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has been awarded a Global Midwest grant from the Mellon Foundation in order to explore the common challenges of international transborder water systems; she is developing a web-site on water and the environmental humanities.

Marie Wee is a student in Bonnie's Water and Social Justice class and is relatively new to this this issue. She is on her own water journey and is going back to personal experiences and questioning her relationship with water. She's asking what water means to her, how her emotions are a form of knowledge, and why water protection is not an abstract concept. She wants to connect with other students in the Great Lakes and sometimes the feeling of not knowing enough can keep some students from fully participating. She attended the recent Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto and witnessed the value of water stories and the need for work extending beyond the timeline of the course. She sees the need to break out of Environmental Studies assumptions and into connect with other disciplines.

And lastly

Bonnie McElhinny works at the university and classroom level and recently had to debunk the myth of only her working on water at U of T. She has recently sought out 22 other faculty. She’s been successful getting university support for more collaborations and conservations starting with 4-6 workshops for faculty to network with each other and with this Great Lakes educator community.  Her project focuses on course design and community projects that are needed/supported, identifying partnerships for making classroom learning more real, and supporting constrained community groups. She’s working on a paper exploring experiential learning projects such as the Love Your Lagoon project in Australia and the Sailish Sea project at York University and is doing so for both content and best practices in administrative structure and funding. She’s working on a cluster of courses on water to bridge disciplines and to support experiential courses that use decolonial place-based pedagogies (ie, how we inhabit rather than reside in places, education not just on testing but on accountability, moving from competition to mutuality, and looking at Indigenous perspectives about territory). In the classroom she teaches a 1st year course called ‘Living at the Water’s Edge’, an introduction to living in the Great Lakes using variety of media and voices exploring different relations to water through stories and story collecting projects. Her 4th year course 'Water and Social Justice' looks at how water protection work can be exclusive (ie Nationalist, environmental racism) and her challenge is keeping on top of current events and creating structure for semester planning. Many water education materials at the moment are from white environmental voices, but she also sees a resurgence of marginalized voices that better represent diverse cities like Toronto. There are a lot of scattered resources between organizations and she wants to help identify how to best match university resources with community needs. She is looking for concrete classroom projects that have wider impacts. Using her experience of working collaboratively through the Standing Rock Syllabus as both an learning example for content and process, she’d like to support something similar for the Great Lakes. A series of smaller groups is likely needed in the future to focus on common themes as well as more funding for building large networks and projects.

Bonnie McElhinny is associate professor of anthropology and women and gender studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches courses and does research on water, anti-racist, feminist and de-colonial approaches to place, migration and multiculturalism, and language and social justice. 

Did you learning something new? Keep in touch about your offers and needs for more resources and conversations about teaching with and about water. Leave a comment and let us know what you think.